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.

John, for his part, cheered George and his young wife Georgiana through his sprightly, conversational letters: some of the best literary letters ever written, many of which contained original verse. When the couple took ship for America, George was only 21, Georgiana 16, and they had been married but a few months. Like many English emigrants, their idea of what they would encounter in the American West was sketchy and rose-tinted. Georgiana was pregnant as she entered the new country and John Keats sent her a poem imagining that her daughter, little child / O’ the western wild, would be the “first American poet.” Perhaps by “first” he simply meant “best.” But he may simply not have been aware that America already had a thriving literary scene. John’s vision of American geography was equally confused. He imagined George in Kentucky, by the Mississippi, hunting monkeys.

Gigante’s book tacks between the two narratives of John’s life and George’s life, which diverge after George’s departure for America in 1818. We follow John as he nurses his younger brother Tom through terminal illness, as he falls in love with Fanny Brawne, and writes some of the great poems that, published in his collection of 1820, would make his name just as he was succumbing to the disease that would seal his fate. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, we follow George’s laborious journey over the Allegheny mountains, down the Ohio River; his visit to new settlements on the “English prairie” of Illinois and his decision not to buy land there but to sink his inheritance into a sawmill and a steamboat. The latter sank but the former, after years of doubtful debt, eventually yielded a profit. 

There is some eye-opening material here about the general experience of British emigrants in the early 19th century, which Gigante has gathered from various sources, and which will be of particular interest to those readers whose own families arrived in America on the same trail. Conditions varied widely. George stayed for a time with John James Audubon, whose house was smartly equipped with carpets, furniture, and books, and whose table bore wild turkey, beans, cherries, and honey. But many of the Western settlements were primitive in the extreme: squalid dwellings separated by streets of mud, infested by bedbugs and lice, and with swampy environs that bred malaria, typhus, and dysentery.

Financial and legal infrastructure was no more reliably established than that of road and sanitation. Twice, George lost his shirt in a general crash (once in 1819, once again in 1837), partly caused by a loose credit system where parties endorsed one another for large sums without sufficient security and liquidity in the market to support the chain of investments should one collapse. Plus ça change.

Although there is a great deal of information here relating to George’s American travels that will be new to those familiar with biographies which focus on John Keats alone, the structure of The Keats Brothers is choppy and ultimately dissatisfying. Channel-surfing between John’s life and George’s, it is impossible fully to engage with John’s writing career and the composition of his major works—which are, after all, the reason we are interested in the brothers in the first place. Occasionally, Gigante produces a telling insight on Keats’s poetry or philosophy; but too often we learn, in passing, that Endymion has been published and negatively reviewed, or that John has been working on a masterpiece that, unless the reader is already familiar with it, will remain a closed book to him. Since there is so much American scene-setting, it takes ages, in narrative terms, for George to get to Louisville and have his first child. And by then, we’ve already learned facts about his later family life that rob us of the suspense.

A better edit would have mitigated these problems, and a loose attention to detail in the writing that gives an impression of a book long in gestation but hastily dressed. Gigante seemingly began the work in collaboration with Lawrence Crutcher, George Keats’s great-great-great-grandson, but the two parted company—with Gigante holding the greater part of their joint findings. Both hastened into print, under different titles, and Gigante’s rushed departure shows.

By the end, I knew more about John’s relationship with his brother and about early-19th-century America. Yet I wasn’t altogether convinced that the parallel  between John’s life and George’s is illuminating for Romanticism—or, as the jacket claims, that we have George’s emigration to thank, as such, for Keats’s annus mirabilis of 1819 in which much of his best poetry was produced.

The sad truth is that, after George left for America, the brothers’ lives literally headed in opposite directions. Their relationship became less intimate, especially after George’s visit to England in 1820, when both needed cash: George to reinvest in his broken business, John to go to Italy for the good of his health. There were wrangles over family money. George had a wife and child and a business to run; John wanted to marry and to write and sensed that he wouldn’t now live to do either. They were not fully estranged, but their thoughts were on different pages.

It would have been illuminating to explore the difference in political opinion between the brothers. Although it was George Keats who joined the great experiment in democracy that was America, and had a “can-do” attitude of entrepreneurialism that Gigante describes as “think[ing] like an American,” he believed in limiting the franchise to qualified voters under a constitutional monarch, kept slaves, and retained such loyalty to his roots that his grave was inscribed: “In Memory of George Keats: a Native of England.” John Keats, who was openly critical of monarchy, may have been the more ardent republican: But he also had a dislike of trade and business that kept his “living hand” on the fine side of the counter. Gigante does not probe these paradoxes.

This is a book, then, that does not wholly fulfill its academic premise, but will nonetheless intrigue the general reader with an interest in Keats and in the westward American trail for emigrants in this era. There is plenty of color in the detail of “arks” guided down the rapids by wily oarsmen, of bear grease sandwiches and squirrel hunting “frolics.” America was a country still inventing its own rules. John Keats, who hated the “musty laws” of poetic meter and theorized that you made your own soul through suffering and transformation in the world, may never have got to America, but he shared its blue-sky spirit of possibility.

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.