The Beautiful Works and Damned Lives of John Keats and F. Scott Fitzgerald
By Byron Beynon
The eminent Shakespeare scholar, Jonathan Bate, is also well known as a biographer. He has written award-winning biographies of John Clare, Ted Hughes and more recently his highly praised book on William Wordsworth.
He now turns his attention to a biography of two glittering and tragic lives, John Keats and F. Scott Fitzgerald who defined a decade that began one hundred years’ ago, The Jazz Age.
Bate unfolds and recreates their tragic lives in parallel. He argues that although biographers and critics have noted that John Keats was Fitzgerald’s favourite author, “the full extent of the influence, its pervasiveness across Fitzgerald’s career, the sense that he saw himself as the prose Keats, remains underappreciated.” Bate sets out his stall early, as he observes the parallels that “each of them established themselves as authors in the aftermath of a long and devastating war.”
He continues with several more valid points where the parallels do become quite uncanny. They both lived in a time of relative freedom, which ended with the stock market panic of 1825 and the Wall Street crash of 1929, respectively. Keats tried to make extra money by writing for the London stage, and Fitzgerald for Hollywood. There was Keats’s unconsummated love for Fanny Brawne (he wrote several poems and letters for and to her) and Fitzgerald’s writing was shadowed by his unconsummated love for Ginevra King, who inspired the character of Daisy Fay in The Great Gatsby.
Tuberculosis cursed their lives, and Fitzgerald’s chronic alcoholism destroyed him. Bate sees Keats as “the epitome of the Romantic poet, Fitzgerald the epitome of the Romantic novelist.”
In 1935, Fitzgerald believed that “a tubercular infection that had been inactive was now attacking his lungs, he sought treatment … and new x-rays confirmed the diagnosis. “Debts terrible”, he noted in his ledger, along with “Went on wagon for all liquor and alcohol” and “Work and Worry”. And a couple of months later, “Zelda very bad”. The ledger then grinds to a halt.”
Unsurprisingly, both men found great comfort in books. “I felt rather lonely this Morning at breakfast”, Keats wrote in a letter in April 1817 to his brothers from the Isle of Wight, “so I went and unbox’d a Shakespeare – “there’s my comfort”.” Fitzgerald also found comfort from books, the most precious was his Keats. Fascinating contemporaries are introduced as we meet characters that Keats and Fitzgerald knew during their lifetimes, along with places they visited and stayed.
There are many keen, concise observations throughout the book, following the paths of these two writers who died young, each leaving a body of work which continue to interest and inspire. As Bate notes “For Fitzgerald, as for Keats, there was nothing more sensually tender than a kiss and yet a kiss could also be a betrayal.” He goes on to say that “Like Endymion, Tender is the Night was subtitled “A Romance”. But Keats and Fitzgerald knew they had to pass beyond romance. “Do you not see how necessary a Wall of Pain and troubles is to school and Intelligence and make a soul?” Keats wrote in his spring letter of 1819 to his brother George in America “A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!”
Equal attention is given by Bate to both Keats and Fitzgerald in this reflective and interesting book, allowing the reader time and space to empathise, carefully following their lives as key events and episodes unfold.
I will allow the two central characters to have the last word:
“The great beauty of Poetry is,
that it makes every thing in
every place interesting” (John Keats)
“thinking of my ambitions so nearly achieved of being
part of English literature” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, letter of summer 1930)
You can find the book here: https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300256574/bright-star-green-light
Byron Beynon, author of A View From the Other Side and 14 other collections of poetry including Cuffs and The Echoing Coastline, coordinated Wales’s contribution to the anthology Fifty Strong (Heinemann). His poems and essays have featured in several publications including The Independent, Agenda, Wasafiri, The London Magazine, North of Oxford, San Pedro River Review and the human rights anthology In Protest.