John Keats

by Amy Lowell. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1925. Two volumes. Large 8vo. Illustrated. xx+1303 pp. $12.50.
MISS AMY LOWELL’S long-awaited study of John Keats is published at last in two stout and sumptuous volumes. It is a remarkable and in some respects a unique feat of literary biography. Her aim has been to utilize the rich material acquired by herself and other American collectors, and to incorporate it in a new life of the poet. She disclaims any intention of supplanting existing biographies, but her patience and luck as a collector have been so singular, and her zeal for her subject so untiring, that no future critic or biographer of Keats can possibly dispense with her achievement .
Bart of the extraordinary interest of her book is due, no doubt, to the inherent fascination of the subject. Part of it is due to her endeavor to explain Keats in the light of what she calls the ‘mental impulse’ of the present century. She is perfectly sincere in believing that ‘students of modern psychology’ and of the ‘subconscious brain’ can understand Keats better than the nineteenth century could understand him. ‘Sexual psychology was not. in the least understood a century ago’ — a dictum, by the way, which would amuse Byron and Stendhal. A far more important element in the success of the book is I the robust good sense and womanly sympathy with which the daily life of Keats and his friends is presented, with a detail never before attempted. Sir Sidney Colvin is a more expert master of biographical prose, as Oliver Elton is of critical prose, but neither of these students of Keats has succeeded like Miss Lowell in giving the reader the sense of everyday contact with the actual poet. In picturing his friends, she is uncommonly fortunate with Haydon, Brown, and Severn. Her Leigh Hunt seems less vivid, perhaps because one remembers the incomparable portraits of Hunt by Carlyle. The story of Severn and Keats during the tragic final weeks in Rome is told with a realism that makes it almost unbearably poignant. But Miss Lowell’s greatest triumph in interpretation of character is with Fanny Brawne. She says modestly that her discovery of hitherto unknown letters by this young woman makes Hiss Brawne ‘for the first time plausible.’ It is more than that. For the first, time Fanny Brawne really lives upon the printed page, and this fact alone would justify a new biography of her lover.
It is impossible here to do more than indicate the nature of Miss Lowell’s contributions to the criticism of Keats’s poetry. Herself an accomplished poet, she brings to the interpretation of the great odes and sonnets the taste and insight of a fellow craftsman. Her knowledge of the art of China and Japan prompts some curiously interesting observations upon Keats’s visual and tactile imagery. Her long and learned chapter upon Endymion calls for more extended discussion than this brief notice will admit. Her investigation of the sources of Keats’s poems has been indefatigable, and the results will provoke the keenest interest among scholars. Of greater value for the general public, perhaps, will be the illustrations — reproduced from her own priceless collection and from many other hitherto inaccessible sources — of the variant readings of the Keats manuscripts and of his marginal annotations of some of his favorite books, notably Spenser. The bibliophile in Miss Lowell here combines most happily with the critic and biographer.
It is regrettable, of course, that all this wealth of illustrative material and this enthusiastic copiousness of narrative make the volumes too Costly for many of the young men and women who would learn most from them. But since Miss Lowell’s book is literally invaluable to lovers of Keats, they had better follow that poet’s own example and borrow money recklessly for this full ‘draught of vintage.’ It will be thirteen hundred pages of pleasure for less than a cent a page.