Beauty that must die

John Keats: A New Life, by Nicholas Roe, Yale University Press, RRP£25, 384 pages

It might make one in love with death,” declared Shelley, “to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.” Keats, on his deathbed, hearing that daisies grew wild on the graves there, rejoiced, saying that he already felt the flowers “growing over” him. They were referring to the Protestant cemetery in Rome, which could be a drowsy churchyard in the English counties were it not for the cypresses and cicadas. It is appropriate that Keats, with his Romantic attachment to classical Italy, should lie here, a few tombs from Shelley, himself a poet captivated by the warm south. When Shelley drowned off Italian shores in 1822, a volume of Keats was found in his pocket.

Keats, the greatest poet-physician in the English language, descended on early 19th-century London like a meteor, flaring brightly before burning out. His precocity was astonishing. By his early twenties he was the author of the most sublimely tender lyrics in the Romantic school. Yet his career was over by the time he was 25. The autopsy performed on Keats after his death in Rome in 1821 showed that his lungs were destroyed by the bacilli of pulmonary consumption.

Born in the City of London in 1795, Keats was a sorrowful, intermittently fear-ridden man who wrote hauntingly of life’s uncertainty. Samuel Beckett, for one, admired the doleful cemetery music in Keats – his “awful sweetness” – and often alluded to his work. From his medical training at Guy’s hospital, Keats learnt that his telltale drops of bright arterial blood were symptomatic of incurable lung disease. In the pension where he died off Piazza di Spagna his expectorations had turned “black and thick in the extreme”, reported his friend Joseph Severn.

In this magnificent biography of Keats, Nicholas Roe chronicles a forward-looking spirit, whose poetry offered a strikingly modern amalgam of the arts and sciences. Medical allusions to nerves, arteries, bone and blood developed in tandem with deepening thoughts on human pain and suffering, says Roe. Keats’s vaunted “negative capability” allowed him to engage imaginatively with life’s transience and his own consumptive state. The rueful melancholy of “To Autumn” and “Ode to a Nightingale” speaks of a courageous reckoning with mortality.

Lord Byron, with customary disdain, regarded Keats as a mere dilettante of sensation and “always frigging his imagination”. Roe will have little of this. The necromantic imagination at work in a poem such as “Isabella, or, the Pot of Basil” derived from Keats’s professional exposure to dissecting-room corpses at Guy’s. As the “cockney” son of a Moorfields livery stables manager, Keats knew how the poor could serve as fodder for scalpels. Hospitals were complicit in the body-snatching trade, as the science of anatomy was in its infancy and trainee surgeons were required to practise their skills.

Roe provides a fabulously rich account of Keats’s London childhood. Moorfields was a metropolitan abomination ankle-deep in horse excrement, he says. The poet’s teeming City childhood was shadowed, more­over, by the social embarrassment of madness. The family stable business stood near the infamous Bedlam asylum. Conceivably, the morbidity and dark mockery of Keats’s early verse had its roots in this part of London. Family tragedy was never far away. Keats’s father fell to his death from a horse in 1804 when the boy was eight; his mother died six years later of alcoholism complicated by the family bane of consumption.

In contrast to other Keats biographers (among them, Andrew Motion), Roe is keen to revise our image of the sickly neurasthenic too frail for this life. In pages of trenchant analysis, Keats emerges as a calorific, occasionally even robust figure, who thought nothing of walking 600 miles in Scotland and cultivated a rakish, Byronic allure. In 1819, bizarrely, he considered joining forces in Latin America with Simón Bolívar. (Nothing came of it.)

Fanny Brawne, the poet’s star-crossed lover, was a Hampstead girl interested in fashion and “party-going” (in Roe’s anachronistic term). Keats loved her darting, kingfisher mind and air of flirtatiousness. Yet sexual passion was hampered by his illness. In 1833, 12 years after Keats died, Fanny married the descendent of a Jamaican-born Sephardi Jew, Louis Lindo (later Anglicised to Lindon). On her death in 1865 she was buried in Brompton Cemetery and Keats’s letters to her were published in 1878.

John Keats is not without its faults. The writing is occasionally over-egged (“Coexisting with the radiant masculinity of Apollonian Keats is a lunar poet of enchanted night ... ”) and there are irritating errors (Dante’s doomed lover, Paolo Malatesta, is consistently misspelled “Paulo”). Overall, though, this is a wonderful work that has many new things to say about Keats, his extraordinary work and inner life. A finer biography is unlikely to emerge this year.

Ian Thomson is author of ‘Primo Levi: A Biography’ (Vintage)

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