The Magazine

Poet and Pioneer

The Keats brothers’ saga.

Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By SARA LODGE
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John Keats was to Romantic poetry as James Dean was to cinema: young, gifted, and doomed. His charisma lies in the astonishing energy, humor, and inspiration that he packed into a small physical frame and an appallingly brief time frame: He died of tuberculosis aged barely 25. His eyes were always on the skies. He is the poet of the moon, of new planets and bright stars, of clouds, gold, grey, and dun, of mist, of snow, and Blue!—’Tis the life of heaven. His writing has the intensity and sensuality that belongs to us all in our twenties, when we first feel the power of our capacity to see, think, love, regret. But in Keats that luscious intimacy, that pleasurable ache of joy in beauty is made unbearably poignant by the lacerating knowledge of impending loss.

Painting of John Keats on his deathbed

John Keats on his deathbed

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Denise Gigante takes a new approach to the familiar and tragic tale of John’s brief life, by pairing his biography with that of his younger brother George Keats. George was, Gigante argues, a different manifestation of the Romantic “Man of Power.” Where John Keats channeled his energies into writing the poems for which he is famous—odes, including “Ode to a Nightingale” and “To Autumn,” sensuous narrative poems such as “The Eve of St. Agnes,” and many brilliant experimental sonnets—George Keats channeled the same pioneering energies into crossing the Atlantic to the wild west of America, investing in business ventures, and after numerous misfortunes, becoming a wealthy mill owner in Louisville.

It is good to be reminded of how vital the family bonds were that bound the Keats brothers. The Keats family, a little like that in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, consisted of four siblings: one (Tom) would die as a teenager; one (John) would become a writer; the other two, more conventional but no less spirited (George and Fanny), would marry and have children. They depended upon each other because they were orphans. After their parents’ early deaths, they were entrusted to the care of Richard Abbey, a well-meaning but unimaginative guardian.

One of the more amusing aspects of the Keatses’ biography is picturing (and covertly sympathizing with) the exasperated Abbey as he tries to persuade the young Keats brothers to settle down to a trade. He wanted them to be hatters. (You can dimly imagine Keats writing a “Sonnet to the Bonnet.”) If not hats, then why couldn’t they stay within the sensible confines of medical apprenticeship and accountancy? Why must they always be traveling, to the Isle of Wight, Scotland, France, apostrophizing on primroses, getting drunk on claret, and speculating on the New World?

But Abbey might as well have told a porpoise to sit in an armchair and sew. The Keats family—whose father had been killed when his horse threw him, riding home too fast after a party—were highly intelligent and highly strung: The very energies that drove them to plunge forward into uncharted territory, testing their skills and hazarding their reputation, led them to hate confinement and stuffiness. As John Keats would later write in a letter to his truelove, Fanny Brawne:

God forbid we should what people call settle .  .  . turn into a pond, a stagnant Lethe—a vile crescent, row or buildings. Better be imprudent moveables than prudent fixtures.

Two centuries on, the vivacity of Keats’s voice, the suppleness of his language, have lost none of their capacity to rouse and move. People who became attached to John Keats found themselves going to great lengths for him.

Given the absence of parental support, it is touching how deeply the young brothers relied on each other for encouragement and advice. George always believed unshakably in John’s gifts as a poet. When John’s first book, published in 1817, was a commercial failure, George not only bought the unsold stock and distributed them but wrote a stern letter to the publishers suggesting that they had done a poor job of promoting his brother’s work.

It took time for the reading public to appreciate Keats. Part of the problem was that he was associated with the politically radical circle of the poet and journalist Leigh Hunt, whom conservative critics had dubbed “The King of the Cockneys.” A “Cockney” at this time was not only someone born in central London but a low-bred person who was aiming above his station. The implication was that Keats was vulgar. His lush lyricism was an apprentice pharmacist’s toss. A series of anonymous articles in Blackwood’s Magazine patronizingly suggested that “Johnny Keats” should get back to mixing pills rather than trespassing on the groves reserved for classically educated poets. George, with pleasing loyalty, itched to cudgel the critics on John’s behalf.