There are many reasons why postmodernism is popular in universities today, but one reason has to be that it’s relatively hard to come up with comprehensible new things to say about subjects that already have been written about for many years by very smart people. Unless new material comes to light, it’s easier to try and invent a new perspective on something that’s been “done to death”, than it is to find a completely new topic. There have been many great books about John Keats over the years, and I suspect that the reason I disliked Nicholas Roe’s biography so much was that he had nothing new and significant to say. In order to sustain this lengthy tome, he therefore resorts to vast amounts of academic padding and, what’s worse, a great deal of supposition and speculation.
Anyone who has ever written an essay, at university or even at school, will be familiar with the concept of “padding”. Finding more creative and ingenious ways to pad their work is one of the skills people pick up when they’re at university. Of course, academic writing is also supposed to be grounded on evidence, and you’re supposed to reference the material upon which you’ve based your analysis and conclusions. But it’s important to find a balance between revealing your raw material (in mathematical parlance, “showing your working out”), and presenting your work in a way that is readable. This is particularly the case in the humanities, and very particularly the case in a field like literary history where one might expect authors to show taste and discernment in how they write.
Unfortunately, taste and discernment are not much in evidence here, as Roe provides an endless litany of incidental, largely irrelevant minutiae documenting Keats’s daily comings and goings. These details generally serve little obvious purpose, and disrupt any sense of rhythm or coherence Roe might lend to his prose. The end result is a book that proves quite hard to read, even though it’s actually quite light on academic jargon. The implied case for including such vast quantities of incidental material is that it’s based on new “archival research”. What this means is that most of the important archival material has already been used, and so new scholarship has to scrape together odds and ends of material with which to populate new full-length monographs.
My second major objection to Roe’s book stems from the same root, that is, of not having enough to say that is new. While including every dull nugget mined from “new archival research”, Roe also indulges in endless speculation, in just about every conceivable direction. This is not on. Historians and academics are, traditionally at least, supposed to rely on evidence. Occasionally, it can be stimulating and productive to speculate about motives and intellectual referents, but this is not supposed to be your default mode. Moreover, Keats’s life is in fact quite well-documented, so, as well as being unjustifiable, this endless speculation also seems inexplicable – unless you consider it necessary to distinguish the book from the other biographies of Keats that have been written in the past.
Some of Roe’s suggestions are probably accurate, but most are tedious and irrelevant, while some are unbecoming and downright lurid; such as the ideas presented here that Keats suffered from foetal alcohol syndrome, syphilis, and opium addiction. Poor Keats had a tragic enough life without us inventing new crosses for him to bear. Roe’s casual suggestion that Keats may have had Spanish ancestry (he suggests Keats’s forebears may have come from Cornwall, so he might have had Spanish ancestry from sailors shipwrecked after the Armada) feels like an attempt to bend Keats into a contemporary narrative of “multiculturalism”, as if it’s somehow unacceptable that Keats was, you know, English. Keats’s interest in Spanish literature is mentioned half-apologetically, as if in support of this thesis; but an admiration for Spanish culture was hardly rare among the Romantics.
Tangled up in the minutiae of Keats’s life, and amid speculations about what he may have seen or thought at any given time, Roe doesn’t do what would have been more interesting: engage with the philosophical and moral underpinnings of Keats’s literary work. Keats was very attuned to the significance of the poetry of his immediate forebears such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, and also had an active understanding of the cultural legacy of poets like Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. Roe’s account too often gets caught up in the gossip of Keats’ daily encounters with friends like Leigh Hunt, Percy Shelley, and Benjamin Haydon, and fails to do justice either to the brilliant originality of Keats’s work, or to its aesthetic beauty.
Take, or instance, Keats’s fascinating concept of ‘Negative Capability’ – of being “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”. Roe mentions this, but then contents himself with a reference to William Hazlitt’s argument that Shakespeare’s lack of egotism and sympathetic imagination means he lived “without individuality”, suggesting he was “a man who could feel only by imagining how all other men and women might feel”. It’s hard to imagine most readers being satisfied with this. One might expect further exploration of Keats’s idea, or a sense of how Shakespearean criticism has developed since Hazlitt, but none is forthcoming.
Roe’s earlier work on English poetry of the 1790s has been influential, particularly in helping recast how we look at the Coleridge Circle’s orientation away from revolutionary politics as something other than apostasy. This makes it particularly disappointing that he doesn’t examine in more detail how Keats elucidated the work of Coleridge and, particularly, of Wordsworth. Perhaps I have been spoiled recently by reading the likes of Richard Holmes’ two-volume biography of Coleridge, and Stephen Gill’s 1989 biography of Wordsworth. Next to works like these, Roe’s biography of Keats feels intellectually lightweight, shallow, and slapdash.
A final frustration I experienced when reading this book was that, for all that it contains 32 pages of illustrative matter, with endless images of buildings and comparative non-entities from Keats’s life, there is not one single picture of Keats inside the book. There was one on the book’s dust jacket, but the copy I read was missing its jacket. Just one more irritation in a singularly unsatisfying and disappointing book. Keats deserves better than this.