Book review: Keats by Lucasta Miller
Miller takes a completely new look at the poet as ‘more laddish and opportunistic than courtly’
We tend to think of Keats as a rarefied and unworldly figure, a man devoted to “pure beauty”, said Claire Harman in the London Evening Standard. Lucasta Miller, in her fascinating new book, suggests that this picture is highly misleading. Keats, she claims, was a “fully embodied” young man who was as “greedy for sensation” as for roast beef sandwiches (which he craved a “dozen or two” at a time). In matters of love, he “was more laddish and opportunistic than courtly”: he visited prostitutes (almost certainly catching syphilis as a result) and could be “selfish and cruel”, even towards his great love, Fanny Brawne. Miller guides us through nine of his most famous poems, carefully unpicking their ideas and imagery, while “giving the story of his life a shake-up at the same time”. It’s a “really useful” idea for a book – and one that yields some fascinating interpretations.
By stripping away the “glutinous layer” that surrounds Keats, Miller presents him to us “as he would have struck his first readers”, said Philip Hensher in The Spectator. She shows that his poetry was really quite strange, with its frequent references to intoxication, and preoccupation with the “slipperiness, decay and substance of bodies” (he trained as a doctor at Guy’s Hospital). In a crowded field of biographies, her “excellent book” more than holds its own. Miller can be an astute critic, but she is hamstrung by her “insistence on striking fashionable poses”, said James Marriott in The Times. In her determination to discover a “ruder, sexier, blokier Keats”, she retrospectively applies modern judgements to his poetry – suggesting, for instance, that The Eve of St. Agnes is a poem concerned with “voyeurism” and “non-consensual sex”. I resented this attempt to march “note-taking moral policemen” through Keat’s beautiful poems.
Jonathan Cape 368pp £17.99; The Week Bookshop £13.99
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