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Andrew Motion Keats. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 655 pages, $35 reviewed by Eric Ormsby

The life mask of John Keats, taken by his friend Benjamin Robert Haydon in December of 1816, when the twenty-year-old poet had only five years to live, reveals a face which even in forced repose seems suffused with sentience. The eyes, whose exact color none of his friends could later remember but whose flashing vivacity none of them ever forgot, are pressed shut while the surface of the skin over the taut rondure of the cheeks and the strangely emphatic mouth appears to breathe life in through every pore with what Keats himself once called "atoms of perception." The face is disturbingly beautiful; it is a face entirely lacking in those inexpressive tracts, those little fens of inertia, that often mark human features. Keats's mobility of expression, which all his friends and acquaintances noted as well, is stilled by the grip of plaster and yet there persists a tremulous sense of what I can only term caesura, as though the poet's features hovered on the verge of some impending quicksilver flutter of transformation.

In a certain intuitive sense the life mask appears to tell us all we need to know of Keats the man: his sensuousness, his delicate intelligence, his powerfully compacted virility of demeanor, even his rather robust melancholy. Still, it would require the shrewdest physiognomist to infer from these features the astonishment of the poetry. It is to the poet's life, as recorded by his biographers, that we must turn if we are to animate, however flittingly, that immobile but compelling mask and to come even slightly closer to understanding the miraculous creativity of Keats's "great year." For while his incomparable letters fall within a four-year span, almost all the greatest poems were written from approximately the end of 1818 to the end of 1819. (Keats's intense blossoming-time makes other prodigies, like Rimbaud, seem slow workers.) In a famous aphorism, contained in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds, Keats wrote that "axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses." So, too, I would argue, with biographies of John Keats: a life so abrupt and yet so brimming with luxuriance (both of pain and of pleasure) demands to be measured not solely in documents and chronologies but in the pulse and counter-pulse of a vivid empathy.

Keats has not lacked biographers. In the twentieth century, there have been several major studies, such as that of the American poet Amy Lowell in 1925; in the Sixties, in particular--surprising profusion from so un-Keatsian a decade!--three superb biographies appeared, each of which can justly claim to be considered a "classic." In 1963, the biographies of Walter Jackson Bate and of Aileen Ward were published, followed in 1968 by that of Robert Gittings (himself a poet as well as scholar). Each of these has its own distinctive merits and, from the perspective of a quarter-century's distance, all three now appear complementary rather than competing.

What need can there be of a further life of Keats? This new account by English poet and biographer Andrew Motion, following on the heels of Stephen Coote's 1995 biography, would appear to be superfluous. And yet, while the life of Keats is a matter of historical record, it is also a prime instance of poetic myth. For many decades, but especially in Victorian England, Keats was reduced to a kind of doomed and swooning apotheosis of "poesy." As Shelley, chief instigator of this false image, put it in Adonais, Keats was "like a pale flower by some sad maiden cherished." (Even so astute a reader as the young Marianne Moore, in one of her recently published letters, could playfully dismiss "Shears"--her own amalgam, apparently, of both Shelley and Keats--because of such vaporous posturings.) But it is clear, too, that at several crucial moments in his career, Keats himself--consciously, if somewhat ingenuously--engaged in an essential self-creation on a mythopoeic level. This fierce and deliberate self-modeling occurred in the course of a bleak and often brutal life. His mother abandoned her children and returned only to suffer an agonizing death. Keats, still practically a child, nursed her to the end. Later he cared for his beloved younger brother Tom until the latter also died. Keats's own physical and psychic sufferings--his despair, his legendary fits of rage, his profound sense of exclusion, especially after the harsh reviews of his first publications--tormented him as well. Given these circumstances, Keats could almost be viewed as a poete maudit avant la lettre, if it were not for his own cheerful, frank, and genial temperament. Given so intricate a personality, which the pumice of legend has bulled to a high luster, it is only to be expected that new biographies will appear and continue to appear, even if no new facts about Keats accompany them.

