What If Keats Had Lived?

What if John Keats—the brilliant Romantic poet, whose revolutionary lyrics blended classical myth and sensuous imagery—hadn’t died at age 25? The Warm South, a new novel by Paul Kerschen, reimagines ...

What if John Keats—the brilliant Romantic poet, whose revolutionary lyrics blended classical myth and sensuous imagery—hadn’t died at age 25? The Warm South, a new novel by Paul Kerschen, reimagines the poet’s life by reinterpreting several of Keats’s most celebrated lines to fashion a different narrative. “Ode to a Nightingale” features the speaker dreaming of something beyond his days of chronic illness and dwindling life in England:

O for a beaker full of the warm South,

Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,

And purple-stained mouth;

That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,

And with thee fade away into the forest dim

Out of this poem, which begins with a desire for oblivion, comes a lush novel that imagines the poet’s narrow escape from mortality into an unexpected life in Italy. Paul Kerschen’s alternative, realist history asks how a reborn Keats might have navigated his personal and professional futures if he had not died in Rome in 1821, with the promise of his best work unfulfilled. Kerschen’s novel asks: Is this second Keats a poet? A doctor? A lover? All three—or none?

The book begins: “He died.” Yet the death and drowsy numbness spoken of in “Ode to a Nightingale”—as well as the death that we know Keats suffered—are reimagined in the novel as a form of exquisite physical suffering, tempered by laudanum, and a visit to Hell. Kerschen’s Keats, in a vision that echoes the poem’s imagery, dreams of his death. But in the novel’s preface, Keats is turned away from Hell by an infernal magistrate, because his “Cockney poetry” is not yet complete. The poet wakes to a Roman morning, his convalescence assured but his future uncertain. Here is where the novel begins.

Painted by Kerschen, the “second life abroad” for Keats offers unexpected twists to the reader, twists that reveal major changes to the beloved poet’s priorities. A self-described “chameleon poet,” the novel’s Keats is transformed equally by his brush with death and by his new geography. The “warm south” of the book’s title isn’t merely a metaphor for wine, as it was in the “Ode”; it’s also evocative of Italy’s historical role as a real and imagined idyll (or locus amoenus) for the second generation of British Romantics. Between 1816 and 1820, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Keats all left England for Italy, never to return. One of this book’s great pleasures is the way it shows how Italy, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, offered an ideal setting for the imaginative growth of this group of radical, self-exiled poets.

Kerschen’s depiction of the on-the-ground historical conditions that produced the Romantics’ most radical poetry—Shelley’s “Epipsychidion” and “The Masque of Anarchy,” Byron’s Don Juan—is a major achievement. But the book also offers an appealingly intimate view into Keats’s more mundane realities. The convalescent poet is forced to reckon with his debts, both financial and emotional: his life in Italy is dependent on his friends’ charity, and he is pressured to honor his engagement to Fanny Brawne, back in London. The author’s research is impeccable: the fictional Keats’s traits are all supported by what manuscript evidence tells us about the poet’s character. Even so, his choices often come as a pleasant surprise.

The Warm South’s thought experiment—offering an alternative future for Keats and his circle—picks up some of the most pressing questions in Romanticist scholarship. It does so knowingly: the novel implicitly engages with squarely academic books such as Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats, which treats the questions of Keats’s poetic afterlife and the shaping of his legacy. The academic roots of Kerschen’s book are evident—the project was inspired by a graduate seminar at UC Berkeley on Romantic medicine—and The Warm South will prove rewarding to lovers of the period. Romanticists will enjoy mining the novel for its allusions to some of the era’s greatest poetry, as well as for its lively fictional enactment of the disordered personal lives of the Keats-Shelley circle.

But unlike Romanticist scholarship, fiction affords the opportunity to imagine what Keats’s poetry might have become. In pursuing this creative inquiry, Kerschen sets himself the daunting challenge of writing in an authentically Keatsian way. (While much of the novel is written in the third person, The Warm South sticks closely to Keats’s style, adopting the luxuriant diction and erratic punctuation of Romanticism, drawing the reader into the poet’s mind.) In the book’s epistolary moments, Kerschen insightfully captures the eddies of thought that tended to bring the poet’s most imaginative observations to the surface:

My dearest Girl,

You will chide me that I have been so long without writing, & I will deserve it. I might plead my illness, & you will say, Shakespeare’s Heroes run through with swords still managed fifty lines to their beloveds—I call up the rigors of travel, & you will answer with every three-shilling guide on Fleet Street—somehow those Gents & Ladies, going between the Carriage & the Inn, managed to write their volumes about columns, & Colosseums, & the depravity of Pope Horribilus the Whatth, who yet was Patron to the genius Whozzini, &c., not to mention the modern manners of the Italians. Only your poor Keats cannot make two poor Sheets—well the reason is simple; I have not seen the manner of the Italians. I have been four months in an attic room with only your Face before me.

This mimicry of Keatsian prose is perfectly pitched. In other moments, the characters’ dialogue is derived from real-life statements. (Byron’s historical dismissal of Keats’ poetry as “mental masturbation” is rendered, in one scene of the novel, more tastefully for mixed company as “a kind of mental—hrm.”)

But the challenge of composing the poetry that Keats, if he had lived, might have written could have stymied the efforts of a more timorous writer. The author takes a canny approach to the problem by having Keats turn to a new genre—closet drama, a play intended to be read aloud rather than staged—that he had experimented with only fleetingly in life (in contrast to his peers Byron and Shelley, whose closet dramas Manfred and Prometheus Unbound, respectively, are mainstays of Romantic literature).

After his return to life, Keats is no longer the same poet—but is he even the same man?

