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John Keats: A New Life Hardcover – November 13, 2012
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Keats has been overburdened by the recent biographies of Stephen Coote (1995), Andrew Motion (1997), Stanley Plumly (2008), R. S. White (2010), and Denise Gigante (2011). Desperately striving for originality, Roe states, “This book begins with a new account of his family and earliest childhood and finds in London’s inner city and shape-shifting edges the beginnings of his life as a poet.” He also, unconvincingly, describes the tiny Keats as “a smart, streetwise creature—restless, pugnacious, sexually adventurous.” But Roe’s excessively detailed week-by-week account is academic and dull, with scores of dubious speculations. His commonplace comments on the poems do not explain Keats’ astonishing progress after turning out a mass of mediocre verse, nor do they significantly illuminate the suddenly great poetry of his “miraculous year.” Roe repeats the familiar story of Keats’ tormented love for the shallow and self-absorbed Fanny Brawne and his inexorable destruction by the tuberculosis that led to his premature feeling of “the cold earth upon” him before his tragic death in Rome at the age of 25. Large public libraries that need every Keats biography should order this one, but others can skip it. --Jeffrey Meyers
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Top Customer Reviews
Mr. Roe's book catalogues the people, time, and place, extending his biography of Keats into a social, political, and economic history of England in early post-Napoleonic times, all of which is interesting in itself and useful in understanding Keats and his work.
One quibbles only reluctantly (I barely graduated from high school, and am not worthy to unlace Mr. Roe's well-worn hiking boots or diagram one of his sentences): Mr. Roe occasionally lapses into slang ("box-office smash") and the first-person voice, perhaps in order to be more accessible, but this could with time sound as creaky as "Dig those cool hepcats, man." The sources, almost all primary, are well-documented but never collected into a bibliography.
The typeface of the Yale edition is far too small, and even after a first reading the spine continues to crackle as if it is going to fall apart, none of which is Mr. Roe's fault of course! I would happily have paid more for larger volume with larger print and a quieter binding that does not remind one of Miss Pittypat calling to the long-suffering Uncle Peter for her smelling salts.
Roe simply says much less on some points to which Motion gave special attention. For example, one gets the sense of the dire and relentless financial straits that Keats was under from Motion, whereas money is mentioned far less by Roe and without imparting a sense of the strain and turmoil those problems posed for Keats. Similarly, Motion gives the reader a very dim view of Abbey; in Roe’s book, Abbey plays a much smaller role and does not seem in the least villainous. Roe also does not address the events following Keats’s death, the epilogue, which serves valuable purposes. At this point, we need to know what became of the other characters in the drama: Fanny, his sister Fanny, George, and Brown, among others. Also some words on Keats’s legacy are needed as one can hardly bear to bid him farewell after so many hundreds of pages without considering the destiny of his poetry as consolation.
I was more annoyed than pleased with this book and conclude that it did not add to my understanding of John Keats.
Vincent F. Petronella
Professor of English Emeritus
University of Massachusetts Boston