In his introduction, Motion notes that even the best of the earlier biographies of Keats tended "to imply that his drive to self-realisation was determined by largely personal considerations" and to portray him as a pure "aesthetician" aloof from the swirling currents of his age. Motion thus wishes to correct an apparent distortion in our view of Keats, and it is to his credit, I think, that he undertakes this correction, even if he is not always successful. (His historical or political readings of several of the poems are jejune and unconvincing.) On the favorable side, however, Motion is good at situating Keats in the life of his time. He details, to a far greater extent than his predecessors, the passionate commitment which Keats maintained to certain styles of "radical" politics, especially as associated with the circle of Leigh Hunt. Motion is also quite skilled at describing individuals and at evoking places; consider, for one example, his precise and suggestive description of London in 1815, when Keats first moved there:
 Close to the southern end of London Bridge, which carried the main road to
 Kent, [Southwark] was crammed with coaches ferrying passengers and wagons
 laden with food. Its open ditches, full of stinking waste, were "considered
 the worst in England." Its streets were violent. Its skyline showed not
 only the silhouette of hospitals--Guy's and St. Thomas's faced each other
 across the street in which Keats lived--but also the grim outline of the
 mined Clink, which had been burned by rioters in 1780, the old Marshalsea
 Prison, and the new Marshalsea (which appears in Little Dorrit) that had
 been begun in 1811. Beyond these the ground sloped away to a slum district
 known as the Mint, which sprawled along the flank of a shallow valley above
 yet another prison: the King's Bench Prison. Keats himself referred to the
 area as a "beastly place in dirt, turnings and windings."

As this excerpt shows, Motion writes a lucid and swiftly paced prose, and his biography is correspondingly brisk and professional throughout. An accomplished biographer (best known heretofore for his 1993 life of Philip Larkin, a book which received quite mixed reviews largely because of the opprobrium which it inspired, perhaps unintentionally, against its hapless subject), Motion knows how to craft a narrative which draws on his more scholarly predecessors without at the same time either parroting their findings or groveling before their examples. (His main reliance is upon Gittings's biography which he does not, however, follow slavishly; indeed, he sometimes takes sharp exception both to Gittings's findings and to his interpretations of key events.) Motion's biography contains a wealth of illustrations, including seventy-three plates and twenty-three facsimiles of Keats's drafts and letters, all of which enhance and illumine the narrative. There are scrupulous endnotes; the bibliography is useful, if brief (I was surprised, among other omissions, not to find listed E. C. Pettet's On the Poetry of Keats, published in 1970 by Cambridge); and there is a good index. Furthermore, the book itself has been edited with care (I spotted only four misprints in over six hundred pages) and is well designed and handsomely produced. I emphasize these technical matters because, alas, they can no longer be taken for granted in English or American imprints.

Motion's detachment is often admirable, but over the long course of the book, it can prove discomfiting. There is an imperturbability to Motion's prose, and to his reactions to Keats's life and poetry, which threatens to alienate the reader. This is not exactly English "understatement" (though it is certainly that, too) but, rather, and more troubling, a kind of clinical dispassion which, while it can sometimes be effective, too often impresses the reader as unfeeling. When Motion describes Keats's medical training--when, for example, he recounts how Keats's job was to restrain and stifle surgical patients while they were being operated upon without anesthetic--the sheer brute agony of the experience would overwhelm and repel the reader if presented in a more emotional style; as it is, the studious "neutral tones" of the biographer convey the human suffering with appalling effect. In this regard, Motion's narrative of Keats's terminal illness and of the agony of body and spirit the poet had to endure is so bleak as to be almost unendurable for the reader. Motion presents the pain, rage, horror, and despair of the dying Keats more powerfully, it seems to me, than any previous biographer. In his account of Keats's last months, there is pity and terror, in the original Aristotelian sense, though without any healing catharsis. "We cannot be created for this sort of suffering," Keats declared in a final letter, and, through Motion's narrative tact, we come to believe every word.

