On 23 February 1821, John Keats died of tuberculosis in a house beside the Spanish Steps in Rome, aged just 25. As a lover of the Romantic poets and having just published a new biography of William Wordsworth to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth, I decided to spend last year’s lockdown writing about Keats. But I had a problem: there are already half a dozen fine “cradle-to-grave” biographies of him, so we really don’t need another one. What is more, one of them was written by a distinguished American academic called Walter Jackson Bate (no relation, although he did teach me at Harvard). It would have been just too confusing for librarians and readers for me to write an orthodox biography. I needed to find a new way of approaching him.
For me, the key to Keats is his sense of inferiority, of being an outsider. Almost like Our Lord, he was born above a stable – his father was an ostler at an East End London livery yard. Johnny Keats was a Cockney boy, tiny in stature though strong in feeling. He lacked the public school and Oxbridge pedigree of such contemporaries as Lord Byron and PB Shelley. No one has caught the image of Keats better than the Irish poet whose name, if it were pronounced incorrectly, rhymes with his. “I see a schoolboy when I think of him,” WB Yeats wrote of Keats, “With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window.” Despite – or because of – being “Shut out from all the luxury of the world, / The coarse-bred son of a livery-stable keeper,” Keats, says Yeats, made “Luxuriant song.”
Thinking about these lines and how I could use them to write about the perpetual sense in Keats of a yearning for something that is beautiful but always just out of reach – the song of a nightingale, the moment before a kiss captured and frozen on a Grecian urn – I remembered an echo of the image of the sweet-shop window in a brilliant characterisation of F. Scott Fitzgerald in an early review of his novel Tender is the Night: “Part of him has been a little boy peeping in through the window and being thrilled by the music and the beautifully dressed women – a romantic but hardheaded little boy who stops every once in a while to wonder how much it all cost and where the money comes from.” And so the idea came to me: what about a book that saw Keats through the eyes of Scott Fitzgerald? After all, “tender is the night” is a quotation from the “Ode to a Nightingale”.
The parallels between their lives are uncanny. Each of them established themselves as authors in the aftermath of a long and devastating war. Each lived in a time of freedom and experimentation that came to an abrupt end with a financial crisis: the stock market panic of 1825 and the Wall Street crash of 1929. Each sought to supplement the work that was their vocation – poetry in Keats’s case, the novel in Fitzgerald’s – by trying to make money in the more lucrative arena of the performing arts: Keats writing for the London stage, Fitzgerald for the Hollywood screen. Keats’s last years were shadowed by his unconsummated love for Fanny Brawne, for whom he wrote his most famous sonnet, “Bright Star.” Fitzgerald’s writing was shadowed by his unconsummated first love, for a girl named Ginevra King. She inspired the character of Daisy Fay in The Great Gatsby. In their literary taste, both were borne back ceaselessly into the past: Keats to the romance of the middle ages and to the English poetry that he loved (Milton, Shakespeare); Fitzgerald, to Keats.
There was a similarity but also a crucial difference in their shared sense of being an outsider. The similarity was the sense of class inferiority: Ginevra King’s family made it clear that Scott Fitzgerald, son of a travelling soap salesman, was not good enough for their daughter, just as Mrs Brawne could not approve of her daughter marrying a penniless poet. The difference was in the matter of religion: the spiritual life of Keats was bounded within a secular love of beauty and a nostalgia for the pagan gods of classical antiquity, whereas Scott Fitzgerald was born and raised a Catholic.
In our time, where the sense of exclusion is felt so keenly by Black and Brown Americans, it is all too easy to forget the marginalisation of Catholics in the United States for so much of the 20th century. Some of Fitzgerald’s relatives were branded as “black Irish” because of their Catholicism. That Joe Biden is only the second Catholic president in the history of the republic – John F Kennedy, of course, being the first – provided a momentary reminder. Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St Paul, Minnesota, where there were many Catholics who were made to feel inferior to the citizens of neighbouring Minneapolis, the home of nouveau riche Protestant speculators. His Catholic background meant that Scott would never truly belong in the privileged white Anglo-Saxon Protestant circles among which he moved at Princeton University and in New York. His father was born of Irish stock in the ante-bellum South, for which he always harboured a nostalgia. He was always something of an outsider in the business-oriented urban North.
The Catholicism also brought guilt. At the age of ten, young Scott went to confession and lied by saying in a shocked voice to the priest “Oh no, I never tell a lie.” This would sow the seed of a short story that would be crucial to his literary development. It is called “Absolution”. A boy tells a small lie in the confessional, which prompts a train of events that leads to a kind of confession on the part of the priest. Father Schwartz’s complete mystical union with God is thwarted by the sight and sound of beautiful Swedish girls laughing on the path beside his window. The beautiful blue eyes of the beautiful child in search of absolution are also a distraction. To the puzzlement of the boy in the confessional, the priest blurts out that “When a lot of people get together in the best places things go glimmering.” He starts talking about parties and amusement parks where everything twinkles. He tells the boy to stand in the dark under trees at a distance, looking at the lights of the big wheel – “But don’t get up close,” he warns, “because if you do you’ll only feel the heat and the sweat and the life.” Out under the moon, handsome youths and blonde Northern girls will lie together in the wheat fields, while for the tortured priest and the wandering boy the bright lights will always be at a distance.
This theme will sound familiar to readers of The Great Gatsby. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is a Fitzgerald-like outsider, always looking in – as if through the sweet-shop window. And Gatsby himself stands at a distance. In the dark under the trees, he looks towards the end of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. As with Fitzgerald and Ginevra King, he has lost the girl of his dreams because some taint in his background has deemed him unworthy of her wealth and whiteness.
Fitzgerald explained that “Absolution” was originally intended as the opening of the book that became Gatsby. The boy who lies in the confessional, he said, was Gatsby at the age of 12.
In the short story, the priest and the boy take comfort in the knowledge given by the bright lights that “There was something ineffably gorgeous somewhere that had nothing to do with God.”
This draws Fitzgerald away from his Catholic heritage and back towards Keats’s longing for the beauty not of heaven, but of the earth. “In spite of all,” Keats wrote in his long poem Endymion, “Some shape of beauty moves away the pall / From our dark spirits.”
That poem begins with his famous line “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”: two hundred years after Keats’s premature death in the room beside the Spanish Steps, old comforts about health – personal in the wake of pandemic, social in an age of inequality, and that of the natural world in an era of unprecedented ecological change – are threatening, as the same poem has it, to “pass into nothingness”.
Under the shadow cast by global damnation, the loveliness of Keats’s poems and Fitzgerald’s novels increases. Their beautiful works will not endure forever, but in dark times they can at least bring moments of joy.
Sir Jonathan Bate’s Bright Star, Green Light: The Beautiful Works and Damned Lives of John Keats and F Scott Fitzgerald is out now (William Collins)