We are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the annus mirabilis in Keats biography: 1963 saw the publication of both John Keats by Walter Jackson Bate and John Keats: The making of a poet by Aileen Ward. Rereading them after working through the latest clutch of biographies, I am amazed at how well they have stood the test of time. Fifty years on, we have a few more facts and some telling new emphases, but no one has surpassed Bate (no relation) and Ward in the answering of those key questions about personality and development. Bate remains pre-eminent on poetic technique, Ward for psychological acuity. It was in the Romantic period that two roads diverged in the wood of literary Life-writing. Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791) had no truck with the idea that biography has a duty to be comprehensive. Boswell only knew Johnson for the last twenty-one years of the great man’s long life, so on the principle that one writes best about what one knows well, his Life was heavily skewed to the later years.
more from Jonathan Bate at the TLS here.