Here is an odd thing when you are researching and writing the biography of a man like Keats: One of the questions that is, I suppose, forefront in your mind is “what kind of a person makes a great poet”. It is a generic question that is rendered redundant as soon as you begin to learn about the traits of the individual.
I suppose I don’t really know what one of the greatest English poets would look like, or how he might behave in his day to day life. Once upon a time it was fashionable to depict a poet as being other-worldly, living in a fantastical place of his own creation, detached from the here and now and ocasionally spouting profoundly meaningful snippets and phrases. Then he would fall back self-satisfied, tortured and exhausted from the creative effort. Or else, latterly in monochrome images he would look sternly into a mirror, at you – not himself – with a facial expression that mocked either you, himself or both. He would pout in a troubled manner that in some indefinable way either made him look fragile and frail, easily damaged, vulnerable, angry – and attractive but intellectually aloof and untouchable.
One wouldn’t perhaps expect a great poet to be ashamed of himself for not starting a punch-up in a theatre because someone had insulted him. Keats, on the other hand would do just that. (He didn’t start a punch-up, by the way, because he had a girl on his arm whom he wanted to impress. He had an eye for the girls, did John).
The same poet capable of such exquisite expression as Endymion, and who could tear your heart out with life philosophy as profound as the soul itself, and who could soften hearts with musings on love not to mention lust – in short a poet whose words were weaponised, against which ordinary mortals have little defence. He was one who, in more ways than one, broke the mould.
He had something to be angry about. His father died when Keats was a boy and left him weeping and distraught – and had it not been for a teacher who took him under his wing we might never have seen the genius that later developed. Such is the complex chemistry of human personality that in some, when terrible life events strike they cleave open a pathway to a place most of us will never have access, a place where absolutely every element of human experience, excruciatingly accentuated, hang together in a terrible and delicate balance. In this place some – like Keats – are able to describe what they see. It might be a place of waking dreams in which their characters, while by day no different from ours, are able to describe layers of life that we don’t see. They can describe the glorious beauty of love, life, laughter in brilliant, shining colour so that we cannot help but see it with them – while they hold our hand – but equally they can gaze into a darkness blacker than black upon horrors that are mercifully hidden from us – but still they can describe them so that we feel deeply uncomfortable.
Keats would talk about the girls from the bonnet shop, he would write to friends and relate stories of drinking and fighting, and of his brothers terminal illness. Of ordinary life.
If we were to look around our social circle today, there will certainly be those who have known some hardship; there will be some who have had a tough life and who have against all odds battled through and perhaps in one of them is the spark that one day will be recognised as the next Keats. One thing I know for sure, the next Keats, (or Dickens, or Babbage for that matter) – will not be what you might expect.