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.

Or – to take another example at random – Motion remarks about Endymion that the hero’s sister Peona, as she responds to some anterior lines, is ‘flushing Keats’s philosophy into the open’. Is ‘Keats’s philosophy’ a fox or a duck; is Peona a hunter (or a hound)? Again in Endymion, Keats’s language ‘aims at rapturous sensuality but merely sounds gooey’. Hazlitt gives a lecture expressing certain ideas: Motion says, using a verb that would make most poets wince, ‘Keats had already personalised these ideas in his letters.’ In ‘Isabella’, Keats ‘becomes a sort of poetic Resurrection Man’. In the ‘Ode to Psyche’, ‘Keats sees himself, like the goddess, as a kind of arriviste.’ In the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, ‘Keats is obviously excited by the thought that he might possess the urn as he explicates it.’ In writing to Fanny Brawne, ‘his sigh of affection soon turns into a squeal of jealousy.’

I am unlikely to be alone in flinching at such passages. There is a false note in each of them, and these false notes are legion. I can’t argue each one (though each could be argued), but let me mention, by way of illustration, the quotation from Keats’s letter to Fanny Brawne that Motion calls ‘a squeal of jealousy’. There is jealousy, yes: but is this piece of writing (I give Motion’s quotation of it in full) accurately described by the noun ‘squeal’?

If you should ever feel for Man at the first sight what I did for you, I am lost. Yet I should not quarrel with you, but hate myself if such a thing were to happen – only I should burst if the thing were not as fine a Man as you are a Woman. Perhaps I am too vehement, then fancy me on my knees, especially when I mention a part of you[r] Letter which hurt me; you say speaking of Mr Severn ‘but you must be satisfied in knowing that I admired you much more than your friend.’ My dear love, I cannot believe there ever was or ever could be any thing to admire in me as far as sight goes – I cannot be admired. I am not a thing to be admired. You are, I love you; all I can bring you is a swooning admiration of your Beauty. I hold that place among Men which snub-nos’d brunettes with meeting eyebrows do among women – they are trash to me – unless I should find one among them with a fire in her heart like the one that burns in mine.

My ear hears in this passage uncertainty, fear, pain, love, self-deprecation, style (‘I cannot be admired. I am not a thing to be admired’) and humour (‘snub-nos’d brunettes with meeting eyebrows’) – but I do not hear anything that could conceivably be described as a squeal.

It is unsettling, in a biography of an author, to read descriptions of that author’s writing that do not square with one’s own (and others’) responses. Some of Motion’s descriptions – like those I have just been quoting – irritate on stylistic grounds: he simply has not been able, it seems to me, to find the right words or metaphors by which to represent the thing he is describing. But other descriptions annoy by reason of the cant that Motion borrows from some recent critics. The most egregious comes in the treatment of Endymion. Readers of Keats will remember that Endymion cannot reconcile his love for his mysterious heavenly mistress (the moon-goddess Cynthia) with his love for an ‘Indian maid’, who appeals – by her roundelay to Sorrow, among other things – to Endymion’s human sense of pity. Within the soul of Keats, a ‘vertical’ aspiring language (the ‘O thou’ of all the odes) was at odds with an empathetic ‘horizontal’ language (which pitied even ‘the poor patient oyster’); and the strife between these two vocabularies – of which the poet was fully conscious – created many of the dramas in his writing life. The Indian Maid has lost her country and her family: no wonder she is singing of Sorrow. As Keats brings her on stage, Motion sternly reproves him for turning away from political concerns to erotic ones: ‘For one thing, it means that Keats temporarily neglects the social aims he has pursued elsewhere in the poem, in order to contemplate a more individualistic and “psychic” solution.’ That a lyric poet should contemplate – for his protagonist’s apparently irreconcilable conflict between the idealising and the humane aspects of the erotic imagination – an ‘individual and “psychic” solution’ seems no great crime to me. But Motion goes on, in what can only be described as a tone of parsonical sanctimoniousness, to reproach Keats further:

For another – and this is more seriously troubling – he treats the Indian Maid in ways which challenge his presiding notion of ideal ‘harmony’. Elsewhere in his writing (notably in ‘Isabella’, lines 113-15) he criticises the exploitative and dehumanising effects of the British Empire. When creating the Indian Maid, however, he shows no respect for her ‘otherness’ even while recognising her ‘strangeness’, and delivers her voice to his readers as ‘the unquestioning vehicle of [his] unwitting but definite imaginative consumption, and entrepreneurial representation, of the Orient’ ... Her treatment is reactionary and divisive.

