Letter #10: To Benjamin Robert Haydon, 21 November 1816

As we saw yesterday, Keats sent Haydon his “Great Spirits” sonnet on 20 November 1816, the morning after the two spent an evening together talking poems and making puns while Haydon sketched Keats’s profile for his eventual inclusion in Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. Pretty remarkable how quickly Haydon took to Keats–they meet for the first time and then a couple weeks later, he’s like, “hey Keats, how ’bout I put you in my painting right behind Wordsworth?” The KLP is struck again and again in these early, heady days at the rapidity of Keats’s emergence as a poet in 1816. Back in September Keats was anxiously sharing his poetry with Charles Cowden Clarke for the first time–now in November Haydon is promising to forward Keats’s sonnet along to Wordsworth. No biggie.

In this second letter to Haydon, then, Keats praises the artist’s suggested revision to the poem (the ellipsis in line 13, about which Keats says, “I glory in it”). And he admits to being put “out of breath” at the thought of his poem making its way north to Wordsworth, “He of the Cloud, the Cataract, the Lake.” One can see the care with which Keats prepared this fair copy of the poem, on a sheet separate from and enclosed within his letter to Haydon. As Susan Wolfson noted yesterday, Haydon did not send the fair copy itself, choosing instead to keep that one for himself, and to send a transcript to Wordsworth (after delaying for a month or so). It now resides at the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere. Haydon did not present the sonnet with near as much care, as you can see here from this photograph taken by KLP editor Brian Rejack, when he, along with another KLP editor, Mike Theune, visited in July 2015.

Haydon's letter to Wordsworth, including a transcript of the 'Great Spirits' sonnet. Getting the first two lines and then having to turn over the page--not exactly the best reading experience. Come on, Haydon!

Haydon’s letter to Wordsworth, including a transcript of the ‘Great Spirits’ sonnet. Getting the first two lines and then having to turn over the page–not exactly the best reading experience. Come on, Haydon!

In any case, Wordsworth seemed to like the sonnet well enough, although, as Austin Smith writes today, one begins to sense a bit of condescension from His Eminence, who by 1816 had been ensconsced for a few years in the, ahem, slightly-more-regal-than-Dove-Cottage setting of Rydal Mount. But Keats was not yet to lose any faith in Wordsworth. Surely he remained in November 1816 absolutely overjoyed at the thought of any connection with his poet-hero.

Keats also remained at that point firmly convinced that he himself had a shot at becoming another Great Spirit then on Earth sojourning. Austin Smith offers us a valuable suggestion for these early years of Keats’s bicentenary memorials–we would do well to momentarily put aside our knowledge of late Keats, with all the self-annihilating pessimism it brings. Smith writes that, to get there, Keats first “had to work through the desire to be known”; he had to revel in his hope that the sacred springs of Mount Helicon might deign to “spout a little streamlet o’er” his “sorry pages.” Did they ever, Keats. Did they ever.

All MS images from John Keats Collection, (MS Keats 1.4). Houghton Library, Harvard University. Click on each to see full size images.

For Now We Rise

Austin Smith
Stanford University

Re: Keats’s 21 Nov 1816 letter to Haydon

What a pleasure it is, in the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, to consider the letters of John Keats, literally my favorite human being. It is particularly fitting that I have been invited to consider this letter of November 21st, 1816, in which Keats enclosed the sonnet “Great Spirits…” with its closing:

                                   —hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings? – – – – – – –
    Listen awhile ye Nations and be dumb!

Our nation has certainly obeyed Keats’s command. There. Thank you for indulging me as I work through some Keatsian punnishness.

The “Great Spirits” Keats meant, of course, were not politicians but the poets and artists he was beginning to count himself, tentatively, among. In this response, I want to focus mostly on two qualities in Keats, ambition and bitterness, that created the precise atmospheric conditions for the great odes, the way that certain climactic characteristics, mists and mellow fruitfulness, conspire to fill all fruit with ripeness to the core. The quality on display in this letter and in the sonnet enclosed with it is the first, ambition. But it is more than ambition, really. It is Keats’s great desire to be loved, which, in being matched almost precisely by his desire to love, is neither selfish nor shallow. Not to get all Freudian on it, but Keats lost his father when he was a boy, and I think you can chart his relationships with older male figures from his teacher, Charles Cowden Clarke, through his admiration for men like Leigh Hunt and Haydon, to the poets he admired, from the living Wordsworth to those apotheosized spirits, Shakespeare and Spenser and Milton, whom he seemed to literally look up to. It was vitally important to Keats that he receive love from those whom he loved. He may have praised disinterestedness, but he was absolutely interested in hearing his praise (many of his early poems are praise poems) being echoed from those whom he was praising.

