Was John Keats a dandy? He certainly knew how to play the part. When poets sing of wine, women and song (and Keats liked all three) fine clothes and indolence are seldom far behind. As well as maidens’ gowns, he had an eye for male attire, noting in a letter his surprise one Saturday at seeing Wordsworth wearing a stiff collar to dinner.
Keats was never a rich man, and his appetites could outstrip his means. “As I say to my Taylor,” he quips to a friend, “send me Bills and I’ll never employ you more.” As well as securing his fame as a brief yet bright star, his inspired strategy of burning out from love and tuberculosis at twenty-five ensured he never did settle those debts.
Sometimes, Keats is just trying to entertain. Invited to yet another party, he half complains to his siblings: “Eh! I shall be obliged to shirk a good many there—I shall be the only Dandy.” But in more serious moments he also recognizes the pull of finery on his writing. “I have been hovering for some time between an exquisite sense of the luxurious and a love for Philosophy.” Between luxury and philosophy is a whole debate about poetic style: should it be sensuous and ravishing or austere and intellectual? Do we drink with Dionysus or ponder with Apollo?
Matthew Arnold, the Victorian poet and educator, had little patience with Keats. “Although undoubtedly there blows through it the breath of genius,” Arnold writes, his work is ultimately incoherent. “The object is made to flash upon the eye of the mind,” but it offers only a “sudden delight,” and no more. It’s all pleasure and no action. Arnold’s objection, James Najarian has argued, goes back to the question of dandyism. In his life and his style, Keats is too indulgent, too decorative for Arnold, and worse, he reminds Arnold of his own student excesses at Oxford.
Arnold’s anxiety might sound familiar to the modern menswear aficionado. Like a strict diet of red wine (as recommended by Keats’s poem “Hence burgundy, claret, and port”) all that cashmere and silk can prove too rich. Without adopting Arnold’s moralising tone (or his worry that too much enjoyment might be unmanly), it’s possible to see the life of the dandy as shallow. “Sudden delight,” but nothing that lasts.
In Keats’s best work, though, a different kind of worldliness emerges. “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” begins his vast 4000-line poem Endymion. In this case, the things Keats has in mind, and the pleasures they offer, do not distract from life but “bind us to the earth.”
Keats can be decorative to the point of showiness, it is true. He can be inflamed by sensation and sincere to the point of embarrassment. But this is also where he diverges from the archetypal dandy, who indulges in drink and dress because everything bores him, and deflects every serious question because to him it’s all a joke. Keats takes his enjoyment of bodies and things seriously. In the end, he finds his philosophy in sensation—in the anguish and delight which “make us feel existence.”