John Keats, by Robert Gittings: Best Of

UAB could update their library one of these days.

I recently read Gittings’s biography of John Keats. I had wanted to read an account of the youngest of the Romantic trio for quite some time but I couldn’t decide on which one – and my three different lists about the matter attest to that. A quick search on Goodreads and Wordery suggested from the newest ones, Roe’s John Keats: A New Life or Plumley’s Posthumous Keats to the classics, such as Ward’s John Keats: Making of a Poet or Robert Gittings’s John Keats and, in between, Andrew Motion’s Keats. As it usually happens, no matter how many lists and planning I do, I end up following my impulses, so when I met with a friend on the second floor of our university’s library, I ended up being seduced by the least threatening-looking book in the Keats’s biography section, which happened to be Gittings’s. Yes, it’s true, his book and Motion’s are the same length, but the former’s Penguin edition –a dusty, seemingly ancient copy- had thinner paper and fooled me into picking it up. So home I went with my delicate borrowed book. The following is a summary of the stories and details that called my attention the most, with no better critical approach than the degree in which they amused me the most.

Gittings starts off with an account of his research on Keats’s genealogy, highlighting that amongst all the Keats he found, one had “Hoo” for his Christian name. This is the kind of thing I don’t forget, just so you know what to expect here. Oh, and it doesn’t take long for Gittings to show his true misogynistic self, in the very first chapter he deems it necessary to bring up that Keats had a “manly bearing”. Whatever that means. But it does not end here, it keeps getting better and better (or worse and worse, depending on how sarcastic you are feeling). About Keats’s mother, he points out that “she was abnormally fond of displaying her extremely good legs”. The rest of John Keats’s origin story can be summarized in: father dies, mother remarries, legal quarrel over legacy, mother’s family rebuffs her, stepfather dies, mother becomes ill, mother retreats to her deathbed, the Keats children (George, Tom, John and little Fanny) go to live with their grandmother on her mother’s side. On his infancy, I would like to rescue this one quotation: “instead of answering questions put to him, he would always make a rhyme to the last word people said, and then laugh.” And he did not decide to abandon medicine for poetry until so late! Gittings also explains –and he attributes it to his being brought up by his grandmother- he frequently spoke with country proverbs. Another of my favourite childhood anecdotes is when young Keats decided to aim to win the first literature prize in his school –which he did!- and, to that purpose, studied relentlessly, almost obsessively, day and night. After his triumph, he began a prose translation of the Aeneid (he was 14!). About his delicate health, and in line with this aforementioned feverish obsession, Gittings tells us that from a tender age he suffered tantrums and was prone to anxiety, and the author attributes those to the lack of familiar attention and care. But then again, I also suffer from anxiety and I am happy to let you know I have not been disregarded by my family. On his mother’s death, due to tuberculosis, he notes “It runs in my head. We shall all die young.” A notion he would always carry with him.

The Awakening of the Poet

Keats, fourteen, began apprenticeship with “a medical man”, and five years later he “joined the surgical practice of Guy’s hospital”. According to Charles Cowden Clarke, this apprenticeship was “the most placid period of his painful life”. He also affirms that it was the young still-not-a-poet’s own choice. He was eighteenth when he wrote his first poem, after discovering Spencer. It was originally entitled “Imitation of Spencer”. In Spring 1814, after Napoleon’s abdication, and having read his contemporary Leigh Hunt, he wrote “On Peace”. He would not read Milton until his twenty second year, and Clarke wrote his reaction was “did our poets ever write short pieces?” Nice foreshadowing you got there. Suddenly he became increasingly interested in poetry, and attended his lectures, dreamy and distracted with his own musings, scribbling away his medical education. However, he passed his apothecary examination, even though it was very hard to pass, Gittings writes. Keats had sent a poem to Hunt’s magazine, and the older poet published it and asked for more, eventually inviting Keats to his home in Hampshire: “It was gratifying for Hunt to be the discoverer of yet another promising young poet, only that week he had acknowledged a contribution from ‘Elfin Knight’, that is, Percy Bysshe Shelley”. Because of course Shelley would call himself that. Apparently Leigh Hunt was scatterbrained and kept losing things in his own house, including a manuscript of a poem by Shelley. So if anybody lifts a couch any of these days, maybe we find another treasure.

Thank you Tumblr user bookwormbysshe for this

Speaking of Shelley, he and Keats met on December 1816. They didn’t speak much. A year later, Keats’s first collection of poems is published. There is one amusing recollection from Hunt and Keats’s relationship –one that was to deteriorate, partly due to Hunt’s indiscretion about the following. Hunt made a flower crown and put it on Keats’s head, to which the latter responded by doing the same. Then, they challenged each other to write a poem about the incident in fifteen minutes tops. Some visitors called on Hunt, who hastily removed his flower crown, but the young poet refused to be uncrowned and remained so the whole evening.

It was 1817 when our poet began reading one of most influential authors of his work, Shakespeare. He began writing Endymion and left Hamstead –where they had moved recently- for the Isle of Wright to seek a quieter environment and work. There he allegedly had an adventure with the supposedly dazzling Isabella Jones,- to Gittings, all women are either extremely beautiful, thus anybody’s interest of them, or simply uninteresting- who might or might not have inspired the poem Isabella, but who more certainly gave him the idea for The Eve of St Agnes. He then moved to Oxford, where he finished Endymion and discovered the writer Katherine Phillips, whom he admired very much. In Oxford –where else- he also contracted a venereal disease.

