Saturday, December 1, 2018

"Though so much is known of Keats from the time he was seventeen or eighteen until his death, comparatively little can be discovered about his very earliest years, and especially about his parents and their origin. Yet the life of no writer of the last hundred and fifty years has been more carefully combed for details. The reason for that close study is the always heartening union of achievement with the familiar. We have a natural hunger to learn what qualities of mind or character, and what incidents in a man's life, encourage--or at least permit--an achievement so compelling when, at the same time, so little is apparently given at the start. This same appeal explains the fascination with which the life of Lincoln, to jump to a superficially different realm, still continues to be scanned and reinterpreted. Whatever our usual preoccupations, in approaching such figures we become more open to what [Samuel] Johnson thought the first aim of biography--to find what can be 'put to use.' That direct interest, so broad in its appeal, continues just as strongly for the professional writer who, like the poets of Keats's own day, has wrestled darkly with the fear that there is little left for the poet to do--little that will permit the large scope or power of the poetry of more confident, less self-conscious eras in the past. He may not wish to divulge that anxiety; but it is very much on his mind. Hence, despite the most radical changes in taste during the last hundred years, no English or American poet (however widely he may swing away from any of his other predecessors since the death of Shakespeare) fails to drop the usual querulousness over poetic idiom or other details when he comes to Keats, and to look quietly, closely, and perhaps with a suspended secret hope."

--from John Keats by Walter Jackson Bate (1963)

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I get flustered whenever anyone ask me to name my favorite book. There are so many, and I yearn for different ones at different times. But Bate's biography of Keats is certainly be in the top five. Very early in my poetic apprenticeship, Baron Wormser handed me his copy of the biography and told me I should read it. So I did, and I was stunned. I still have never read anything else like it: this loving, precise venture into the mind of a quiet man who is becoming a poet. Reading Bate's book is like existing inside the arc of poetic discovery.


David X. Novak said...

I read this long ago, and, like much that I've read, no longer remember it. But I remember that my reaction was that it was very well done, and I've been dismayed that I've never seen it cited anywhere. (Andrew Motion comes up a lot.) Of course, I picked it up by chance, not knowing what its literary standing was; I only knew that I liked it. So I'm happy to find out that you and Baron Wormser have given it your affirmation.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of classic biographies, did you ever notice Robt. Richardson's dedication in
his majestic Thoreau bio?