Keats as a drug taker and fighter
A new biography exposes a different side to the romantic poet
The Victorians called him “poor Keats” and fostered an image of a delicate, sickly poet tragically cut down in his youth.
But a new biography of John Keats uncovers a more robust figure – vaultingly ambitious, sexually adventurous – a man who loved watching prize fights and would dose himself with opium for kicks and mercury for the clap.
In John Keats: A New Life (Yale University Press, �25), St Andrews English literature professor Nicholas Roe describes how in 1818, just before he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the poet and his friend Charles Brown undertook a 600- mile walking tour around Scotland.
“He was a favourite Victorian figure of pathos,” says Roe.
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“They focused on his more adolescent, insecure and uncertain side and it’s true that sense of fruitful uncertainty – writing out of not knowing – is where many of his poems begin.
“But in memoirs by contemporaries like Leigh Hunt and Charles Brown, we see his other side – passionate, assertive, pugnacious. He was more vigorous and self-interested with a rage for fame.”
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While previous biographers centre on the poet’s adulthood, Roe has also painstakingly researched Keats’ childhood and drawn links with his later work.
“What was missing was a detailed account of his childhood. I have tried to recover the circumstances and places of his formative years in the City of London, what he might have seen and how that reappears in the poetry 20 years later.”
He discovered a more streetwise figure than the poet of popular imagination.
“He was a school room bruiser, quite thickset with a strong torso. He liked prize fighting and fencing and in 1817, while at Oxford, he started dosing himself with mercury after catching a disease from one of the college whores. He continued to take it for a year which suggests something virulent like syphilis.”
Roe contends that the mysterious early death of Keats’s father and his mother’s too swift remarriage made him suspicious in love, including his doomed passion for Hampstead neighbour Fanny Brawne.
“His mother died when he was 15 but he once said that he had no mother since he was an infant, which suggests an earlier sense of desertion. That disturbed him and was the root of his suspicion of women.”
Keats grew up in Moorfields, opposite the lunatic asylum Bedlam, and later lived in Southwark, moving to Well Walk, Hampstead, in 1816 with his brothers to escape the inner city.
“He was brought up on the edge of the city with the fields beyond –that border territory, the idea of something beyond, stays with him and reappears regularly in his later poems.”
While in Well Walk, Keats published Endymion and befriended Charles Brown while out for walks on the Heath.
Roe contests that in 1818, when Keats was nursing his brother Tom through tuberculosis, he started dosing himself heavily with the only known cure – laudanum – and continued to use the drug.
“Tom died on December 1, 1818 and Keats moves into Wentworth Place (now Keats House, Keats Grove) with Brown where, in spring 1819, he would write his greatest odes. He complains of doing nothing. Brown warns him against such a habit but he took it again after getting a black eye playing cricket on the Heath and out of the waking dream he had came the Ode on Indolence.”
Grief-stricken by his brother’s death, Brawne offered Keats a distraction.
“She was bright, cheerful company and took him out of himself, but there were depths in Keats which meant it would never last. He was suspicious, possessive, jealous and ambitious to do other things,” says Roe.
Their parting, however, was “tender and painful”. She lined his travelling hat with silk and gave him a stone to cool his hand. To improve his health, he left for Italy with friend Joseph Severn, who confiscated Keats’ opium en route, denying him the only relief from the disease that would soon kill him.
Roe, who is also chairman of the Keats House Foundation and the Keats Shelley Memorial Association, which looks after Keats’ grave in Rome, says isolating the poet’s sensitive side was a “19th century cover-up job”.
“The Pre-Raphaelites transformed him into a fading aesthetic, completely detached from the world in which he lived. That has led some critics to say he was all emotion and no substance, a poet with ‘no interest in anything’.
“But he was very much of this world and as a biographer I want to reattach him to the times and places in which he lived and wrote.”
Roe has previously written an acclaimed biography of Leigh Hunt, who first introduced Keats to Shelley at his house in the Vale of Health. He been fascinated by the Romantic poets ever since he was a student at Oxford.
“It’s the poetry and music of the poetry I am interested in. The interactions between literature and life.”