Verge Reviews: John Keats by Nicholas Roe

john keats

A 400 page biography of a Romantic poet isn’t exactly breezy beach reading, but for John Keats I make an exception.

The book starts with an event that lays the groundwork for understanding Keats’s life, poetry, and mind– the mysterious death of his father in Bunhill Burial Grounds. And honestly if you want an example of a fantastic introduction, look no further. The first paragraph describes how Keats’s father fell off his horse, smashed his skull, and that the watchman who found him “remarked on the amount of blood” there was. That’s how you get a readers attention.

Keats is one of literature’s most well known, well respected poets who literally wanted to fight everyone he met. Instead of the quiet, sensitive image normally associated with the poet, Nicholas Roe paints a tremendously real picture of Keats.  He gives us the aggressive, opium addicted, morbid poet. The human side of the Romantic ideal. Keats was an emotionally troubled and incredibly passionate man who sincerely loved poetry and thought his life would end without it. A man who became an apothecary at Guy’s Hospital while simultaneously running in the creative circles of Percy Shelly, Leigh Hunt, and Benjamin Haydon.

He also had a picture of Shakespeare hanging up in his room so don’t let anyone tell you that the One Direction poster you still have up is weird. To each their own.

If Shakespeare and Keats aren’t your thing, you haven’t looked at poetry in years, and shudder at the thought of trying to dissect allegories, you’re in luck as Roe does a phenomenal job of breaking down Keats’s poems. The next time you’re on a date and they ask, “What do you make of Keats’s ‘Hyperion’? Isn’t it just amazing how beautifully he uses Greek mythology to portray England’s paralysis in the early 1800s?”, you’ll be able to fire back with, “Absolutely, but what I find much more intriguing is how he makes reference to his own past throughout the poem and how brilliantly he masks his personal life as an epic poetic myth.”

Despite the fact that this book was written by a professional researcher, the language doesn’t get too dense. Your vocabulary will definitely get an upgrade, but Roe is able to find a good balance between scholarly and approachable. The only time it gets a bit unmanageable is during long interpretations of poems where Keats pulls the majority of influence from Milton, or Spenser, or Virgil.

Finishing this book made me a bit teary. Not because I didn’t know how it ended but because of how Roe wraps it all up. After reading so many intimate details of Keats’s life it’s almost like you’ve been on the journey with him and were sitting at his bedside as he passed away.

This immersive biography is readable for a range of literary enthusiasts from the hobbyist to the academic.

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