A Writer’s Companion: Keats in Our Time by Leslie Stainton

Writers have always been drawn to John Keats—his exquisite craftsmanship; his short, tragic life; his close acquaintance with death and disease. (Keats trained as a surgeon in his teens, and so steeped himself in the lessons of the body that when it came his own time to die, he calmly prepared his friend and caregiver Joseph Severn for what to expect.) Two recent books, published to mark the bicentennial of Keats’s death in 1821, highlight the extent to which this singular poet continues to inspire writers today.

In her refreshingly unorthodox new biography, Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph (Knopf, 2022), Lucasta Miller takes a thematic approach to the poet’s life and art, shaping each of her book’s ten chapters according to a particular poem. Miller is the latest in a long line of Keats biographers, going back to Richard Monckton Milnes, whose 1848 Life helped secure Keats’s place in the literary pantheon, and extending through poets Amy Lowell and Andrew Motion, each of whom wrote a Keats life. (If you consider Percy Bysshe Shelley’s fanciful 1821 elegy, Adonais, as biography, the poet-as-biographer trend starts even earlier.) Miller, a literary journalist who lives in London, writes with a poet’s instincts for pacing and surprise, and a fellow Brit’s affection for the landscapes that helped make Keats who and what he was. 

Even in his day, the upstart Keats drew writers to him as a sun lures planets. He was “famously lovable,” says Anahid Nersessian in her impassioned meditation, Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse (Chicago, 2021). Inspired by Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, a work she likens to the ode in its compulsion to address “an entity who won’t or cannot answer back,” Nersessian’s slim volume is an amalgam of memoir and criticism, biography and social history, past and present—not unlike Miller’s much thicker book. Among other things, both authors are keen to show how Keats, like Shakespeare, whom he idolized, transcends his era. (Or as Nersessian strikingly puts it: “There was nothing Keats loved more than us: those who know this is not all we are meant to be.”)

I read both Miller and Nersessian in a state of near-rapture, compulsively marking margins and marveling at the genius of this slight man who stood just five feet tall and today towers over English poetry. Both authors trace Keats’s meteoric four-year transformation from teenage med student to full-time poet and eventual “pillar of the canon,” whose writing, says Miller, “still has the capacity to astonish with its individuality.” Not that Keats saw canonical status coming. “If I should die,” he wrote to his beloved Fanny Brawne in 1820, a year before his death from tuberculosis at age 25, “I have left no immortal work behind me.” Keats’s famous, self-appointed epitaph, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water,” is in fact the impetus for Miller’s final chapter.

As a writer, Keats weathered his share of rejection and criticism, along with the kind of snark endemic to the egos that comprised early-19th-century literary London. Byron famously dissed “Jack Keats or Ketch or whatever his names are” as a lower-class hack whose work amounted to “a sort of mental masturbation.” Byron apparently failed to see Keats’s brilliance (or, more probably, he saw it clearly and couldn’t bear the comparison).

Fueled by his voracious reading, ferocious drive, and what Miller terms his “Shakespearean level of verbal fecundity,” John Keats composed some of the world’s most sublime poetry—above all the Great Odes, written in 1819, the so-called “living year” in which Keats produced most of his best work. His achievement is all the more remarkable given the financial wreckage of his adult life and the traumas of his childhood. His father, a stable-hand, died in an accident when Keats was eight. His mother promptly left the family, remarried, and wound up penniless and apparently alcoholic. She came back only when she was dying of TB. Keats, then 14, nursed her, as he later did his younger brother Tom, who at 19 succumbed to the same disease. 

“It is hard not to love other people’s damage,” Nersessian concedes by way of explaining her attraction to Keats, “or at least it has been hard for me.” Her book is a mercurial blend of sharp-eyed criticism and blunt personal confession—a fitting homage to Barthes’s equally shape-shifting Lover’s Discourse. Interposed with her analysis of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” for instance, we get the story of the creepy high-school teacher who came on to Nersessian when she was a student. Her reading of the “Ode to Melancholy” prompts a circuitous tale involving an infectious wound, visits to friends, and the re-emergence of an old flame. Reading these juxtapositions of Nersessian’s emotional story with Keats’s own makes it seem almost as if Nersessian were practicing Keats’s famous “negative capability”—a profound sort of empathy by which a writer enters another’s orbit like a chameleon and embraces mystery, uncertainties, and doubt, as Keats writes, “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”  

Miller, too, feels a deep empathy with Keats and offers snippets from her own life as evidence—though her autobiographical interludes are far less jarring than Nersessian’s. We learn of Miller’s affection for plums, her take on helicopter parenting, her wanderings on Hampstead Heath. She’s fond of showing how present-day London compares to the city Keats knew. 

