Miller also usefully reminds us that there is no contradiction between Keats’s open political radicalism (think of the savagely angry depiction of industrial exploitation in “Isabella”, a passage quite marginal to the unfolding of the actual narrative) and the “medievalism” of his aesthetic. He and William Morris would have got on very well. For Keats’s kind of radical, the “ancient” identity of English society was communitarian and anti-hierarchical, and its laws were designed to protect popular freedoms.
Having the nine poems reproduced in the text is really useful, and encourages you to read them differently. The odes now seem to me streets ahead of the lush romances Keats wrote just a year or two earlier, like ‘Isabella or the Pot of Basil’ (girl digs up lover's corpse and cuts its head off so she can keep it in a patio planter; we've all been there), ‘The Eve of St Agnes' or 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. I thought I knew what was going on in that poem, but now am not so sure. Are the sedge and the lake and the birds really sexual symbols? The lake could be a pudendum and ‘Birds singing was an earthy old trope … to indicate male orgasm’, Miller tells us, but then immediately says this would be to over-interpret.
This excellent book marks the 200th anniversary of the poet’s death. It enters an already crowded market of Keats biographies, but earns its place through its firm basis in precise reading. Miller is empathetic, and relishes Keats’s best phrases, such as those on his first encounter with Fanny Brawne — ‘beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange....’ She is patient with the (to me) increasingly ludicrous critical readings of ‘To Autumn’ as really about the Peterloo massacres.
Fondly familiar with Keats’s homes and favourite strolls, Miller draws on her experience as a fellow north Londoner to summon him up: a short, energetic, broad-shouldered young man who often jokingly signed himself as “Junkets” in some of the most bewitchingly conversational letters of the Romantic Age. When Miller’s Keats strolls across Hampstead Heath with Coleridge, his famously loquacious neighbour, we feel no surprise that the older poet instantly invited him home — or that Keats managed to resist the temptation.
Her knowledge of all things Keatsian is formidable, and she has lived all her life on what she calls “the less fashionable side of Hampstead Heath”, which was Keats’s stomping ground. She has sat, musing, on a park bench overlooking the heath where Keats burst into tears as he told a friend of his hopeless love for Fanny Brawne, and she has tracked down houses in side streets where Keats, always hard up, took lodgings in his short but peripatetic life. When she was a child she found that one house had been converted into a fish bar selling “delicious salty chips”. Reminiscences like this give her book an approachable, unstuffy feel and, evidently with younger readers in mind, she untangles the richly sensuous language of Keats’s poems...
Towards the end of the book Miller informs her readers that she doesn’t “see Keats as a spiritual guru who can tell me how to live. What I value in his surviving poetry and letters is that they show us how he lived.” This impoverished view of literature risks reducing it to just another branch of the social sciences and is prevalent in academia at the moment. If Keats’s poems (his “literary artefacts”, as Miller occasionally terms them) are chiefly interesting merely as historical evidence for the lifestyles of young men at the beginning of the 19th century, then I suppose questions of whether he was toxically masculine do seem interesting.