And thus it is here. Having written a poem praising Wordsworth, amongst other “Great Spirits,” he is made breathless with the thought of receiving praise back. One might use the metaphor of shouting into some Lake District cavern and being startled at a response that seems to come both from within and from without oneself. The irony is that it would be tuberculosis that would literally take Keats’s breath away. But that is where the bitterness comes in, and first Keats had to exhaust the possibilities of praise.

An important physical detail of this particular letter is the fact that Keats separates his note to Haydon entirely from the poem he wishes Haydon to send on to Wordsworth. Thus Keats will come before Wordsworth in the guise of his sonnet, without those trappings that we, as avid Keatsians, cannot help but clothe him in: the letters and biographies and of course the late, great poems.

If I were Wordsworth, I would have had as equivocal a response to this sonnet as he does. Just look at the language in which he “praises” the poem. It would have been better if he’d said, “This is trash.” Instead Wordsworth fawns over the sonnet in a sarcastic way, as if afraid that by engaging with it seriously he might sully himself somehow. The sonnet shows “good promise,” but is not in itself good. The sonnet is “assuredly vigorously conceived,” but not assuredly vigorously written. The sonnet is “well expressed” and “agreeably concluded,” but is not expressed well (the simple reversal of these two words would have given a very different meaning, I believe), and Wordsworth seems almost to be implying that the fact that it concludes at all is all that is agreeable about it. What Wordsworth is praising, if anything, is Keats’s desire to be a poet. It reminds us of the comment he will make about another of Keats’s poems, that it is “a pretty piece of paganism.” I think it’s important to recognize that the Wordsworth whom Keats is sending this poem to is no longer the Wordsworth whom Keats admires, and admires so much that the thought of him reading one of his sonnets takes his breath away. By now, Wordsworth has left that little cottage that made him the poet of “the Cloud, the Cataract, the Lake,” and moved to a very comfortable situation at Rydal Mount. There are certain poets who seem to have had the great good fortune of being practically carried to Parnassus. In addition to Wordsworth on Rydal Mount, where he entertained Emerson (and ignored Keats and Brown), there is the example of Robert Frost holding forth on the porch at Breadloaf, or Marianne Moore sitting under one of her flamboyant hats, watching the Dodgers play, or, to use a contemporary example, Billy Collins. These poets seem to have been crafted perfectly for their time. As with the weather in “To Autumn,” everything seems to conspire to load and bless them.

But somehow, as much as they may deserve this apotheosis, I have never deeply loved these poets, preferring instead those whom, as Wordsworth put it, the world is too much with.

Keats’s trajectory from ambition to bitterness to death is shared by four more-recent artists about whom I’m preparing a study: Thomas James, Frank Stanford, Breece D’J Pancake, and Nick Drake (whose song “From the Morning” provides inspiration for this post’s title). One significant difference between Keats and these other artists–two poets, one fiction writer, and one musician–is that the other artists died by their own hand. (Though on his deathbed Keats begged to be allowed to end his life, we cannot consider him suicidal, necessarily, without considering the immense suffering he wished to put himself out of.) James, Stanford, Pancake and Drake all killed themselves around the age of 27. Like Keats, their apprenticeships in their respective arts were greatly accelerated not only by the fact that they were geniuses, but by ambition. Not the ambition we see today in the MFA world and in the world of literary fiction, the ambition to land a tenure-track job or a book deal, but a different kind of ambition: the ambition to, as Keats put it, be numbered amongst the “English poets,” or, more generally, the “Great Spirits.” I would argue that this desire goes beyond the desire for fame, even beyond the desire for immortality, which, some would argue, is perhaps an even more selfish desire than the desire to get a job or an advance. What I feel James, Stanford, Pancake, Drake and Keats desired was to vanish into art, and this is the ultimate selflessness. Pancake describes a character whose fear moves out in rings for a million years. Drake writes a song about how he felt once like green light on a hill. Stanford wrote a few hundred love poems to death, as if to invite death to take him off in some dusty Cadillac with Arkansas plates. James’s only published collection was called Letter to a Stranger, as if he is speaking to us from the kind of distance the mummy of one of his most famous poems speaks to us from.

But what this letter and sonnet show us is that, before Keats can make one of the oddest and most violent acts of self-eradication in history in his request that his friends not allow his name to be carved into the face of his tombstone, he had to work through the desire to be known, to be recognized as one of the “Great Spirits.” That Keats could never have written “To Autumn.” Only the Keats who felt such bitterness towards his critics, and who thought his name had been written in water, could.

