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This landmark biography of celebrated Romantic poet John Keats explodes entrenched conceptions of him as a delicate, overly sensitive, tragic figure. Instead, Nicholas Roe reveals the real flesh-and-blood poet: a passionate man driven by ambition but prey to doubt, suspicion, and jealousy; sure of his vocation while bitterly resentful of the obstacles that blighted his career; devoured by sexual desire and frustration; and in thrall to alcohol and opium. Through unparalleled original research, Roe arrives at a ...
This landmark biography of celebrated Romantic poet John Keats explodes entrenched conceptions of him as a delicate, overly sensitive, tragic figure. Instead, Nicholas Roe reveals the real flesh-and-blood poet: a passionate man driven by ambition but prey to doubt, suspicion, and jealousy; sure of his vocation while bitterly resentful of the obstacles that blighted his career; devoured by sexual desire and frustration; and in thrall to alcohol and opium. Through unparalleled original research, Roe arrives at a fascinating reassessment of Keats's entire life, from his early years at Keats's Livery Stables through his harrowing battle with tuberculosis and death at age 25. Zeroing in on crucial turning points, Roe finds in the locations of Keats's poems new keys to the nature of his imaginative quest.
Roe is the first biographer to provide a full and fresh account of Keats's childhood in the City of London and how it shaped the would-be poet. The mysterious early death of Keats's father, his mother's too-swift remarriage, living in the shadow of the notorious madhouse Bedlam—all these affected Keats far more than has been previously understood. The author also sheds light on Keats's doomed passion for Fanny Brawne, his circle of brilliant friends, hitherto unknown City relatives, and much more. Filled with revelations and daring to ask new questions, this book now stands as the definitive volume on one of the most beloved poets of the English language.
"A wonderful work that has many new things to say about Keats, his extraordinary work and inner life. A finer biography is unlikely to emerge this year."—Ian Thomson, Financial Times
— Ian Thomson
“Roe’s is a remarkable achievement, authoritative and imaginative to a degree that should make all future Keats biographers quail.”—–John Carey, Sunday Times
— John Carey
“A fine biography full of the sharp sense of place and particularity that distinguishes Roe’s earlier work” – Seamus Perry, Literary Review
— Seamus Perry
“There have been many fine biographies of Keats since the war…. But none, I think, conveys quite so well as this one the sense of Keats as a poet of the London suburbs. Roe reconstructs beautifully the milieu from which he and his friends all came, on the northern edge of the city where they had their day jobs and dreamed of fame.”—Ferdinand Mount, The Spectator
— Ferdinand Mount
Saturday, 14 April 1804. Dies Saturni. Thomas Keates called on his sons at Enfield, dined with friends, then galloped down the long scythe of the City Road back into London. By day this stretch was crowded with barrows, carts and stage-wagons. Past midnight, the turnpike was clear. In the dark and drizzle nobody saw Thomas plunge to the pavement beside Bunhill Fields, smashing his skull and bleeding heavily a watchman who found him remarked on the amount of blood. There was nothing to be done but staunch his wound and carry him home. Before sunrise, he was dead. For want of more precise evidence the inquest concluded that 'being riding on a certain horse it so happened that the said Thomas Keates accidentally casually and by misfortune fell from the said horse down to and against the ground whereby he received a mortal bruise in and upon his head.'
John Keats's father knew every stone of the City Road. Aged thirty-one, Thomas was a professional horseman and lease holder of Keates's Livery Stables on the Pavement, Moorfields. He could handle an animal that stumbled. Could he have been mugged? There were rivals, keen to take over his flourishing business. Or had he simply been drinking, dozed off and fallen from the saddle? Whatever happened that night, Thomas's untimely death remains as mysterious as his early life.
His daughter, Fanny, the poet's sister, recalled being told that her father was a native of Land's End, Cornwall, a locality that suggested various ancestral possibilities. Inquiring if her sallow complexion appeared Spanish, Fanny was reassured that she looked 'English all over'. Perhaps she had cause for asking. If the family had Cornish origins, her distant forebears might have included a survivor of the Armada. There was also a well-known family of mariner Keatses who plied between Poole and the Spanish ports of Alicante and Cadiz. Spanish blood might explain Thomas Keates's black hair and his daughter's dark looks, her marriage to the Spaniard Valentin Llanos and her long life in Madrid. Keats himself was fascinated by stories of Balboa, Cortez and the Spanish conquistadors and, as we will see, his great poem The Eve of St Agnes was, in part, a Spanish inspiration.
