Issue 192 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
A generation of poets was inspired by the French Revolution of 1789, but by the time England defeated France at the battle of Waterloo in 1815 these poets had become extremely conservative. Years of acute social crisis followed Waterloo--the years of the Luddite risings, the Pentridge rebellion and the reform movement--which shaped the work of a new generation of radical poets: Shelley, Byron and Keats.
The political works of all these poets have been systematically buried, but John Keats's reputation has probably suffered the most. The facts of Keats's life--his unfulfilled love for Fanny Brawne and his early death--confirm him as the archetypal poet. His contemporaries believed his death was hastened by his sensitivity when he read bad reviews of his work. Byron wrote sneeringly but with typical wit, 'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle/Should let itself be snuffed out by an article.' Even Shelley, who admired Keats, described him as, 'Like a pale flower by some sad maiden cherished'.
In reality John Keats was a passionately committed political writer, whose life was a battle against poverty and ill health. He was the son of a stable hand, left school at 14, was apprenticed to a doctor at 16 but gave up this job to write poetry. He was poor all his life, too poor to vote, or marry Fanny or deal with the tuberculosis which killed many of his close family, including his beloved brother Tom in 1818, and eventually himself. He refused to be ashamed of his origins despite the vicious attacks of his reviewers who were as offended by his low birth as by his politics.
His first volume of poetry, published in 1817, established him firmly in the radical camp. It was dedicated to his friend Leigh Hunt who had been imprisoned for breaking the draconian censorship laws. His hostility to the British ruling class was confirmed when, after Waterloo, Keats wrote defiantly:
Keats hated the British army, which occupied many areas of Britain. He wrote that, in the countryside, poppies:
The language Keats used, constantly referring to 'us' and 'we' and 'them' and 'they' and 'man' and 'universal knowledge', would have instantly identified him with radicals like Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. He also explicitly challenged leading figures in the establishment. He reversed Edmund Burke's infamous description of the 'swinish multitude' when he wrote:
Keats did not write revolutionary poetry, but he wrote poetry which represented revolution. In Endymion, for example, he describes a mass demonstration, like those taking place in Britain. He also describes how the ruling class, like foxes with their tails burning, 'sear up and singe/Our gold and ripe eared hopes'.
This passage was so subversive that one reviewer accused the youngest member of the 'Cockney School' of having learnt to 'lisp sedition'. A later reworking of the same theme in Hyperion describes a revolution in a mythical world, in a way which suggests that great change bringing violence and upheaval is inevitable,
Selective readings of Keats concentrate on the later poems he wrote. But many of his poems, like The Eve of St Agnes and Isabella, would have been considered as a direct challenge to all political and moral orthodoxy of the time because they celebrate unrestrained sexuality.
Keats is often treated as a poet only interested in beauty, and Ode on a Grecian Urn, with its famous lines, 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty--that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know' is often quoted as evidence. But this poem was written in the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre of August 1819, when demonstrators were mown down by troops. In this context the poem has a very different meaning. It describes a mass meeting like the recent gathering at Peterloo. The image of ancient Greece would have represented a successful democratic and sexually liberated society, that having once existed may return. None of the odes confirm the idea of Keats as apolitical, but rather give a picture of a poet struggling with himself against retreat into purely personal fears and pleasures.
Keats wrote some of the richest and most evocative poems in the English language. He was committed to an egalitarian vision of the imagination:
He held true to his egalitarian beliefs, all his short life. By 1820 Keats was seriously ill and he travelled to Rome seeking a cure. He died there the following year but his last poem was defiantly optimistic. His friend Charles Brown wrote, 'It may be said, he died with his pen wielded in the cause of reform.'