Not just a nature lover: Keats’s critics were suspicious of his “jacobinical” politics—but how radical was he?
In his early poem “I stood tip-toe”, Keats describes an effect of sunlight passing through water:
Where swarms of minnows show their little heads,
Staying their wavy bodies ’gainst the streams,
To taste the luxury of sunny beams
Temper’d with coolness. How they ever wrestle
With their own sweet delight, and ever nestle
Their silver bellies on the pebbly sand.
If you but scantily hold out the hand,
That very instant not one will remain;
But turn your eye, and they are there again.
At first glance, this seems to be nothing more than a delicate piece of observation. We know from Keats’s letters (as Nicholas Roe points out in his new biography, John Keats: A New Life, Yale University Press, £25) that as a boy he loved to explore the natural world of the countryside near Edmonton: “How fond I used to be of Goldfinches, Tomtits, Minnows, Mice, Ticklebacks, Dace, Cock salmons and all the whole tribe of the Bushes and the Brooks,” he wrote to his sister.
But Keats the poet gave those childhood memories an extra depth when he interpreted the movement of the minnows as a wrestling “with their own sweet delight”. That gloss makes the water both the minnows’ pleasurable element while, at the same time, something to be resisted or struggled against. It is a doubleness which retrospectively gives additional point to the word “wavy”. Initially one reads “wavy” as saying merely that the minnows’ bodies are undulating, because that is the motion fish use to stay “their . . . bodies ’gainst the stream”. But then, glancing back, one understands that the minnows’ bodies are also “wavy” in another sense. They are wavy, too, because they have an affinity with the waves in which the fish live. Resistance and assimilation are fused in a single word.
Critics have often fastened upon such passages as evidence for a vision of Keats as a thoroughly aestheticised figure. This is the Keats whose preoccupation was, above all, with beauty. The letter, both proud and mortified, that he wrote to Fanny Brawnewhen he was already mortally ill with con- sumption is often taken as an encapsulation of the whole life and work: