Why Keats is now my favourite Romantic poet.

Like a lot of people who’ve read a lot of poetry, I had my phase when I read the Romantics. I was always rather sniffy about Keats, however. Taking my cue from a very fine teacher whose class I was very lucky to be in, and who was very much a Shelley man, I took the view that Keats fundamentally “had nothing to say”. It was all Odes to this and that and well-tuned, finely-wrought (overwrought?) stuff about things that didn’t really matter.

You could give me the sturm and drang, the passion and cynical humour of Byron. Or better still the intensity of Shelley, with his tempestuous imagination and his wide-ranging taste for experimentation.

Now my tastes have changed. There are still bits of Keats that I don’t much care for (his ‘comic’ verse, perhaps, and his taste for slightly whimsical stuff every now and again). But credit where it’s due: as a technician, as a craftsman, as a man with the sense of which is the right sounding word with just the right sense, he has very few equals. It was reading a biography of the italian writer Giuseppe Tomassi di Lampedusa (of The Leopard fame) that got me thinking about Keats again. Tomassi was exceptionally well read in other literatures, especially english, and he considered Keats’s work, especially the famed Odes, to be one of the crowning glories of the language. I took a look at them again and decided he was right.

What I see in Keats now is someone whose passion matched Shelley’s; whose technical skill matched Byron’s; whose imagination could be as wild as Coleridge’s; whose ability to take his own personal thoughts and reflections and make them applicable to his readers in such an enlightening and sympathetic way was the equal of Wordsworth’s.

Where he outdid them all was in his mastery of brevity, and I think that this is one of his great qualities. Put simply, at his very best, I think that Keats says what he wants to say and that’s it. Yes, he wrote long poems, but even these don’t come across as being half so long winded and ponderous as- for example- Wordsworth’s Prelude.

He only had a short time to live, and of course he knew it. I think, then, that this lends his poetry a seriousness of intent and a level-headed and unflinching quality when it comes to confronting some of the very big human themes. It also gives his very best work a refreshingly crisp directness. John Keats, therefore,  is one of my favourite English poets because with him there is no flannel and barely any messing around. The only annoying thing is that it’s taken me so long to realise it.

I now think that rather than being someone who “had nothing to say”, Keats is someone with so much to say, and who says it so much better than most others.

 

When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,

Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,

Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starred 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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What have en english war hero, a Romantic wanderer and a heavy metal pioneer got in common?

Nothing much, except for they’ve all had books written about them and I’ve read them all. This post throws together three different books: two on Byronic literary adventurers, and one on that fierce heavy metal innovator Tony Iommi.

Patrick Leigh Fermor.

plf

Put your fag out and get on with it man! PLF at home in Greece, taking a break from writing.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in the english travel writer since his death in 2011. Last year his biography was published to virtually universal acclaim, and now it’s out in paperback. To cap it all, the third and final instalment of Leigh Fermor’s travel memoir recalling his epic walk across Europe in the 1930’s, The Broken Road, is to appear in the UK in September of this year.

Like probably everyone else who has read it, I enjoyed Artemis Cooper’s biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure. As his literary executor she is obviously a safe pair of hands to give us an overview of  his life. It helps if you have five star material to work with in the first place. To her credit Cooper takes no chances and produces a workmanlike narrative,  and in so doing avoids making a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.

I would recommend this book to anyone. However, I had reservations about it when I read it the first time around, and I still have them now. By the way, just to emphasise that I’m not having a dig at Cooper, these are similar to reservations I’ve had about other biographies in the past.

1) How do you avoid producing a lopsided biography, when your subject’s early life was so full of incident and the remainder was comparitively more sedate? By lopsided I mean devoting so much focus and so many pages to the incident filled first part, that the remainder of the book reads like a rushed afterthought the writer has been obliged to include. When I read the Leigh Fermor bio I was reminded of books I’d read about footballers and rock stars, where the life lived in their 20s and 30s was of such overwhelming interest, that the rest was quite obviously of less commercial value and was therefore whittled down to the bare minimum. The final few decades of Leigh Fermor’s life often felt like they were covered, to borrow a phrase of his, “in tearing haste”.

Perhaps the ending of a biography is best thought of like a plane journey: you want an orderly, well-paced descent to the end, not a crash landing.

2) Why rely mainly on printed sources if you can use other ones too? I was struck by one thing in this book: there was a relative lack of interview material. There’re probably acceptable reasons for this, such as most of the people who knew him being dead, but there are people who knew him who are still alive (a few of whom were spoken to), and I wonder why Leigh Fermor himself wasn’t interviewed at length for this book. Perhaps it wasn’t practical to do so, but either way it’s a shame. Samuel Beckett’s official biographer James Knowlson was unable to complete his interviews with the Irishman before he died, but what material Knowlson had he put in his book to great effect.

