Politics Doesn't Rhyme in New Keats Biography


By Andrew Motion

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

636 pp., $35

The brief life of John Keats (1795-1821) has inspired several long biographies, as if to illustrate the ancient adage art is long, life is short.

Keats's short literary career exemplifies the idea that what makes a life interesting and valuable is not necessarily the variety and extent of one's external adventures, but rather, the richness, intensity, and depth of one's imaginative experiences.

Keats's dedication to poetry, his acute self-awareness, and his sense of his own artistic and spiritual development render him the perfect subject for a literary biography, for he is, in many ways, the exemplary poet.

Three outstanding Keats biographies - by Aileen Ward, Walter Jackson Bate, and Robert Gittings - came out in the 1960s. The best of these, I think, is Bate's. Keats's latest biographer, Andrew Motion, pays tribute to all three of his distinguished predecessors in his opening acknowledgements.

Himself a poet and the author of a biography of Philip Larkin, Motion explains in "Keats," that his particular aim in offering yet another life of Keats is to place him in his political context.

Now, this may seem a rather strange approach to the poet generally deemed the least political, most purely aesthetic of the great Romantics. Keats's poetry is also the least abstract and discursive, the most sensuous and immediate.

But although Keats managed in his poetry to transcend the pressing difficulties of his circumstances - poverty, orphanhood, lack of recognition, the loss of his beloved younger brother, his own failing health - these circumstances were still an important part of his life.

Keats's poems and letters are filled with his ideas about how a poet - or, indeed, how any imaginative and sensitive human being - can nourish his or her soul through the joys and trials of ordinary experience.

Motion's biography provides an exceptionally rich and detailed portrait of the world in which Keats lived: the streets and buildings of early 19th-century London; the social, cultural, and political atmosphere; the places he went and the people he knew. Characterizing the period, Motion quotes Keats's fellow-Romantic Coleridge: "an age of anxiety from the crown to the hovel, from the cradle to the coffin; all is an anxious striving to maintain life, or appearance - to rise as the only condition of not falling."

Even though Keats eschewed politics and ideology as subject matter for his poetry, his general outlook was informed by his belief in the ideals of freedom, equality, and progress toward a fairer society, "a grand democracy of Forest Trees," where each individual would be allowed to grow to the full height of his or her perceptions.

Motion is certainly right to remind us that Keats was a liberal, and that his lower-class origins, his political beliefs, and his association with the outspoken journalist Leigh Hunt rendered him anathema to the conservative critics who viciously denounced his poetry.

Yet readers who encounter Keats's life story only through Motion's biography will miss out on the deeper understanding of the poet's artistic imagination that can be found in a work like Bate's.

And, while it is commendable for biographers to seek new angles of approaching time-honored subjects, coming up with the idea of a political approach at a time when academic literary studies are already suffering from an overdose of politics is hardly an original or refreshing way of looking at a poet who incorporated politics in order to transcend them.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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