The bear-bait­ing poet and his go-get­ting brother

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Robert Gray

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-

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