Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Keats - Andrew Motion


I never felt completely at ease with this book, largely because Motion seems unclear what he set out to achieve.  On the one hand it is a biography, hugely detailed, but bringing nothing new to the table as far as I can see. 

For students of our generation - Motion's and mine - Robert Gittings wrote the definitive life in 1969.  Doubtless there was more to be discovered by subsequent biographers but Motion seems content to amplify Gittings rather than add to his findings.  For example, he accepts without question Gittings' conclusion that Keats had venereal disease.  But we have to put the biographer and well as his subject into context.  Gittings popularised Keats for the hippie generation - a generation that considered the pursuit of sex for its own sake a good thing, the inevitable consequences no shame.  But Gittings made the fatal mistake of assuming that just because mercury began to be prescribed for syphillis around Keats' time that it was only used for that purpose.  In fact it was previously used for consumption, which Keats knew he had, and no doubt continued to be so used for some time to come.  Many people today know that Interferon will mitigate the symptoms of multiple sclerosis - but try getting your GP to prescribe it.

Motion interpolates into the life extensive discussion of the poems.  Here is a sphere in which the former laureate clearly speaks with insight and authority.  His conclusions never vary radically from the consensus but then Motion is not a radical poet.  Is this book then a critical biography?  I don't think it is, because if you are going to do that you have at some point to weigh up the opinions of others.

All in all, perhaps the problem here is that the book is simply too big (578 pages plus notes) for such a short and, frankly, well known life.  And that hideously mawkish Joseph Severn portrait on the cover doesn't help.  Severn, like Gittings a century later, made something of a cottage industry out of the Romantic poet who suffered a romantic death.  On a positive note, I have been encouraged to revisit the poems, and that's no bad thing.

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