Today marks the bicentenary of the death of John Keats. On the 23rd of February 1821, Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome, at the age of just 25. To coincide with this momentous date, Suzie Grogan’s biography-cum-memoir, John Keats: Poetry, Life & Landscapes, was recently released by Pen and Sword Books, who kindly offered to send me a copy for review.
A life-long Keats devotee herself, Grogan’s book takes readers on a journey through the poet’s short life by exploring the places where he lived, worked, wrote, travelled and died. Many other poets are enduringly associated with a certain place – Wordsworth with the Lake District, for example, and Baudelaire with Paris – and Grogan felt that the influence of certain cities and landscapes upon Keats merited greater attention. Thus, through each chapter, she charts a (largely chronological) voyage through the places which so defined his work and life.
This culminates in a transportive and richly evocative illustration of social history, of the potency of nature, and of Keats as both a poet and a man. What makes this work so special, however, is Grogan’s poignant weaving of personal testimony throughout the text. She details her own love affair with Keats’ poems and letters – the ways his words have accompanied her from adolescence, and throughout some of the darkest periods of her life. And with each setting she takes us to, she interlaces impressions from her own trips there – her near-sacral enthrallment at Keats House, Hampstead; her complex, curious awe at the undulating panorama of the Lake District. It’s as much a personal pilgrimage as a poetic one, and told with real tenderness. (Her chapter on Keats’ protracted death in Rome was particularly, profoundly harrowing.) Each passage stirred my teenage adoration for Keats all over again. It was wonderful to so connect with a kindred spirit, and to feel so much wanderlust!
Another element that made this biography so noteworthy was Grogan’s adamant efforts to authentically portray Keats as he truly was. While he is often painted as the eternally doleful, tragic, effete Romantic, here we see Keats as a charismatic, quick-witted, adventurous, popular, idiosyncratic and effervescent young man. He felt life intensely, and harboured a lively, eternally-inquisitive passion for art, philosophy, politics and beauty. In these pages, Keats really, truly seems alive. It’s touchingly human – a very precious portrait indeed.
I really do recommend this book to anyone with even the slightest interest in Keats’ poetry and character. The writing is accessible, and the book’s latter pages even offer an expansive overview of Keats’ family and friends, followed by a carefully curated selection of his finest poems, for those less familiar with his story. The book itself is brimming with art and photographs which make Keats’ travels all the more vivid, while the cover boasts a gorgeous cut paper collage by Amanda White. Grogan unravels the poet’s writings in such a sumptuous, adoring fashion – her passion is evident, her love for language infectious. The book, ultimately, brings so much of the past, and of Keats’ own personal world, intensely alive. It is a wonderful exploration of human and natural history, as well as of a singular, indelible spirit.
You can buy it here.
(And if you’re interested in any other posts I’ve written about John Keats, you can find them here.)