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Andrew Motion, Keats. London: Faber and Faber, 1997. ISBN: 0-571-17227-X (hardback). Price: £20

  • Richard Cronin

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  • Richard Cronin
    University of Glasgow

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Andrew Motion has turned from Philip Larkin to Keats; to a poet who never grew old from one who pretended never to have been young. It seems an odd transition, to Keats the 'unchariest' of poets, from Larkin who seems to have been chary of just about everything. They are not all unlike, of course, for what two people could be? Keats told his friend Benjamin Bailey, in a characteristic moment of abashed self-knowledge: 'I am certain I have not a right feeling towards Women', and the same could be said of Larkin in trumps. And in some ways the biographical problem is similar. Keats wrote his own best biography in his letters, and Motion's job, like that of all the biographers before him, is to link his quotations from the letters with a commentary that avoids being shamed by the prose that it punctuates. In the biography of Larkin, too, Motion's great resource is the cache of letters to and from Larkin to which he had access, but no-one would claim that Larkin's letters are remotely as good as Keats's. Why is it, then, that the biography of Larkin is so consistently enthralling, whereas in reading Keats one finds oneself from time to time stifling a yawn?

The obvious answer is no doubt the true one. In Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life the material is quite new, so that as one reads one shares with Motion a sad wonderment at the life from which the poems were produced. In Keats Motion has nothing new to tell us, no significant facts that are not there already in the 1960s biographies by Bate, Ward and Gittings. More recent scholarship has allowed Motion to offer a fuller account of Keats's Enfield school and of his medical training, but this takes us only up to the time when Keats's life becomes fully absorbing, the time when he began to write his poems. Motion's response is to place on the familiar events of Keats's life a different emphasis. The dominant current trend in Keats studies was inaugurated by Jerome McGann in his 1979 essay, 'Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism', and has since been developed by critics such as Marjorie Levinson, Daniel Watkins, Susan Wolfson and Nicholas Roe. If, and it is a rather big if, we agree that Bate, Ward and Gittings offer us the Keats that had been produced by the New Criticism of the 1950s, then we might applaud Motion for producing a Keats that has been constructed as a biographical subject by the historicist critics of the 1980s and 1990s. But the problem remains that my list of modern critics, though all of them are in some sense historicist in their methods, is a little like the list of Keats's patriotic heroes that is offered by Motion as a guarantee of Keats's radical sympathies—'King Arthur, Robin Hood, John Milton, Algernon Sidney'—not very homogenous. Nicholas Roe's Keats is not much like Marjorie Levinson's, and neither is at all like McGann's. In his introduction Motion whirls giddily between these very different mentors, but in the biography itself it is Keats as he has appeared to the British historicist critics who dominates, a kind of Old Labour Keats, decent, robust, radical, a proper poet to be a friend of Hazlitt's, and a poet that one would expect Michael Foot to admire.

It is a representation of the poet that has its own truth—it is a fact, after all, that Hazlitt was Keats's most admired acquaintance—but it is a representation that has provoked the most destructive review of the biography yet to appear, Helen Vendler's in the London Review of Books . Vendler's is a curmudgeonly review that fails to give Motion's biography credit for its evident virtues, but its central charge is clearly stated, persuasively argued, and I think convincing. In his anxiety to assert the radical import of Keats's poetry Motion perverts his responses to the poems themselves. Vendler is surely right, for example, to hold in deep suspicion a critical mode that finds in the bees of 'To Autumn' an invitation to consider the plight of oppressed agricultural labourers. Motion offers us a Keats 'engaged with the pressing issues of his day', and Vendler responds by claiming that in his best poems Keats, like most poets, addresses themes that are 'transhistorical'. We seem to be offered a stark choice between, as it were, 'To Autumn' as a poem about Peterloo, or as a poem that commemorates, in Vendler's phrase, a 'moment of intense aesthetic concentration'. It is an uninspiring choice, and it is surely not one that we should feel condemned to.

Vendler offers, perhaps, a possible alternative in the very manner of her attack on Motion's prose style. Motion's prose, she finds, is disfigured by 'numerous repellent anachronisms of reference', an obscure phrase, but she gives examples. She dislikes, for example, Motion's introduction into a formal critical vocabulary of a word like 'gooey', a complaint that has the unintentional merit of reminding us that Keats's language, both in his verse and his prose, is often marked by a similar sliding between registers. Vendler very properly admires Keats's account of eating a peach—'It went down soft pulpy slushy oozy—all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified strawberry'—for peach-eating is apprehended there with a rare imaginative intensity. But such moments in Keats are surely not 'transhistorical'. They are firmly placed in history, and what places them there is their language. It is an intensity that is produced by Keats's movement between a slang word like 'slushy' (OED's first recorded use is 1791 referring to the mud at the bottom of a pond) and a comically affected word such as 'embonpoint', borrowed in the mid-eighteenth century (OED's first recorded use is 1751) to open the possibility of polite reference to women's bosoms and, more pertinently given the shape of a peach, their bottoms. It was not available for Jonson to notice the 'embonpoint' of his 'woolly peach' or Marvell of his 'curious peach', and not only because the word had not yet been anglicised, but because the culture and the class that needed the word had not yet come into existence.

