It’s always fun to wonder what might have become of talented artists who died young. John Keats, the Romantic poet, died of tuberculosis only six years after he began composing poetry. In John Keats: A New Life, Nicholas Roe indulges in some counter-historical speculation by raising the question of whether Keats would have become a novelist had he lived past 25.
Keats only published three volumes of poetry in his lifetime, and his work was derided as “drivelling idiocy” by reviewers and failed to sell. He died penniless, shortly after abandoning the medical training that he had spent the last of his meagre savings to take up. Fiction writers like Charles Dickens, on the other hand, were making unheard of sums by serialising their work in periodicals.
Roe detects in Keats’s letters “Dickens-like powers of observation and expression”, and an eye for character and composition that could have led Keats to tackle fiction. It is true that much of Keats’s best poetry already centres around strong narratives, as in The Eve of St. Agnes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and the unfinished “Hyperion”.
Little touches in Keats’s correspondence and conversation show that he had a novelist’s, as well as a poet’s, eye. He is funny: “It seems that the only end to be gained in acquiring French is the immense accomplishment of speaking it.” He is cynical: “A man should have the fine point of his soul taken off to become fit for this world.” As you’d expect, he is romantic. To Fanny Brawne he confesses: “I wish you could invent some means to make me at all happy without you. Every hour I am more and more concentrated in you; everything tastes like chaff in my mouth.” And he can even be amusingly irreligious: “In the name of Shakespeare, Raphael, and all our saints, I commend you to the care of heaven!”
The ability to weave these flashes of insight into fictional form might have come with age. If Keats had lived, he might have decided to tackle a new literary genre – if only to pay the bills.