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March 7, 2012

Trans-Atlantic bond between the Keats brothers was a poetic inspiration, Stanford scholar says

Stanford English Professor Denise Gigante examines the life of John Keats through the lens of his relationship with his American immigrant brother.

By Kelsey Geiser

In her dual biography, Professor Denise Gigante examines the Keats brothers' lives as a study of contrasts in the mid-1800s. (Photo: Courtesy of Stanford University)

But what, without the social thought of thee,
Would be the wonders of the sky and sea?

At first glance, this excerpt appears to be written to a romantic partner. Surprisingly, it was written as a testament to a different, yet equally strong, relationship – to a deep brotherly love.

This concluding couplet from John Keats' sonnet, To My Brother George, provides a glimpse into the sibling relationship that influenced John's work as one of the most influential romantic poets of the English language.

As with everyone, familial relations heavily influenced Keats' life experiences. But one relationship in particular, with his younger brother George Keats, affected John in ways that run deeper than most relationships. 

As George was across the Atlantic in America during most of John's prolific writing years, previous accounts of John's life marginalize George's influence on his brother's work. George is typically characterized as an absent and even selfish brother who was partly to blame for John's financial dire straits.

One scholar, however, has dedicated her research to shedding light on the nuanced story behind the Keats brothers' troubled, yet unwavering, brotherly love. 

Stanford English Professor Denise Gigante documents the lives of the two brothers in her book The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George.

Through this dual biography, Gigante deftly examines their lives as a study of contrasts in the mid-1800s. After their separation across the Atlantic, John began an exploration of his own psychological depths, while George led a life of action in the woods, prairies, rivers and wetlands of the American West.

George's story is representative of the experience of other British men and women who left the "old country" after the end of the Napoleonic Wars to seek a prosperous new life in the United States. In contrast, John stayed in England where, through his writing, he coped with the trauma of losing both of his brothers: Tom, who had recently died of consumption (tuberculosis) at age 19, and George, the pioneer brother.    

Together, their individual stories "form part of a bigger picture about the development of America and transatlantic culture at a critical stage in its history," said Gigante.

Though tuberculosis ended John's life prematurely at 25, for the mere four years that he published poetry, his brother's influence was tangible. Despite, or perhaps because of, their separation, John's relationship with George was a source of inspiration. 

Inspiration out of great despair

The eldest of five children, John's indissoluble relationship with George grew out of their shared traumatic childhood experiences. After their father's sudden death in 1804 from a riding accident, their mother immediately remarried and abandoned the children. Her death in 1810 left 15-year-old John and 13-year-old George orphaned with two younger siblings, Tom and Fanny. 

In 1818 George Keats married and decided to leave England in search of a new and profitable life. His move to America marked a drastic change in the brothers' relationship – one that would play a key role in John's production of his most significant works. 

In his time in America, George lost his family inheritance in a steamboat investment with John James Audubon, and a year later was forced to return to England. He borrowed all the money that he could from John, leaving the poet destitute, and rushed back to his wife and infant daughter in Louisville, Ky.

John drew poetic inspiration from the despair he felt in response to his brother's absence and his frustrated love for his neighbor, Fanny Brawne. His Great Odes and his unfinished epic, The Fall of Hyperion, were created in response to this experience.  

One wonders whether John's poetry would have been as moving without such suffering.

"John Keats was a performative poet – dramatic in his own understanding of the nature of the poet," said Gigante. "And yet his poetry from that time is deeply subjective. With George as his muse he never hesitated to speak directly."

Heartfelt letters elevate the art of writing

Outside of his poetry, John's relationship with his brother inspired him to produce what is considered some of the best writing in the English language. 

The extremely long journal letters John wrote to his brother and sister-in-law in America show the depth of their sibling relationship and his commitment to it.

"I remember your Ways and Manners and actions," he told George. "I know you [sic] manner of thinking, you manner of feeling: I know what shape your joy or your sorrow would take, I know the manner of you walking, standing, sauntering, sitting down, laughing, punning, and every action so truly that you seem near to me."

To comfort George in response to the death of their brother Tom, John wrote a letter that contains his understanding of life as a "Vale of Soul-making." 

"John describes lived experience as emotionally necessary for the formation of character," said Gigante. "Identity results from a combination of sense experience, self-reflection and the emotional pains and pleasures that accompany their combination."  

As each brother stayed true to his own identity – George as an immigrant Englishman in frontier America and John as a poet – each learned about himself through the other.

"In writing to George across the Atlantic, John was relating to a version of his own inner self, and the same thing can be said the other way around about George," said Gigante. "In that respect, their bond was imaginary."

Their bond reflects the era's interest in emotion and aesthetic experience set against its cultural, historical and political background in tumultuous times.

Kelsey Geiser is an intern with the Human Experience, the Humanities web portal for Stanford University.



Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities Outreach Officer: (650) 724-8156, [email protected]


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