I have to be honest here and say that before I read the biography I’d read In Tearing Haste, the collection of letters between PLF and Deborah Devonshire. That these sketch the broad outline of of PLF’s post-war life, and that Cooper quotes liberally from them, suggests this was one of her main sources of material. Cooper of all people was best placed to have gone further than this.

3) Unanswered questions. The book kept me interested because PLF’s life itself was a gripping affair and made for a good story, but what it seemed light on was much sustained attempt to interpret his behaviour.  Biographers don’t have to be  psychologists, but personally I think it makes for a better book if there’s some attempt to explore motives and motivations, to identify patterns of behaviour across the course of a life.  It’s something that a biographer is sometimes better placed to do than someone writing their own story (see Tony Iommi below). For me, the great unanswered question in this biography is why wasn’t PLF the writer more prolific? Why couldn’t he get volume three of his travel memoir finished? One of the parts I found funniest relates to the 1960s, where PLF was commissioned to write 2,000 words on the war in Crete for a compendium volume about battles of the Second World War. Deadlines came and went, attempts were made to write the piece. It then spiralled out of control into far more than 2,000 words. He tried to cut it. He failed. The piece eventually went unpublished and the publisher who made the original commission ended up bitterly regretting it.  I suspect similar games ensued when he tried to get Volume Three of the travel memoir down on paper.

Although Cooper makes some attempt to explain this, I never felt like I got a clear answer. I can infer all sorts of things for myself, but what if there’s a key to it all that we aren’t being told? I spy the opportunity for another biography a few years down the line here!

Edward John Trelawney

tralawney

The cover of David Crane’s biography, showing a portrait of Trelawney as he wished to be seen, the rakish Romantic hero.

After I’d finished Cooper’s book, it occurred to me it was like another biography I’d read years ago, Lord Byron’s Jackal by David Crane. Its subject is Edward john Trelawney, a complicated figure who became part of the Byron- Shelley circle in 1820’s Italy. After Shelley’s death Trelawney went to Greece with Byron to fight in the war of independence there. Trelawney proceeded to take an active part in the war and was almost killed. These were the crucial events of the first third of his life, but as is the way with biographies they take up a good three quarters of the the book.

What Crane does, however, is use all of the available sources to make sure that he gives fitting coverage to the second half of Trelawney’s life. You can forgive Crane for not dwelling too much on the time he spent as a farmer in rural Wales. But he is excellent in describing Trelawney’s move back to London as an older man, where he found fame among a new generation of writers and artists, milking his status as a friend of Byron and Shelley’s for all it was worth.

The constant thread of argument running through this book is also very interesting and convincing. Trelawney was essentially a nobody who desperately wanted to be a somebody. By the time he arrived in Italy and joined the poets’ circle he had invented an entire life story for himself, involving high adventure that he had never truly known. Irony of ironies, though, once in the orbit of true greats he found himself living a genuinely dramatic existence, and was able to match up to it. The result was his being forever woven into Romantic legend, and his becoming something of a legend in his own lifetime.

Tony Iommi

iommi

After starting the first draft of his autobiography himself, Tony realised that he’d need a lot of speaker cones to cover his whole life story, so decided to hire a ghostwriter with a dictaphone.

Iommi’s book Iron Man: My Journey through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath is one of those show business books where the subject basically sits down and speaks into the ghost writer’s dictaphone. The saving grace here, though, is that the scribe has barely done anything to the prose, save for taking out the umms and ers. If you’ve ever heard Iommi interviewed you’ll know that not only is he the man of a thousand riffs, but he’s also got just as many good stories to tell, the fruits of a rock and roll life.  Told in a down-to-earth, deadpan style in best West Midlands tradition, this is one of the best rock books I have ever read. It literally is just one bloke telling his own story with no attempts at lengthy self analysis or justification. I mean how can you really explain setting fire to the drummer or even painting the poor bloke gold? These are just the stories, take them or leave them, make of them what you will.  Similarly his attempt to explain taking vast amounts of cocaine doesn’t get much past “it was there, we were bored between gigs, I liked it at first but then it took hold”. Is there much else to say? Unlike the big question mark over PLF’s writing  methods (see above) Iommi justifies the matter of fact approach.  

It’s to Iommi’s credit that he avoids the psychobabble that too many rock books get mired in.  He also pulls no punches about the darker years. It would have been easy to produce a ‘lopsided’ life, focussed mainly on the 70’s glory days and fast forwarding to the late 90’s revival and eventual elevation to rock legend status,  but instead the book is made stronger by giving equal coverage to all parts of his career.