A Name Not Writ in Water

Revisiting an immortal 19th-century English poet

John Keats (Wellcome Images)
John Keats (Wellcome Images)

Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph by Lucasta Miller; Knopf, 368 pp., $32.50

There is something irresistible about John Keats’s poignantly brief life and his outsize greatness as an artist. That such a wealth of material about him exists—his own astonishing letters as well as reminiscences and diaries of his friends—means that there has never been a shortage of biographies. Vignettes began appearing soon after Keats’s death in 1821, with the first full biography, by Richard Monckton Milnes (a Victorian politician, failed suitor of Florence Nightingale, and avid collector of erotica), appearing in 1848. More recent lives of the poet include works by Amy Lowell (1924), Robert Gittings (1968), Andrew Motion (1997), and Nicholas Roe (2012), to name a few. Now the English literary journalist and biographer Lucasta Miller has added to the pile. She wrote her book, pegged to the 200th anniversary of Keats’s death, under pandemic lockdown in Hampstead, an area of London where the poet himself lived, a place still haunted by Keatsian associations.

Miller views Keats through the lens of nine of his most-read poems, as well as his self-composed epitaph: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” Because all the poems here date from only a three-year span, with most of them written in 1819, Keats’s miraculous “living year,” this method is necessarily thematic rather than chronological. Thus “Isabella; or the Pot of Basil,” wherein a maiden keeps her murdered lover’s head in a flowerpot and goes mad, with its graphic description of digging up a grave, and the head “vile with green and livid spot,” is a good place to reflect on Keats’s time as a medical student and “dresser” at Guy’s Hospital, where he would have met with many an infected wound and the occasional corpse. In her treatment of the lushly erotic “The Eve of St. Agnes,” Miller explores Keats’s own sexual escapades and his puppyish crush on the sophisticated and elusive Mrs. Isabella Jones, several years his elder. The “La Belle Dame sans Merci” chapter addresses Keats’s relationships with women generally and hinges on an anecdote from his childhood, when as a five-year-old he brandished a sword at his mother. Miller is critical of Frances Keats’s “hysterical response—crying, rooted to the spot,” and there is a note of judgment in: “What was an unsheathed sword doing lying around the house anyway? Was the house rather a mess?” She uses “To Autumn” to investigate Keats’s political leanings against the backdrop of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, in which the king’s cavalry charged a Manchester crowd demonstrating on behalf of parliamentary reform, killing 15 people.

“Ode on a Grecian Urn” provides grist for a discussion of not only Keats’s relation to the classical past but also his friendship with the charismatic (though notoriously bad) painter Benjamin Haydon, who had taken him on a tour of the British Museum to view the newly installed “Elgin” marbles. I was disappointed that Miller uncritically parrots the British Museum’s line on these contested artifacts—that “they had been removed and shipped to England by Lord Elgin with the agreement of the Turks, who had invaded Greece but whose lack of interest in the temple was such that they were using it to store armaments.” Miller’s glib description ignores the controversy attendant on Elgin’s removal of the marbles, which Keats’s contemporary Byron styled as “the last poor plunder from a bleeding land.”

But this all suggests a more programmatic book than the one at hand, which works by association, sometimes overlapping. Miller’s discussion of “Isabella,” for instance, also goes into Keats’s relationship with his brother George, who had emigrated to America in 1818, and Keats’s naïveté with finances. The poem contains both a scathing indictment of slave-based capitalism and a disconcerting bit of throwaway anti-Semitism (“In hungry pride and gainful cowardice / As two close Hebrews”). As it happens, George would become a slave-owning southern gentleman in Louisville, Kentucky, financially ruined by going in on an ill-starred investment in a Mississippi steamboat with John James Audubon. Miller omits a further element of southern gothic, that George’s daughter, Isabel, will be found at 18 with a gunshot through the heart, in what is presumed to be a lovelorn suicide.

I digress, but digressions, often personal ones, are a motif here. We see Miller buying organic coriander at the corner of Wesleyan Place. We learn of her husband’s surgery at Guy’s Hospital. We find that a study for a painting by Benjamin Haydon hangs in her mother’s sitting room. Some of these insertions are lyrical or moving—for example, the scene of her young daughter eating mulberries in the garden of the Keats House museum and ending up with “purple-stainèd mouth.” Or toward the end, when Miller is sitting on a bench at the spot where Leigh Hunt consoled a weeping Keats. At other times, Miller’s personal narrative breaks the spell. I wondered whether the book could have done with fewer of these elements, or whether they might better have formed their own chapter.

These poems have been so closely read for so long that it can be hard to pull anything original out of them without risking the far-fetched. Miller only briefly touches on the oft-discussed error in “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer“ (where Keats substitutes Cortez for Balboa); those wanting a nuanced analysis should look to the chapter in Erica McAlpine’s The Poet’s Mistake. I’m not sure that reading “purple-stainèd mouth” in “Ode to a Nightingale” as a potential reference to Ovid’s Philomela and her cut-out tongue will “fly”: Keats makes overt reference to Philomela’s rape and metamorphosis in “The Eve of St. Agnes,” but he studiously avoids any allusion to the myth in the nightingale poem, where it would be conventional, even cliché. I am intrigued by the observation that Keats’s personification of autumn (in “To Autumn”) has no specified gender but am less swayed by the poem as political vessel or paean to English nationalism.

Miller is good when discussing the mechanics of particular poems—the import and consequence of Keats’s choice of sonnet or couplet or elaborate stanza, long and short lines, Keats’s “vowel music,” or how his synesthetic coinage “palely” forces the reader to linger languorously over the two l’s. The selections also shed new light on each other by proximity. By placing “The Eve of St. Agnes” against “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” Miller brings out the meta connection—“La Belle Dame sans Merci” is the title of the song played by the seducer in the previous poem—but also amply demonstrates the sensual saturation of the first poem against the starved, pared-down bleakness of the second. Through these highlighted poems, Miller shows us Keats’s miraculous development as if it is happening before our eyes.



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A. E. Stallings is an American poet and former MacArthur fellow who lives in Athens, Greece. Her latest collection, This Afterlife: Selected Poems, was just published.


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