At Rome, aged 25, Mr. John Keats, author of a volume of beautiful poetry’, recorded the Liverpool Mercury of 30 March 1821 amongst its death notices, in what is arguably the earliest and shortest of a never-ending stream of interpretative biographies, of which this excellent one from Nicholas Roe is the latest: more than 400 pages and as many – or as few – chapters as the poet had birthdays. In the last three years alone, we have had Lawrence M. Crutcher’s The Keats Family, R.S. White’s John Keats: A Literary Life, and Denise Gigante’s The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George, and it is not that long since Britain’s Poet Laureate (as he then was) Andrew Motion came out with a 600-page monster. Nor is there a dearth of strong precursors, for Keats has been fortunate in his biographers – all of them, it should be said, generously acknowledged by Roe, for whom the work of Robert Gittings is ‘indispensable’, an honour that should be shared with Walter Jackson Bate.
On the morning of 17 September 1820, a consumptive John Keats and his travelling companion and nurse, the artist Joseph Severn, boarded the 127-ton brigantine Maria Crowther bound for Italy. Ahead of them lay thirty-four days of foul weather, fouler food, and close quarters shared with another consumptive (a young girl) and a horrified matron; thirty-four days, for Keats, of agonising regret and mortal fear. It was the first stage of what he called his ‘posthumous existence’: the twenty-five-year-old poet was sailing out to die. And because Keats was prevented by the well-meaning Severn from swallowing the phial of euthanasian opium he had bought before leaving England, this posthumous existence would drag on until nearly midnight on Wednesday, 21 February 1821, when Keats died in Severn’s arms in an apartment in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome.
In Elements of Criticism (1762), the Scottish philosopher Lord Kames writes of the remarkable congruence between real presence, the product of our ‘external senses’, and ideal presence, which appears when art presents something so vividly to our ‘internal’ senses that we forget that it is not actually before us. Ideal presence, he writes, is like a‘waking dream’, the appearances of which are indistinguishable from real presence while we are within its spaces. For readers who associate immersive realities with modern digital media, Kames’s argument is surprising, even though it could be argued that in the twenty-first century literature is still the most powerful medium available for producing immersive realities. Kames assumes that literature’s ‘waking dreams’ will be judged by the standards of the actual world; but as early as the last decades of the eighteenth century and first decades of the next, the development of genres such as Gothic fictions, coupled with the emergence of new entertainment media such as the panorama and phantasmagoria, had drawn attention to the extent to which ideal realities – ‘fictitious entities’ and ‘imaginary nonentities’, in Jeremy Bentham’s terminology – could shape rather than simply represent the real. This is the cultural context in which Keats’s life (1795–1821), dilemmas and oeuvre make sense.