Romanticism, Modernity and Biography

Romanticism, Modernity and Biography

This is the text of a talk given as BBC Radio 3’s Book of the Month, first broadcast on Tuesday October 28th, 1997. The text of the talk is copyright Steven Connor, 1997.


John Keats’s few, incandescent years form the epitome of the Romantic life. The story that wells so irresistibly in these years is that of a life lived for and in poetry. Keats is the very type of the poet as the votary of passion, the instinctive philosopher, and, finally, as the stricken outcast, glorified in his very defeat by the grubby world of getting and spending. There have been many attempts to write this life, and there will assuredly be many more. As Andrew Motion observes at the beginning of his calm, meticulous, but passionately attentive new biography, the challenge for the biographer is always to separate the facts of Keats’s life itself from the haze of rumour, recollection and fantasy which overtook it in the years after his death.

Unlike his contemporaries Byron and Shelley, Keats emerged from unprivileged, though not impoverished circumstances. His father ran a bustling and successful inn called the Swan and Hoop in North London, which yielded him enough money to buy his Freedom of the City and to send his son John, along with his brothers George and Tom, to Clarke’s Academy, a school of liberal and dissenting character in Enfield. Following the sudden death of his father after a fall from his horse when Keats was 15, and then in the same year the death of his mother from tuberculosis, the disease that was going to become a ghastly family speciality, Keats found himself in the care of his father’s executor, a businessman called Richard Abbey. Abbey’s stinginess, insensitivity and downright malice were to cause Keats enormous and unnecessary financial difficulty during his life. When Keats was 16, he was apprenticed to a surgeon, Thomas Hammond, with whom he worked for 4 years, followed by a further year working in the wards of Guy’s Hospital. He qualified as an apothecary in 1816, a year in which he also found himself being drawn into the circle of poets and artists who gathered round Leigh Hunt, also a poet and the editor of the radical journal The Examiner. It was later that year that Keats made to Abbey the announcement that would come to be dreaded by every bourgois paterfamilias over the coming century and beyond: he had no wish to practise medicine, he said, but proposed going in for poetry instead.

Keats did not have many years in which to make good his promise. His association with Leigh Hunt made him the target of some vicious attacks by the Tory reviewers of journals like Blackwood’s and The British Critic, who mocked him not just for the occasional jumpiness of his versification and his relish for sensation, but also for the lowness of his birth; the most pitiless of the reviews of his poem Endymion concluded with a patronising jeer:

It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John, back to the “plasters, pills, and ointment boxes” &c … But for Heaven’s sake…be a little more sparing of extenuatives and soporifics in your practice than you have been in your poetry.

Poetry, it was clear, was to remain a hobby for the well-heeled, not a career-option for a Cockney.

Andrew Motion argues that the effect of this attack on Keats in 1818 was actually more bracing than withering. Even the death of his brother Tom from tuberculosis towards the end of the year produced what seems at first to have been a resilient response in Keats. His letters speak more and more assuredly of the necessity of suffering to the formation of the self, and the months following his brother’s death saw the composition of the series of great Odes upon which his reputation largely rests. But by the beginning of 1820 Keats was himself already in the grip of the tuberculosis that was to lead to his own death in Italy in February 1821. He was 25.

Keats’s life began to turn into myth almost from the moment of his death, not least because of Shelley’s poem Adona├»s. Shelley himself was to join the pantheon of doomed poets in the year after Keats’s death, when he drowned at the ago of 30. In Shelley’s influential poem Keats’s fate was joined irrevocably to his fame. Hounded to his death by a hostile, philistine world, Keats became a poetic James Dean or Janis Joplin, the very brevity of his life and the blind arbitrariness of his end conferring on his life completeness. It was for others, said Shelley, to sink `extinct in their effulgent prime’. Not for Keats the slow decay into blimpishness of the one-time radical William Wordsworth, or the entanglement in issueless metaphysical mazes of his North London neighbour Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

What we call the Romatic period marks the inauguration of many of the great, absolute divisions of life and culture which have defined the modern world. To this period, we owe the invention of the idea of the nation, of the university, and the (itself mysterious) idea of the mysterious and ineffable power of art. The French Revolution made political freedom no longer an accidental byproduct but a regulative ideal of political life. The loosening of the bond between political power and religious belief helped to liberate the idea of the modern self, exultant and anguished in its stubborn, impossible dream of freedom. Keats once proposed a toast to the confusion of mathematics; but his was a period in which science and technology were beginning to develop those powers to transform the human and the nonhuman world which have so decisively and sometimes disastrously shaped modernity. But the period in which these huge ideas began to swell and then, like continental plates, to slide apart, is also one of incredibly swift and promiscuous interchange between them. Romantic scholarship of the last twenty years or so has been galvanised by this apprehension. The picture that emerges of the Romantic period is of a humming switchboard of energies and influences, sparking and crackling between the divergent, but not yet distinct realms of art, philosophy, science, politics, economics, religion and technology. Daffodils sit amid dark satanic mills. The great testaments to Truith, Beauty and passion in Romantic art consort with writings on murder, mesmerism, addiction, electricity and window-shopping.

Andrew Motion’s biography of John Keats borrows from and itself assists this enlarging agitation of Romanticism. Quietly, tenaciously, insists that we see the high achievement of Keats’s work in terms of its rootedness in the world rather than its recoil from it. He gives us fine-grained accounts of Keats’s schooling, his medical training, and the culture of dissent which energised so much of his writing. In particular, he reveals the close and continuous relationship between Keats’s poetic practice and his political ideals, along with his vigorous, and unabating disgust at the brutal authoritarianism of his times, which reached its climax in the Peterloo massacre of 1819. Not long after this, Motion reminds us, the consumptive Keats was thinking seriously of going to South America, not for the sake of his lungs, he suggests, but to enlist in the war for liberation in Chile. Motion would have us take seriously the declaration which Keats made in an early letter that `I feel confident I should have been a rebel Angel had the opportunity been mine’.