In 1818 he met Brown, who was to become one of his closest friends until his death, a very possessive and jealous man who had an awful relationship with Fanny Brawne and who lent and forgave Keats a lot of money. With him he visited the Lake District, Scotland and Ireland. He returned quite sick and sought medical advice. In that same year he attended Haydon’s Immortal Dinner ™. If you are interested on hearing more about this celebrated event, I will shortly be reading the book under the same title by Penelope Hughes-Hallett. It is a very exciting and busy period for Keats, who is constantly surrounded for those who his friend Hazlitt would later describe in The Spirit of the Age. He begins Hyperion and starts to resent Wordsworth, partly due to Hazzlit’s energetic remarks against the author, partly because of Wordsworth’s new political views and Tory alliances. He also meets with Claire Clairmont. Later that year, his brother Tom gets ill. He would die of tuberculosis, and Keats’s nursing him would eventually lead him to the same fate. His other brother, George, marries and emigrates to America, where he would meet with constant economic difficulties. Keats receives crushing reviews and is sneered at for his social position. Blackwoods created a caricature of Keats called Pestleman Jack, an apothecary boy who recites Endymion. I am not entirely sure I did not hallucinate this bit. In April, the Quarterly Review –later to be accused by Lord Byron of having killed the young poet in the poem Who Killed John Keats? And to whom I humbly address now with a raised eyebrow, see if he gets what I mean- destroys him with a terrible review. In spite of that, he writes to George “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death”. Speaking of Byron, Keats writes about him “He describes what he sees, I describe what I imagine.” Mic drop, but not the last one; he also remarks, in anger: “You see what it is to be under six foot and not a Lord!”. He meets with his future neighbours, the Brawnes. And here the fans of the film Bright Star can pick up.

We all know he was way shorter than dear Ben Whishaw.

It is now 1819 and things are getting darker and darker. On March 19th he sleeps, possibly under laudanum, and has a vision of the Grecian Urn. His relationship with Fanny Brawne keeps flourishing, he gives her books and they read passages together. She writes down Bright Star in Keats’s fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno. It is a very productive Spring, he writes the May Odes, and after those, Lamia: “Keats as this point not only doubts his power as a poet; he seems to be doubting the power of poetry to benefit mankind” writes Gittings. That Autumn, guess what, he writes To Autumn. 

Keats expresses his wish to become a political journalist, but it seems to have been a passing whim. Apparently he would have accepted marrying Fanny for her sake, for he did not believe, at least now in this period of his life: “The Christ you believe in…” he writes to Fanny. He moves back to Hamstead and, Grittings says, gives her the ring. In the literary world, he insists on making it explicit that the lovers consummate in The Eve of St Agnes, and he is told that this would make it unsuitable for ladies. His answer is that, and I am paraphrasing, does not want the ladies reading his poetry. Well, that’s yet another dream that went unaccomplished. He plans to become a successful playwright, and Brown supports this idea with enthusiasm. However, Life had other plans for him; he arrives at Hamstead after socialising and coughs blood: “That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.” He becomes closer and closer to Fanny [cue the cute Bright Star scenes with the written notes under the pillow]. If you thought eighteenth-century medicine would let our hero die in peace, you don’t know eighteenth-century medicine: doctor Bree visits him and affirms he has anxiety and asthma, anxiety induced, not tuberculosis. Keats is greatly cheered up by that, feels better and regains strenght. He begins preparing his volume of poetry. His friends find him a home for the summer, a mile from Hamstead so he can see Fanny. Brown pays for it. He has terrible jealousy fits and says horrifying things to his fiancée, such as “You must be mine to die on the rack if I want you”. We don’t know from Gittings what Fanny thought of that. He becomes increasingly ill, and is advised to go to Italy. Shelley, when news reach him, offers to host him there. His ship, the Maria Crowther sails that September. Fanny gives him her white cornelian, a very intimate tool for needlework. During the journey he is deeply suicidal, asking several times for help to terminate his life. Severn, who travels with him, notes that he makes more puns in a day than in a whole year. On arriving in Rome, Severn and Keats stay on The Spanish Steps, in what was to become the Keats-Shelley House. On 23th February 1821, he dies.

He was buried in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, where, not too long later, Shelley was to join him. The friend who nursed him to his last breath, Severn, is buried beside him.

My friend Amanda leaving flowers
Keats and Severn

As I was finishing this book, my professor and head of the department walked past me and cheerfully pointed out “There’s another one. It’s better” in reference to Andrew Motions. So that will be some upcoming post for you to be waiting upon. As a final comment; Gittings hints at Keats’s almost disturbing relationship/regard to women. I’d like more insight into that. This bio was at times difficult to follow, but overall it provides a good overview and many interesting details. Half of it is textual analysis of his poetry, integrated into the life story, which was certainly noteworthy as well as instructing.

Feline protectors of their eternal rest

Gittings, Robert. John Keats. London: Penguin Books, 1979.



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