Despite Motion's reserve, the sheer misery of so much of Keats's life, detailed here in all its wincing minutiae, simply cannot leave the reader unmoved. Yet, as the excruciating inventory accumulates, one longs for the biographer to warm with sympathy, however momentarily, toward his writhing protagonist. The extent to which empathy (or antipathy) for his subject should move a biographer is, of course, a thorny question, and one for which there is no perfect answer. Before making any final judgment of Motion's unflinching aplomb, however, the reader should at least glance at another of his writings on Keats, the long prose meditation called "Sailing to Italy" in Salt Water, Motion's 1997 collection of verse. This takes as its subject Keats's first, and final, voyage to Italy in September 1820 and is juxtaposed against Motion's own recent sailing voyage to Italy (in Keats's wake, as it were). Whether or not it is finally successful as poetry, "Sailing to Italy" makes plain Motion's strong empathy with Keats and his struggles to achieve some closer identification. By Motion's own admission, however, Keats's "voice" remains unreachable to him, and this may explain much about the biography as well.

Motion has divided his story into fifty-four chapters in which he provides succinct vignettes of any number of fascinating personalities within Keats's orbit. Generally, these are cameos, rarely extending beyond a page or two, but they are so astutely rendered as to imprint their subjects sharply upon the mind. Thus, of the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (he of the life mask), Motion writes that he was "a bull-necked, wide-browed, balding man whose large flustered face was pincered by little round spectacles, and whose laughter, [Leigh] Hunt said, `sound[s] like the trumpets of Jericho....' His explosive energy was a byword among all who knew him." This is the same Haydon who labored for years on his grandiose canvas Christs Entry into Jerusalem, now forgotten, in which the painter himself figures as Christ (and Keats appears in profile). Leigh Hunt, poet and radical (and the model for the odious Harold Skimpole in Bleak House), comes through as a man of extreme contrast, brazenly self-seeking but at other times kind and good. Generally speaking, however, poets (with the exception of the tragic John Clare, whom Keats befriended) come off badly, and no doubt deservedly so; Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth, in particular, are shown as the vain and callous monsters they all too often were. Motion brings these and many others to life in their own words or in the accounts of contemporaries or through the utterly unforgettable letters which Keats wrote to them. Obscure figures from the affectionate circle of Keats's boyhood friends or such villains as the skinflint Richard Abbey, duplicitous guardian of the Keats children from 1814 on, flicker vividly with at times an almost Dickensian intensity. Motion's portrait of Fanny Brawne is wonderfully rendered; it is to his credit that over the course of his account we come to understand how Keats could have been so drawn to this frivolous and yet profoundly steadfast young woman (included is a stunning ambrotype of her taken in 1850, more than twenty-five years after Keats's death, and she is still at once pensive and sensual --the embodiment of Keatsian femininity).

Motion's biography is also quite good in providing capsule accounts of those historical moments and movements which had so marked an effect upon Keats, such as the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. In Motion's account, Keats emerges as steeped to his eyeballs in current, especially radical, activities. Keats (pace his academic commentators) was not some "pure poet" in the Mallarmean sense. Understanding Keats's radical sympathies makes much more comprehensible, for example, the cruel reception of his first publications, for he was by then already publicly linked with such flaming figures as Leigh Hunt in the minds of his critics, and denounced accordingly. Motion falters in this regard, it seems to me, where he attempts to read specific political interpretations into the poems. He even advocates what he calls a "socially conscious reading" whatever that may mean, while his own readings fall decidedly short in the "social" as well as in the aesthetic sense. Keats the man, and even Keats the man in his intentions as a poet, may have been an intensely political, even radical, individual, as Motion argues, but the final fruits of all these agitations, Keats's poems themselves, possess a lambent serenity of tone and profundity of regard that make political considerations quite secondary.

Motion's interpretations of Keats's work, rather than his political emphasis, represent the chief problem with his biography. In accord with his brisk approach, Motion inserts concise discussions of individual poems into his chapters alongside his more sharply delineated vignettes. Had I been asked before reading Motion's biography of Keats what I might most have expected to glean from this oft-told story, I would have instinctively replied, I think, that it was the prospect of a biography of one poet by another poet that held out the largest promise. The irreplaceable value of such a biography would lie in the insight which a fellow craftsman could bring to bear on so fabulously gifted a poet as John Keats. After all, we don't particularly anticipate such insight from the more scholarly works of Bate or Ward (though, of course, they do provide it). It is hard to imagine a less "Keatslan" poet than the understated, if not repressed, Motion, but we are right, I think, to expect that he will offer us some privileged illumination of the marvels, as well as the technical subtleties, of Keats's art. Regrettably, nothing appears to have been further from his aim.