(An aside on Motion’s remarks on ‘Isabella’ as directed toward the British Empire: it is probably useless to remark that the British Empire had not yet been established when the original Isabella – Boccaccio’s – was grieving over her lover’s death, or that Keats represents the avariciousness of Isabella’s cruel brothers, heightened from Boccaccio’s treatment of them, as a phenomenon that is perennial, not one limited to any single place or time:

For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
  And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gushed blood; for them in death
  The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts.

It is not only the British who have bought pearls and worn sealskin; like most poets, Keats intends a transhistorical truth in moral indictment. It is too easy to get oneself off the moral hook by referring Keats’s remark to Imperial practice.)

Back to Endymion. Motion – though drawing on Vincent Newey’s essay in Nicholas Roe’s 1995 collection Keats and History for his quotations about Keats’s ‘unwitting but definite imaginative consumption, and entrepreneurial representation, of the Orient’ – ratifies these absurd remarks (made offensive by the critic’s patronising ‘unwitting’) by his own sententious conclusion that Keats’s treatment of the Maid is ‘reactionary and divisive’. Well, anachronistically belittling dead white male writers for ‘racism’ and ‘misogyny’ has provided critical sport for some years now on both sides of the Atlantic. I am amused to find the Indian Maid served up as Keats’s sin in this respect (the accusation being so far-fetched), but rather astonished that a poet-biographer would concur with this indictment. I suppose Motion does so because he feels that what he has to offer that is ‘new’ is the impact on literary studies – including Keats studies – of politics, race, class and gender.

So much for race. Class of course rears its head as well, and here Motion depends on Marjorie Levinson. ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ elicits various statements from Motion: let me isolate them and respond to them one by one. First, the sonnet is ‘a poem about exclusion as well as inclusion’: ‘Its title suggests that Keats felt he had come late to high culture (it is “On First Looking”).’ Motion does not seem to think that translating the whole of the Aeneid into English prose, as Keats had done before he was 19, counts as an early ‘coming to high culture’. The title ‘draws attention to the fact that he could not read Homer in the original Greek’. The title could equally be said to register delight in finding the ringing verse of one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries: it is, after all, Chapman who ‘speak[s] out loud and bold’. ‘It mistakes Balboa ... for Cortez, and so undermines its air of learning.’ But poetry is often careless of learning; and, as Motion points out, Keats’s source, Robertson’s History of America, had the name right; Keats had more on his mind in writing the poem than making pretensions to an ‘air of learning’. ‘It is a poem written by an outsider who wants to be an insider – on his own terms.’ Keats certainly wanted to make enough money to support himself by writing, but nothing in his letters or his poetry suggests, to me, that he saw himself, socially, as ‘an outsider who wants to be an insider’. Themselves preoccupied with questions of social status, some of Keats’s more recent critics want their author to be similarly occupied; but the young poet’s aims were loftier, his intellect more demanding, than to be satisfied with ‘insider’ status – whatever that is supposed to imply. There was indeed one company that Keats dearly wanted to be in – and with respect to which he claimed ‘insider’ status at the end of his life: ‘I think that I shall be among the English Poets after my death.’ Status-seekers do not talk this way.

Gender, too, of course, has to have its innings. Motion’s description of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ exhibits the same uneasy (but curiously dated) ‘contemporaneity’ as was evident in the ‘sugar daddy’ phrasing about Isabella Jones. Madeline leaves the party ‘to dream of her intended’, and ‘her admirer Porphyro has been smuggled upstairs by her nervous old maid.’ Porphyro watches Madeline from the closet, then wakes her and ‘gets into bed with her’. In the poem, Keats is said, by Motion, to ‘confront difficult questions about Porphyro (is his “solution sweet” welcomed by Madeline or is it a rape?)’ Perhaps, Motion hints, the poem is only a masturbation-fantasy: ‘Is it a celebration of mutual physicality, or does its manifest inventedness imply a preference for something solitary?’

Since these questions have long since been raised by critics, one might expect a poet to have some views on them. At least a poet might observe that Madeline – whose last remark as a virgin to Porphyro has been ‘Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,/For if thou diest, my Love, I know not where to go,’ and who willingly hurries out of her wicked kinsmen’s castle with her lover – is hardly behaving like a victim of rape. ‘And they are gone: ay, ages long ago/These lovers fled away into the storm,’ says Keats, bidding them adieu: he certainly thought that the ‘solution sweet’ had been sweet to both of ‘these lovers’. As Keats remarked in an 1818 letter, ‘Who shall say between Man and Woman which is the most delighted?’ Aileen Ward, noting that Keats began ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ a few weeks after the Christmas Day he spent with Fanny Brawne – the Christmas that Fanny Brawne later called the happiest day of her life – thinks it not surprising that the poet wrote ‘a long poem in celebration of young love ... in which the lovers steal away from a midwinter festivity to reveal their love to each other. “The Eve of St Agnes” is Keats’s commentary on the hidden drama of his life at this time.’ Surely Motion does not think – or does he? – that Keats intended to write, or wrote unconsciously, a rape fantasy about Fanny Brawne (by contrast to a fantasy of mutual delight)? Motion expresses many personal opinions elsewhere, but none here.

