Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What Ails the Little Fella in the Penny Press?

The Commentary in last week's TLS is by John Barnard (too much to hope that in addition to being a stodgy academic he's also related to the author of such minor-key classic murder mysteries as The Bad Samaritan?), and it's a pretty good example of the hand-wringing pettifogging that does so much to disenchant ordinary civilians with the world and the antics of literary criticism. The essay is heralded on the issue's cover with the preposterous banner-line "Who Killed John Keats?" - the thing is titled "A Sleepless Night," and the teapot hosting this particular tempest is the savage critical reception accorded young John Keats by Blackwood's and the Quarterly Review upon publication of his long poem Endymion in 1818.

Two indisputable facts follow here: 1) Keats was understandably bitter about this kind of ferocious critical response (and he was if anything more outraged at the suggestion that this was some kind of trial by fire, and that reviews of his future works would be correspondingly gentler), and 2) Keats died three years later, of consumption, in Rome. And since the very moment #2 happened, half the nincompoops in the Western world have been trying to prove #1 caused it. In this issue of the TLS, Barnard comes as close as a cautious soul could dare to joining the nincompoops.

Keats' friends started the whole business almost as soon as he died, hinting and then outright saying the depression caused by bad reviews broke Keats, laid him open to the "decline" that eventually killed him. Lord Byron - never a big fan of Keats while Keats was alive, although a grudging but honest admirer after his death (Byron's gracious responses were often tardy but never failed to appear) - told a friend that "poor John Keats died in Rome of the Quarterly Review" and inserted the famous line into Don Juan about Keats being "snuffed out by an article," and the idea caught on. It's the silliest damn thing going, and Barnard's subject in this Commentary is Charles Cowden Clarke, a long-time intimate friend, cheerleader, and sometime-mentor to Keats.

In 1821, Clarke wrote a long letter to the Morning Chronicle describing how badly those negative reviews hurt young Keats' feelings:

If it will be any gratification to Mr. Gifford [the dastardly reviewer, he assumed] to know how much he contributed to the discomfort of a generous mind, I can so far satisfy it by informing him, that Keats has lain awake through the whole night talking with sensative-bitterness of the unfair treatment he had experienced ...

Twenty-five years later, Clarke (who was a good-natured if egotistical boob - a combination that can perhaps be gleaned by the fact that he had his doe-eyed amiable face painted smack-dab between Chaucer and Shakespeare) wrote up a formal memoir of Keats and published it in The Atlantic Monthly, but in this much earlier letter, Clarke describes Keats' first meeting with the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. Haydon asks Keats if he loves his country, and Clarke writes, "how the blood rushed to his cheeks and the tears to his eyes, at his energetic reply."

Barnard takes that line and has an insinuation field-day with it, writing: "... Keats's ardent patriotism, and the swiftness of his physical responses when emotionally aroused, are both well attested."

Yes, but there's a bit of difference between getting all gushy over love of England and up and dying because Blackwood's hated your book. As Barnard himself reports, we have plenty of accounts that say Keats shrugged off his critical savaging fairly quickly - and his own letters testify eloquently to two facts: 1) he never stopped writing poetry, even during the worst of his critical reception, and 2) he never seems to have seriously doubted that his poetry would make his name immortal. The little tobacco addict was just about as tiny and epicene as an adult human being could physically be, but he was every bit as tough as Lord Byron (who often said that after his own early critical drubbing he drank three bottles of claret and got back to work) when it came down to it.

Clarke loved insinuating otherwise - that this brave young hart of his was drawn and bayed by savage book critics, those purveyors of "coarse pandarism to depraved appetites," those launchers of "the torpedo touch," those deployers of "the pikes and bayonets of literary mercenaries" - and it looks like John Barnard is willing to second him.

But I'm one of those literary mercenaries (and I am, on occasion, rather proud of my torpedo touch), and I say enough's enough! It was plain old Mycobacterium tuberculosis that killed John Keats, who would otherwise have gone right on writing gorgeous poetry no matter what a hundred Quarterly Reviews had to say about it.


Sam said...

All hail your torpedo touch!

Why is it that back then even the boobs wrote interesting prose?

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