Sunday, 28 March 2010

Keats: Long, sad but brilliant

Keats by Andrew Motion

A huge slab of a book which delivered much more than I expected. I was interested in the whole poetry scene of Keats' time after reading the Age of Wonder book which showed the impact radical scientific discoveries had on all aspects of life including art.

But I didnt know much about Keats or his work outside the famous lines. But this well researched (and referenced) book - at times akin to a major academic work - had me hooked.

I was perhaps less surprised at the brilliance of Motion's writing - he is himself a poet after all - as I was with the political context of the work.

The revolutionary nature of the times - the aftermath of France 89, the rise of Bonaparte, the Chartists, crushing of reform and the Peterloo massacre all play their part. In fact it is part of Motion's thesis that Keats' politics are underplayed in traditional appreciations of his work. Later 19th Century works were particularly bad for this. It's a pretty convincing argument though when you look at the vitriol heaped upon him by the right wing throughout his life and the company he kept,

For he did have a big bunch of mates - it is sometimes a little difficult to keep up with them all but through meticulous detail Motion does outline the tension and "politics" of maintaining friendship in a large group.

I was really blown away by Keats' work though especially the explanations given by AM - there is quite a technical aspect but not insurmountable. I liked the way Keats used Greek mythology and paganism as the ideal society (which was quite a common thing at the time apparently) - hence the endless nymphs and naiads etc! Motion's writing on "To Autumn" and the work itself is spellbinding.
Keats attitude to poetry was complex - it was unclear if he saw poets as a sipher of higher pastoral (?) powers or as a document of life put in a different context. He was not a realist at one level - which critics have cited as an absence of political dimension, a point more or less destroyed by Motion. In some ways it reminded me of Engels' description of feudal socialists in Socialism Utopian and Scientific - which was highlighting a similar period.
His relationship with Fanny Brawne (this book is the basis of recent movie Bright Star) is dissected warts and all. It is hardly a romantic ideal indeed Keats had extremely confused and in the modern sense messed up attitudes to women and abandonment. His mother had left him and his family early in his life. There is also some speculation that part of his weakness was due to a lingering veneral disease caught when he was studying to be a doctor,

The last few chapters are very sad but bring the themes together. A lot of Keats' work was over blown in a teenage angsty way but he was only 25 when he died. Also never consummated his relationship with FB which I assume was pretty frustrating! He also was only 5 foot a point which seems irrelevant but lead him to be insecure throughout his life. A point Byron (who comes across as a bit of a tosser here) exploits.

In many ways a tragedy but one which produced wonders. Have now ordered the collected poems for by bedside.