Monday, 5 March 2012

Keats by Andrew Motion

I bought a copy of Andrew Motion's (former Poet Laureate) biography of Keats for just 10 pounds at Slightly Foxed. (It's a pretty good bookshop in the UK, you can get things there you don't see in Waterstone's, and some at slashed prices.) Motion does a good job telling us about Keats' background, giving us extracts of letters. For those of you less familiar with the poets, Keats was one of the second-generation Romantic era poets (the first generation would be those who published in the late 18th century eg Wordsworth and Coleridge). He died at the age of 26, which is pretty impressive considering the sheer depth of his works at that age. Even the other literary figures reached their prime when they were past 30 or 40. 

Keats wasn't appreciated as a major figure in his time: among others. Lord Byron himself criticised Keats for being "too Cockney", that is, too vulgar.  I think the main problem he had was that Keats didn't have a Greek education though he knew Latin. Critics couldn't accept that Keats wrote about ancient Greek mythology without understanding Greek. But it doesn't matter, because what he wrote was so lush and emotional, and not in the learned prententious way you  get from a classically-educated writer. We also owe his ignorance of Greek to a re-interpretation of a myth. In the original Greek myth, Lamia was a snake who changed into a woman's shape to attract a philosopher student called Menippus. On their wedding day Menippus' tutor reveals Lamia for what she is and she admits that she lured Menippus so she could suck the life out of him. In Keats' version it is different, because his source was The Anatomy of Melancholy, which had a translation of the myth into English, except the bit where Lamia admits she wanted to kill her husband. In Keats' version Lamia is a sympathetic figure who gave herself up for love and scarcely seems evil.

Anyway the reviewers were scathing and Keats barely made money out of the venture. He was forunate enough to have good friends who loaned him money and discussed the arts - yes he was part of a literary circle, and even met Shelley, who saw his future genius. Also mentioned are his unhappy relations with his guardian and Fanny Brawne.

He succumbed to consumption eventually and was sent to Italy to recuperate. He didn't, and requested that his epitaph read "Here lies one whose name was written in water." After his death Shelley wrote an ode for him. which both popularised him and gave rise to the myth of Keats as a weak, dispirited young man. Actually he had been a lively, and well-loved man. Later, the best friend of Tennyson, Arthur Hallam, was among the supporters of Shelley's poetry over Byron's (who was mainstream and more popular), and he said that Keats, the subject of Shelley's ode was a touching figure, which led to them championing Keats. But it was only till the Mid-19th century that Keats became famous in his own right.

Well, I won't go into it too deeply, go and read it for yourself. I think it's well-written, partly because as a poet, Motion understands the way a poet thinks and writes. There's the analysis and the public response to Keats' poems on publication, especially The Eve of St Agnes, which is surprisingly bawdy for its era. Keats wanted to make it bawdier but was dissuaded by his publishers who did not wish to court controversy. 

Oh, and it was Keats who defined negative capability:
"when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason - Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration."

And on being a Poet: 
'A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity-he is continually in for[ming?]-and filling some other Body-The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute-the poet has none; no identity-he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God's Creatures."

It sounds strikingly similar to the way Shakespeare developed his characters. In fact you could go further and argue that Keats' poetry was like drama. He actually wrote a play called Otho which flipped and isn't well-known now. 

If you're into Gothic mythological stories, I recommend Lamia, which has a depth you don't find in many fantasy novels. (Much as I love fantasy, I have to admit its shortcomings.) The Eve of St Agnes is an earthier, fleshier story which doesn't rely on myth, but the sheer rhthym of the language shines through.

Oh, and here's the bawdy bit, in case you were wondering (the bowdlerised version):
 Beyond a mortal man impassion'd far
    At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
    Ethereal, flush'd, and like a throbbing star
    Seen mid the sapphire heaven's deep repose
    Into her dream he melted, as the rose
    Blendeth its odour with the violet,---
    Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
    Like Love's alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St Agnes' moon hath set.

How much more interesting than the direct, graphic descriptions of today's bawdy prose, methinks. All the suspense and tension - no wonder they feared it would heighten the reader's interest. 

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