When it comes to his writing, there are still perhaps two John Keatses. One is the Keats of the great series of Odes – `Ode To Psyche’, `Ode On a Grecian Urn’, `Ode To A Nightingale’ and `Ode On Melancholy’, which he wrote in the first half of 1819, along with the `Ode to Autumn’ which followed towards the end of that year. This is the Keats who fashions intricate structures of time out of time, miraculously transforming mutability and impermanence into the magical, hovering plenitude, as in `Ode on a Grecian Urn':

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone: Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve; She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

The other Keats is still less familiar. This is the brawny, randy, vagrant, violently combustible Keats that emerges from the incomparable letters which he wrote throughout his life. When these letters were first published late in the nineteenth century, there were howls of dismay from Keats’s devotees, angry that his poetic myth should be sullied by the touch of earth apparent in these hectically unbuttoned effusions. Others have been willing to see the letters as a rich compost out of which the mature, self-conscious, finished work would spring. But Keats’s letters have a new and growing importance for an age such as ours which has grown sceptical or weary of the idea that a poem should be as perfect and impervious to change as a `well-wrought urn’. They mirror back to us our contemporary fascination with what is unfinished and unformed, and with the arts of occasion, process and decomposition – arts which inhabit time rather than being hoarded away from it.

Motion draws deeply on these letters, as any biographer of Keats must, but as more than just a rich source of information. They embody what was in fact to be the principle of Keats’s life, in being as Motion sharply observes, `conscious of their createdness’. Keats’s letters never allow us to forget the actuality of the pressing, passing moment, which they grasp without ever being able to grip. In one particularly striking example, Keats suddenly breaks off from what he is saying to describe his posture:

The fire is at its last click – I am sitting here with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated upon the carpet…Could I see the same thing done of any great Man long since dead it would be a great delight: as to know in what position Shakespeare sat when he began “To be or not to be”.

Keats here snatches for us as it were out of thin air the kinetic memorial he wishes we had of Shakespeare; it is in this sense of gesture and posture, rather than the intricate but airless equilibrium achieved in the most accomplished of his poems, that Keats is at his most urgent and alive.

It is one of the many strengths of Andrew Motion’s biography that he treats Keats’s letters not so much as commentary on or raw material for the poems, but as creative copartners with them. In fact, Motion’s method in reading the poems themselves is to treat them as complicated letters, synchronising them with great minuteness with the circumstances of Keats’s life, on a day to day, or even hour-by-hour basis. The poems and the letters are both part of a continuous work of straining life through words.

If the Romantic period unloosed the resources of the individual self, then we look back on that unloosing from what might be called a post-individualistic, even a posthuman era, in which the belief in the self both as the hungry recipient of experience and as a source of active self-determination has waned. For us, the powers of the quasi-human world we have created around ourselves, of images and information, of military and medical technology, seem long ago to have outpaced the power of the individual to sort and centre its own meanings and values. Here, Keats’s unhappiness with what he called the `egotistical sublime’ of poets like Wordsworth, and the philosophy he improvised of the poet’s `negative capability’ seems startlingly relevant to the depleted condition of subjectivity in the contemporary world:

As to the poetical Character itself….it is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er, delights the camelion Poet…. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body – The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures….It is a wretched thing to confess; but it is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature – how can it, when I have no nature? When I am in a room with people if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me that, I am in a very little time annihilated.

And yet Keats’s writing stands out self-consciously against this annihilation. Any biographer of Keats is likely to be subject to acute anxiety of influence and sibling rivalry with respect to his predecessors and competitors. But the biographer of Keats has his most difficult rival in his subject. The most powerful myth of Keats’s life was not the one imposed upon it after his death, but the one that Keats himself fashioned, first as a defence against misery and self-doubt, and then in growing exultation: the myth of the poetically self-made man. `The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law & precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself – That which is creative must create itself.’

It is this possibility of creating oneself that relates the writing of biography so closely to the still-powerful myths of an older Romanticism. What we have come to understand of the Romantic period shows that the very moment of the self’s passionate emancipation – from history, tradition, ideology, superstition – is also the moment at which the self begins to come unstuck from the world, encountering the experiences of homelessness, dissolution and drift which have become so familiar in the twentieth century. And yet Romantic biography, which is to say, the revelation of a life lived as autobiography, a life which, in Keats’s phrase,`goes home to itself’ in writing, provides an experience of what may seem to be otherwise wholly unavailable in a contemporary world in which the self seems to have dissolved into appearance, masquerade, and surrogate satisfactions. Andrew Motion’s John Keats will find a distinguished place among the many biographies which now pour from the presses. The enormous contemporary popularity of biography, especially literary and artistic biography, along with the revival of interest in autobiography and `life-writing’ of many different kinds, testifies to the desire for a life shaping itself from the inside out, moment by moment, into the condition of a work; a life, as Keats said of Shakespeare’s life, lived as allegory. Romantic biography of this kind provides us with our surest defence against the very dread which began to tick in the Romantic period itself, that no human life can be wholly in its own keeping. In our culture of systematic interruption, biography gives us continuous and completed lives, thereby almost keeping us safe from the very knowledge it nevertheless lets slip; that every life ends prematurely, interrupted, like Coleridge’s `Kubla Khan’, by its person from Porlock, leaving its uncompleted sentence hanging in the air.