Outwritten By Source Material


Jonathan Bate notes the great difficulty of writing a biography of the poet John Keats – his own letters are almost impossible to surpass:

Consider his dispatch to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana, begun on St Valentine’s Day, 1819, and finally signed off and sent to Kentucky on May 3. It is not so much a letter as a journal. The original holograph runs to some sixty pages, and can be inspected digitally on the website of the Harvard University Keats Collection.

You could use it as the basis for a whole book, which might readily provide as much insight into the poet’s creative life as is to be found in the many biographies that follow him year by year from his cradle in a Moorgate inn (or maybe stable) to his grave, a stone’s throw from that of P. B. Shelley’s three-year-old son, in the English Cemetery in Rome. And it is in this letter that Keats tells his brother and sister-in-law how he thinks a life should be turned into literature, which is to say how a biography should be written: "A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory – and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life – a life like the scriptures, figurative . . . . Lord Byron cuts a figure – but he is not figurative – Shakspeare led a life of Allegory; his works are the comments on it". What was the "continual allegory" of Keats’s life and how do we read it through it the commentary of his works?

(Portrait of Keats via Wikimedia Commons)