Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph by Lucasta Miller

The subtitle of Lucasta Miller’s Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph tells you most of what you need to know about the book’s contents. It is essentially composed of three elements: 1) a mini-anthology of Keats’s poetry, 2) critical readings of those poems, and 3) a well-written biography of the great Romantic poet. Each component of the book receives thoughtful attention, making this Brief Life a satisfying entry in the long list of Keats biographies.

Each chapter begins with the poem on which Miller will focus, and the simple act of rereading Keats’s work is itself rewarding. For an English major of a certain age, it can take a lot of energy to re-see poems as famous as “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “To Autumn,” but knowing they will be discussed in detail immediately afterwards adds an urgency to an otherwise very familiar encounter. Overall, the poems are likely to be as magnificent as a reader remembers them, though I would make a couple of exceptions. It had been a good while since I’d read the two longish poems—Isabella;, or the Pot of Basil and “The Eve of St. Agnes”—and I can affirm that they are both pretty weird, especially the former, which involves decapitation an a lot of emoting. Keats is clearly at his best when his work is most compressed, and I doubt the loss of either Isabella or “Eve” would have been much lamented had they not been written by such an important poet.

Miller describes herself as a “literary and cultural journalist,” which is overall a blessing when it comes to her unpacking of the poems. Unlike, say, a jargon-dependent Keats scholar, Miller explains the poems fully and intelligently, without resorting to the deadening language of literary theory. Commenting on Isabella, she writes: “In making a basil plant flourish literally out of a severed head, it’s as if Keats took this image and pushed it to a gruesome near-satirical extreme. Certainly, Isabella is not a work that lends itself to the headline ‘Happy Poetry Preferred.’” The first sentence of that quote just might appear in a scholarly journal. The second would not. Again, though, it’s Miller’s willingness to entertain that keeps Keats from becoming merely a book for specialists. Once in a while, she wanders down a rabbit hole—as in her extended exploration of the final stanza of “To Autumn” as a coded reference to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819—but generally she knows just how far to take her readings.

Above all, Lucasta Miller is an able biographer. The chronological arrangement of the poems allows her to tell Keats’s story in a lucent manner, and she’s particularly good at digging into the granularity of his life. Here she is, for instance, describing whether or not he should be considered a cockney: “Keats would in fact have qualified as a traditional cockney under the Bow bells stipulation [i.e., he was born within the sound of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside] if he was born at the Swan and Hoop.” And we see her willingness to look straight at ugly truths in her description of the poet two and a half months before his death: “A massive pulmonary hemorrhage on December 9, in which Keats ‘vomited near two Cup-fuls of blood’ was followed by nine days of serious blood spitting.”

Granted, at time Keats does read a bit slow. Partly that’s due to the fact that many of the most exciting parts of the poet’s life took place in his imagination, which Miller is determined to explore thoroughly, even when the evidence is less than plentiful. However, she is usually spot-on in deciding what to include and what to leave out, and especially for those who are coming to Keats for the first time, her biography is a valuable addition to the literature on one of the finest English poets.