Most of the poems for which John Keats is remembered were composed in a single volcanic year—we know it familiarly as “The Great Year”—starting in late 1818, a little more than two years before his death. Nearly all of his incomparable letters, surely the finest in the language, were written within a four-year span amounting to not quite one-sixth of his truncated life, which ended less than four months after his twenty-fifth birthday. We can usefully gloss Keats’s life and death with numbers because they are so mournfully modest and impressive. Keats makes Rimbaud, another famed early starter, look like an underachieving slacker. The Frenchman, at least, didn’t die until thirty-seven.
Early death has conferred on Keats a sentimental martyrdom to art and sensitivity. English readers and critics etherealized him, once the class-ridden stigma of “Cockney Poet” had worn off, into a bodiless wraith, a poet of adolescent yearning. Only in the last half century, thanks largely to pioneering biographies by Walter Jackson Bate, Aileen Ward and Robert Gittings, has Keats been restored to flesh-and-blood adulthood. The outlines of a striving, fallible, occasionally hot-headed young man have finally come into focus.
In The Keats Brothers, Denise Gigante, a professor of English literature at Stanford University, has crafted a detailed, fast-moving life of this strong-minded poet and the siblings who helped sustain him. She offers no introduction, no bookish preliminaries, and begins her story in media res:
Living in sublimity has its price. John Keats, burdened with an extraordinary mind and a sense of alienated strength, knew this. His melancholy was real as the days slipped by at the seaside resort of Margate in the summer of 1816.
As her opening lines suggest, despite Gigante’s standing as an academic in a major university English department, she is a writer, not a slinger of theory or political poseur. Out of primary documents she reanimates a major poet and his world, and crafts a transatlantic adventure story with a novelist’s gift for moving narrative along. In brief, Gigante convincingly demonstrates that George Keats, the poet’s junior by sixteen months, served as John’s “muse.” In an 1818 letter to Ann Wylie, John says: “My brother George has ever been more than a brother to me, he has been my greatest friend.” The four Keats siblings—John and George, their sister Fanny, and another brother, Tom, who was dead from tuberculosis at age nineteen—were the orphaned offspring of a stable hand with a taste for drink. From 1814, the children’s guardian was a tea merchant, Richard Abbey, a mean-spirited pinch-penny recalling Dickens’s Murdstone or Gradgrind.
Gigante fixes the Keats family in a world-historical context, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States, and lesser-known economic booms and busts. Only after George immigrates in 1818 to the United States, where he settles in Kentucky and builds a steam-driven sawmill near Beargrass Creek in Louisville, does John write his finest poetry, almost as though loss and grief spurred his genius. He composed the six great odes in the spring of 1819, after Tom’s death and George’s departure. To George in America, between February 14 and May 3, he wrote the lengthy journal-letter that stands as one of the monuments of English literature. Around the same time he wrote in a letter to Mary Ann Jeffery:
My brother George always stood between me and any dealings with the world—Now I find I must buffet it—I must take my stand upon some vantage ground and begin to fight—I must choose between despair & Energy—I choose the latter.
In case we need further evidence that Keats, already sick with the tuberculosis that would soon kill him, was no poetic will-of-the-wisp, Gigante rightly reads this eruption of poetry as a conscious decision not to despair “when the melancholy fit shall fall” (“Ode to Melancholy”). Instead, he mustered his strength and resolve and channeled it into verse.
George Keats was an altogether less gifted and interesting person than his brother, though not the scoundrel or dolt of reputation, and his story is therefore less compelling than John’s. He and his wife Georgiana joined a late wave of English immigration to America not for political or religious reasons but in hopes of economic prosperity. He planned to return to England with enough money to support his surviving family, but lost everything in a failed steamboat scheme. He briefly returned to England, borrowed money from John and made a second voyage to America in 1820, never realizing the severity of his brother’s illness. They would never see each other again.
In the latter parts of her book, Gigante deftly alternates the brothers’ stories across two continents. As George struggles for economic survival in the New World, John struggles to remain alive in the Old. He dies in Rome a week before George’s twenty-fourth birthday. The poet’s friends, with little justice, vilify George, a campaign that still colors his reputation.
One of Gigante’s accomplishments is to salvage George from historical oblivion and document his Americanization. He never wrote the memoir of his brother he contemplated for decades. Slowly, with many setbacks, he gained economic security. He and Georgiana had eight children and George became one of the wealthiest men in Louisville. He was elected to the city council, served on the commission that planned the first bridge over the Ohio River and on the board of directors of a railroad. One wonders what John would have made of his brother’s worldly success. A touching image salvaged by Gigante is George and a friend in Louisville reading his brother’s six-volume edition of Spenser’s poems, scrawled with John’s “suggestive annotations.” Then, in an unforeseen event that reads like a curse on the Keats family, the economic Panic of 1837 devastated George’s fortune. He died on Christmas Eve 1841, age forty-four, of the disease that had killed his brothers.
Gigante brackets her story with references to one of John’s early poems, “To My Brother George,” written at Margate in August 1816, when the poet was not yet twenty-one. It’s a sonnet about loyalty and the deep need for human bonds, implying that without them the transcendent experience of poetry would be diminished and perhaps rendered impossible. It concludes with this couplet: “But what, without the social thought of thee, / Would be the wonders of the sky and sea?” George serves as John’s humanizing anchor, grounding him in not-always-sublime reality.
In her final pages, set in the years after the poet’s death, when George, the last surviving Keats brother, was almost becoming a Kentuckian, Gigante tells us “he could never quite get the sonnet out of his head.” That final couplet, she says, “hung over his life in Louisville like an echo”—“without the social thought of thee.”
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, Texas, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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