Nicholas Roe, John Keats and the Culture of Dissent. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-19-818396-8. Price: £40.00.[Notice]

  • Nicola Trott

…plus d’informations

  • Nicola Trott
    University of Glasgow

Editor's Note

Readers might be interested to know that Nicholas Roe's John Keats and the Culture of Dissent will be forthcoming in Clarendon Paperback next autumn.

Roe's new book is a species of biography. It tells us about Keats's formation, or the growth of the poet's mind; and about his surroundings, especially his mentors and friends - in Keats, the two seem often to go together. In so short a writing life, everything may be said to be early; but, as in The Radical Years, his study of the young Wordsworth and Coleridge, Roe has most to offer on the ultra-youthful poet, and the author of Endymion and the 1817 Poems. One appreciates the liveliness of the portrait: the opening pages remind us of a 'pugnacious Keats', of his 'terrier courage' and 'ungovernable' temper. This is no snuffable particle or spectre-pale consumptive. The political associations, which at this stage in the book are left to the reader to pick up, lead convincingly to the later commentary of George Felton Mathew, who remembered Keats in 1815 as 'A faultfinder with everything established'. The point newly made here is that this radical identity 'was already fully formed when Keats met Leigh Hunt in October 1816', and had been fashioned in a specific and recoverable context. Roe establishes for the first time the exact place of education in Keats's development, and once again we are in for a surprise. Exit the half-lettered Londoner of Blackwood's myth, and enter the unorthodoxly knowledgeable scion of Dissenting stock. Roe's wonderful chapter on Enfield, the School founded by John Ryland, fiery polymathic Baptist minister, and continued in Keats's time by John Clarke, friend of Priestley and George Dyer, is full of vivid information. The most enduring image has to be the 'living orrery', a school exercise which Ryland devised for fixing in the minds of his pupils the latest astronomical statistics - among them those of Uranus, whose discoverer, Herschel, was a personal acquaintance. Quite apart from the exercise's tangible benefits - in 'Chapman's Homer' and Hyperion especially - this mingling of work and recreation, the physical and conceptual, the cosmic and the playful, has suggestive and pleasurable implications for Keats's poetry as a whole. If Roe's chief interest lies in the direction of politics, he has very good evidence for narrowing our field of vision: the 'transcendental cosmopolitics' of chapter two - Hunt's unwieldy yet somehow nimble-witted label for Hyperion - looks forward in chapter six to 'the pharmacopolitical poet of Endymion', as christened by William Maginn, Dublin lawyer and satirist. (This description arises out of the second biographical context in which Roe makes important additions to our knowledge: Keats's medical training at Guy's, where the most vivid figure we meet is the flesh-slashing surgeon 'Billy' Lucas.) Significantly enough, these brandnames come from both sides of the Keats divide, the one from his greatest mentor-friend, the other from a satellite of the Blackwood's circle. As Roe amply demonstrates, the poetry-politics analogy is inescapable, whether we are approaching Keats from articles in Hunt's Examiner (fascinatingly represented here) or in Blackwood's Magazine : 'Z', in the latter publication, states the case most clearly, remarking, apropos the contentious and Hunt-inspired opening of Endymion III, that 'Keats belongs to the Cockney School of Politics, as well as the Cockney School of Poetry'. Thanks to those champions of immaturity, Bayley and Ricks, we tend to like Keats for the very things his first readers despised. Thanks to the corrective efforts of more recent historians, not least Roe himself, we know how wrong these ur-critics were. All the same, it is hard not to relish the splendour of insult they produced, even while we are developing the bad taste to admire what they singled out …