Roe (English/Univ. of St. Andrews; Fiery Heart: The First Life of Leigh Hunt, 2005, etc.) delivers a tightly focused and highly useful biography of the great English Romantic.
Born to a family with a history of health problems, fatherless at an early age and trained for a career in medicine, John Keats (1795–1821) pursued poetry with a faith in his own genius and a well-founded fear that he would not live long enough to fulfill it. He was ambitious from the beginning, modeling himself on Spenser and Shakespeare, testing himself with lengthy epics like Endymion, and fully aware that the competition was fierce, with all of the High Romantic poets writing at the same time. Roe’s Keats is both sensitive and hotheaded, naturally gifted but also constantly pushing himself to the next level. He was a frustrated young man too: by what he hadn’t experienced, by his unconsummated passion for his fiancee, and by the slow, wasting deterioration of his final years. Roe quotes and examines the poetry at length, and he is especially attentive to determining how a talented but immature poet blossomed into a great one. He also ventures an intriguing analysis of why Keats’ poetry received such harsh criticism in its day: The vernacular style represented by the so-called “Cockney School of Poetry” was a threat not just to the classical style, but the social order.
Roe’s biography acutely displays the intensity, anguish and triumph of a great life for whom the clock was always ticking.