Politics Doesn't Rhyme in New Keats Biography

Article excerpt

KEATS

By Andrew Motion

Farrar, Straus & Giroux 636 pp., $35 The brief life of John Keats (1795-1821) has inspired several long biographies, as if to illustrate the ancient adage art is long, life is short. Keats's short literary career exemplifies the idea that what makes a life interesting and valuable is not necessarily the variety and extent of one's external adventures, but rather, the richness, intensity, and depth of one's imaginative experiences. Keats's dedication to poetry, his acute self-awareness, and his sense of his own artistic and spiritual development render him the perfect subject for a literary biography, for he is, in many ways, the exemplary poet. Three outstanding Keats biographies - by Aileen Ward, Walter Jackson Bate, and Robert Gittings - came out in the 1960s. The best of these, I think, is Bate's. Keats's latest biographer, Andrew Motion, pays tribute to all three of his distinguished predecessors in his opening acknowledgements. Himself a poet and the author of a biography of Philip Larkin, Motion explains in "Keats," that his particular aim in offering yet another life of Keats is to place him in his political context. Now, this may seem a rather strange approach to the poet generally deemed the least political, most purely aesthetic of the great Romantics. Keats's poetry is also the least abstract and discursive, the most sensuous and immediate. But although Keats managed in his poetry to transcend the pressing difficulties of his circumstances - poverty, orphanhood, lack of recognition, the loss of his beloved younger brother, his own failing health - these circumstances were still an important part of his life. Keats's poems and letters are filled with his ideas about how a poet - or, indeed, how any imaginative and sensitive human being - can nourish his or her soul through the joys and trials of ordinary experience. …