Motion's account of the poems is alert to the class of the poet, but finds very little to say about their language. Vendler, as her work on poets from George Herbert to Wallace Stevens testifies, responds to poetic language as sensitively as any critic alive, but it is a sensitivity that is not perhaps perfectly attuned to Keats. The language of poets is for her a place where class, to quote a phrase from the review expressing a weary disapproval, does not 'rear its head'. But the language of Keats's poems does not inhabit this sphere any more than Keats himself, who had so lively a sense of what it was not to be six foot tall and a lord. He may admire an art that is great and unobtrusive, an art within which the artist disappears, but he does not himself produce it. His poems characteristically reveal not only their origins in the poet, but the origins of the poet. So it is that when the Grecian urn sings silent songs to his spirit, Keats records the experience in a phrase so strikingly at odds with the impersonal art of the Greek potter: the urn sings 'ditties of no tone', an affected, mannered phrase, gauchely obtrusive in its reaching after the 'poetic', and wonderfully expressive in marking the distance that separates the suburban young poet from the culture that the urn embodies, and that he is contemplating so admiringly. In diverting our attention from the language of the poems to their opinions, Motion is attempting to give us a fuller version of Keats than those we have been offered before, a Keats more engaged with the political history of his age, but it may be that it is precisely in their language that the poems engage most vigorously with that history.

But Motion's Keats is not always the radical poet. He is also, for Motion, a young man whose relationships with women were contaminated by the trauma produced in him by his early abandonment by his own mother. Motion stresses Keats's sporadic misogynistic outbursts more heavily than previous biographers, but the evidence from the letters supports him. The problem is that the account remains somewhat thin and schematic. Again the appropriate comparison is with Motion's biography of Larkin. Both are full and detailed lives, but when Motion writes of Larkin one feels behind every anecdote the weight of a complete personality. There is the picture, for example, of Larkin struggling dutifully to write a blurb for The Less Deceived, claiming for the collection that it establishes its 'author as one who, while no less witty and intelligent than his contemporaries, deals with emotion more simply and intensely than is common today', and decorating the manuscript with the comment 'cock and balls', and drawings of men with erections and women in underwear. Larkin was 36. It is a rich anecdote because one feels behind it a personal history, the damage done to Larkin in his parents' frigid household, and the history of a poetic style, which has to somehow circumvent a virulent suspicion that sentiment might never be more than a phoney posturing in order to secure its hard-earned triumphs, and one senses too that Larkin's is a temperament marked by history, that he remained all his life a member of that immediately post-war generation which, because it never fought in the war, never felt itself quite grown-up. It is in its accumulation of such moments that the biography of Larkin achieves an unusual richness that Keats never matches.

In comparison Motion's Keats remains an assemblage of bits and pieces. The story is competently enough told, though students will be dismayed by Motion's strange decision not to note the sources of his quotations from the letters and poems, but its central figure only intermittently comes alive, as when Motion describes a typical Keats manuscript which begins in 'a large and well-formed script, ventilated with open loops, and ornamented with twirly capitals, proceeding evenly and spaciously as he puts down lines he had already formed in his head, then crouching into a flattened and compact sprint as his imagination takes hold', or, more sustainedly, in the biography's final eighty pages, the long diminuendo when Keats takes leave of his friends and sails to Italy to die.

Helen Vendler ends her review by contrasting Motion's biography with the finer imaginative engagement registered in Amy Clampitt's sequence of poems, 'Voyages: A Homage to John Keats'. It was ungenerous not to notice Motion's own homage, 'Sailing to Italy', the second part of his 1997 collection, Salt Water , which tells the story of how Motion had followed in Keats's wake, a passenger on a sail-boat from London to Naples. Its form, prose interspersed by brief lyrics, in itself recalls Keats's letters, but it is more often concerned with missing Keats than with meeting him: 'Where is Keats in all this? Our lives are so far apart'. When Motion dreams of a Romantic poet it is not of Keats but of John Clare, a poet who shared the same publisher but whom Keats never met, their closest contact the envelope addressed by Clare to Taylor on the back of which Keats scribbled some revisions to Lamia . 'Sailing to Italy' is about the impossibility of recovering the past when even the sea has changed, its flotsam now made up of such things as a 'life-size plastic arm torn from a doll', and the bored seaman is homesick for the 'glossy heaps of bin-bags' in Soho. On board the Maria Crowther time dragged for Keats: he made puns 'in a sort of desperation', he hated Don Juan , he became ill-tempered and ill. But Motion, for whom Naples is less than three hours away in any ordinary circumstance rather than the three weeks of his voyage, is impelled by his whimsical choice of transport to travel into an unimagined abyss of boredom, a place where a crewman's belch makes him want to 'stick a marlin spike up his arse and throw him to the shark which has just idled past, its fin slick and alert', until at last he transcends rage and finds in boredom a strange rapture. Sailing to Italy was one thing for Keats, and a quite different thing for a poet who usually travels by plane. In the biography Motion never quite comes close enough to Keats to make him come alive, but that same distance is what gives the prose poem all its vitality.