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17 February 2021

How Keats lives on

His radical depictions of desire and oblivion changed the course of English poetry – and, 200 years after his death, they disarm us still.

By Rowan Williams

As Jonathan Bate observes, the American critic Edmund Wilson “never allowed his friendship to dull his critical intelligence”. He had been close to F Scott Fitzgerald as a student, but, writing in 1924 about Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, he was unforgiving towards what he saw as its central weaknesses – a lack of energy and coherence, which he attributed to the intertwining malign influences of Compton Mackenzie and John Keats. Mackenzie, whose stock as a novelist was still high in the 1920s, had himself attributed features of his florid literary style to Keats’s example; but Fitzgerald had certainly gone direct to the source as well.

Bate chronicles with admirable thoroughness the consistent enthusiasm for Keats that appears not only in Fitzgerald’s correspondence (and in the literary reading list that he drew up for his lover Sheilah Graham in 1939) but, most famously, in the title of his second most celebrated novel, Tender is the Night (1934), which is taken from “Ode to a Nightingale”. Keats’s sonnet “Bright Star!” furnished a kind of subtext for more than one of Fitzgerald’s fictions, and Bate’s title neatly associates it with the “green light” on the headland in The Great Gatsby (1925), which signifies to Jay Gatsby both the nearness and the distance of his beloved Daisy.

The idea of a “binocular” biography of Fitzgerald and Keats – the bicentenary of whose death is commemorated on 23 February – is, Bate says, an attempt to follow the classical example of Plutarch, whose biographies couple Greek and Roman figures together, inviting the reader to compare and contrast. However, Bate’s subtitle – the “beautiful and damned lives” – comes dangerously near to trivialising the notion, and does less than justice to the book itself. It seems to imply that the two writers are primarily examples of a common type: self-destructive aesthetes. Keats died, aged 25, from tuberculosis in 1821; Fitzgerald’s alcoholism probably contributed to his death, aged 44, in 1940. But Bate’s typically lively and well-researched narrative shows clearly enough that Keats’s tragically early death had nothing to do with any self-destructive impulses, and that Fitzgerald’s most distinctive and mature work has a sparseness, tightness and irony that cannot be reduced to a bundle of exotic special effects.

Keats may explore the sensations of apathy and anomie, and show a fascination with “easeful Death”, but his letters and the recollections of his friends present a figure of unusual confidence, curiosity and forcefulness; part of his attraction is the enormous conviction about the sheer importance of what he is doing poetically. Likewise, Fitzgerald may be capable of riskily extravagant descriptive adventures, on the edge of overripeness; but he also possesses a starkly economical vision, ready to show more than tell. It is just this combination (and the tension it generates) that makes The Great Gatsby the remarkable novel it is.

Perhaps the more interesting convergence – and one which Bate depicts with clarity – is that both men came from outside the literary and cultural establishment: Keats from a modestly successful commercial family; Fitzgerald from a background of both “new money” and Roman Catholicism, which marked him as an outsider in his complicated relations with the very different aristocracies of the American South and the East Coast. Both writers needed all the confidence they could muster, and both were unembarrassed about self-promotion. Both suffered from the condescensions of those who felt cultural authority was a quality you were born with; not something to be struggled for.

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Bate’s book is certainly an excellent introduction to each writer, but I think it is Fitzgerald whom we learn more about. His self-image as a “Keatzian” (Bate consistently uses Fitzgerald’s idiosyncratic spelling) tells us a great deal about the novelist’s sense of writing within a tradition. This was not the tradition of an upper social class that constantly obsessed and eluded him, but the tradition of literary craft by which language is stretched and kneaded into surprising shapes so as to build unexpected connections across ages and cultures. It was the tradition of using language strangely enough to be recognisable to a stranger, so that, as he wrote to Sheilah Graham, two solitudes are broken open to each other. And Keats was emphatically a poet who was prepared to write “strangely”.

Fitzgerald is right to see Keats (as the poet boldly saw himself) as close to Shakespeare in his innovative forcefulness. Lucasta Miller’s brilliant life of Keats, told through a close reading of “nine poems and one epitaph”, reminds us more than once of the way in which Keats can deploy Shakespearean techniques to stop us in our readerly tracks – not least the transmutation of nouns into adjectives (“pulsed”, “torched”, “lavendered”, “be-nightmared”), and the evocation of both emotional and physical atmosphere through a single unexpected detail (“The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass”).

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She also brings out the significance of the Keatsian imagination for the Pre-Raphaelites (a point touched on by Bate also): Keats’s fascination with sensuous detail, fabric, texture and grain, is exactly what makes him so appealing a source for Millais and other artists. What might be called the “wovenness” of detail in Keats – above all in “The Eve of St Agnes” – is a charter for the minute attention to texture in Pre-Raphaelite painting; just as it foreshadows Tennyson’s fascination with surface and sheen.

Keats emerges as an exceptionally important link in the history of a verbal and visual poetic tradition that allows itself to be led by the sensual associations of its own elements: by aural resonances, onomatopoeia, rhythm, contour, folds and shadows, rather than by the disciplined argument of 18th-century verse. But equally his writing resists becoming a vehicle for specific “feelings”: one of the features of Keats’s poetry that has most often struck readers is the fluidity of its emotional register, as in the unexpected twist in the “Ode to a Nightingale” that takes us within a few lines from “magic casements” to the tolling bell of “Forlorn!”, pushing the focus back to the listener’s alienated solitude.

