The Politics of Literary Biography in Charles Brown's Life of John Keats

By Meritt, Mark | Studies in Romanticism, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Literary Biography in Charles Brown's Life of John Keats


Meritt, Mark, Studies in Romanticism


THE EDITORS OF THE ONLY PUBLISHED EDITION OF CHARLES ARMITAGE Brown's Life of John Keats (1830) call it "a disappointment." "Its weakness results," they argue, "from the fact that Brown wrote not so much a biography as an invective aimed at those whom he considered responsible for his friend's untimely end." (1) Fueled by grief, Brown directly attacks the critics whose harsh reviews he believed hastened (or even caused) Keats's demise: "Brown felt the injustice and the disaster of the attacks so deeply that he returned to the subject time after time, emphasizing the point even to the exclusion of personal recollections" (Bodurtha and Pope 34). In short, he wrote not a thoughtful biography, but a hot-headed polemic.

The editors' claim that "had Charles Brown been less a champion, he would have been more a biographer" (35) may seem justified. His bias very nearly precludes accuracy and insight. Though of some interest as source material for later, more capable biographers, Brown's text can be dispensed with as yet another example of the literary propaganda that came swiftly upon the heels of the poet's death. Recent criticism has rightly interrogated the origin and persistence of the sentimental "Keats myth" established in early responses (like Brown's) to the poet's death. Susan Wolfson, for example, argues that around the time of Adonais' publication "Keats's death was gaining an impressive 'afterlife' indeed, a modern myth of 'the Poet' cast as a figure necessarily doomed by a wretched world unable to appreciate him, and calling for revival by a coterie of more refined sensibility." (2) Viewing Shelley's Adonais as the most well known and preserved of such attempts "to elevate the poet as moral authority, acknowledged legislator," Wolfson asserts that champions of Keats like Shelley help produce a Romantic cult of the suffering, unappreciated sensitive artist--another version of the authorial hero-worship that underpins the traditional Romantic canon (32). Envisioning a disingenuous Shelley driven by self-centered motives in his lament for Keats, she argues that "No small part of his performance of sympathy for Keats was staging his own martyrdom" (35). For Wolfson, the dead Keats becomes a hapless tool in sensational and sentimental narratives of others' poetic greatness, his own "real" story left behind in the dustbin of irrelevant personal history. Andrew Motion, Keats's most recent biographer, similarly notes the inadequacy of portraits of "a supersensitive soul brought to an early grave by hostile reviewers" or of "a beautiful weakling"--images that find their way into biographies of Keats even in the twentieth century. (3)

Such critical assessment of Keats's posthumous life provides an important corrective to Keats studies and coincides with more general critical tendencies to demystify what has been seen as a distinctively Romantic investment in the power of individual authorial personality. The very clearly gendered elevation of the individual author, critics often argue, is meant to deflect or contain threatening expansions in literary production and dissemination. Marion Ross sees Romantic poets as cultivating a "myth of masculine self-possession," which "enables the historical resituation of the poet" and "allows him to adapt psychologically, philosophically, and pragmatically to historical forces [such as increased print production] that are beyond his control as a human being." (4) Sonia Hofkosh similarly examines the developing discourses of masculine authorial property and personality in works like The Prelude and the Biographia Literaria as efforts "to locate authority over the production, dissemination, and evaluation of meaning, of the work." (5) Building upon feminist rhetorical readings of the Romantic male author's attempts to avoid contamination in a promiscuous linguistic economy, Hofkosh places the individuating efforts of writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge within the historical context of a growing feminine readership. …

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