The Cockney Poet: "The goodness of his heart and the nobleness of his spirit.”
John Keats (1795-1821) is celebrated as one of the greatest poets of the English language, succumbing to tuberculosis at age 25. His brother? A ne’er-do-well who scarpered off to America, leaving both his brothers to die young of “the family disease.”
That is, until Denise Gigante’s The Keats Brothers, published by Harvard University Press (a podcast is here). Weaving the double stories of brothers John and George Keats with a sympathetic mind and heart, she tells how two men remained deeply committed to each other throughout their lives. In fact, the case could be made that George was the great love of John Keats’s short life.
“My brother George has ever been more than a brother to me, he has been my greatest friend,” John Keats wrote in 1818.
George wrote nearly a decade after his older brother’s death: “I claim being the affectionate Friend and Brother of John Keats. I loved him from boyhood even when he wronged me, for the goodness of his heart and the nobleness of his spirit.”
The book is making big waves on both sides of the Atlantic. Here’s a Book Haven Q&A with the author:
After long incubation, sudden acclaim. How does it feel to be suddenly in the news, everywhere?
I’m pleased that the book has been favorably reviewed and even made it to “Editor’s Choice” for The New York Times. But I have learned one lesson: you’re only as good as your reviewers.
Since there is so much reading material and so little time, the general reading public depends on book reviews for knowledge of new events in the cultural world. One assumes, naturally, that the reviewers, at least, read the books. That turns out not to be the case!
I’m afraid that the reviewer for The Independent in the U.K., for instance, did not get much past the prologue. Lesley McDowell’s last sentence of that review shows a painful ignorance of the circumstances of John Keats’s death.
On the other hand, Christopher Benfey’s review for The New York Times and Seamus Perry’s review for the British Literary Review both manage to distill the narrative and thematic ambitions of my dual biography of John and George Keats down to a few incisive—and lively—paragraphs for a general public.
How did George Keats get such a bad reputation? And how do scholars get the wrong end of the stick like that, for so many years?
George Keats left England in 1818 to make a new life for himself in America with his young bride, Georgiana Wylie. His intention was to earn enough money to return to England and support his family—which included his more famous brother—in the lifestyle to which they aspired to live.
George lost his inheritance in a steamboat speculation and returned to London, desperate with a pregnant wife back in Louisville, Kentucky, to scour up more funds. When he left England for America for the second time, in 1820, he had borrowed money from his brother John; he did not realize John was terminally ill.
A couple days after George’s departure, John had his first major pulmonary hemorrhage from tuberculosis, the family disease. John was sick and in dire straits financially—like George—and John’s roommate Charles Brown resented George for leaving the poet in his care. George failed to raise money to send John to Italy, where the doctors ordered the poet to go for the sake of his health. After John’s death, Brown proceeded to blame George for John’s sufferings.
Their mutual friend Charles Dilke later vindicated George, proving that he had not acted dishonestly, whatever one might say about his absence as a caregiver, but the rumors about George’s bad behavior have tarnished his reputation for posterity.
My effort has been situate these familiar events to us in a more historical, transatlantic context: the collapse of the American economy in the Panic of 1819; an unreliable mail system between England and the Western Country of America; sickness on both sides of the Atlantic; and so forth.
George, too, was a victim of circumstance. He spent the remaining twenty years of his life after John’s death trying to live up to his brother’s memory.
You have indeed situated these events in a bigger context. We talk a lot about the era of globalization. Your book shows us again that we aren’t the first to experience its traumas. The American and French revolutions toppled imperial powers and had international repercussions, and the Industrial Revolution affected everyone. Can you describe how these quakes affected the Keats family?
The ongoing Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, involving many nations and a global economy, both ended in 1815, the year before The Keats Brothers begins, leaving Britain reeling both in heady splendor—think of the Prince Regent and his retinue—and, for the working classes, in the tribulations of poverty.
Although John and George Keats were not part of either extreme, opportunities for both of them were curtailed in a sociopolitical system based on rank and hereditary privilege. John faced a snobbish conservative press determined to mock his poetic pretensions: he was a “Cockney Poet.”