The branch of the San Francisco Public Library in the Mission District is a beautiful building, built in that old-style, with the names of great scientists and composers and poets engraved around it. When I get off the 24th Street BART and prepare for the long climb up through the hills of San Francisco, it makes me smile to see Keats’s name up there. I always think to myself, “My God, Junkets, how wrong you were.”

Keats Wrought Up to Writing

Susan J. Wolfson
Princeton University

RE: Keats’s 20 Nov 1816 letter to Haydon

In 1818 William Hazlitt launched his series of lectures on the English poets, attended by Keats and everyone in London, it seems, by hailing a general franchise:

Many people suppose that poetry is something to be found only in books, contained in lines of ten syllables, with like endings: but wherever there is a sense of beauty, or power, or harmony, as in the motion of a wave of the sea, in the growth of a flower that “spreads its sweet leaves to the air, and dedicates its beauty to the sun,”– there is poetry in its birth. (Lectures [London: Taylor and Hessey, 1818] p. 2)

The quotation is Romeo’s father comparing his lovesick son to a flower thwarted of such birth and blooming (RJ 1.1.148-9). Lover of poetry ever since his schooldays at Enfield, Keats, freshly devoted to poetry after abandoning the medical career for which he had trained since leaving Enfield in his mid-teens, could dream of his own birth into poetry. “Hazlitt’s depth of taste,” he wrote to epic painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, 10 January 1818, was a thing to “rejoice at.” Everyone was reading poetry, talking about poetry, imagining poets as England’s national chorus. Its great spirits and great inspirations weren’t just in the past, but seemed resident on modern earth, with generative power.

Haydon embodied Hazlitt’s aesthetic of “gusto” (the title of an essay in The Examiner 26 May 1816) in the flesh, roaring with life and enthusiasm. His rants about art and artists, his vision of grand epic purpose, fired Keats with a sense of greatness stirring in their very age–in Hunt’s Hampstead, in Wordsworth’s Lakes, in Haydon’s London. In November 1816 Keats met Hazlitt at Haydon’s studio, as he was sitting for his image in the crowd of Haydon’s epic canvas, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. Haydon, who instantly adored Keats and was convinced of his talent, was fresh and exciting company. Keats visited Haydon again on the night of 19 November, sat for his own image in the crowd, and the two talked animatedly into the night. Later at home, too excited to sleep, Keats poured himself into writing poetry about the heroic vista before him. “Great spirits now on earth are sojourning,” he began a sonnet. He may even have paced it out on his walk home–as he had with another sonnet, just the month before, after reading Chapman’s Homer with his friend and mentor Charles Cowden Clarke. Keats was thrilled at the prospect of being placed, with recognized luminaries, in the crowd of Christ’s Entry. A sonnet for Haydon was the least he could do in return.

A sonnet was no little thing in Keats’s conception. He knew how the drama of accumulating phrasings could exceed the piecework of its formal partitions. As he described this momentum in his Epistle to Charles Cowden Clarke in September 1816: “the sonnet swelling loudly / Up to its climax and then dying proudly” (1817 Poems p. 71). This couplet could have closed a Shakespearean sonnet (the Epistle was followed in Poems by a unit of 17 sonnets), but Keats was instinctively resistant to the eighteenth-century mandate of coinciding syntax and line. Enjambment sends his syntax here to the next line, launched with a trochaic inversion, a stressed Up leading to another stress, meta-poetically, on climax, followed by three stresses: then dying proudly. The fall of the couplet-rhyme (we used to call this “feminine”), the rhythmic propulsion of the line against metrical prescription, the thrust of enjambment: this is the very spirit of Keats’s early poetry. Haydon’s epic canvases (and epic self-confidence) energized his actual sonnet-writing with a sense of a cultural momentum.

From his residence at 76 Cheapside, the next morning (November 20) Keats messengered a letter with a sonnet over to Haydon: “My dear Sir– / Last Evening wrought me up, and I cannot forbear / sending you the following–       Yours unfeignedly   John Keats–”


Keats to Haydon, 20 Nov 1816. John Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University. Click for full-size image.

How smart is Keats’s wrought, suggesting a mind and body coiled for action, and sharing an etymology with “wrote”–the two senses perfectively, productively wound up for the sonnet. It looks like genius in the moment and momentum, a fair-copying of what had been pulsing in his head as he walked home, kept him from sleep and exhilarated him for poetry.