Both authors link Keats’s past to our present, paying particular attention to politics, gender, and socioeconomics. Nersessian, again, is the more assertive. She quotes George Bernard Shaw on the overlap between Keats’s poetry and Marx’s Das Kapital. She suggests, provocatively, that if Keats had lived beyond age 25, it’s possible “he would have burrowed even deeper into the broken heart of his century, which, he knew, was reordering time and space in answer to the demands of a new and rapacious economic system.” She explores—as does Miller—the connection between Keats’s ode “To Autumn” and the violent 1819 assault on British workers known as the Peterloo Massacre. Both authors tag him as fundamentally radical.

While each of these books is primarily a work of criticism, both are peppered with historical and biographical detail—with Miller’s largely chronological narrative coming closest to actual biography. As lit-crit, they’re riveting reads: mercifully free of jargon, erudite but accessible. (Miller uses words like “high-falutin” and “alt-right”; Nersessian speaks of “WASPS” and being “kicked in the teeth.”) 

What a joy to be brought so deeply inside Keats’s singular poetry, to see nuances—historical, biographical, etymological—so skillfully teased out. What a revelation to encounter the poet’s letters, which both authors put on a par with his poems. (Miller compares the letters, in their “viscerally subjective” informality, to Montaigne’s Essays.) 

We get scores of insights into craft. Miller expounds on Keats’s metrical ingenuity, showing how, in his early masterpiece “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” he works against conventional English rhythms to create a sonnet that feels gloriously unfinished—as if an “endlessly unfolding expanse” unfurls long after the poem ends. She notes Keats’s profound aural sense—his seeming predilection for sound over meaning—and the growing sophistication of his rhyme, from clumsy (“wind in summer ... pretty hummer”) to ingenious (“palely ... ail thee”). In her chapter on “La Belle Dame sans Merci. A Ballad,” Miller details Keats’s writing process, the speed of his first draft of the poem and the improvements he made in revision, replacing specific references to “death,” for example, with indefinite articles that add “to the indefinable atmosphere the poem creates.” (I’m reminded of the critic Roger Shattuck’s dictum that all art “should present both clarity and mystery.”)

Similarly, Nersessian delineates the process by which Keats modified existing sonnet forms to create his incomparable sequence of six “messy” odes, each of which describes “the soul’s encounter with something hard—a thought, an event, a feeling, a pleasure or an undiluted pain.” 

Neither author skirts the man’s flaws. Keats, they tell us, could be physically combative and emotionally distant. He knew how to coddle a grudge. His outspoken abolitionism was offset by his patent antisemitism, and his dealings with women were tangled. (By his own admission, he had “not a right feeling towards women.”) Although “he was less of a chauvinist than many of his contemporaries,” reports Miller, Keats scorned female literary taste. 

And yet he is so easy to love. “He took his own history of not mattering and turned it into a poetry that voids all the lethal systems and prejudices that decide who lives and who dies,” writes Nersessian, “and he did it by insisting that what we love is sacred.” For this American-born child of an Iranian father and a Welsh mother, Keats’s poetry—which “could not imagine me,” Nersessian says—was an early lifeline. “I love Keats not because I belong in his poetry, but because his poetry wants so much to belong to us.”

Miller acknowledges the difficulty she faced as a biographer trying to write with scholarly detachment about someone for whom she felt such compassion. Keats’s greatest gift, she insists, is to the reader. “Like his hero Shakespeare, Keats created literary artifacts which went on to speak beyond their time, able to say so much because their fertile language resolutely resists any final definition. In doing so, his poetry continues to unlock our own creativity as readers.” 

Thanks to these two vibrant, timely new books, by Lucasta Miller and Anahid Nersessian, a new generation of readers can now find their way into John Keats’s luminous life and work, and a new wave of writers can draw fresh inspiration from this most astonishing, most companionable of poets. 

Leslie Stainton is the author of two nonfiction books, Lorca: A Dream of Life and Staging Ground: An American Theater and Its Ghosts. Her writing has appeared in The SunThe American Scholar, River Teeth, The Southern Humanities Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review, among others. She is at work on a book about her slaveholding ancestors, the Scarletts of Georgia.