Chapman found himself in rather poor circumstances and looked round for some means of making a living. Through the kindness of a friend, he got an option on two performing bears and managed to buy them cheap. He began to tour the country with these animals and naturally insisted that Keats should go along as a general factotum.
Keats and Chapman (who are occasionally joined by their friend Cortez, and one or two others) are a comic double act worthy of comparison with Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, or with the great Laurel and Hardy. The names of na cGopaleen’s hapless pair are (obviously) drawn from the world of Romantic poetry, specifically, John Keats’ and his sonnet of 1816, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, but there is nothing Romantic about the stories, which were written between 1940 and 1963 and at such a truly prodigious rate that it’s a wonder O’Brien had time to write anything else. Written under the pseudonym of Myles na cGopaleen for his ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column in the Irish Times, The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman are a constant joy. The stories are not only humorous – albeit in a strangely nihilistic way – but they are a true lesson in economy and wit. As with those other double acts, each story sees Keats and Chapman tackling some new circumstance – visiting the circus, perhaps, or being entrusted by the British Government with a secret mission to India, or advising on the protocol at a niece’s wedding – but the logic of each situation, however outlandish, will be pursued by na cGopaleen onlyso far as is needed – and no further, just far enough – to arrive at some hopeless pun as quickly as possible. And it sometimes seems, too, that the more terrible the pun, the better a tale it is. Some stories achieve this comic jouissance within the space of a paragraph, while others – ‘Chapman’s Bears’ among them – run to a couple of pages. But it will come.
First published in the ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, Irish Times. Collected in The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman and The Brother, Hart-Davis MacGibbon, 1976)