John Keats is gaining on Shakespeare and Dickens as the most written about English authors.
Critic Lucasta Miller's "Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph" follows Anahid Nersessian's "Keats Odes: A Lover's Discourse" and Jonathan Bate's "Bright Star, Green Light: The Beautiful Works and Damned Lives of John Keats and F. Scott Fitzgerald" in the burgeoning Keats boom.
The least known Romantic poet when he died in 1821 at age 25, Keats is now considered the era’s greatest poet and thought by many second only to Shakespeare, based on a relatively small collection of poems.
Combining biography, critical analysis and well-placed personal reminisces, Miller's book gives a comprehensive guide to Keats' life and some of his best-known poems. It would benefit the general reader or student seeking a balanced introduction to Keats' work.
Miller's fresh biographical information and incisive criticism will also entice longtime Keats followers.
The book's cover presents Joseph Severn's idealized portrait of Keats. Breaking with the Victorian conception of Keats that has lingered through the years, Miller presents him as an earthy, politically radical, economically insecure young rake.
Ranging from lesser known poems like "Isabella or, The Pot of Basil," "La Belle Dame sans Merci. A Ballad," and "The Eve of St. Agnes" to the frequently lauded "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "To Autumn" and "Bright star!," Miller connects periods of Keats' life to the poems' compositions. Each chapter begins with one of the poems.
Miller examines how Keats' celebrated letters make him one of the most perceptive observers of his era's politics, social customs and culture. Keats in his letters comes forth as a first-rate philosopher and literary theorist, discussing concepts such as "negative capability," "the vale of soul making" and truth and beauty.
In her perceptive analysis of "Ode to a Nightingale," perhaps Keats' most representative poem, Miller gives a cogent explanation of Keats' idea of "negative capability" and how it infuses the poem.
She's less successful in explicating the famous and controversial "beauty is truth, truth beauty" statement that closes "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
Miller gives reliable, orthodox readings of Keats' poems, contrasting with Nersessian's idiosyncratic views.
Revisiting familiar territory, Miller offers fresh interpretations of Keats life, presenting a more compelling account than Bate, who appeared more engaged by Fitzgerald.
Keats' friendships and family and love relationships unfold with immediacy in Miller’s recreations of events in Keats’ brief but dramatic life.
Displaying the thoroughness of her research, Miller reveals the intriguing possibility that Keats' father, killed in a horse riding accident, might have been murdered.
In recounting Keats' relationships with women, Miller discloses that he likely contracted syphilis from frequenting prostitutes. She also presents a thorough account of Keats' apparently unconsummated affair with the mysterious Isabella Jones, agreeing with Bate’s assertion that she might have been a stage actress.
Miller also hints that Keats and Fanny Brawne probably reached a more physical relationship than previously disclosed.
Keats' life continues to beguile new generations. As Miller mentions, Shakespeare had written none of his famous works at the age Keats died. Yet Keats' poetic achievement contrasts with much mawkish, amateurish work.
In a brilliant chapter, Miller explores the most striking example of that conflict, the gap between the introduction to "Endymion" with its famous line "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" and the failure of the romantic epic itself.
The poem was brutally condemned by conservative critics, leading to the myth that the vilification crushed Keats' spirit.
From spring to the late summer of 1820, Keats produced his great odes, with which he made his claim to immortality. At the same time, he was writing the horrible verse drama "Otho the Great" and other lesser work.
After finishing the masterpiece "To Autumn" in September 1820, Keats wrote no more poems, although he had 17 more months to live, succumbing to tuberculosis. His abrupt silence after reaching such youthful heights prefigured Rimbaud’s.
Severn traveled with Keats to Rome, where he died in a room overlooking the Spanish Steps after several months of suffering. Keats and his friends hoped that he could recover his health in Italy's warmer climate, but the disease was too far advanced.
Along with new details on Severn's long-exalted care for Keats, Miller devotes attention to Fanny Brawne's mother, who took Keats into her home and cared for him until he left for Italy. Mrs. Brawne deserves an honored place in the Keats gallery of heroes.
Miller tells of visiting places in London where Keats lived and walked. She also reminisces about traveling to his grave in Rome, giving an insightful examination of the misguided epitaph that Keats' friends placed upon his gravestone, replicating the myth of Keats as the delicate young poet destroyed by pernicious critics.
The epitaph ends with the simple message that Keats wanted to be placed there, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."
That's one of the many mysteries of Keats' life that Miller illuminates. Even longtime Keats lovers who've made the same pilgrimages and know intimately his poems and biography will discover new pathways.
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