Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph by Lucasta Miller - review by Sean O'Brien

Sean O'Brien

Drunk on Birdsong

Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph


Jonathan Cape 368pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

Lucasta Miller’s devotion to Keats is everywhere apparent in this interesting yet infuriating book, written to mark the 2021 bicentenary of the poet’s death. Keats begins with a consideration of ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’. The author then moves on in turn to the opening of Endymion, ‘Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil’, ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ and ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ before discussing three of the odes and ending with ‘Bright star’. It’s a coherent selection and Miller, though not a scholar, is well read in the field. But the passages of practical criticism and close reading often lack precision. She feels a personal connection to the poet, but anecdotes from her own life sit uneasily in the text. Despite this, her urgent engagement with Keats’s poems and his life makes the book readable as a popularising work which – who knows? – may bring new readers to Keats.

For all Miller’s energy and commitment, her writing is awash with problems. We hear of a ballad that’s ‘iconic’ – now there’s a word in need of a rest. She offers to tell us what makes ‘Isabella’ ‘so unique’. There are also errors of tone. The brief, astonishing fragment once

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