There seems to be no such thing as the definitive biography of an individual. However, any biographer describing a life, already treated numerous times, must establish what new information justifies yet another work. Rarely does the discovery of new facts play a part. Perhaps developments in psychology or science, such as medicine, allow a different analysis of events. A purportedly more thorough approach starts at an earlier point in time than its predecessors, or ranges into issues tangential to the person’s life, such as political events. More commonly, new scrutiny justifies itself from the passage of time, such that the subject appears through the perspective of a new age, with different mores and sensibilities, which might allow, for example, a more probing and revealing treatment of certain aspects of the subject’s life. In that regard, it could be said that each generation “deserves” its own biography of those most intriguing individuals immortal of interest. The possibility that a noted scholar will offer an interesting interpretation even of a well-known subject leads to another book on the shelf. Last, certain subjects are so fascinating that their life stories bear repetition.
My expectations of Nicholas Roe’s take on the life of John Keats were in keeping with the foregoing realizations of the limited yet potential virtues of repetitive biography — virtues particularly suspect in this case because John Keats’s life and work had fairly recently received a thorough, modern, and compelling analysis by Andrew Motion. Nonetheless, there were a few points in the life of Keats for which I desired more information or even further informed speculation. And I welcomed an excuse to once again plunge into the story of the life of John Keats.
First, I wanted to know what in the world was going on with Keats’s mother; she leaves her children and disappears for five years. There is no indication that she was not a loving mother before her husband’s death, yet she abandons her four children. After the new biography I remain curious. Although Roe speculates that Frances, Keats’s mother, might have known and even had an affair with Rawlings, her second husband, while married to Keats’s father, no new material about her personality, character, actions or motivations explains her absence. As I recall, Motion depicts her more sympathetically as a bereft and beleaguered person who turns to Rawlings to help her run the family business, now entirely her responsibility, along with four little children. A profligate floozy, a half- mad widow, an alcoholic, something in-between? Two biographies down, and I would still like to know. Roe makes a new (to me), but light-weight, suggestion on the topic of Keats’s mother, later in the book: Keats felt a connection with Hamlet because his mother too was unfaithful. The resemblance ends there, since Hamlet’s mother does not run away and leave Hamlet as a little child. Roe does not offer any convincing evidence (or really any evidence) that Keats saw such a connection.
Second, I wanted to know more about Isabella Jones and whether she was as important influence on Keats emotionally as Robert Gittings suggests, or not so much, as Motion believes. The jury is still out on whether she was one of the great loves of his life, an inspiration, or just a friend. Let us have a little more informed guessing on this topic. One clue to her importance is that after Keats dies she re-emerges in letters excoriating Severn for thinking too much about himself and his own difficulties while taking care of Keats in Rome. At least give me her appearance — no one knows what she looked like? Even as only a passing dalliance, such information would be of interest.
Keats’s use of mercury still baffles me from a medical perspective. If Keats was taking it for a sexually transmitted disease, did it work? According to Keats, in a letter, the mercury did help; that throws into question whether he was indeed suffering from a STD because mercury does not cure STDs — or so my internet research indicates. Did he just feel a little better from the mercury, but was left uncured such that he would have died or gone mad from syphilis? Roe, more than Motion, focuses on Keats’s use of mercury and asserts that, as a highly toxic poison, it was doing him in as much as his consumption. That is interesting; however, Keats knew from his medical training how harmful it was, so that creates a question why he would continue using it. I raise my hand to ask an even more urgent question raised by Roe: if Keats knew he had venereal disease how did he think he could ever marry Fanny Brawne? Was it known to be contagious? Roe suggests that Keats did know it was contagious and held off from Fanny for that reason; but he did not hold off – he became engaged to her. Is Roe suggesting that one reason Keats went to Rome was to leave Fanny because he knew he could not be with marry her? How does that square with his engagement and plans to marry her if he recovered?
I also wanted more details on what Keats did during his time at Guy’s Hospital and how he reacted personally to the horribly gruesome state of affairs there. Roes gives a clear rundown on the courses that the students followed, but nothing more than Motion on how his experiences there affected him. We know from his letters that he found the suffering of women hard to bear, so he might have found surgery on female patients particularly awful; but others students at the time, who are used as stand-ins for Keats’s reaction, spoke about the horrors of surgery on children. How did that affect Keats? Does a teenager, which he was at the time, with the soul of a poet, glide through days of cadavers, putrefaction, and suffering? If so, that ability or personality trait bears some analysis. His silence about Tom’s death – the last days and how he felt — and that his statement that “our own suffering touches us too nearly for words” might suggest that he found his surgical experience too horrible to translate in any verbal form at any time of his life.
In sum, Roe tantalizingly ruffled those areas of special interest to me, but stopped short of answers or even meaningful informed hypotheses. As for my reactions to Roe’s work on the whole, any minor revelations were mixed with a number of irksome ongoing and loose suggestions about how various details of Keats’s life surfaced in his work. Roe’s major addition to Keats’s biography was to insist on the importance of Keats’s father’s death on his life and work. A parental death would be expected to have a residual impact, but the connection of the event to any statement by Keats or poem is not proven or supported, just announced. Of the many sorrows and difficulties in Keats’s life, Roe takes up his father’s death and the anniversary of it as influential; however, everything is influential. Far less notable events are also considered to underlie Keats’s poetry—almost everything figures. Every museum, ruin, field, cliff, street, room Keats has seen lies behind a description in a poem. In a way that might be true because writers blend their own experience with imagination, but Roe does not offer any argument showing the meaning of such a purported connection to enhance one’s understanding or appreciation of the poem. The worst instance of an unsubstantiated connection between Keats’s life and his poems pertains to eating. Roe opines that Keats ate for consolation, although he offers no proof ( in fact food and any “palette affair,” as Keats called an interest in food, did not mean much to Keats.) Maybe if he had suffered from an eating disorder, a focus on food would have had some relevance. Nonetheless, any time there is food in a poem, Roe points to a hungry Keats, eating for comfort, and Roe twice interjects that the word “eats” figures in his name “Keats.” Saying such a thing once would have been too much, but he gives it to us twice.
Another distinguishing approach of Roe was to say less on some points to which Motion gave special attention. For example, one gets the sense of the dire and relentless financial straits that Keats was under from Motion, whereas money is mentioned far less by Roe and without imparting a sense of the strain and turmoil those problems posed for Keats. Similarly, Motion gives the reader a very dim view of Abbey; in Roe’s book, Abbey plays a much smaller role and does not seem in the least villainous. Roe also does not address the events following Keats’s death, the epilogue, which serves valuable purposes. At this point, we need to know what became of the other characters in the drama: Fanny, his sister Fanny, George, and Brown, among others. Also some words on Keats’s legacy are needed as one can hardly bear to bid him farewell after so many hundreds of pages without considering the destiny of his poetry as consolation.
Roe raises a few tantalizing ideas, but overall Motion’s work gives a more complete and painful sense of Keats’s identity. The differences between biographies does not slight the achievements of the respective authors, and they would, I suspect, understand the keen interest of my foregoing enquiries because they of course fell under the spell of Keats’s life and relished every minute spent considering and reworking the mysteries of the greatest story ever told. One could safely say that the final words have not been written — there will be other biographies, probably within my lifetime.
With full appreciation for the research complied and presented in biographies on John Keats, I am also very thankful that I can indulge my fascination and construct my own concept of him as a living being through his own words, immortal in his letters and poetry.