When contemporary critics complained that Keats was hard to understand, they had in mind not simply the verbal oddities but the skilful refusal of a secure place for readers to settle emotionally. Keats’s abidingly famous but almost throwaway remark in his letters about Shakespeare’s “negative capability”, the capacity to keep diverse perspectives and sensations in a sort of fruitful suspension, tells us a great deal about his own practice – which makes it all the sadder that so many of his best-known lines, such as “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, are so regularly conscripted into a fridge-magnet philosophy that he would have found comically inadequate.

In Keats there is not only fruitful suspension but also, as he exclaims in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “Cold Pastoral!” The unchanging image of a frozen ecstasy, a fulfilment eternally deferred so that its realisation can never be spoiled or displaced, is a “friend” to the human observer, a witness to that unity of beauty and truth with which the ode ends. But the object is in itself “cold”, “silent”, silencing our thought.

The “Bright star!” sonnet written for his not-quite-fiancée Fanny Brawne in (probably) 1819 leaves us with a similar suspension: the beloved is immobile, and the changelessness that the lover longs for is simply to be eternally “pillowed” on her breast: there is no movement towards consummation. What is sought is that animated but also somehow frozen hair’s-breadth border between sleep and waking that other poems evoke so powerfully. St Augustine describes one kind of ecstasy as “the stroke of a shuddering glance”; Keats might well have appreciated the image and its conjuring of something instantaneous, arousing, but also without consequence.

Possibly the most important difference between Keats and Shakespeare is that Shakespeare (whatever may be said about negative capability) stages the processes of self-recognition and highlights how we move towards a steadily sharper awareness of the parts we are playing; while Keats is reluctant to move on from the moment of healing stillness or suspension. And, as Bate and Miller both note in diverse ways, this difference has something to do with an erotic sensibility in Keats that imagines sexual consummation as somehow fatal.

***

Part of what makes Keats such a compelling and haunting voice is this simultaneous sensuality and stasis, the freezing of desire on the very edge of fulfilment, with all the disorienting consequences this has (dreaming and waking melting into each other, the infinitesimal gap between happiness and tormenting lack). If all great poets mark out a distinctive territory of sensibility, this is surely Keats’s. And once again it makes sense of his appeal for the Pre-Raphaelites: their medieval world, like his, was a deeply secularised version, in which what mattered was the concentration of skill and beauty in a wonderful intricacy of material texture and a fixed moment of aesthetic ecstasy.

But Keats is a poet not a painter, and the manifest energy and verbal force that goes into this process means that his poems feel anything but static, even when they pivot around images of fixity, rest or sleep. The Pre-Raphaelite picturing of his imagination is far less vital than his own words, despite what many would have thought of as those words’ archaic density and strangeness.

Miller splendidly shows in her discussion of Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” just why George Chapman’s Jacobean physicality and abruptness appealed to Keats so much more than Alexander Pope’s more orderly, condensed and polished rendering of Homer. Bate adds to this sense of Keats’s verbal toughness when he quotes F Scott Fitzgerald disputing Matthew Arnold’s assertion that Wordsworth is the central figure in the next “chapter” in English poetry after Shakespeare and Milton, and claiming that dignity instead for Keats. Here Fitzgerald is challenging the story of English poetry that describes a smooth transition from the tangles and verbal fireworks of Shakespeare and his contemporaries towards some simpler melodic register.

Miller also usefully reminds us that there is no contradiction between Keats’s open political radicalism (think of the savagely angry depiction of industrial exploitation in “Isabella”, a passage quite marginal to the unfolding of the actual narrative) and the “medievalism” of his aesthetic. He and William Morris would have got on very well. For Keats’s kind of radical, the “ancient” identity of English society was communitarian and anti-hierarchical, and its laws were designed to protect popular freedoms.

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The stranglehold exerted by a huge landholding interest, systemic corruption and nepotism, and the abuse of law in order to suppress popular assembly and open discussion were all varieties of “modern” dysfunction. Keats belongs in a long and honourable succession of writers whose patriotic traditionalism found natural expression in uncompromising hostility towards existing patterns of power, especially as these were being reinforced by the growth of industrialism and a global colonialist economy. Those who today are engaged in arguments over English or British identity and the continuity of national tradition would do well to pause over this particular scarlet thread in the story.

Both Bate and Miller have done their subject proud, and helped to open a timely and fresh re-appropriation of Keats. Bate’s interweaving of Keats’s story with Fitzgerald’s has its moments of strain, but it illuminates both writers and re-emphasises a depth of sheer literary intelligence in Fitzgerald that can be overlooked in the unflattering overhead lighting of the Jazz Age. For a book that returns frequently to the visual elements of Keats’s imagination and the representations of it in art, it is a shame that the illustrations in the text are so often cramped for room and appear rather muddy. The illustrations in Miller’s book are more satisfying but fewer in number, and we are denied any colour reproductions of paintings inspired by Keats. But these satisfying, engaging and accessible books are well designed to make us return to the work of both Keats and his rather unexpected “Keatzian” devotee.

Bright Star, Green Light: The Beautiful and Damned Lives of John Keats and F Scott Fitzgerald
Jonathan Bate
William Collins, 416pp, £25

Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph
Lucasta Miller
Jonathan Cape, 368pp, £17.99

This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth