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Reviewed by Harriet

It may not have escaped your attention that 2021 is the 200th anniversary of the death of John Keats. Yes, on 23 February 1821, the 25-year-old poet died in Rome, in the arms of his friend Joseph Severn, who had accompanied him on the gruelling journey from England and nursed him through his agonising final months. Almost his last words had been a request for an epitaph to be written on his grave: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’. For Keats considered his attempt to succeed as a poet to have been a failure: reviewers had not been kind, and the total sales of the three volumes he had published had amounted to only £200. Today, it’s probably true to say that he’s one of the the best loved English poets, and his most famous poems appear in every anthology worth its name.

Given these facts, it’s surprising there hasn’t been an avalanche of books this year but for some reason this hasn’t been the case. So, as a long-time lover of Keats both for his poetry and his inimitable letters, this one was a must for me. The book’s subtitle is ‘A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph’, and this is a clue to the way the book is structured.  Miller takes nine of Keats’ most celebrated poems, each one printed in full at the start of its chapter, and uses it to explore their backstories: the poet’s history, situation and state of mind at the time of writing, and the way the poems reflect their historical context. Her aim is to show Keats as he really was, rather than the ethereal, chaste figure depicted in such films as Bright Star (2009). 

Ben Wishaw as Keats in Bright Star, dir Jane Campion (2009)

‘If Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all’, Keats wrote to his publisher in 1818. It’s clear that there were some poems which he slaved and sweated over – especially the attempts at epic poetry such as ‘Endymion’ and ‘Hyperion’ – but there’s also evidence that some of his most admired work was produced at speed. This was certainly the case for the second poem he published, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, the composition of which can be pinpointed to the early hours of 20 October 1816. He’d been reading Chapman with his schoolfriend Charles Clarke, had dashed the poem off when he got home and sent it straight to his friend, who received it over his breakfast. In her first chapter, Miller uses the poem as a starting point to explore the poet’s family history, his early life and education (during which, she says, he was ‘more pugilistic than intellectual’) before analysing the structure, language and content of the poem. 

This generally helpful approach is reproduced in the subsequent chapters. It’s Miller’s aim to show that Keats was a stranger, more conflicted character than his present image suggests. His attitude to women and sex is a case in point: ‘I have not a right feeling towards women’ he wrote in a letter to a friend. He was certainly interested in sex (what young man just out of his teens isn’t), seems to have contracted syphilis, enjoyed ‘warming’ with the beautiful, mysterious Isabella Jones, and fantasised about Fanny Brawne’s ‘ripening breast’. His contemporaries saw his writing as vulgar and improper, and were shocked by the description of an obviously sexual encounter in ‘The Eve of St Agnes’. But is this much-loved poem a thinly veiled portrayal of drugging and rape, as Miller would like us to believe? Are the ‘lucent syrups’ and ‘jellies soother than the creamy curd’ that Porphrio spreads out for the sleeping Madeleine really veiled sexual imagery? Perhaps – but this does rather nullify the dreamlike, mysterious mood of the poem. And I’m not sure I’m convinced by a similar interpretation being applied to the sedge, the birds and the lake in the almost contemporary ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. 

So yes, I can quibble about some of Miller’s readings, but that’s part of the enjoyment of reading literary criticism – it encourages you to do some close reading of your own. And overall, this book is full of interest. It’s good to be reminded of the poet’s love for beef sandwiches and claret (not at the same time), to hear the details of some of the operations he performed at Guy’s Hospital, to speculate on the identity of the women he encountered on the Isle of Wight. Miller also draws attention to his unorthodox views of religion and his radical politics. And you get to read the poems, and dip into his incomparable letters.

I wasn’t really expecting to learn much that was new about a poet whose poems, letters and life I once studied and taught. But the book did make me re-read the famous poems and encouraged me to think about them in a different way. I would never have thought I’d be persuaded to warm to ‘Isabella: or the Pot of Basil’ (she keeps her dead lover’s head in there), but I enjoyed Miller’s ingenious linking of it with Keats’ experiences of surgery, the possibility that his own father was murdered, his abolitionist sympathies and his hatred of global commerce. I still don’t much like the poem, but it’s become rather more interesting.

So, for a fascinating sweep through Keats’ sadly truncated life, and a view of the world he lived in, complete with useful references and a full bibliography, this is a worthy 200th anniversary tribute. 

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Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Lucasta Miller, Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph (Jonathan Cape, 2021). 978-1787331617, 368pp., hardback.

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