For our final response of 2016, the KLP is delighted to introduce a special segment, which we’ll feature from time to time on the site: This Week in Keats. As you’ll hear in the video, the basic idea behind the concept is for two of the KLP founders (Brian Rejack and Mike Theune) to discuss what’s been happening this week in Keats (200 years later). For the first episode, we’re discussing Keats’s 17 December 1816 letter to Charles Cowden Clarke. Enjoy!
And so we come to the end of the first full year in which Keats leaves behind a significant textual record, and during which he develops so quickly and impressively as a writer. He’s now attracted not just one but two established cultural figures as potential mentors—or rather, those two figures (Hunt and Haydon) have both actively worked to claim Keats as their own. On 1 Dec 1816, Hunt made a case for his ownership stake by featuring Keats as the third and final featured poet in his ‘Young Poets’ essay in The Examiner. And not to be outdone, Haydon has made plans to include Keats’s ‘awful visage’ in his massive painting, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (which Susan Wolfson discussed in her response to Keats’s late-November letters to Haydon). Haydon sketched Keats in the famous profile that eventually makes its way into the painting at its completion in 1820. And now, probably just a few days before the 17 December letter to Clarke, Haydon has also made a life mask of the budding poet (perhaps to help with his depiction of Keats in the painting, but also certainly as a preliminary gesture toward preserving Keats’s legacy).
At the beginning of the letter for today, we see Keats playfully referring to that life mask—he reasons that since his awful visage has not yet turned Clarke into a John Doree, his friend will be safe owning a ‘legetimate copy’ (our response to this letter features some lively debate about Keats’s punny spelling!). But the main purpose of this letter seems to be to remind Clarke that he had promised, way back on 1 November, to spend the evening of 17 December with Keats. And to seal the deal, Keats tells Clarke that Severn and Reynolds are both down to hang out, so he better not bail on them!
Why schedule this meeting so long in advance? Well, according to Nick Roe in his recent biography of Keats, this gathering was essentially a coming out party for Keats the Poet. Roe speculates that Keats hit on this particular date in part because it coincides with the Saturnalia (this won’t be the last time we see Keats appreciating the old gods). And he needed to plan it far in advance since, lest we forget, young Keats is still serving as a surgeon’s dresser at Guy’s Hospital! Not only does that mean he’s in a sort of perpetual “busy time.” It also means that he’s spending many of his days and nights during these last months of 1816 amid human suffering of a sort that’s probably hard for most of us to imagine. And yet on some days and nights, like this one on the occasion of the Saturnalia, there must also be such joy, such pleasure, such giddy anticipation at the prospect of a life lived “overwhelm[ed] … / in Poesy.”
What a fine way, then, to end 2016 with Keats. We do not forget the pains and sorrows of those around us. We do not shirk our responsibility to strive always to alleviate and eliminate suffering. Amidst those recognitions we also revel in the joy of conviviality, and we gratefully gather with friends and loved ones for evenings filled with food, wine, and poetry.
By the KLP Editors
Two hundred years ago today was an auspicious day for young John Keats. As we’ve seen while chronicling the beginnings of his epistolary career over the last few months, Keats was quickly gaining confidence in his poetic abilities. What a treat it must have been to appear as one subject of Leigh Hunt’s essay, “Young Poets,” published on this day in The Examiner. The other two poets Hunt praises didn’t fare so badly either: Percy Bysshe Shelley is remembered by a few people now and then, and John Hamilton Reynolds turned out to be rather prescient when he told his friend Keats, “Do you get Fame,–and I shall have it in being your affectionate and steady friend.” He certainly was affectionate and steady as Keats’s friend, as we’ll see come spring 2017 and well into 2018, when we’ll commemorate many letters written to Reynolds, some of which are among Keats’s most lively and loving. Your humble editors personally cannot wait for the airy pigs and archangelical acorns of Feb 2018.
But, as happens so often here at the KLP, we do get ahead of ourselves. Today we’re celebrating Hunt’s celebration of Keats. And we’re doing so even though Hunt just had to get in a little critique of his mentee, noting as he does of the Chapman’s Homer sonnet that it contains “one incorrect rhyme” and “a little vagueness in calling the regions of poetry ‘the realms of gold.'” Come on, Hunt! How about just saying some nice things? I suppose this is why disputes in the periodicals led to duels. Good thing we’ve figured out how to make public discourse kinder via the internet! Hunt does offer particular praise of the last six lines, and he notes, “The word swims is complete.” Agreed.
So enjoy Hunt’s tribute to the young members of this “new school of poetry,” a school which Hunt himself had a hand ☞ in constructing.* In addition to the “Young Poets” essay marking the first publication of Keats’s Champan’s Homer sonnet, it also went a long way toward solidifying Keats’s association with Hunt, an association that would affect Keats’s reception for a long time to come. One imagines John Gibson Lockhart reading the “Young Poets” essay and scheming about how he could turn this “new school” against itself. It’s worth remembering that the “Cockney School” attacks launched in fall 1817 were not only ideologically reactionary, but also simply reactions to the sense that there really was a dangerous school forming around Hunt and his pals. The KLP will sit in that classroom any day. Today is a special one, though, since Keats’s presence in The Examiner on 1 December 1816 was a crucial part of his ongoing education, and Hunt will continue as a significant figure as we follow Keats’s epistolary work these next few years.
*Bonus points to those readers who know that the pointing index figure symbol (called sometimes just an “index,” alternatively a “manicule”) was Hunt’s mark for essays in The Examiner which he himself authored. You can see one at the end of the “Young Poets” essay above. The trouble-makers over at Blackwood’s make a joke about Hunt’s “hebdomadal hand” in Cockney School No. III.