Great Spirits now on Earth are sojourning
    He of the Cloud, the Cataract the Lake
    Who on Helvellyn's summit wide awake
 Catches his freshness from Archangel's wing
 He of the Rose, the Violet, the Spring
     The social Smile, the Chain for freedom's sake:
     And lo! –- whose stedfastness would never take
 A Meaner Sound than Raphael's Whispering.
 And other Spirits are there standing apart
     Upon the Forehead of the Age to come;
 These, These will give the World another heart
     And other pulses -- hear ye not the hum
 Of mighty Workings in a distant Mart?
     Listen awhile ye Nations, and be dumb.!

                                                      Novr 20 –

Keats writes intuitively within the resources of the sonnet. You can see the Petrarchan plan, an octave abba, abba: sojourning / Lake / awake / wing / Spring / sake / take / whispering. But as the scant punctuation suggests, the drama has taken over: inspiration rather than prescription. Keats arrays the “ing” a-rhymes to enclose single-syllable chimes with a more relaxed tri-syllable, asymmetrical frame. And even as the single syllables chime, he gives wing a happy link to Archangel’s, the sound swinging subtly into Archangel’s swing. The sestet swings into yet more palpable drama. Its plan is still Petrarchan, cdcdcd: apart / come / heart / hum / Mart / dumb. Yet there is no formulaic Petrarchan pivot at line 9, which instead propels enjambment across two half-rhymed symmetrical pronouns: apart / Upon (9-10). The actual volta–or rather, two of them, are marked on medial dashes: first, the intensifier, And lo!–enthusiastically advanced to line 7, then line 12’s exhortation that pauses and then enjambs into near contradiction: “–hear ye not the hum / Of mighty.”

By November 1816, Keats had already met his political-poetic hero Leigh Hunt, whose mighty endeavors ranged from liberal natural beauties to the courage of taking on the chain for Freedom’s sake–a prison sentence (1813-15) and a steep fine for his oppositional journalism. He thwarted the Crown by reforming his cell into a salon-bower, covering its stone walls with trellis-rosed paper, painting the ceiling into a sky, putting up pictures and bookcases, tending a garden, and hosting a string of visitors, including Charles Lamb, Thomas Moore, and such A-listers as Lord Byron. Keats nicely captures this Huntian double-cross by writing Freedom’s sake with swing of s between the words, so that you hear Freedom’s ache in the principle, the suffering for the cause, and the longing for it. Clarke had been showing Keats’s poetry to Hunt, and Hunt, impressed by the talent, asked Clarke to bring Keats over to visit at his home in 1816. In excited anticipation, Keats virtually inhabited his praise of the sonnet form: “As we approached the Heath, there was the rising and accelerated step, with gradual subsidence of all talk”–swelling up to the climax, and dying proudly at the very threshold of the meeting (Clarke, Recollections 133). This suspense issued in poetic love at first sight. “We became intimate on the spot,” Hunt recalled, “and I found the young poet’s heart as warm as his imagination. We read and walked together, and used to write verses of an evening upon a given subject” (Lord Byron & Some of His Contemporaries [1828] 410).

Keats’s sonnet gives the headline in its opening words, four stresses on its first six syllables, iambic pentameter succumbing to passionate declaration: Great Spirits now on Earth. The first words code a nod to Haydon’s closing remarks in his essay, “The Judgment of Connoisseurs upon Works of Art … in reference … to the Elgin Marbles”: “the Great Spirit that reigns within them” (Examiner 17 March). Keats arcs the reign into three lines on Wordsworth, not named but coded in the Lake district’s sublimity, a region that seems close to divine, catching Archangelic flight. Then two lines on Hunt pack politics and poetics together. That accelerated volta at 7, And lo! –, hails the immediate inspiration of Haydon with another packed couplet, its “Raphael” designating both a whispering Archangel (the affable visitor to Adam in Eden) and naming Haydon’s heroic artist-DNA (the painter Raphael). Keats’s praise is nicely, tactfully, tactically triangulated through Hunt’s sonnet (Examiner 20 October), “To Benjamin Robert Haydon,” which deemed him “Fit to be numbered in succession due / With Michael, whose idea austerely presses, / And sweet-souled Raphael” (3-5; referring to Michelangelo–yet another Archangel). Haydon is “One of the spirits chosen by heaven” (12) to enlighten the age.

