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John Keats and Amy Lowell

ISSUE:  Summer 1925

John Keats.
By Amy Lowell. 2 volumes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $12.50.

This remarkable biography undertakes to make available for the scholar and the general reader the many Keats manuscripts and rare items which have been gathering in the private libraries of American collectors. Miss Lowell began with her own famous collection, and her characteristic energy has led her to hunt down more new material bearing upon the life of Keats than we are likely to find again in any later search in this field. In order to put the new material in its proper relation to what was previously known, Miss Lowell wisely decided to retell the entire story of the poet’s career; she has added, in a frankly conversational manner, a discussion of all the bibliographical trails she ran down, even when they led to nothing; and she has contributed her own criticism of the poems. An appendix contains a chronological list of Keats’s works according to the latest information—which in some cases means according to Miss Lowell’s hypothesis; a second appendix contains the Gripus fragment, from the Morgan Library; a third and most valuable appendix contains annotations and underscored passages in books owned or borrowed by Keats, omitting, unfortunately, the passages from his Shakespeare; and a fourth appendix contains a fragment of the journal letter to George and Georgiana Keats, February—May, 1819. The work in its two large and handsome volumes covers 1293 pages.

It is to be hoped that the trained scholar who reads this Life will remember that Miss Lowell wrote it during a prolonged period of sickness and of suffering so severe that oniy by a miracle has the book been finished at all. It is therefore easy to overlook a rather careless manner of statement, an occasional slip such as comes inevitably in dictated work. Every reader will feel the power of the book, the strong personality of the biographer and her profound admiration for Keats; it would be a strangely unresponsive nature that could turn from these pages without having been many times deeply moved. The first impression a critic ought to set down, therefore, is of the amount of valuable material here printed for the first time, the exhilarating spirit with which the story is told, the sympathy with which Keats the man is portrayed. All this is to say simply that Miss Lowell has given to the history of English literature one of the most important books in many a day.

If the value of the work is once fairly understood, it might be well to make some distinctions and qualifications. The book is unnecessarily long. Miss Lowell has given us the atmosphere, the setting, of many episodes as a novelist might supply background—that is, out of her own head; and however this kind of addition may serve in fiction, in a biographical record it delays us. The publishers in their circular advertisement of the work have reprinted the first page, which therefore is probably well known to the general reader, and occurs naturally as illustration. The parents of John Keats were married October 9, 1794. We approach this fact (finally stated at the bottom of page 2) with a description of October—of course, any October. “The leaves were turning brown, and fluttering down in companies to be scuffled carelessly underfoot by passers-by in the squares, and parks, and graveyards—anywhere, in fact, where there were leaves to turn brown and fall, etc.” Such a method of biography runs to space. Miss Lowell also enjoys frank speculation over many things that perhaps are not worth guessing about. Woodhouse says that “St. Agnes’ Eve” was written at the suggestion of Mrs. Jones. No Mrs, Jones is known to have been in Keats’s acquaintance. Miss Lowell devotes two pages to guessing what woman it was who suggested the poem, assuming that Woodhouse’s statement is correct in everything but the name. She concludes it was Fanny Brawne’s mother. But what on earth is meant by “suggesting” a poem to a man like Keats?

Many other illustrations could be given of the method which produced so lengthy a book. It is but fair to admit that there is room for difference of opinion as to the value of these descriptions and speculations; they do serve at times to throw light on the daily scene in which Keats moved, and since biography is so close to fiction anyway, it is perhaps ungracious to insist on authenticated light. And no page in the book is dull. A more serious qualification of the work must be noted in the critical parts of it. Miss Lowell makes us feel that Keats was a great man— not that he was a great poet. At first we suspect the reason for this impression is that she discusses many poems hitherto unpublished, and none of them in Keats’s best vein. But it is clear in the end that Miss Lowell does not think Keats so very great as a poet. The most disturbing critical passage occurs in vol. I, page 457, in which Miss Lowell says that Keats had a better mind than Browning, but probably would not have become so great a poet. “Keats had a better mind than Browning, and where Browning, competent scholar and magnificent poet though he was, remained as an original thinker almost a child, we may be sure, from the evidences of his letters and criticisms, that Keats would eventually have stamped on jejune points of view and kept his thought and poetry to an equal level. I do not say that Keats would ever have been as great a poet as Browning; I think that is extremely doubtful.” We begin to be prepared for patronising comments, even on the great odes— as on page 255, volume II, where Miss Lowell quotes the last stanza of the “Ode to a Nightingale,” and adds her praise—

“Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?”
“Excellent, excellent ending!”

The fact seems to be that in this book Miss Lowell’s ability as a collector and user of biographical sources far outruns her equipment as a critic. Passage after passage leaves us puzzled over her verdicts, or if we agree with them, over her grounds for them. We are willing to admit that Wordsworth was a better poet that Leigh Hunt, but we squirm at the argument—”Wordsworth was possessed of an innate dignity which Hunt was without. Wordsworth’s mistakes in illustrating his theories, when he made mistakes, led to nothing worse than dullness of diction and puerility of theme.” What could be worse?

Where Miss Lowell is at her best is in the restoration and defense of characters previously slighted, and in the accounts of her search for sources. The portrait of Keats’s mother is wonderfully drawn, as indeed are all the portraits of those in the family circle. Fanny Brawne for the first time is a real person, with an understandable relation to her sick and therefore irritable lover. Keats’s last days in Italy are almost too well told; tragedy so grim and so vivid hurts. And the full record which Miss Lowell gives us of the manuscripts and books she draws upon, of the places in which she found them, of their history, and of their probable value, serves the double use of expressing the excitements and rewards of scholarly search, and of vindicating the particular amount of faith the author places in each item. In a first reading the effect of even the minutest detail is to interest, for Miss Lowell takes us into her confidence as to every process of her mind in deciding what to do next. “I thought I would leave this out,” she will say, “but it seems best, for such and such a reason, to put it in.” If the method is discursive, and if there is some danger that it may prove less effective on later rereadings, we can estimate the vitality it achieves by turning to Colvin’s Life, or to any earlier account, and noticing how much we miss in the conventional form of statement.

That this is the final Life of Keats, we may well doubt. Nothing can prevent people from rewriting the story of heroes they love. But there is no question that this is one of the most interesting biographies ever produced in this country, and it is perhaps unique as an illustration of what might be called amateur scholarship—the product of a passion for the subject, doubly memorable because the author as well as the subject is a remarkable personality.


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