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

“Writ in Water” is ambiguous because fate cannot be known. Even the archaic “writ” suggests endurance in time. Keats had to at least suspect, or fantasize, that his name might after his death 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 likely be soon forgotten — he was not insane. But since his teens he had thought, spoken and written about joining the immortal poets. He knew that just possibly, for us in the future, there would be tremendous meaning in the words “John Keats.” Unknown or the opposite: The epitaph with its “writ in Water” works either way as a magnificently shrewd piece of writing. The nine words work well in anticipation of both opposite, possible realities.

That mastery of opposites and contradictions is reflected at another level in “Ode to a Nightingale,” with “a drowsy numbness pains/My sense,” and the “still unravished bride” of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The doubleness of mind, or oppositional streak, also makes sense in a poet who liked fistfights. At school he was “more pugilistic than intellectual,” Miller writes.

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

Keats of course would have the empathic negative capability to embrace and see past both the didactic nature lover and the ironic, debunking rationalist. A fighter with a genius for friendship, a joker and a lover of wine, he wrote in a letter Miller cites: “I have no trust whatever on Poetry. … The marvel is to me how people read so much of it.” The “marvel” 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 demanded hard work. Miller gives readers the impressive list of poems Keats wrote in the year 1819 — dozens of them, across a range of genres and subjects. At the heart of it all is his remarkable, unique ear for the melodies of sentence-shape and the expressive harmonic structure of consonants. A neighbor recalls of the pre-school-age Keats that “when he could just speak, instead of answering questions put to him, he would always make a rhyme to the last word people said, and then laugh.”

That turn of mind underlies the symphonic blather of “Endymion,” which evolved into the precision and richness of “Ode to a Nightingale” and “To Autumn.” The painter Benjamin Robert Haydon’s account of Keats reciting his “Hymn to Pan,” at Haydon’s request, to William Wordsworth, resembles the child’s pleasure in the sound of rhyme: “I asked Keats to repeat it — which he did in the usual half- chant, (most touching) walking up and down the room.” The “usual half-chant” is a striking detail, in its way more interesting, certainly more tantalizing, than Wordsworth’s variously reported response of approval or condescension.

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