Motion can be perceptive on certain of the poems. His observations on the relation between Keats's medical training and his concomitant view of poetry as "healing" and "medicinal" are astute and well taken. Sometimes, too, Motion proffers a striking and succinct formulation, as in his nicely enigmatic remark that in the "Ode to Psyche" Keats "turns the nowhere of the imagination into an anatomical somewhere--virgin but possessed, mysterious but lit." Motion's extended discussion of Endymion--over fifty pages interwoven with narrative--is frequently insightful; too often, though, his comments are perfunctory, and they can veer quite suddenly into the tasteless. Thus, on page 380, Motion describes a sonnet as "imitating certain masturbatory self-fingerings." (Unoriginal as well as tasteless: Motion is merely echoing the repellent opinions of Byron, who did so much to belittle Keats during Keats's lifetime and after his death.)

More disturbingly perhaps, why does Motion not attend to what is so conspicuous a feature of Keats's greatest verse: his patterns of verbal melody? There is in Keats a precise and subtle melodiousness not heard in English since the days of Milton or Shakespeare. Keats himself was fully aware of this. According to his friend Bailey, cited by Motion, "One of [Keats's] favourite topics of discourse was the principle of melody in Verse, upon which he had his own notions, particularly in the management of open & closed vowels" Even the casual reader of Keats at once encounters this distinctive vocalic palette; throughout the poems there is especially what might be termed a sheer iridescence of vowels. Perhaps Motion felt that any but the swiftest discussion would hobble his narrative. But if a poet will not bring us closer to an understanding of lines that, in Keats's words, "leave the dinned air vibrating silverly," who will? With respect to craft itself, Motion pays scant attention to Keats the apprentice poet. Despite the genius of, say, the early Endymion, Keats could perpetrate atrocious verses. For example, when he rhymes "the Orphean lute" with "listening to't" (book 2, lines 164-65), the unintended (and apparently unheard) "toot" completely sideswipes the sublimity he attempts. How did Keats manage to move, and move so quickly, from this initial clumsiness to such suave mastery in his control of language? Such questions are left unposed as well as unanswered.

Keats remains famous for his notion of "negative capability" that state of inmost receptivity which permits the poet a seemingly boundless capacity for transformation. Motion does discuss this, of course (though in nothing like either the depth or the scope of Bate's treatment in his 1963 biography), but again, without drawing on his own instincts as poet. Keats's conception of the poet as a "chameleon" as a being lacking in any distinctive flamboyance of his own, is utterly at odds with poetry as it is practiced nowadays in America, and it would have been good to have a contemporary English poet's reaction to this. For Keats, the poet is "the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity," as he put it in a letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse. This Keatsian conception of the poet is still so radical that it leaves all our "experimental" and "celebrity" poet-performers, concerned more with coiffuring their pompadours than with crafting their cadences, looking quite staid and dull. Motion does have some insights to offer on this, as when he remarks that a poet is one "whose ego is subordinate to a sensuous intelligence," but these are, sadly, few and far between.

If Motion is disappointing on the poetry, he is still splendid on the life. He may not evince emotion but he understands, and knows how to convey, what Keats endured. Of Keats on his deathbed at 26 Piazza di Spagna in Rome, Motion writes a lapidary summation that rings like an epitaph: "Keats lay in death where he had always lived: on the edge of things, defined by exclusion." Keats's death mask, taken the next day, is the obverse of the cast made five years previously and reveals a visage carved by suffering itself out of the faunlike beauty of the once living face.

Eric Ormsby's most recent book is For a Modest God: New and Selected Poems (Grove).
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Ormsby, Eric
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1998
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