7 FEBRUARY 1964, Page 25


The Psyche Unchained


THE chapter headings of Miss Ward's books are an ominous warning to the wary reader of what he is in for—'Close to the Source,' 'The Widening Stream,' The Dark City' (i.e., 'Boy- hood, Apprenticeship, Guy's Hospital), 'Sound- ings and Quicksands' (of which the significance is not very clear), 'Mist and Crag' (which is clear enough and means the tour in Scotland), 'The Melancholy Storm' (an allusion, it seems, to a hypothetical estrangement from Fanny Brawne), and so on. It is a reasonable guess that we are going to have an 'imaginative biography.' Now that is a form of biography which can be uniquely stimulating and illuminating, and it is true that no biography can be worthwhile, or can be more than a list of dates and publications, unless the writer has some imagination. But the 'perils begin when the data on which the imagina- tion is to play are, on occasion, inadequate or non-existent, so that the only way of bridging a gap is to allow the imagination untrammelled scope; and the perils are particularly acute when the writer has a thesis which he is anxious to establish.

The first three chapters of Miss Ward's book are full of examples, mostly quite trivial, but by cumulative effect irritating, of this way of going to work. Keats's father 'most likely joined a cavalry unit, perhaps the Clerkenwell cavalry'; 'What he felt at leaving the safe haven of family and home is not a matter of record. But years later, when he faced the last separation of his life, these days stirred in his memory.' And 'as a soldier marches up to a battery' is quoted in support. Garden plots were provided at the En- field school for such pupils as wanted them, and 'probably he too had his garden plot to tend' (what we do know of Keats at school rather suggests that he was more likely to be wanting to give another boy a black eye than to be contemplating and cultivating his garden, in spite of the sketches of flowers in his lecture note- books); a senior contemporary at Guy's had spent a month or two in the army hospitals at Brussels, and when he came back, we are told, his stories of this adventure must have stirred Keats to a new sense of dedication to his work' (that 'must' is a palmary example of this method --Keats may have been so stirred; he may equally well have been bored, or even revolted; all rests on an assumption, which is no more than an assumption, that Keats had ever felt a sense of dedication,' or regarded medicine as more than a possible way of making a living).

'Probably it was in their company that Keats acquired his taste for claret and snuff and cigars.' Maybe, but is not the important thing—if it is important—that Keats acquired the taste, rather than in whose company he acquired it? And SO on. But there is one example which stands apart from these trivialities. It is going to be of importance later for Miss Ward to trace the * JOHN KEATS: THE MAKING OF A POET. By Aileen Ward. (Seeker and Warburg, 50s.)

Jom !Wis. By Walter Jackson Bate. (Harvard and O.U.P., 55s.) effect on the maturer Keats of his memories of his mother. So she paints her as she wants her. She was evidently a flirt'—this on two bits of rather flimsy evidence, one from a neighbour who recalled that she used to pick up her skirts when crossing a street to display her legs, the other from a witness Who is admitted to be biased, the strait-laced Abbey, who said that 'her passions were so ardent that it was dan- gerous to be alone with her.' She was, it appears, a devoted, even a 'dotingly' devoted, mother. But when her husband died she married again within two months. The marriage broke down and she disappears from the scene for several years till she returned to her family to die. Keats, says Miss Ward, felt that she had 'be- trayed and abandoned him,' and 300 pages later she speaks of 'the lingering effect of his mother's faithlessness years before.'

In the early chapters there are also a few in- accuracies, trivial in themselves, but not the sort of thing calculated to establish a reader's con- fidence in the writer's reliability in things of more moment. Nelson had 'whipped the Spanish off Cape St. Vincent,' which, however outstanding Nelson's contribution to the victory, seems a trifle hard on Jervis; Cavanagh, whom Hazlitt so much admired, was a fives-player, not a rackets-player; what is formaldehyde doing in the air, along with the sawdust on the floor, in the Guy's dissecting room in 1815? (it does not appear in print till 1873, but it is, I suppose, possible that it had been in use earlier); the rhyme demesne-mean is described as a false rhyme, though the pronunciation of demesne Which would make it a true rhyme was well recognised; Kaufmann's Dictionary of Mer- chandise, one of Keats's school prizes, we are told, 'made no impression on him'—that is no more than an opinion, but one wonders whether the opinion is based, like Miss Lowell's, on any- thing firmer than the forbidding title: Professor Bate, who has taken the trouble to read the book, paints out that there is plenty in it which might have engaged Keats's attention—alabaster, dates, pearl-divers, Cedars of Lebanon, caravans cross- ing Asia with silk, and his comment that sonic of these are `by no means irreconcilable with some of the imagery and references in some of Keats's verse' seems to me, in view of Isabella and The Eve of St. Agnes, to err on the side a caution.

