DA THE GUARDIAN
An introduction to the poetry of John Keats
Andrew Motion The Guardian,
Saturday 23 January 2010
The first two generations of Romantic poets lived through a time of extraordinary upheaval. The French Revolution and the acceleration of the Industrial Revolution led to unprecedented changes in the cultural and political structures of European society. The majority of poets writing through this period reflect these changes in their work. The young Wordsworth and Coleridge are deeply involved in the life of their times; Blake is a fiery radical – an outsider attacking the status quo. Shelley and Byron, for all the privileges of their birth, become critical exiles. And Keats? Keats is the great exception, according to received wisdom. He collapses onto a sickbed while his contemporaries leap to the barricades. He listens to the song of the nightingale while they catch the chant of the mob. He celebrates the alternative power of the imagination, while they describe the shadows of dark satanic mills.
This view of Keats seriously distorts the reality of his work, but it has been nurtured for almost the whole of his posthumous existence.
When he died at the tragically early age of 25, his admirers praised him for thinking "on his pulses" – for having developed a style which was more heavily loaded with sensualities, more gorgeous in its effects, more voluptuously alive to actualities than any poet who had come before him. They had good reason to do so. The language of all his poems, and in particular the great odes and narrative poems of his final (1820) volume, have a delicious velvety weight: they "load every rift with ore", to use one of his own phrases.
Initially, there was only a very small audience for such things: it has been estimated that at the time of Keats' death, the combined sales of the three books published during his lifetime amounted to 200 copies. By the middle of the 19th century, greatly helped by the example of Tennyson, as well as the advocacy of his friends Arthur Hallam (the subject of In Memoriam) and Richard Monckton Milnes (author of the first biography of Keats, which appeared in 1848), things had changed. Keats was where he had wanted to be – and where, on his deathbed, he had despaired of being: "among the English poets". His canonical position has become increasingly secure with time.
Buttressed by the irresistible pathos of his life story (family tragedies, poverty, doomed love, lingering illness and early death), he has turned into the poet that many readers regard as a kind of epitome: a suffering genius who tells the truth about human experience by removing himself from the ordinary stream of experience.
This picture of Keats contains some important truths. His life does indeed describe a heroic attempt to accommodate and understand hardship, and his poetry is indeed crammed with exceptionally rich evocations and descriptions. But these things, and many other qualities associated with them, are part of a response to the wider world that has only recently begun to receive the attention it deserves. In order to appreciate this, it is helpful to look at the context in which his poems were written.
Keats was born in Moorgate in 1795, towards what was then the eastern edge of London, and spent all his life "on the margins". Following the early death of his parents (he was raised by his grandmother) he attended a school in Enfield that was to all intents and purposes a dissenting academy – somewhere providing a broad liberal education and encouraging liberal thinking.
Once he had left school he trained as a doctor in Guy's hospital, absorbing the radical influences that were then sweeping through the medical establishment. New kinds of intervention and new standards of patient care, were aligned with his larger social sympathies.
Almost exactly as Keats qualified, he gave up medicine. Once again, it was a change of course which allowed him to stay true to himself. Actually, to find himself. He took with him into poetry the fundamental principles that his education as a whole had rooted in him. He became friends with Leigh Hunt, editor of The Examiner, the great free-thinking journal of the day. He consorted with Hunt's circle, which included Shelley. He began writing poems which gave a voice to the convictions that justify his description of himself as a "rebel angel".
In some of Keats' early work, these political allegiances are clear: the opening sections of the four books of his long poem Endymion, for instance, or squibs like the lines written on The Anniversary of the Restoration of Charles II. But by the time Keats reached his maturity – the ascent is astonishingly rapid and steep – he had absorbed the lessons of Shakespeare and found a way of writing that was simultaneously of its own particular time, and universal in its reach and application. It resists explicit mention of local circumstances (the government's suspension of habeas corpus, for instance, or the Peterloo massacre which occurred only days before he wrote the ode To Autumn) only because it seeks to reveal the general truth in a particular situation. This means that when we read his best poems – which with a few exceptions are those in the 1820 volume – we are watching a writer grapple with the largest eternal questions: what is the role of the imagination? What is the value of art? What is the purpose of suffering? How can we create our own selves, and integrate with the lives of others?
At the same time as he was producing these great poems, Keats was also writing letters to friends and loved ones that clarify the theoretical thinking that lay behind them. They cover an extraordinary amount of ground, and show an equally extraordinary amount of wisdom, but they converge on a few central convictions. One of these is the idea that large theoretical concerns will only be comprehensible to people if they are rehearsed in very physical language. "Axioms in philosophy" he says, using an image that refers back to his medical days, "are not axioms unless they are proved upon our pulses". This is where the sensuality of his writing is so important. It is not merely a form of delighted and delightful engagement with things-in-themselves, but a way of thinking. His "life of sensation" is also a "life of thoughts".
It is a notion that every poet writing after Keats has had to negotiate, and that most have shared. From the very small base of his early readership, he has become one of the most influential poets, as well as one of the most beloved.