Review: ‘Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph,’ by Lucasta Miller

It’s a pleasure to have the full text of a poem at the beginning of each chapter, followed by a personal essay that combines Keats’ story with the author’s sensible, attentive understanding of each poem, in itself and as part of the poet’s life story. The structure, with Miller’s occasional memories of growing up near Keats’s Hampstead and other neighborhoods in north London, builds against the big odes and the concluding, subtly ambiguous epitaph: “Here lies one whose name was written in water. “

“Write in water” is ambiguous because fate cannot be known. Even the archaic “scripture” suggests perseverance in time. Keats had to at least suspect, or fantasize, that his name after his death could be written in print millions of times as it has been, and spoken reverently many millions of times more. On the other hand, he knew that he and his work would probably soon be forgotten – he was not insane. But since his teens, he had been thinking, talking, and writing about joining the immortal poets. He knew that possibly, for us in the future, there would be a huge meaning in the words “John Keats.” Unknown or vice versa: The epitaph with its “writing in water” works both ways as a magnificent wise writing. The nine words work well in anticipation of both opposite, possible realities.

This mastery of contradictions and contradictions is reflected on another level in “Ode to a Nightingale”, with “a drowsy numbness pain / my sense” and the “still untouched break” of “Ode on a Greek urn.” The duality of the mind, or oppositional streak, also makes sense in a poet who liked fist fights. In school, he was “more pugilistic than intellectual,” Miller writes.

In one of his best passages in first person, Miller – the author of “The Brontë Myth” and “LEL” – remembers from his school days two English teachers who both taught Keats. There was an elderly, fatherly, “slightly authoritarian” nature lover who took the class outside, where they sat on the grass, under the trees, to hear him read “For Autumn” aloud. In contrast, the younger, unstable teacher said aloud to the same students, in a mocking, sarcastic deadpan, out of context, the much-discussed, ridiculed, and defended Keatsian words “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

Keats, of course, wanted the empathic negative ability to embrace and overlook both the didactic nature lover and the ironic, debilitating rationalist. A fighter with a genius for friendship, a joker and a lover of wine, he wrote in a letter, Miller quotes: “I have no confidence whatsoever in poetry. … It wonders to me how people read so much of that.” The “miracle” and the implied tormented laughter will be recognized not only by poets, but by anyone who has had a lover’s quarrel with their calling.

His calling required hard work. Miller gives readers the impressive list of poems Keats wrote in the year 1819 – dozens of them across a variety of genres and topics. At the heart of it all is his remarkable, unique ear for the melodies of the sentence form and the expressive harmonic structure of the consonants. A neighbor remembers Keats in preschool that “when he could just talk, instead of answering questions asked to him, he would always make a rhyme to the last word people said, and then laugh.”

That mindset underlies the symphonic bladder from “Endymion,” which evolved into the precision and richness of “Ode to a Nightingale” and “To Autumn.” Painter Benjamin Robert Haydon’s account of Keats reciting his “Hymn to Pan” to William Wordsworth at Haydon’s request resembles the child’s joy at the sound of rhymes: “I asked Keats to repeat it – which he did in the usual half- song, (most touching) going up and down the room. ” The “usual half-song” is a striking detail, in its way more interesting, certainly more tempting, than Wordsworth’s variously reported answers about approval or condescension.

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