Inspiration, Accident, Genius

Helen Vendler

  • Keats by Andrew Motion
    Faber, 612 pp, £25.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 571 17227 X

In the sixties, three scholarly biographies of Keats appeared within a short time: W.J. Bate’s and Aileen Ward’s in 1963, Robert Gittings’s in 1968. Each is still very useful; all were admirable, if in different ways. W.J. Bate, who had been interested in Keats ever since he wrote his undergraduate thesis on the poet in 1939, paid special attention to Keats’s stylistic development in a discussion that has never been bettered; Aileen Ward brought to the study of Keats an almost clairvoyant psychological understanding (drawing on, but by no means limited to, Freudian insights); and Robert Gittings (who, before he wrote the biography, had published three short books on Keats) displayed an unexampled mastery of the facts of Keats’s life and its English context.

Thirty years have passed since then, and Andrew Motion remarks, reasonably enough, in the Introduction to his new life of Keats, that ‘the lives of all important writers need to be reconsidered at regular intervals, no matter how familiar they might be’:

The Keats that has come down to us is finely figured, yet incomplete. Embedding his life in his times, I have tried to re-create him in a way which is more rounded than his readers are used to seeing. Examining his liberal beliefs, I have tried to show how they shaped the argument as well as the language of his work. At all times, I have tried to illuminate his extraordinary skill in reconciling ‘thoughts’ with ‘sensations’.

‘Embedding his life in his times’ turns out to mean drawing attention to Keats’s political opinions and his class status; showing how his liberal beliefs ‘shaped the argument as well as the language of his work’ turns out to mean interpreting the poems – especially the longer poems – as documents of political thought embodied in styles suitable to liberal expression; and ‘illuminat[ing] his ... skill in reconciling “thoughts” with “sensations” ’ turns out to mean almost anything the author needs it to mean in any given chapter.

Motion adds a remark dissociating himself from the deterministic convictions of materialist biography and criticism:

Accounts of [Keats’s] reading, his friendships, his psychological imperatives, his poetic ‘axioms’, his politics and his context can never completely explain [his] marvellous achievement. The story of his life must also allow for other things – things which have become embarrassing or doubtful for many critics in the late 20th century, but which are still, as they always were, actual and undeniable: inspiration, accident, genius.

So far, so good: Motion means to take advantage of the last thirty years of Keats scholarship but not to be confined by it – to leave room for genius. Since Motion does not himself claim to be a scholar of Keats’s era, he is dependent on the work others have done on Keats’s historical and social contexts. But because he is a poet, we might hope that his chief motive in writing a life of Keats would have been to give us a new, psychologically intimate and imaginatively comprehensive view of Keats the poet – his aims, his strategies, his accomplishments, his failures, his innovations, his revelations. After all, Keats himself wrote the motto for such a biography: ‘A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory – and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life – a life like the scriptures, figurative ... Shakspeare led a life of Allegory; his works are the comments on it.’ It is often bracing to see a poet through a later poet’s eyes: readers will think of pungent sentences by Hopkins on Tennyson, or by Heaney on Yeats, and we might legitimately expect something comparable from Motion.

The three biographies of the Sixties are all, regrettably, out of print, and for readers who have no acquaintance with them Motion’s book will serve – as the former biographies did – to bring Keats’s life and work again into visibility. Younger readers may first encounter here all the incomparable quotations (from Keats’s letters and poems, and from the papers of the Keats circle) that biographies of the poet must include. The effect of Keats’s brilliant prose is to make any reader love the book in which he first finds it – which is, as often as not, a biography. In Motion’s pages (as in those of his predecessors) we respond to the unforgettable touchstones – Negative Capability, the Vale of Soul-Making, the ‘pleasure-thermometer’, ‘I always made an awkward bow,’ ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ Here in Motion (as in his predecessors) is the heartbreaking intensity and brevity of Keats’s life (still not to be read without tears). Here, too, are brilliant quotations from the lesser-known works (as well as from the familiar ones), and these may send readers who know only the odes back to the Collected Poems and the Letters.

So to have a 1997 biography of Keats in the bookstores is a fine thing for new readers. But for those who know the other modern biographies, Motion’s is not appealing. To explain this remark, I must look at what he claims to add to the view of Keats’s life and work that one possesses after reading Bate, Ward and Gittings, and ask how his writing compares with theirs as a way into Keats.

The styles of Bate, Ward and Gittings are all more than serviceable: they are concise, expressive and even eloquent. By contrast, Motion, though for the most part serviceable, is often not a pleasure to read. There are numerous repellent anachronisms of reference, as when he speaks of Keats as ‘ribbing’ the Reynolds sisters, or refers to Keats’s friend Isabella Jones’s connection to ‘her possessive sugar daddy O’Callaghan’. He says of Keats’s style, ‘classical references and painterly gestures would all become trademarks.’ Trademarks: did Keats think, ‘Well, one of my trademarks will be classical references here and there?’ Or does a reader, thinking about ‘What men or gods are these?’ say: ‘Yes, here’s one of Keats’s trademark classical references’? Keats casts up classical references (sometimes) and painterly gestures (sometimes), but he does so out of a deep necessity for this gesture at this particular imaginative juncture. To call moments of intense aesthetic concentration ‘trademarks’ seems peculiarly coarse.

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