The bear-baiting poet and his go-getting brother
THIS book reminds us of something most biographies of John Keats leave out, that the poet of Ode to a Nightingale and other monuments to the English language and to poetic sensibility was an enthusiast for bear-baiting.
Such disappointing news can be contained by an insight W B Yeats expresses: ‘‘ all the ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’’.
So excited was Keats at his sadistic entertainment that he once leapt into the ring to encourage the bear, where it was chained to a post and set upon by dogs, and was driven out by the ringmaster with a whip. Though given poems, he was also knuckle prize fights.
Keats had an impassioned and volatile nature, and was remembered from his schooldays for brawling (even though, when fully-grown, he was only 1.5m tall). His brother George hero-worshipped him, for his gift, shared in the growth of his literary tastes, was 30cm taller, stood between him and the world, and was charming and sociable where John was awkward. They divided the world between them; one to be the man of power and one the man of genius.
John Keats’s life has been well told numerous times, but this latest book is twothirds given over to George.
The Keats children were orphaned early, in their schooldays: their father fell off a horse, probably drunk; their mother (and her brother) died of tuberculosis. The parents were lease-holders of a tavern and left little money; the grandparents provided to swooning in his a devotee of bare-