Back in England were young Thomas Hardy's neighbours at Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, and we need to be acquainted with them. Immediately next door to Hardy lived the family of James and Rachael Keates and, across the lane, their son William Keates, a carrier. According to Hardy, all of them derived from a family of horse-dealers in the direction of Broadmayne, and he was struck by their resemblance to the poet. Hardy was a man who noticed such things, and perhaps he knew more than he let on. Broadmayne lies to the south-east of Dorchester, and a few miles in that direction exactly as Hardy said is the hamlet of Winterborne Came. Here, in December 1736, a John Keats was born. With his wife, Jane, he had two sons Thomas, born in 1773, and James, 1777 then tragedy struck the young family.
The father died in 1777, his widow succumbed to an 'ulcerated throat' two years later, and Thomas and James were packed off to Lower Bockhampton poorhouse to work for their keep. Parish records list payments made for 'cloaths' and 'mending shoes' for 'Keates's 2 children'. James eventually married Rachael Talbot and settled at Higher Bockhampton, and if we take Hardy's hint his older brother, Thomas, may well have been the father of John Keats the poet. Could Jane Keats's ulcerated larynx, a symptom of tuberculosis, echo in the poet's anxiety about his own 'haunting sore throat'?
All of this, if true, bears out what Leigh Hunt and others said. The poet's 'origin was of the humblest description'; he never spoke of it 'out of a personal soreness which the world had exasperated'; his father was 'a man much above his sphere in life'. What little Keats did say points to his knowledge of 'earlier Misfortunes' that blighted the family long before his own birth. Exactly how Thomas Keates could have escaped from the poorhouse is not apparent; possibly a parish connection led to foster parents in London where there were numerous Keat, Keats and Keates businesses. In the 1770s a John Keat was master of 'Mr. Keat's Livery Stables, Piccadilly'.
Keates or Keats? Thomas used both spellings of his name, and as his poetson's reputation grew many people tried to claim kinship. Of these, we need to meet just a few. We know that Thomas had a relative named Elizabeth and perhaps a cousin, Joseph, a haberdasher. The haberdasher's son, Joseph Henry, owned himself both 'second cousin' to the poet and a relative of 'Mr. Sheriff Keats' that is, the grandson of John Keats, vintner, and his wife, Ann Mower. Their sons, Thomas Mower and Joseph, owned hatter's businesses at 14 The Poultry and 74 Cheapside addresses known to the poet who, in 1816, lived with his brothers at 76 Cheapside. These hatters also claimed descent from 'an ancient and honourable family in the west of England', as The Times reported in 1856 when Thomas Mower's son Frederick Keats became sheriff of London. Photographs of Frederick show some resemblance to the poet and, according to The Times, the sheriff 'boasted the same ancestry' as 'one of the most distinguished admirals of the navy': Sir Richard Goodwin Keats. Among the sheriff's descendants, family tradition has long held that he was closely related to Keats the poet; and if that was true, John Keats the poet and Admiral Keats came from the same stock too.
Sir Richard Goodwin Keats, commander of the Superb, was born on 16 January 1757 at Chalton, Hampshire, eldest son of West Countryman the Rev. Richard Keats and his wife, Elizabeth. Keats the poet was drawn repeatedly to this part of the south coast to Chichester, Bedhampton, the Isle of Wight, Stansted and Winchester, where Richard Goodwin Keats was educated. Networks of friends help to explain his presence at the consecration of Stansted Chapel in January 1819, and perhaps he was drawn by local Keats associations too Stansted is just three miles from Sir Richard's birthplace at Chalton. Of course, those three miles might as well be three hundred: Keats was not in Chalton itself, and there is nothing to suggest he was tracking down a relative. However, it is not impossible. Keats had family links with the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, and, as with his other sojourns in South and West England, he may have been drawn to Chalton-by-Stansted by some strange magnetism of family association.
Remember Joseph Keats, Joseph Henry Keats, the hatters Thomas Mower Keats and Joseph Keats, Sheriff Frederick Keats and Sir Richard Goodwin Keats. We shall encounter them again.
* * *
By 1794 Thomas Keates was a young man of twenty-one working at the Swan and Hoop livery stables, Moorgate. His employer, John Jennings, came from a family long established in the parishes of St Stephen, Coleman Street, and St Botolph, Bishopsgate, close to the north flank of London Wall. Spared by the Great Fire of 1666, this part of medieval London was a warren of lanes and alleys winding west from Bishopsgate to the garrets of Grub Street. New arrivals to the city found lodgings here amid a plucky population of actors, balladmongers, coiners and quacks, fortune-tellers, alchemists, beggars and whores. Barred from the city proper, noxious trades such as knackers, blood-boilers and bone-grinders set up alongside gambling dens, taverns and brothels.
