Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Keats Brothers

My book for most of March was Denise Gigante's recent dual biography of John and George Keats. Of the the Romantic poets, John died the youngest at 25 years, followed closely by Shelley, then Byron. By contrast, their predecessor, William Wordsworth lived to be an old man (80 years). I've always been fascinated by these poets (not to leave out Coleridge) and it's always been a teasing question for me and many others: what would John Keats have produced if he had lived as long as Wordsworth or even reached Byron's age of 36? Much of his most treasured output was written within a single, astonishing year from 1818 to 1819 -- six great odes, including "On a Grecian Urn" and "To a Nightingale," plus "Lamia," "The Eve of St. Agnes," "Hyperion," and "La Belle Dame sans Merci." All of this he wrote after he witnessed his youngest brother Tom die horribly of consumption at age 19 and watched another brother, George, emigrate to the backwoods of America in an effort to make the family's fortune.

In the early 1800s many English did as George did, hearing of the great promise of the new country and bountiful tracts of unclaimed land. George's initial plan was to follow on to the so-called "English Prairie" in the footsteps of pioneering Englishman Morris Birkbeck. This "promised land" was roughly Indiana and the Illinois Territory (what is now Illinois and parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan), larger than England and Wales together and bounded on the south by the Ohio River.

Gigante's focus is on the relationship between George and John (who was the oldest) until they parted ways, and then she follows their paths separately as George tried to make his way in a new country with a young wife (and child on the way) and John spiraled quickly toward a death that he knew was coming. The brushstrokes of John's story were known to me, but ever since I realized George Keats was one of the foremost citizens of my adopted hometown of Louisville, KY, I've wanted to know more about how that came to be. I knew there was a Keats Ave. in my neighborhood, that George Keats was a prosperous mill owner and businessman, and that he was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery. That was about it.

George's story is one of good intentions and really terrible timing -- at least for the good of the other Keats siblings. (They had one sister Fanny, the youngest, who lived with their guardian, a tea merchant named Richard Abbey. Both the Keats' parents and grandparents were dead.) When he left England in 1818, a starry-eyed Londoner headed for frontier America across the Allegheny Mountains, Tom was sick and dying, they were all short on money, and John -- God bless him -- was trying to make a living as a poet. His first published poems were ill-received by critics, with Byron going so far as to say that a harsh review led to his early demise. But George was, in Gigante's characterization, "the man of power" as John was "the man of genius." Though younger, he was also the social, enterprising, strong "money-brother." However, the first thing George realized after sailing down the Ohio from Pittsburgh and getting his first reconnoiter with the "promised land" of Indiana, was that he was not cut out for clearing wilderness and living in a rough cabin.

The fledgling settlement of Louisville on the Kentucky side of the Ohio started looking a lot more enticing for a man of business. He made friends with John James Audubon who was living in Red Banks, KY, and who eventually helped bankrupt him the first time on a steamboat venture that ruined them both. Now George was in a pickle and had to go back to England on a short and desperate money-raising trip in 1820. He saw John briefly; they felt estranged, and when he left, John was in debt and had no money to draw from, even though he was already dangerously ill. To John's friends, George was a villain for leaving his brother in such a condition. Gigante makes a case for George -- that he felt he had no choice, that he was trying to make money to right the family's fortunes and help provide relief for John as well as support his wife and child. For John, his wealth would arrive far too late. He was dead and buried in Italy by the end of February 1821 and George had raised no money to send him. I'll leave off with a poem by John, and write more about how things turned out for George in Louisville in another post.

When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be
by John Keats

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charactry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

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