Harry Brown’s Letters to his Friends: To J. K.

John Strachan
Bath Spa University

Re: Keats’s 10 May 1817 letter to Leigh Hunt

Leigh Hunt, as is well known, was one of Keats’s earliest patrons, and his first publisher (the younger poet’s sonnet ‘O Solitude, if I must with thee dwell’ appeared in the Examiner on 5 May 1816). Under the pen name ‘Harry Brown’, Hunt wrote a series of conversational verse epistles to his poetic and political allies, gossipy yet profound in their own way, which were published in the Examiner in 1816. These included tributes to like-minded friends, including William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb and Thomas Moore. He never wrote one to John Keats …

‘Harry Brown’s Letters to his Friends. Letter VIII.
To J. K.’

Today your letter, sent up from Margate.
A pleasure to read, and a change from the duns:
The midget, the gossip, and why you were late
In replying.  Your wit, your style, your puns,
Why my Junkets, if I might be so bold —
I’d not be lying to say that it stuns
Me to think it — but yes — the realms of gold
Await you, for the gifts that you’re sent.

But seize the day — for we don’t all grow old;
Your gift’s for so much more than the lament
Of Castlereagh and Prinny — and me in the gaol.
Your righteous rage at them — yes, it must be spent,
But there’s vintage as well as town ale.

Whate’er I write and whatever I say,
In Apollo’s assizes I’m bound to fail.
But you’re worth much more than mere today,
And when my wits the Tories bedraggle,
And when politics presses in, then I can say
That now of new poets there’s a gaggle —
Those young poets, of whom I can tell,
So with Apollo I’ll not haggle.

Why thank you, all the nymphs are well,
Oceanid, nereid, naiad, dryad,
The ones that came to me in my cell
Wafted me wheresoe’er — from the bad,
Beyond the motes of Bigotry’s sick eye.
They thought that they could make me mad,
That what I stood for — that would die
But liberty’s a thing that will not fall,
I’ll not submit to an empty lie.
You fight in your own way, against all
Who seek to deny a place in the sun
For peasant, for poet, for great and for small.

What little time we have, then we are gone
And utterance leaves us. — But you’ll live on,
A Poet more than other Men, dear John.

 

Bibliography

Leigh Hunt, Poetical Works, ed. John Strachan, vols 5 and 6 of Robert Morrison and Michael Eberle-Sinatra, general editors, The Selected Writings of Leigh Hunt, 6 vols (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2003).

Letter #18: To Leigh Hunt, 10 May 1817

The story of Keats’s early years cannot be told without considering Leigh Hunt, the indefatigable poet, essayist, and editor who, among other things, published Keats’s first poem (in The Examiner, before he and Keats had ever met in person), introduced him to the literary circle gathered around him in London during these years, and continued to champion the poet after his untimely death in Rome in 1821. Curiously enough, however, only two letters from Keats to Hunt still exist: today’s letter and a brief one from late in 1820.

In addition to this letter being the first to Hunt, it has another significant honor: it is, as far as the KLP knows, the first of Keats’s letters to ever appear in print. Thanks here go to Susan Wolfson for pointing out sometime last year to one of the KLP founders, who shall not be named for fear of the opprobrium that would surely be heaped upon him for his egregious oversight, that his assertion that the first Keats letters to appear in print were the two published by James Freeman Clarke in The Western Messenger in 1836 was, in fact, wrong. Hunt beat Clarke to it by 8 years! Ok, we admit–it was that dastardly Brian Rejack who made the mistake. For his crimes against Keats, his status at the KLP is currently under review.

Back to Hunt. It was in his 1828 Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries that Hunt published the greater part of Keats’s letter (he excised a few things, most notably Keats’s congratulations for Hunt’s recent Examiner essay, which he described as a “Battering Ram against Christianity”). The chapter on Keats was also one of the more extensive biographical treatments to have appeared by that point. It reinforced some of the elements of the narrative established powerfully by Percy Shelley in Adonais, namely that Keats was a delicate flower rudely cut down in his prime by harsh criticism from the periodicals, a narrative that we now know had more to do with Shelley’s own axes to grind than with the truth of the situation. One delightful detail from Hunt, whether it be true or no, we feel we ought to share here. He claims that Keats, as did Byron and Shelley, had a “head [that] was a puzzle for the phrenologists, being remarkably small in the skull.” Hunt adds of the three small-skulled poets, “none of [their] hats I could get on.” Who knew?

In today’s letter Keats does not discuss skull size, which is a shame. But the letter is a lively one, with Keats ranging across many topics, and with him seeming to be in particularly good cheer, an appropriate mood with which to meet his correspondent, Hunt being the great Cockney champion of cheerfulness. In that same spirit, our response for today comes from John Strachan, who imagines what one of Hunt’s poems from his series written as “Harry Brown’s Letters to His Friends” might have looked like if he had written one to Keats. Strachan certainly captures Hunt’s voice as he responds to Keats’s letter in verse. Enjoy!

Images of the MS come to us courtesy of the British Library. You can read the letter in Hunt’s 1828 book, or if you prefer a fuller text of it, Forman’s 1883 edition is based on the MS without any excisions.