The epitaph John Keats composed for his own gravestone – ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ – seemingly damned him to oblivion. When he died at the age of twenty-five, having taken a battering from the conservative press, few critics imagined he would be considered one of the great English poets two hundred years later, though he himself had an inkling. In this brief life, Lucasta Miller takes Keats’s best-known poems – the ones you are most likely to have read – and excavates their backstories.
In doing so, she resurrects the real Keats: a lower-middle-class outsider from a tragic and dysfunctional family, whose extraordinary energy and love of language allowed him to pummel his way into the heart of English literature; a freethinker and a liberal at a time of repression; a human being who delighted in the sensation of the moment; but a complex individual, not the ethereal figure of his posthumous myth. Combining close-up readings of his writings with the story of his brief but teeming existence, Lucasta Miller shows us how Keats made his poetry, and explains why it retains its vertiginous originality and continues to speak to us across the generations.