A Poet Steeped In Tragedy

Reviewing Nicholas Roe’s new biography of John Keats, Michael Dirda emphasizes the artistic impact of the poet’s tumultuous childhood:

Roe stresses, in particular, the emotional turmoil resulting from the death, while riding, of Keats’s 31-year-old father, Thomas, when John was just 8 years old. This was followed by the sudden remarriage of Keats’s mother, Frances, two months later to a man “aged twenty, with no income of his own.” Roe even raises the possibility that Frances, known to be lively and “passionately fond of amusement,” may have been carrying on a clandestine affair before her first husband’s death. When she died at just 35 from tuberculosis, her children—John, George, Tom, and Fanny—found themselves thrust upon various relatives, or sent away to school. Financial wrangling within the extended family dragged on for years.

Roe sees aspects of these family tragedies, and possible suspicions about his mother, reemerging throughout Keats’s poetry—as well as being a possible cause of his self-confessed “morbidity” and Hamlet-like melancholy.