Writers & Company

John Keats, the ultimate Romantic poet: an intriguing new take on his life from Lucasta Miller

The British critic and historian spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about how her book Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph explores the tragic life of the English Romantic lyric poet.
Lucasta Miller is a British literary biographer and critic. (Sim Canetty-Clarke)

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty." This haunting line from Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats is just one of many memorable quotations from the beloved lyric poet — from "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" to "Tender is the night." The most romantic of the Romantics, Keats died of tuberculosis at 25, two centuries ago, but his work is still celebrated, studied and widely anthologized. His short but intense life has been the subject of many biographies, which all too often cast him as a delicate, tragic figure.

Acclaimed literary biographer and critic Lucasta Miller discovers a different, more complex man in her new book, Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One EpitaphAs she says in the opening, "This is a book by a reader, for readers." Discussing some of his best known poems — such as Bright Star and Ode to a Nightingale — she explores the experience and imagination that informed his work. 

Miller spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from London.

Reading Keats

"I remember studying Keats briefly and not very successfully at university. It was like decoding something — as if he had some self-consistent philosophical system that was going on under the surface.

"I realized subsequently that that's not really the way to read him, and that's not the way he wanted to be read. I realized that there are so many more aspects of him — from the sound of his poetry and the fact that Keats is a poet who is so aware of the complexities, the contradictions, the messiness of human life.

"I think, throughout his life, you get the sense that he's really asking all those questions about the mystery of what it is to be human."

Shelley on Keats

"Shelley wrote his elegy for Keats, Adonais, after Keats died. There was a whole agenda that Shelley had going on. He wanted to portray Keats as this romantic martyr who'd been killed by his critics. This is not true. He was killed by TB, and, in fact, he was pretty resilient when he got some bad reviews.

"This is another thing that's often forgotten about Keats — he's quite a political radical, and that's very important in the context of his reception in his own lifetime. Shelley wants to present Keats as this delicate, frail flower, this martyr, this spiritualized essence, in order both to idealize and defend the idea of the radical writer. 

Keats comes from a lower middle class background. What he does with the English language is quite revolutionary.

"They did know each other slightly. Shelley made Keats feel a bit uncomfortable. At some level, I think there's a class consciousness going on because, unlike the other Romantics of his generation that we've all heard of, Keats didn't go to a posh public school and he didn't go to university. Byron is Harrow and Cambridge, Shelley is Eton and Oxford, although Shelley gets expelled from the latter. Shelley is an upper class anarchist.

"Keats comes from a lower middle class background. What he does with the English language is quite revolutionary. His political sympathies are very much on what we'd now call the left. But he doesn't have that sense of utter entitlement that Shelley had."

English poet John Keats in Rome, circa 1821. Painting by Joseph Severn. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Ode on a Grecian Urn

"I think Ode on a Grecian Urn is a very tricky poem to try and understand. I would say that the most important thing about it for me is the way that its tone is so shifting, so slippery, so febrile. Of course, it is a poem about time and eternity, art and life, but where we're supposed to situate ourselves within those ideas is constantly shifting.

"At the end of the poem, there's that very mysterious statement:

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
      Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

"I think some people have read that statement as a sort of metaphysical equation — Keats's philosophical secret to the meaning of life. I don't think he believed that there was such a thing as a secret to the meaning of life. And he certainly did not believe that logic, or what he called consecutive reasoning, could really lead to enlightenment.

For me, his creative energy comes from the fact that he does have these contradictory tones, these contradictory images, these paradoxes.

"I feel that in that phrase, there's a hint of irony there. There's a hint that even that phrase is somehow insufficient, just as the urn itself is insufficient. I think Keats is interested in the things that aren't perfect. He's interested in human experience, and that's basically all we've got, because he doesn't believe in God and he doesn't believe in the afterlife.

"For me, his creative energy comes from the fact that he does have these contradictory tones, these contradictory images, these paradoxes. This is what gives his poetry life for me."

Lucasta Miller's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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