* * *
Born in 1730, John Jennings, the son of Martin Jennings and Mary Clementson, was baptised at St Stephen's on 13 October 1730. A sister, Mary, followed in 1733. She married Richard Havers in 1758 and, after his early death, Charles Sweetinburgh. Less is known about her brother's early life. Possibly he was the John Jennings who in 1763 kept the George Inn at Aldersgate before setting up in business himself. The Minute Book of the Worshipful Company of Innholders gives us the details: 'Tuesday 4th January 1774 John Jennings who has taken the Swan and Hoop at Moorgate having purchased his Freedom of this City was sworn and paid £2.14s.4d and the Officers ffees @ 2s/6d/-.' Now legally established, he married Alice Whalley at St Stephen's, Coleman Street, on 15 February. Six years younger than her husband, Alice was a native of Colne, Lancashire, and retained a North Country thrift and practicality. Their first child, Frances, was born on 1 January 1775 and baptised at home on the 29th. Two sons followed Midgley John, born 24 October 1777, and Thomas, 10 December 1781. Both were baptised at St Stephen's, on 21 November 1777 and 4 January 1782.
The Swan and Hoop was located immediately outside old Moorgate, opposite Moorfields. For centuries there had been a swamp here, crossed by causeways to Islington and Hoxton. Winter frosts brought citizens to skate; in summer the stench of rubbish hurried them to fresh air and Hampstead. By Shakespeare's day, Moorfields had been drained and laid out as a pleasure garden: bookstalls were set up with ballads and broadsheets; furniture was stacked for sale; and laundrywomen bleached linen in the sun. After the Great Fire, refugees huddled in tents and hovels, and soon the area was notorious for prostitution and 'Sodomites' Walk'. Samuel Pepys came for beer and wrestling, and in the 1730s Old Vinegar's boxing ring drew huge crowds. The Methodists John Wesley and George Whitefield preached here in the open, and in 1785 the Italian aeronaut Vincenzo Lunardi ascended in his balloon. On public holidays aromas of fried sausage, roasted apples and hot gingerbread mingled with the music of fiddles, pipes and drums.
Immediately adjacent to the Swan and Hoop was another awe-inspiring spectacle. Here, in 1675, Robert Hooke built a 'Suburb Wonder' that immediately entered London folklore the enormous madhouse, Bedlam. Founded in 1403 at the priory of St Mary of Bethlem, Bishopsgate, the hospital took the bright star of Bethlehem as its symbol. Three centuries later, with those buildings scarcely habitable, Hooke designed a baroque palace as a replacement. Modelled on the Tuileries in Paris, the new Royal Bethlem Hospital was constructed from red London brick with galleries of windows extending for more than 550 feet. In the centre and at each extremity were pavilions of white stone, decorated with Corinthian columns and armorial shields embellished with the Bethlem star. Overhead were three cupolas, a clock in a turret topped with a glittering sphere and, at the pinnacle, a gilded dragon weathervane.
Bedlam and the open space of Moorfields have vanished, although the scene of Thomas Keates's accident is unchanged. Bunhill Fields burial ground is still there on the City Road, and traffic thunders through Moorgate as it did two hundred years ago. The Swan and Hoop succumbed to Victorian improvements, but can still be glimpsed at the edge of eighteenth-century engravings of Bedlam where it appears as a three-storey building with a horizontal stucco cornice. Behind it rise the towers and spires of London's skyline, and Wren's Great Fire memorial. A building resembling the Swan and Hoop survives at 87 Moorgate, and may have stood next door.
On the ground floor of the Swan and Hoop was a tap room. Stairs led up to a parlour, kitchen and drawing room, three bed chambers with dressing rooms and closets, and attics for the servants. Outside, a passage gave access to the stable yard and coach houses a kind of Georgian car park. Here, amid horse sweat and muck, flourished the lucrative life of a busy livery stable, with ostlers grooming and stable boys polishing bits and brasses. All day and long into the night tides of citizens passed through as they journeyed to and from the city. Lurking in the crowd were petty criminals of all kinds pickpockets and sharpers, horse-thieves, blacklegs, bubbers and sneaks. Seasoned felons knew the Swan and Hoop as a market for stolen goods and so did the constables. Richard Richardson, nicknamed 'the one-ey'd Gunner', was arrested here for his enterprising theft of three feather beds and a Persian carpet.
