Poet and Pioneer
The Keats brothers’ saga.
Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By SARA LODGE
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.