The climax of the book features an amateur performance of Keats’s new drama: a political satire on Robespierre and Danton that reads like “all of Shakespeare at once,” including the “ugly parts of the plays.” (In fact, the lines of the drama are Kerschen’s translation of a near-contemporary German play, Georg Büchner’s 1835 Dantons Tod. This sourcing, however, is by no means obvious.) The performance is judged by the entire Keats-Shelley circle to be a failure: Byron, breaking from his role as gracious host, is “really angry at what he had been made to watch, and he was not alone.”

Despite the awkward position in which this fracas places his protagonist, Kerschen’s strategy—of writing a future for Keats in which Keats fails as a writer—makes good sense. Indeed, it seems the only realistic way for a writer to imagine Keats’s future poetry. The failed closet drama has the effect of eliciting a desire in the reader and the characters alike for more Keatsian verse, which, at the end of the book, remains promised but yet unwritten. The final scenes show the poet animated to produce new material, but not yet having put pen to paper.

After his return to life at the hands of Kerschen, Keats is no longer the same poet—but is he even the same man? He emerges from his tubercular ordeal with new interests: he pursues political intrigue, takes up (with surprisingly little hesitation) his abandoned profession of medicine, doubts his poetic vocation, and falls in love with a different woman. It’s almost as if the poet’s self has been taken over by another spirit, while the Keats we know bides his time, waiting for the poetic inspiration and financial independence that will come with his repatriation to England at the end of the book. Who is this second Keats?

The Warm South’s depiction of Keats’s “second life” evokes Romanticism’s captivation with what the movement’s writers liked to call the second self. The phrase appears most famously in James Hogg’s extraordinary book, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), in which the protagonist, Robert Wringham, is haunted by a devil-double: a second, mirror version of himself, who commits atrocities while the real Robert is asleep. While Hogg’s is perhaps the best realized version of this idea, the figure of the double permeates Romanticism. Percy Shelley, who had written about doubles in Prometheus Unbound, was said to have seen his doppelganger a few weeks before he drowned; when they met, the ghostly double asked, “How long do you mean to be content?”

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (whose reanimation of the dead gives brilliant subtext to The Warm South), offers another suggestive treatment of the destructive power of the gothic double. Reading the book for the first time, Kerschen’s Keats sees in Frankenstein’s monster a “portrait of himself”:

The dead flesh was waking. Christ. Arteries and nerves. He clutched his arm with a shiver, as if his own flesh were dying on his bones. All at once he was back at the bottom of his illness, imprisoned in sheets with his mouth hung open in a dead gasp. One shapes a thought slow in the brain, over midnights, feeding it blood. It gathers flesh to itself, pulsing. It drops like fruit. The face of one’s thought laid open on the dissecting table has black lips, opening and closing in gasps. A yellow eye blinks and rolls upward, the dead eye of one’s thought seeking the thought that made it.

It lifts its hand.

God! Flee!

Keats is uncannily mirrored not just by Frankenstein’s monster, but by the members of his circle, with Mary Shelley as the most evocative of the doubles. The poet’s general ambivalence about women, and his particular distrust of Mrs. Shelley’s cold affect, is met on Mary’s side with melancholy and frustration at the young poet’s becoming yet another of her husband’s “romances.” But, by the book’s end, the poet and the novelist have moved beyond an uneasy alliance to a real sense of comradeship. Their debates, which articulate some of the novel’s philosophical high points, lend the book tension and dynamism. That said, readers may find their mannered, allusive dialogues challenging to follow at times.

Mirroring the closet drama at the book’s center, much of The Warm South reads as a dramatic performance. The notion of the second self is foregrounded in the motif of crossdressing: Keats and Mary, who are of a similar height, are compelled by their friends to dress up in one another’s clothes, an encounter that propels them into an awkward intimacy (he thinks of himself as “her second body”). And Keats’s erstwhile lover Fanny Brawne adopts the persona of a man, only to offer up this “second life” (her male identity) to another character at the book’s end.

A related motif of costuming permeates the book, reflecting the poets’ prescient anxieties about their own roles as historical actors. One thread of the costuming trope is particularly self-conscious. Byron, no longer the killing gentleman of earlier years, wears a “suit of too much flesh,” and walks with an artificial gait to compensate for his clubfoot. Though the poet’s portrait was famous throughout Europe, he no longer resembled it. Yet Keats turns Byron’s famous likeness into Danton’s costume in the failed drama, such that the revolutionary is meant to resemble the young Byron. And in his final speech, Byron says of his own poetic reputation, “I am admired as a man admires a costume, that he wishes to steal and wear for himself”; Keats, by contrast, has a way of eliciting a form of love in his readers that Byron prophesies will sustain him, even “when I and my works are quite forgotten.”

While apposite, the extended metaphor of the costume becomes strained by the self-awareness of its application. This sense of strain appears, too, in portrayals of other characters, whose gravitas sometimes becomes too burdensome for the otherwise light touch of Kerschen’s alternative history.

In the end, even as its conceit is to rebirth Keats into a second life, The Warm South leaves him poised to return, though changed, to a more familiar state of being. On the cusp of his return to England and his poetic vocation (helped along by a timely inheritance), the poet exits the text on yet another threshold.

This sense of being ever-about-to-be, of contingency and uncertainty, is a fundamental Keatsian condition: as Kerschen’s poet says, “Beauty runs always a step and a half before me. I shall never catch her. And yet!” That “And yet!” is the lodestone of Kerschen’s project, the mental leap that pulls us from Keats’s writing into the imagined future of The Warm South. It’s a leap that invites readers, too, to use our own creative ingenuity to resist the tug of history.


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Damesicon

Featured image: Joseph Severn, John Keats (detail) (1819). Wikimedia Commons