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      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

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Andrew Motion

Andrew Motion
Faber & Faber
London 1997

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The story of John Keats is one of the best known lives in literary history. His working class origins, poor critical reception and tragically early death constitute a perfect blueprint for a popular archetype of the Romantic Poet. The myth of Keats as an unrecognised genius killed by savage criticism was fuelled by his friends after his death and was one that appealed greatly to the sentimentality of the Victorian reading public. The prevailing image of Keats has, since his death, been that of a fragile victim and of his poetry as deeply pretty yet intellectually flimsy.

What Andrew Motion feels that he can add to this already thoroughly well documented history is made clear in his preface. He wants to free Keats from the archetype of the Romantic victim, made immortal by Shelley in his elegy ‘Adonais’. Keats, like Byron and Shelley, has been given what Motion calls a ‘posthumous existence’, a semi-fictional self that holds a powerful position within the mythology of English poetry. Byron is the first great International Playboy, Shelley the ‘ineffectual angel’, and Keats the troubled, sickly aesthete. As Motion says, Keats has become ‘a byword for the poetic identity….at once pathetic and sublime’.Motion’s Keats promises to be more than a fragile, solipsistic dreamer whose poetic concerns do not extend beyond flowery bowers and revamped Greek mythology. His aim is that Keats should be reread within the context of the early nineteenth century, its politics, economics and popular culture. Keats, Motion argues, was a political and social thinker who, whilst he never wrote explicitly polemical poetry like Shelley and Byron, saw art and beauty as morally healing and socially cohesive forces.

Motion’s aims are very much in line with the direction of recent Keats scholarship which has seen critics such as Jerome McGann, Nicholas Roe and Andrew Bennett make attempts to ‘historicise’ Keats and has led to suggestions that there are covert political agendas lurking beneath the lush descriptiveness of the Keatsian poetic. Motion’s biography attempts to elucidate and popularise this ‘New Keats’ and in doing so performs a very important function of the literary biography in bringing the current debates of academia alive for a wider reading public. Thankfully, Motion avoids most of the more extreme conclusions drawn by the New Historicist school of criticism, although he is quick to acknowledge his debt to their work. However, a main weakness here is that in attempting to find a middle ground between Keats the swooning aesthete and Keats the political animal, his argument is sometimes weak and often inconclusive.

In the case of Keats’s famous ode ‘To Autumn’, Motion rejects the New Historicist idea that the poem is ‘precisely concerned with’ the Peterloo massacre and states that the poem is ‘ambitious to transmutate or escape history’. Yet Motion is not keen to dispel completely the claims of the New Historicists, and in the next breath he is referring to and agreeing with several of the minor points that go towards their broader objective. In other words, Motion seems to be accepting the premises of the argument whilst denying the conclusion. Whilst Motion quotes letters from Keats that discuss contemporary politics and cites them as proof of his ‘deep thinking about the historical process’, he ignores their unmistakable political naivety and simplistic historical view. As Keats himself wrote, ‘I know very little of these things’ and there is very little in his work to suggest otherwise.

Unlike literary criticism, literary biography cannot ignore history. The historical and social context of any life are essential to the telling of it. With this kind of biography, however, the difficulty lies in finding a balance between a narration of the facts and an analysis of the works, whilst avoiding the banality of overly biographical readings of the poetry. It is in finding this balance between Keats the man and Keats the poet that the inconclusiveness of Motion’s arguments arises. When telling the life of Keats Motion is strong and persuasive in his presentation of a man who, far from being a weak and ineffectual victim, was robust, determined and brave. He also presents a fascinating account Keats’s circle of friends and a fair well-balanced account of his family which resists the temptation to demonise his uncle, Abbey, who has often been blamed for his financial ruin.

The book is lavishly illustrated with images of Keats and his circle and pictures of many of his draft manuscripts. In keeping with Motion’s aims, these serve both to historicise and to humanise Keats. There is an ‘ambrotype’ or early photograph of his lover Fanny Brawne taken some years after Keats’s death which, when placed among the pencil drawings and Regency silhouettes, shocks the reader into realising that Keats, even in his lifetime, stood on the threshold of the Modern Age. Most fascinating, perhaps are the photographs of Keats’s life and death masks. The first shows all the lively tensions and fragile beauty of the young poet’s face, the second that same face, ravaged by consumption and collapsed in death. The comparison between the two depicts the tragedy of Keats’s early death better than could any prose account

Motion’s attempt to illustrate that tragedy through words is admirable in its unstinting realism. Keen to dispel the romantic myth surrounding the disease that killed Keats, Motion presents consumptive death in all its painful horror. Moving as this section of the book is, however, Motion’s prose is ill-referenced and written with all the omniscient authority of a Victorian novel. This flaw runs throughout the entire work as Motion recounts conversations as if he had overheard them himself and too often refers to how Keats ‘felt’ or what he ‘thought’ without allowing us to know the sources of his insights. The text is littered with quotation marks but few of these are accompanied by notes or attributions. Quotes from Keats’s letters are undated, a grave mistake in a life so short and emotionally intense that not only the year but the month and week of writing are of enormous importance. Verse citations are not line-referenced and the index is not as thorough as one would wish for a volume of this length and scope.

Despite its shortcomings as a reference work, the book is a powerful, thorough and meticulously descriptive work and Motion’s love and enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. Unfortunately this love makes him more than a little partisan and many of Keats’s acquaintances, such as Hunt and Shelley come off rather badly through Motion’s inability to concede any fault on the part of his favourite Romantic. Keats remains the victim in this work, though here the victim of fickle friends and a disloyal brother rather than of the critics. However, the book does fulfills its aims in that it presents a fresh picture of Keats to a new generation of readers. Whilst it does not quite dispel the old archetype, Motion’s book gives new life and energy to a figure that has too long been fossilised in the static pantheon of the English Canon and this is perhaps the most that a ‘literary life’ could hope to achieve.

Reviewed by Polly Rance


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