Keats, A Brief Life

Lucasta Miller's Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph is a clever combination of literature and history, analysis and explanation. Aside from some slightly-distracting asides (when Miller takes the first person stage and describes her own visits to places where John Keats lived and wrote) the book quietly and brilliantly untangles the complex work and convoluted life of a complicated person. The chosen chapter-verses are:

  1. "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"
  2. "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever" (from Endymion)
  3. Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil
  4. "The Eve of St. Agnes"
  5. "La Belle Dame sans Merci. A Ballad"
  6. "Ode to a Nightingale"
  7. "Ode on a Grecian Urn"
  8. "To Autumn"
  9. "Bright star"

The book ends with "Epitaph: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water". Among the best bits to remember are Miller's observations in Chapter 5:

... The most crucial of Keats's "speculations," when it comes to understanding his poetry, remains the comment he made in a letter to his brothers, written in December 1817, in which he jotted down an idea prompted by a conversation he had just had with Dilke after which "several things dovetailed in my mind":

& at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare posessed [sic] so enormously–I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

Keats never again repeated the phrase "negative capability," although it has since become a watchword in Romantic literary studies and beyond. Its heuristic value to later minds has, however, been incalculable, its resonance reaching across the centuries. Indeed, it has recently been the focus of an academic project exploring how we should define creativity, run by professional philosophers at Oxford and Cambridge.

What Keats meant by it remains, though, a little enigmatic. At one level, he was perhaps responding quite specifically to Shakespeare, whom he in fact mentioned in the same breath: to the way in which the playwright leaves his works studiously open-ended, impossible to pin down by a single interpretation, and therefore infinitely fertile. ...

In Chapter 7, Miller expands:

"Ode on a Grecian Urn" ultimately offers no definitive answer. It is indeed there to "tease us out of thought." It shows Keats using his by now astonishing verbal dexterity to hold art and grubby human reality in suspension. As Helen Vendler carefully puts it, with some understatement, "The attribution of truth to representational art, and the coupling, common in aesthetics, of the terms Truth and Beauty, as the desiderata of art, did not, for Keats, render the terms unproblematic." This ode tells us less about the abstract ideas of "beauty and truth" than about Keats's game-changing concept of "negative capability," as he challenges us, his readers, to take in his words without irritably reaching after fact or reason, while at the same time provoking us to do just that.

And beyond those philosophical comments there are amusing notes on matters of the time both bawdy and charming, e.g., from Chapter 9, "... an English gentleman would as soon think of picking the pocket of a dead comrade as of making public his love letters. ..." – said by Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke. Indeed!

(cf Seeking Negative Space (2016-04-21), ...) - ^z - 2022-10-05