When we come on to the main part of the book, that is from Endymion onwards, the im- pression it Makes is a curiously mixed one. Sometimes there are passages of real insight. The section on Endymion, for example, is, on its own lines, whether or not one agrees with them, clearly thought out and tellingly presented. 'Mist and Crag' is an adequate summary of the Scot- tish tour, though one feels that a more extended use of the poems written by the way would have made it more significant, and The Shores of Darkness,' the story of the long weariness of nursing his brother, and his probable first

meeting with Fanny Brawne, could hardly be better done. I think that Miss Ward is almost certainly right--against most critics—about the date of this first meeting; and she deals well with the enigmatic Mrs. Jones. The Temple of Delight,' mainly on the Odes, is a little sketchy, but says in small compass a good deal that is worth saying. And from there to 'End of the Voyage' is a well-imagined retelling of the last heroic spasm of creative energy and the sad months which followed it.

But there is, I think, an unhappy lack of balance and proportion. For example, Miss Ward says that 'The Eve of St. Agnes is Keats's commentary on the hidden drama of his life at this time.' Yet to the poem itself she allows no more than a page and a quarter, together with half a dozen sentences scattered through the book. And neither Hyperion nor The Fall of Hyperion is much more generously treated. Now when the subject of a biography is a notable poet, surely his progress and achieve- ment in poetry is of high importance. Miss Ward fully recognises this, since she says in her preface, 'My account of his life is concerned primarily with the development of his character as a poet.'

But in practice she is again and again decoyed into consideration of Keats simply as a man. Did Keats contract syphilis? Does it matter, for his poetry?—unless, indeed, we are prepared to follow Miss Ward in imagining 'an inevitable pang of guilt,' a numbing depression,' and 'a sexual disillusion.' And this is typical of the way in which her imagination works. If this criticism seems unduly adverse, it is from a regretful feeling that, with a tighter rein on the wondering imagination, and less readiness to elevate ill- based hypothesis to the status of accepted fact, a book which is full of insight and appreciation might, have been so very much better.

Of Professor Bate's bookt I have little that within the limits of space can be profitably said. It seems to me a very remarkable achievement. To begin with, throughout its 700 pages it re- mains persistently, and often excitingly, readable —which in itself, for a book of that length, is achievement enough. It is, further, consistently sane and balanced, and produces in the reader a feeling of complete security; nothing is burked, nothing exaggerated. There are, of course, places where .a difference of opinion is permissible. think that both he and Miss Ward miss a point about Apollonius's motives, which are indicated in 'from every ill Of life have I preserved thee to this day . . . ,' and that they are both astray over the 'This living hand . . .' fragment, which is not 'scrawled' but unusually carefully written, and (as against Miss Ward) with a different pen from that used for the main poem.

But these are trifles, and in the main all I feel 1 want to do is to call attention to passage after passage of acute analysis (e.g., of Sleep and Poetry and of Hyperion), to the sane common sense which informs, for example, the observa- tions on 'When I have fears . . . to the power of the isolated phrase which sums up twenty pages of criticism (e.g., 'allegory manquO, to the balanced, though sometimes unsparing. judg- ments on people, for example, the quietly relent- less stripping of Abbey, and the sympathetic

picture of Severn, with its gently ironic com- ment, 'neither Haydon nor Severn had a very firm purchase on fact.' And a mere list of ex- cellences would be merely tedious, when there is the book, waiting to be read. If ever a man had the right to think—though he himself would be the very last to make any such claim --'-that he had said the last word, it is Professor Bate.