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John Keats – Poetry, Life and Landscape by Suzie Grogan. Guest review by Vic Keegan. 

keats coverKeats easily passes the longevity test for a great poet. He is still revered 200 years after his death on 21 February 1821 and is always known by his surname. No one ever says John Keats, remarkable for someone who died so young and didn’t leave a huge back catalogue.

Unlike so many great poets from Spencer and Milton onwards, once he had left Guy’s Hospital, he didn’t have a day job; his life was dedicated to becoming a great poet which he worked at remorselessly through thick and thin and ups and downs.

Suzie Grogan has had a loving relationship with Keats’s poetry since childhood and has written a fascinating new biography, beautifully illustrated, concentrating on places that might have inspired the poetry. She follows in the poet’s footsteps from London to Oxford, the Isle of Wight, Teignmouth, the Lake District, Scotland, Chichester, Winchester and to his final journey to Rome where he died and is buried.

It turns out that it is much easier to locate places that inspired Keats from his letters rather than the poems, which usually rose above location.

Keats was, of course, a Londoner, an East Londoner, baptised in a font that is still there in Bishopsgate at the church of St Botolph who, by happenstance was the patron saint of boundaries and travel as if anticipating Keats’s appetite to wander. He was brought up in Moorfields, Enfield and Hampstead but it is difficult to tie many of his words to a London base.

One delightful exception is the still-beautiful Ode to a Nightingale, written in Hampstead during the time of his greatest creativity, around 1819. There are not many nightingales in London – least of all in Berkeley Square! – but this was based on notes taken while Keats was actually listening to a nightingale in a nearby nest.

The author makes painstaking efforts to trace the sources of Keats’s inspiration including linking Chichester Cathedral with the Eve of St Agnes and La Belle Dame Sans Merci with his visit to the Lake District a year earlier. Some are obvious, such as references to Ben Nevis and Robert Burns, but what shines through are not so much direct links as her infectiously loving search for the soul of Keats, the fruits of a lifetime’s dedication.

Newcomers to Keats’s poetry would perhaps have liked to see more of what success he had during his lifetime and whether he actually earned any significant reward from lifelong toil during which, like the author, he was ill for much of the time.

Keats died young only 25 years old when he was at the height of his powers and left a timeless legacy. One can only wonder what could have been achieved had he lived longer. This book goes some way to answering that and is a lovely addition to our knowledge of the inner Keats.

John Keats Poetry, Life and Landscapes by Suzie Grogan, Pen-and-Sword £19.99

Vic Keegan’s recently published Lost London.

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