George could not get a start in any business, and faced years of paying his dues as an anonymous clerk: he became a “Cockney Pioneer,” like the entrepreneurs he followed to the so-called “English Prairie” in the Illinois Territory. He was part of a flood of migration from the British Isles, across the Atlantic and down the Ohio River, to the new states and territories opening up west of the Allegheny Mountains. The New World represented a land of opportunity away from entrenched systems of power and privilege. The reality was often otherwise, as George Keats, like many other pioneers, found out.
Jane Campion's "Bright Star" – more light than heat?
John Keats’s love affair with Fanny Brawne has become the stuff of legend. Jane Campion’s recent movie Bright Star was devoted to the tragic affair between the poet and his neighbor, carried on as John was staring down the all-too-close antagonist, death.
But until George left England, John had always found his closest bonds to be with his brothers. “When I am among Women I have evil thoughts, malice spleen,” he confessed, “I cannot speak or be silent—I am full of Suspicions and therefore listen to no thing—I am in a hurry to be gone.” He was attracted to women, clearly, but his trust and intimacy resided in his brothers.
After George left for America, and their younger brother Tom had died, John’s enormous capacity for love shifted to Fanny Brawne. The Keats brothers did have a sister, but she was very young and isolated from them by their guardian, Richard Abbey. George was John’s anchor until 1819: the year after George’s departure when John wrote his most lasting verse in the void opened up by his brothers’ absence.
Can you tell us about some of that verse?
“But what without the social thought of thee, / Would be the wonders of the sky and sea,” John wrote to George in the concluding couplet of a sonnet titled “To My Brother George.”
His poetry, following the loss of his brothers, became darker, more introspective, deeper, and more philosophical. The poems known as the Great Odes—“Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to Melancholy,” “To Autumn,” and so on, written in the spring of 1819, after Tom’s death and George’s departure—describe the misery into which the poet had plunged after the loss of his brothers: “George is in America and I have no brother left,” John wrote to an acquaintance that May. “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.”
Not a rotter
And choose he did, writing the majority of poems that appeared in his famous volume of 1820, the book that made his lasting reputation. His letters also reveal the profundity of his connection with George, to whom he spoke of life not as a vale of tears, but as a “Vale of Soul-making.” We come into the world, he speculated, as atoms of perception—“intelligences,” the poet called them—that have no distinct personality or identity but that, in the school of hard knocks called experience, a school whose lessons are felt on the pulses, those intelligences become souls. Such a system of spiritual redemption proved no affront to his reason.
You’ve taken on a double narrative in your book. As a writer, can you describe some of the perils of this kind of writing?
The story of John Keats is as famous as the story of George Keats is unknown. The sections of the book focused on John tend to be more concerned with his imaginative and intellectual life—his thoughts, his emotions, his poetry—while the sections of the book devoted to George are active: where he went, whom he met, what he did. John in fact had an imaginative relationship to the world around him, while George lived in a world that for us today is purely imaginary: a wild landscape inhabited by settlers and Native Americans, keelboats and whisky-drinking boatmen, transatlantic packet ships weighed down with iron to be shaped into plowshares, men gouging out each others eyes after a few drinks in the tavern. The main narrative challenge lay in reconciling the diverse worlds of Regency London and frontier America, keeping the right rhythm between the two brothers.
Are there any living descendents of John Keats’ family today?
George Keats had eight children and his descendants in America number in the hundreds. Among them is Lawrence M. Crutcher, of Louisville, who is descended from George’s daughter Emma and who has compiled a book, The Keats Family [Butler, 2009], which contains biographical portraits of George’s many descendants.
Fanny Keats, unlike her brothers John, George, and Tom, did not die of tuberculosis. She had six children and lived into old age; her family tree is alive. Crutcher’s cousin, Fernando Paradinas, provided information regarding the descendants of Fanny Keats, the brothers’ sister, which Crutcher has included in The Keats Family.