In fact, Motion seems to want to eat his cake and have it too – to include everything, plausible or not, that ‘revisionist’ critics have said about Keats in the past quarter-century, but to add, in the evaluative language avoided by such critics, that Keats accomplished great things in poetry. There is an odd mixture, in his chapters, of the old vocabulary of appreciation with the newer vocabulary (never adequate to poetry) of materialist criticism. As a biographer, Motion cannot add much to the basic story: there are no new intimate life-materials. Therefore context – as revealed in recent work by Marilyn Butler, Nicholas Roe and others – is amplified: we are reminded of the radical enthusiasms of the Enfield school, and the scientific empiricism of Guy’s Hospital, with the promise that context will reveal a different, or at least a fuller, picture of the poet. Keats’s early political enthusiasms are given more weight than before, and are used to interpret even his later works (though the proportion of political remarks in his letters drops off sharply after he ceases to frequent the circle of the radical, Leigh Hunt).

It is not that Keats ever forsook his early radical and freethinking conviction of the necessity of a wider enlightenment and an ultimate democracy. But measures of political reform, as such, no longer seemed to him, when he was writing his best poetry, the fundamental means to an improved society. The imaginative creation of new social forms of thinking and feeling, widely disseminated by art and benevolence, seemed to him a more promising means of human betterment: ‘Man should not dispute or assert but whisper results to his neighbour, and thus by every germ of Spirit sucking the Sap from mould ethereal every human might become great, and Humanity instead of being a wide heath of Furse and Briars with here and there a remote Oak or Pine, would become a grand democracy of Forest Trees.’

To press Keats’s youthful interest in specific political issues forward onto the later work seems to me a skewing of the temporal evidence. It is certainly right to point out the ‘seditious’ implications of the more overtly political early poems, and the freethinking implication in recommending ‘the beautiful mythology of Greece’ in lieu of Christian doctrine. It is also right to insist on the meretricious political and social motivations that lay behind the merciless Tory attacks on Keats. Motion summarises these well, and asserts convincingly that Keats expected to be attacked (as a known consorter with Leigh Hunt) and that he preserved both pride and courage throughout. Motion also makes good use of Susan Wolfson’s recent argument that the image of Keats was unduly ‘feminised’ by subsequent critics and biographers (Arnold to Amy Lowell), and he labours to restore the image of a Regency Keats, bolder and more rakish than the wan poet of 19th-century sentimental imagination.

The most salient imposition of a specific political event on Keats’s later poetry is the assertion (initiated by Jerome McGann, and recently ratified by Nicholas Roe in The Culture of Dissent) that the shadow of the Peterloo Massacre (which occurred a month before the poem was written) hangs over the ode ‘To Autumn’. Even Motion falters before this interpretation: ‘It would oversimplify the case,’ he writes mildly, ‘to say that because the poem was written in the aftermath of Peterloo, it is precisely concerned with the Massacre.’ But Motion is not averse to the odd bit of Marxist distortion, aided once again by Vincent Newey and others: he says that the bees of ‘To Autumn’ ‘have been persuaded into working overtime’. He adds that ‘the reference to the gleaner is more certainly charged with contemporary references’:

Gleaning had been made illegal in 1818, and although the figure [of the gleaner] is obviously part of an appeal to the world of classical fulfilment ... it also refers to [Keats’s] sympathy for the denied and the dispossessed. So does his description of the bees. They are a reminder of the miserable facts of labour that Keats had condemned during his walking tour of Scotland.

The bees? Swooning, glutted, in their happy delusion that ‘warm days will never cease,’ with their honeycombs ‘o’erbrimmed’ with the nectar from the ‘more, and still more later flowers’ provided by the generosity of Autumn? We are to take them as ‘a reminder of the miserable facts of labour’? Surely not. And how can Motion have been persuaded to think of the bees as exploited and overworked labourers? Can a poet so misread another poet? And if so, why?

Keats certainly felt profound ‘sympathy for the denied and the dispossessed’, and it is amply present from Endymion onward, receiving its fullest treatment in The Fall of Hyperion, with its heartsick aged Titans, dispossessed by the shining Olympians. It is not to take anything away from Keats to suggest that the bees, rich in store, are neither denied nor dispossessed; the most sensuously responsive poet in English literature is not obliged to be writing always of denial. The bees, in their honeyed hives, are closer to the Keats who, three days after writing ‘To Autumn’, praises the nectarine: ‘It went down soft pulpy slushy oozy – all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry.’