Commercial success brought City connections. Among John Jennings's acquaintances may have been Samuel Brawne of the Coach and Horses on Castle Street, Strand, and John Richards, stable keeper in Oxford Street. Closer to home on Coleman Street lived John Abernethy, father of the great surgeon. Soon Jennings was buying government funds and East India stock, and in 1785 the year of Lunardi's ascent he leased the property next door, then sublet it for £46 a year, a sum that nearly covered his rent for the Swan and Hoop. While serving at St Stephen's as senior churchwarden, Jennings also climbed in the City, becoming upper warden and finally, in October 1797, master of the Innholders' Company. To celebrate, he ordered six dozen bottles of white wine, five gallons of rum and five of brandy. There was no claret, but Master Jennings enjoyed a draught of vintage.
Life was good for the Jennings children too. The boys were sent to Clarke's Academy, where the progressive curriculum would prepare them to enter business. Frances was most likely educated at home or in a local dame school. A pleasing figure, oval face and wide mouth made her a 'handsome woman' and she was said to have inherited her father's fondness for good living. Tea-broker Richard Abbey, who enters Keats's story as an acquaintance of Alice Jennings, chatted about Frances with a grocer on Bishopsgate; 'the Man remarked ... that Miss Jennings always came in dirty Weather, & when she went away, she held up her Clothes very high in crossing the Street, & to be sure, says the Grocer, she has uncommonly handsome Legs.' Abbey linked that recollection to another encounter with Frances, telling Keats's publisher John Taylor that her passionate 'appetites' had made it 'dangerous to be alone with her'. Taylor was the first of many to wonder how Abbey knew this, and glanced at him to see if he could find any traces of the poet's features.
Born in August 1765, Abbey, the son of Jonathan Abbey and Deborah Dodgson, was a Yorkshireman from Skipwith, eight miles south of York. The early deaths of his grandfather and father made him wealthy enough to set up in business in London, where, on 5 February 1786, he married Eleanor Jones, an illiterate city girl. By 1808, he had moved to 4 Pancras Lane, Cheapside, close to Joseph Keats the hatter at number 12 and warehousemen R. and J. Keats at number 1. Most likely acquainted with John and Alice Jennings through the victualling trade, Abbey would be bound up with their family's fortunes, for good and ill, for many decades. Northern roots may explain why Alice Jennings thought well of him, and the esteem was mutual: George Keats remembered Abbey saying 'he never saw a woman of the talents and sense of my Grandmother, except my Mother'. While Abbey let Taylor understand that young Miss Jennings had tried to seduce him, an alternative scenario explains far more about Abbey's subsequent behaviour to Keats and his siblings.
* * *
When twenty-one-year-old stable hand Thomas Keates caught Frances's eye, she was nineteen. They married on Thursday, 9 October 1794 at St George's, Hanover Square, although Frances was under age and apparently lacked parental consent. They signed the register Frances swooping impatiently through the 'g' of 'Jennings' then walked briskly back to the portico, glanced up and down George Street in bright autumn sunshine, and slipped into the crowd. The streets into which they vanished were tense after two years of war with France; just days before their marriage, twelve 'friends of liberty' were locked up in the Tower and Newgate on charges of treason. Among them were shoemaker Thomas Hardy, orator John Thelwall and philologist John Horne Tooke reformers all, and members of London's democratic Corresponding Society.
Excerpted from JOHN KEATS by NICHOLAS ROE Copyright © 2012 by Nicholas Roe. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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List of Illustrations and Maps xi
Early Years, 1795-1814
1 Birthplaces 3
2 School 19
3 Bridge 36
Guy's Hospital, 1814-1817
4 Southwark 55
5 Bright and Dark 69
6 'J.K., and Other Communications' 82
7 An Era 97
8 Wild Surmises 108
9 Saturnalia 124
10 Lancet 139
The Year of Endymion, 1817
11 Strange Journeys 161
12 Fellowship 173
13 ?Z' 183
14 Immortal Dinners 195
Roads of the Dead, 1818
15 Dark Passages 219
16 Walking North 235
17 Sleepless Nights 263
18 ditto, ditto 283
19 Ever Indolent 302
20 Hope and Chance 327
21 Repasts 353
22 A Now 365
23 Regions of Poetry 375
24 Eternal Road 384
25 Terminalia 397