22 MARCH 1968, Page 14

John Keats: the poet and his letters BOOKS


Keats is not wholly fortunate in having had almost every one of his actions, remarks and writings put under the scrutiny of a powerful microscope. Matthew Arnold, who admired him and should have known better, felt constrained to say of his last letters to Fanny Brawne that they revealed him as both 'badly bred and badly trained.' Casual verses written for a joke at medical school, which he never published, have caused him to be regarded as having had an irremediably vulgar side to his character. He has been distorted and sentimentalised almost out of existence by those not-so-well-meaning sort of people who join poetry societies and want to enjoy both gentility and poetry: the repulsive hero—his tomb the object of their ignorant and gushing pilgrimages—created by their self-indulgent admiration has no real re- semblance to Keats himself; but it, one must not say he, lingers faintly on all our palates, a taste imparted by bad school teachers, or, if we are lucky, merely by the putrescent atmo- sphere of pseudo-culture.

Some scholars, life-shy though infinitely to be preferred, have on the other hand tried to turn Keats into an aesthetic or philosophical machine, a channel for abstractions, to whom galloping consumption and the frantic lust it provokes, thwarted love and the passion to do good by speaking truth are mere irritating in- cidentals.

No man could survive such minute, obsessive scrutinies without seeming to be, from day to day, vulgar, 'badly trained,' falsely idyllic, laurel-crowned, and over-ambi- tious. Keats did not go to Eton, like Shelley, or act out a part, like Byron; we see him not with any of the defences provided by breeding or sophistication, but as he was. He went to a good school, but it did not teach him taste— he had, painfully, to learn that for himself—or to pretend. He is therefore peculiarly vulner- able. Many privately regard him with a condescension that is more smug than they would like to admit; their own lives, if their training could allow them to be seen as nakedly as they see Keats's, would not look less em- barrassing.

The most important and interesting question that can be asked about Keats today is whether, in David Wright's words, 'the Keats who wrote the letters is a greater poet than the Keats who wrote the poems. Mr Wright, like W. H. Auden and many others, thinks that he is: 'one may detect behind the sensuousness a studied poesifying of experience . . . in the poems . . . he seems . . . to have designs— and literary designs at that—upon his reader.' This, of Keats's major poems, is a charge that must at least be answered. It is, in fact, par- tially true, although one might put it rather differently: that the Keats of the letters is apparently a purer and more consistent poet than the Keats of the poems. For even the odes are contrived. They lack the unforced quality of naturalness that, ironically, charac- terises certain lines in Keats's much less am- bitious, more occasional poems. But the author of 'La Belle Dame Sans Merce is as good a poet as the author of the letters—and he is

writing in verse. Perhaps just that is enough.

But it is now impossible to answer this im- portant question without still greater and more detailed knowledge of Keats himself. (The very existence of his letters in a way gives the lie to those anti-biographical critics who want to judge poems only as 'verbal icons,' or as safe, emotionless abstractions in whose laps those who are alfraid of existence may bury their heads.) Three invaluable critical biographies of Keats have been published in the last five years: Aileen Ward's John Keats: The Making of a Poet (1963), Walter Jackson Bate's John Keats (1963, revised 1967) and now Robert Gittings's John Keats (Heinemann 63s).

Mr Gittings's biography is important by any standards. He has personally seen more Keats material than anyone else living, and has pro- duced what is factually the most comprehensive and correct account of the poet's life ever to appear. He is utterly scrupulous and objective in his judgment of evidence, and never less than sensible in his evaluation of it. The author of other books on the same subject, notably John Keats: The Living Year, in which he put forth a persuasive theory about Keats's sexual liaison with that elusive and charming adventuress Isabella Jones, he is here, quite properly, more cautious. For perhaps the first time we have a biography that is factually as wholly reliable as such works can, in the nature of things, be. This vital aspect of Mr Gittings's book is unlikely to be superseded, only to be corrected or modified in small details.

If he is occasionally rather gracelessly pro- prietory in his attitude—having warmly acknow- ledged Professor Ward in his foreword he proceeds to pepper the opinions and the facts stated in her biography, not always necessarily or quite fairly, with a series of footnotes that seem to resemble so much buckshot from a resentful shotgun—then this is at least under- standable in a biographer who has made a

more protracted study of Keats than anyone else before him. His book certainly supersedes those of Professors Bate and Ward in its account of the facts; but Bate will remain the best academic study for many years to come, and I doubt if a more enthralling (I use the word advisedly) and psychologically acute in- troduction to Keats than . Ward can ever appear—it is among the finest studies of any poet ever written.

Most of Keats's earlier biographers, includ- ing Amy Lowell, followed by Bate (who devotes only a footnote to the matter), nervously reject the notion that he ever suffered from venereal disease. Mr Gittings elaborates on Ward, who believes that he did, to the extent of virtual proof. Apart from the fact that it will do no harm at all to the pilgrims to Keats's grave to learn that their hero was poxed (or clapped, as Mr Gittings thinks) by an unknown tart, the matter is one of some importance. It throws light on the development of Keats's complex attitude to women, which is not easy to under- stand, and—because he certairily took mercury to cure it, and mercury was believed to aggra- vate tuberculosis—on his feelings about his illness, and the manner in which he regarded Fanny Brawne in connection with it. Further- more, there is the effect to consider of the severe shock to Keats's delicate sensibility when he learned, while staying with his friend Bailey in Oxford and ambitiously working on Endytnion, that he had contracted a serious illness: the illness of those he loved had haunted his life. Mr Gittings also provides a useful appendix in which he demonstrates that Keats undoubtedly indulged, in some of his letters, in sexual slang of a pleasantly gross and racy sort.

The interpretations Mr Gittings puts upon Keats's actions and writings will, of course, not always be agreed with, nor will his assessments of Keats's friends. He seems prejudiced to- wards Reynolds, and he is surely wrong in saying that Dickens's portrayal of Hunt as Skimpole in Bleak House is 'not unfair.' His benign view of Richard Abbey, who controlled Keats's inheritance, will not please everyone. He implies that Abbey was 'scrupulously honest,' an opinion that confers a curious, not to say commercial, definition on the word 'honest.' Bate, in full awareness of Mr Git- tings's careful examination of the problems of Keats's finances, The Keats Inheritance (1964), writes: 'Abbey's duplicity is . . . incontestable.' In any case, there is little doubt that he de- serves to go down to history as the man who advised Keats to become a hatter.

But when he deals with the effect that Keats's friends had upon him, Mr Gittings is nearly always excellent. His account of the rise and fall of Hunt in Keats's esteem is sensitive and revealing: and he fully understands Keats's own feelings about the philistine Abbey, even if he sometimes appears to regret them. He achieves, in fact, a remarkable degree of objectivity. If some readers may complain that he does not go deep enough psychologically, others will be glad that he has not tried to do so. He leaves the field open in an admirable manner.

And so now, barring the invention of machines that will televise the past, the facts of Keats's life have been presented just about as definitively as they are ever likely to be. Is the unaffected genius of the letter-writer a poet? The answer, to the framing of which Mr Gittings's book will contribute a great deal, must finally be in the negative. The question is artificial. For the so-called poet of the letters was always talking about, always heroically drawing upon, the experience of the real poet: Keats always fought, too candidly for the good of his reputation, against the `poesifying' elements, in his poetry. If nearly all of even his best poems are `overfumished,' as they have been called, the unmistakable skeleton of true poetry gleams beneath their liquidescence. And by the time he was twenty- four, racked by every kind of doom, he had attempted something of greater magnitude than any other English poet.