John Bayley

  • John Keats by John Barnard
    Cambridge, 172 pp, £22.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 521 26691 2
  • Keats as a Reader of Shakespeare by R.S. White
    Athlone, 250 pp, £25.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 485 11298 1

The artist Benjamin Haydon said of Keats, probably with affectionate disapproval, that ‘one day he was full of an epic poem! – another, epic poems were splendid impositions on the world, – never for two days did he know his own intentions.’ Haydon’s canvases have something in common with Keats’s more ambitious poems in that they lack the basic confidence of genre; they are trying to do something new according to an old recipe. It was a Romantic dilemma, and the fact that anything could be tried out made what might be termed a natural originality difficult to obtain. The many ‘modernisms’ of the 20th century found it much easier. In terms of style and genre, Wordsworth and Coleridge continued to rely on the 18th-century tradition of ballad and didactic poem, while Byron had successfully romanticised the more robust traditions of Dryden and Pope. Keats would read himself into style through a much more unstable and challenging model – Shakespeare.

The process is fairly familiar, but R.S. White, the author of two excellent books on Shakespearean romance and tragedy, has examined it in detail and come up with a host of fresh examples and insights. His book makes a good complement to John Barnard’s more general but also innovative study in the new Cambridge introductions to ‘British and Irish Authors’, a high-quality series which includes Patrick Parrinder on James Joyce and John Batchelor on H.G. Wells. Barnard gets a great deal into his short book, presenting a rather different Keats from that of the many other Keats scholars and biographers. Keats’s vividness has been present to his admirers in many forms. In Abinger Harvest E.M. Forster had the idea of doing a kind of anonymous life of a young man in Regency London, quoting Keats’s letters and describing his hopes and fears and his family and financial troubles, but not mentioning him by name. It brought the actual Keats, before the legend began, very close. Barnard’s treatment has something of the same literalising effect.

Indeed, he sees the word ‘literal’ as having a quite special importance in relation to Keats.

The ultimate literalness of Keats’s mind is that of the common reader. The directness and uncomforting honesty of the questions he proposes allow neither the poet nor his reader to slip past them. As a post-Romantic the modern reader inhabits the situation defined by the claims and disclaimers of Keats’s poetry.

This is true. Keats’s existence, and his sense of it, is a very contemporary one: it is post-Romantic and post-Nietzschean. Shelley seems old-fashioned beside him, a man still living in a settled world of religion and ideology. Yet at the same time Keats’s art, and his true sense of it, is extraordinarily ‘conservative’, as that of the common reader usually is. His most natural feeling for art is as an escape route from human ills, an escape into romance, into women’s magazines, into poetry, where all disagreeables evaporate. In the ferment of creation they are all muddled together. Hence Keats’s strenuous and touchingly impressive attempts to distinguish chambers of maiden thought in vales of soul-making, to write grave allegories about art and the human condition, to write finally and bitterly that he had no faith whatever in poetry – ‘I only wonder that people read so much of it.’ The reference must be to the fact that there was money in poetry if you wrote the right sort – like Scott’s – because people, chiefly women, did indeed read so much of it. The young Keats read Mary Tighe’s verses with pleasure, and the Misses Porter, of Romance fame, admired his ‘Endymion’. Barnard is right to emphasise just how important the market for poetry was, which was why Taylor and Hessey, the young firm which took over Keats’s Poems of 1817 from Charles Ollier, were prepared to treat him so generously. They did the same for Clare. In the event, neither poet made it commercially: in Keats’s case, because success had to be on his own terms, and these went against the grain of his natural genius.

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