Keats's poetry had a radical edge that his biographers have largely ignored. Alan Brownjohn looks at a new work that adds some politics to the beauty
There was something grudging and embarrassed about the celebrations, two autumns ago, for the bicentenary of John Keats's birth. The great short poems were read on Radio 4 at intervals, and BBC Television rescued a potentially cringe-making programme (all russet leaves and tongue-tied poets) by memorably sending the author of this new biography to Keats's lodgings and grave in Rome, by the same dreadful sea route. But Radio 3's main commemorative feature was a crass vox pop which seemed to pride itself on its own ignorance. And why no special, official occasions? No postage stamps?
The character, genius and fate of Keats still disturbs us, still has to be sanitised as a beautiful, romantic legend. His slim volumes of verse were denigrated by political enemies and neglected by readers, so he died of his disappointments in love and poetry at the age of 25. Andrew Motion tellingly cites Byron, in 1810, declaring that he would "like to die of a consumption . . . all the ladies would say, 'Look at that poor Byron, how interesting he looks in dying'." A ready-made myth was available, and Keats fitted the part.
It has taken a long time to find the real Keats, but more than a century ago Matthew Arnold maintained that Keats "had flint and iron in him", and the best modern biographers - Aileen Ward, Walter Jackson Bate and Robert Gittings - have steadily advanced recognition of that observation.
It is well known that, during his training at Guy's Hospital, Keats the promising medical student witnessed, and assisted in, surgical processes of inconceivable horror. He was capable of miraculous stamina in reading, writing, and taking exercise, and gave demanding friends and family extraordinary devotion and patience. All this has now been well established, and when there is little left to discover, a biographer has to reinterpret known facts.
Andrew Motion's contribution is a reinterpretation of Keats's political interests. The world of medicine itself bred liberal opinions, drawing in students from a dissenting background with little hope of advancement in other professions. Keats's vigorous early friendship with Leigh Hunt, editor of the radical Examiner, gave him knowledge of political causes, and acquaintance with radical journalists. So do politics constitute, as Motion argues, a "large and neglected part of Keats's inspiration"?
His arguments concerning the political Keats convince, as far as the point where the poet's political instincts, which derive from his humble background and the influence of the Leigh Hunt circle, are unquestionably defined. But, beyond that, matters are harder to assess, and it is difficult to think of a thoroughly politicised Keats.
The poet moved among pamphleteers and agitators. In his letters he bitterly deplored poverty and degradation, and made a small number of striking, outspoken references to injustice in his poetry; notably the celebrated denunciation of the two brothers, capitalists and murderers, in "Isabella": For them alone did seetheA thousand men in troubles wide and dark.
But (and are illness and agonies over money the only reasons?) actual political activity is hard to trace. Keats showed interest in becoming a political journalist, once wondered about fighting in a South American war of liberation, and remained anti-clerical until the end. Yet it does not add up to the passionate, if showy, commitment of Shelley or Byron.
It is necessary to read harder, in less likely poems, for evidence of a Keats motivated and inspired by political feelings; at least, beyond the poignantly simple hope of "doing good in the world", though that was something more concrete for the creative Keats than for present-day proponents of "new" politics. Motion reinterprets them with sufficient success for any jury of reasonable readers to request an overnight hotel. Has "Endymion" ("the inhuman deathOf noble natures") a political flavour? Possibly. And "Lines on the Mermaid Tavern", which hostelry Motion sees as "a Paradise of free and liberal imagining"? It's worth a thought.
Does "To Autumn", as has been argued, carry concealed pol-itical references, "con-spiring" suggesting the Cato Street Conspiracy and the "gleaner" in stanza two representing "sympathy for the denied and the dispossessed"? That stretches it, rather. "Conspiring" - to provide treats, after all - is surely a smiling word, not a subversive one; and gleaners might have come to mind anyway, and not necessarily be a reference to the repressive Act of 1818 that banned the practice.
It seems better to accept, as Motion does in his conclusion, that "To Autumn" is "a magnificent portrait of an integrated imagination". And what goes for the great ode goes for Motion's book. The political thesis is rewarding to follow, but Keats is more likely to be read and appreciated for other reasons.
On the affair with Fanny Brawne - not a consummated relationship, but not really an unrequited love - he writes very movingly. All Keats's friends receive full and warm portrayals (John Taylor, for his intelligence and generosity, was surely like no other publisher who ever lived); the London of 1817-1821, where keeping up with people meant, if one was as poor as Keats, long slogs on foot or on the outer seats of coaches, is evoked with exemplary vividness.
All in all, this is the most integrated and imaginative Life we have yet been given.
Alan Brownjohn is a poet and critic. His novel The Long Shadows is published this week by Dewi Lewis