In fact, Motion’s increased emphasis on ‘the political Keats’ tends to scant the delighted Keats, substituting the status-anxious social reformer for the widely responsive genius of sensual imagination. No doubt there has been, among recent critics, an attempt to tip the balance away from the Platonic Keats and toward the historical Keats (though Motion must concede that ‘Ward does provide some vivid description of the political background,’ and he might have added that Gittings does too). And Motion might say, in his own defence, that though he replicates the arguments of the political critics, he spends many pages on the poetry. He does, it is true; yet almost everything he says about the poetry concerns its themes (of which he emphasises the humanitarian over the intellectual or the aesthetic). Since lyric poetry reduced to its themes sounds banal in the extreme (the claims of lyric being exerted structurally and linguistically rather than thematically), there are many paragraphs in Motion, purportedly of praise, that can only provoke a yawn:

  The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ ... alternating between hymn and argument, and introducing two voices to dramatise its dialectic ... combines general truths with personal experience, concentrating on the relationship between what is real and what is ideal, on what can be endured in life and what can be compensated for by the imagination.

  The ‘Grecian Urn’ is less concerned to justify or condemn an escapist aesthetic, than to demonstrate the powers of the imagination in general, and of negative capability in particular. Its foundations rest on the ideas [Keats] had uncovered in ‘Psyche’, expanding on his thoughts about scul-making, and on the gradations of self-knowledge ... Celebrating the transcendent powers of art, it creates a sense of imminence, but also registers a feeling of frustration. For another, which follows from this, it holds the knowledge of human sorrow at bay, even while it accepts that suffering must be included among familiar experiences. There is guilt as well as pleasure in its exploration of the relationship between art and reality. The attention of the speaker ... is divided between human and unearthly values.

Though none of this may be untrue, it sounds inescapably dull: ideas, thoughts, exploration, attention, values. None of Keats’s excitement – and no inner enthusiasm on the part of Motion himself – can be felt in such an inert summary. Motion sounds dutiful rather than delighted. As he comes to the totally unexpected fourth verse of the ‘Grecian Urn’ – ‘Who are these coming to the sacrifice?’ – with its desolate little town, all he can find to say is:

In the fourth verse [Keats] is prompted into a new series of questions about its story: who is ‘coming to the sacrifice’, what and where is the ‘green altar’, and why is the ‘little town’ deserted? The scenes have the same eerie suspension as those he saw in the first verse, but their effect is different – almost opposite ... The ‘silence’ of the scene is a ‘desolate’ sterility. Its immortality is a kind of inhumanity.

True enough, one might say, yet why is the scene presented as it is? Why are the people seen first, and only then their leader, the ‘mysterious priest’? Why is the goal – the invisible ‘green altar’ mentioned before the origin – the invisible ‘little town’? Why does Keats summon up three distinct sorts of location for the little town – ‘by river or seashore,/Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel’? Why does Keats allow the lowing of the heifer into the silence of the urn? Can pastoral encompass extinction? It is motions and countermotions such as these, rather than its encapsulated ‘ideas’, that animate a poem – and that might animate its describer.

In short, this is not the biography of a poet by a poet that one had hoped for – one that would be personal in knowledge, secure in its own perceptions, and intimate with Keats’s rich use of language. Instead, it is by a person who gives this peculiar account of Severn’s familiar miniature of Keats: ‘It is a picture of unrealised ambition – of wide eyes which look ardently to the future, of a sensual mouth which is hungry for success, of a little body crouched inside a too-large coat.’ (Italics mine.) One could more accurately describe the eyes as alight with inspiration, the mouth (with lips half-parted) as expectant, the right hand (resting on an opened book from which the poet has just raised his eyes) as about to pick up its pen, and the body (of a height impossible to estimate in a miniature cut off at the chest) as casually inhabiting its clothes (the coat-sleeves are unbuttoned) during a domestic moment. The coat, incidentally, shows no signs of being too large: the shoulders fit snugly, the sleeves are of the right length. And though the seated body leans forward, with one elbow supported by the table on which the book is resting, to slant oneself towards one’s reading is hardly to ‘crouch’.

To see how a contemporary poet might better interpret both sensibility and event in Keats’s short life, I recommend Amy Clampitt’s musing sequence, ‘Voyages: Homage to John Keats’ (included in What the Light Was Like, and in her recently published Collected Poems). But then Clampitt’s poem is not focused on race, class, gender, or the hunger for ‘success’, buton Keats’s imaginative and intellectual integrations of what befell him.