John Keats has been viewed by many as the very picture of the romantic poet, destined to die poor and at a young age. He was a man who attracted a devoted group of friends who in many ways promoted that image after his death, at the age of 25, from tuberculosis. Disgusted at the treatment he received from prominent literary critics of the early 19th century some suggested that his constitution had been weakened by these attacks; Shelley wrote the poem Adonais, portraying Keats as victim; Byron, hugely popular at the time and disliked by Keats wrote disparagingly of him as ‘snuffed out by an article’ and later in the 19th century Oscar Wilde still spoke of him as a martyr. Thus the perception of Keats as the archetypal frail, sensitive poet became enshrined in 19th and early 20th century consciousness.
However, we have written descriptions of him offered by a number of friends and acquaintances in the ‘Keats Circle’ and not one of them suggests frailty or weakness. Poet, critic and friend Leigh Hunt described him as having features ‘at once strongly cut and delicately alive’ suggesting his one fault was ‘in the mouth, which was not without something of a character of pugnacity’. The poet Barry Cornwall (real name Bryan Procter) claimed he had ‘never met a more manly and simple young man.’ Charles Brown, a close friend, described him as ‘though thin, rather muscular’. He had brown hair and hazel eyes and a ‘peculiarly dauntless expression’, Joseph Severn noted, all ‘trembling eagerness’. Others suggested he had an ‘inward’ contemplative look. He was undoubtedly a beautiful young man, but as his biographer Andrew Motion points out the descriptions are always of one ‘at once ‘feminine’ and robust’. Motion has been one of the most recent to write of Keats as a radical, both in politics and in poetry and at last the myth of ‘poor Johnny Keats’ is being erased.
John Keats was born in 1795, the son of the manager of the Swan & Hoop stables and inn, Moorgate, now on the main route into the City of London. He was short and stocky and likened to a boxer; indeed as a child at school he was well known as having a quick temper and always ready to fight his, or another boy’s corner. As an adult he was intense and acutely sensitive and alive to the world around him and his poetry is some of the most sensuous in the English language. Yet for all his ability to literally take you ‘out of this world’ he was not, as some believed ‘unworldly’ and incapable of coping with the barbs thrown at him by the press. He had trained as a doctor at Guy’s Hospital when surgery was in its infancy and savage to a degree we can barely imagine and having given up medicine for poetry he then nursed his younger brother Tom, who was dying of TB, without help. He was loyal and selfless as a friend and was reported to have a great ‘sense of fun’. Clearly, the words of important contemporaries and subsequent eminent Victorians played a large part in perpetuating the myth of the weak and over-sensitive doomed youth, but perhaps posthumous artistic images of him played some part too.
There are many likenesses and portraits of John Keats, taken whilst he was alive and painted posthumously, often with reference to each other. The life mask (Fig.1) was taken by the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon in 1816. His younger sister Fanny was particularly fond of this as a likeness, although she thought it had lost something around the mouth; his top lip naturally protruded over the bottom. Fig. 2 is one of the most famous portraits of the poet, a miniature painted by Joseph Severn in 1818 and by way of contrast, the charcoal drawing on the left (above) is also by Severn and for me is a far more lively portrayal; more representative of the written descriptions of him. Fig. 4 is a pencil drawing by Charles Brown from 1819, the year in which much of Keats’ greatest poetry was written, but just eighteen months before he died. It seems natural and unforced but so different again that the man that is Keats is ever more blurred.
This last sketch is of Keats on his deathbed (Fig. 5) drawn by Severn to ‘keep me awake’ as he nursed Keats in his final days in Rome in February 1821. This is a tragic portrait. Keats suffered terribly in those last months. He knew he was dying and that there was no hope of recovery but friends supported the doctor’s advice that a winter abroad would give him back his health. So he felt he had to travel with Severn, not a close friend but the only one willing and available, to Italy, away from Fanny Brawne the woman he was passionately in love with and secretly engaged to. He showed anger and bitterness and endured agonies that shocked and frightened Severn. This may be one of the reasons why, following Keats death in February 1821, Severn used his talents as an artist to recreate the sensitive, golden youth; the talented young poet that he preferred to remember and thus this exercise in imagination ensured that representations became more saccharine and anodyne.
Fig. 6 to the left was started by Severn in 1821 and finished in 1823. It is a recreation of Keats in one of his favourite poses, reading in his sitting room in Wentworth Place in Hampstead. Similarly, the next is Severn again, imagining Keats listening to the famous nightingale of his Ode to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath. For me it bears little resemblance to the portraits above and shares nothing of their liveliness. The painting is a fiction, painted twenty years after his death, and for me a dull one.
Then there is the portrait (Fig.8) that I fell in love with as a girl of twelve and which was for many years my ‘photo’ of Keats. I learned later that it was painted around 1822 by William Hilton ‘after’ the miniature of 1818 by Severn shown above. I prefer it, but it most certainly is not the ‘real’ Keats.
I do not have a detailed knowledge of art or art history, but my sense is that the ‘essence’ of Keats was as hard to capture in paint, charcoal or clay as it was, and still is, to describe accurately in words. During his lifetime the images vary greatly and after his death they take on the status of memorials, romanticized and although on the surface a ‘likeness’ they are in fact as unreal as the perception of him promoted alongside his poetry for the best part of 150 years after his death.
One of the most recent portrayals of Keats is the small statue by sculptor Stuart Williamson at Guy’s Hospital in London unveiled by Andrew Motion in 2007. Stuart Williamson himself suggested it was time to represent Keats as the robust and radical man he was, rather than the passive, sensitive type as he has frequently been represented. I have to say to my untrained eye it is a man older than twenty, but it is important that such a statue to him, by an eminent sculptor such as Mr Williamson, exists.
And last, but by no means least, is the depiction of Keats presented in the 2009 film ‘Bright Star’ directed by Jane Campion. It focuses on Fanny Brawne and her love for Keats, played by Ben Wishaw. It is a wonderful film, and there is no doubt that the actor will, for many, ‘become’ Keats, as the William Hilton portrait became Keats for me. But lovely as Ben Wishaw is, and brilliantly though he played Keats, he provided only yet another version of a reality that has proved impossible for others to accurately bring to life.
Perhaps that ‘reality’ should then be provided by Keats’ poetry and letters. I hope that over the course of the next few posts they will explain more eloquently why he is still read avidly by students today and why he is taking his place as one of the greatest poets in the English language alongside Milton and Shakespeare, both of whom he greatly admired and who most influenced him.
For more detailed background information please click on the links in the text above.