TLS: When did Keats become a great writer? Ask Gigante.


“What was he really like?”

In case you missed it, a recent Times Literary Supplement article reviewed four new biographies of John Keats – one of them Denise Gigante‘s The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George (we interviewed Denise here).

“What was he really like?” asks Jonathan Bate. “When, and under the influence of what shaping forces, did he become a great poet? Any literary biographer who can answer those two questions will have achieved the holy grail of Life-writing. The second will always be a matter of literary judgement, but the first becomes a great deal easier to explore when there is a cache of letters, diaries and intimate recollections.”

He concludes with special attention to The Keats Brothers:

But it is Gigante’s The Keats Brothers that comes closest to answering the question of when Keats became a great writer. It was in the summer of 1818, when he went north and began writing long letters, first to [brother] Tom and then to George and [sister-in-law] Georgiana. Previous biographers have recognized the importance of the walking tour with [friend Charles] Brown – the impressions of Wordsworth country, the visit to the tomb of Burns, the extraordinary vision of an old peasant woman, “squab and lean”, smoking a pipe as she is carried along by “two ragged tattered Girls” – “What a thing would be a history of her Life and sensations”. But Gigante’s method of writing the Lives of John and George in parallel allows her to bring into focus the key fact that other biographers sometimes forget: that the reason why Keats went north in the first place was to say goodbye to George as he set sail for America from Liverpool. George’s distance – and, soon after, the even profounder absence created by Tom’s death – was the primary force that shaped Keats in the year from the autumn of 1818 when he wrote his greatest poetry.

As Christopher Ricks reminded us nearly forty years ago in Keats and Embarrassment, John “always made an awkward bow” (that is the last sentence of his last surviving letter). The astonishing thing about the parting in Liverpool – and neither Nicholas Roe nor Denise Gigante dwells on this as fully as they might have done – is that he didn’t wait to see off the ship. He didn’t even know the name of the ship. Together with Brown, the surrogate brother, he slipped away at dawn. He couldn’t bear to say goodbye.

Denise’s fame has crossed the Pacific.  She sent us the review of a Chinese interview about her newest effort here.  The piece discusses her interest in association copies, and the way they intensify the bond among readers and writers.  As for the future of the book, it cites her earlier comment: “In the end, we will always be tactile creatures.”

Hey!  That’s exactly what she told the Book Haven here.

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