This dynamo of company, Keats declares, will regenerate the world, with a new heart, new pulses, and mighty workings (even now, in real time) in marts that can be only imagined on far horizons. The question and exhortation of the two and half lines after line 12’s dash of suspense occupy the place of a Shakespearean couplet, and earn its formal force by other means: Keats opens the question with a verb hear that is visibly wrought from heart, itself anagramming earth, the present scene of esteem. As in his sonnet “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer” (written a few weeks before, in October, and set for publication by Hunt in The Examiner on 1 December, a little more than a week away), Keats images an audience, including himself, poised for awed, reverential silence–necessarily dumb in straining to catch the distant hum. What Hunt had said of the close of “On first looking”–“so energetic a calmness”–Keats bears into another vibrantly suspenseful conclusion. In this suspense, the phrase “Great Spirits” proves more than a two-word echo. It registers as an allusion to Haydon’s full, rolling periodic sentence at the close of his defense of the Marbles: his heroic certainty that their grandeur will gain a “Fame” whose “roaring will swell out as time advances; and nations now sunk in barbarism, and ages yet unborn, will in succession be roused by its thunder, and be refined by its harmony.” Keats’s hum murmurs on this wave across the next line’s “Of mighty Workings,” even as the gerund echoes the octave’s a-rhymes, gathering them for arousal and harmony at once.

Haydon responded to Keats’s sonnet with a characteristic complication of generosity and self-interest. Generously, he praised the sonnet and proposed a revision to enhance its drama. Why not cancel the penultimate line (11) after Workings and fill the space with dashes, as if to project the hum of distance, first with this punctuation, then by extension into the page’s blank?

Keats ran with it:

    My dear Sir,

                             Your Letter has filld me with a proud pleasure
and shall be kept by me as a stimulus to exertion--I begin to fix
my eye upon one horizon.   My feelings entirely fall in with
yours’ in regard to the Ellipsis and I glory in it--The Idea of
your sending it to Wordsworth put me out of breath--you know
with what Reverence--I would send my Wellwishes to him--

Keats rises to Haydon’s spirit in his burst of proud pleasure, and stimulus to exertion. As if acting out the propulsion of the newly dash-charged line, he set his eye on the far horizon, his inspiration by the thought of Wordsworth’s reading his lines recoiling into reflux, “out of breath” and “with what Reverence.” His new fair copy, now with some considered finishing of punctuation, concluded:

These, these will give the World another Heart
     And other Pulses—hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings?— — — — — — — — —
     Listen awhile ye Nations and be dumb!

Haydon was generous, too, in proposing to send the sonnet to Wordsworth himself, England’s most famous in-residence poet, and long a focus of Keats’s vocational inspiration. Keats expected that the fresh version he enclosed with the letter would be the one sent.

But self-interested Haydon cadged it (an investment in Keats’s promise? a memento of jealous affection?), and sent a transcription to Wordsworth–and not immediately either, but weeks and weeks on, on the very last day of the year. Even famously reluctant correspondent Wordsworth managed a reply in half the time it took Haydon to send the poem to him, on 20 January 1817. Although he jested to Haydon that Keats’s praises did not allow them to be otherwise than praising in return, he read the sonnet with a poet’s eye, and saw the energy and skill that had impressed Haydon’s friends:

Your account of young Keats interests me not a little; and the sonnet appears to be of good promise, of course neither you nor I being so highly complimented in the composition can be deemed judges altogether impartial—but it is assuredly vigorously conceived and well expressed; Leigh Hunt’s compliment is well deserved and the sonnet is very agreeably concluded.

Wordsworth meant that Keats’s compliment to Hunt “is well deserved,” but his syntax may imply reciprocity, that Hunt’s compliment to Keats is also well deserved. For his part, Haydon must have been pleased by the praise for Keats’s conclusion, and pleased again by the titling of this sonnet in the 1817 Poems “Addressed to the Same” (following “Addressed to Haydon”).

Keats’s romance with Wordsworth, though it would be complicated in 1818 by sighs about Wordsworth’s egotism and palpable designs on his readers, was at this early moment in 1817 a deep-felt encouragement. He was over the moon. He had Wordsworth’s 1815 Poems with him during his medical studies at Guy’s hospital. And as Haydon was drawing his profile that November evening, he had recited lines lovingly memorized from The Excursion, about the “expansive and animating principle” of the old mythologies (IV.846-82), the very passage Hazlitt had praised (I quote him) in a review for The Examiner (28 August 1814, p. 556). Wordsworth kept his eye on Keats, asking after him when he wrote to Haydon in January 1820 to congratulate him on the impending exhibition of Christ’s Entry.

In the thronging crowd, Haydon placed Wordsworth just below Keats. Wordsworth’s head is reverentially bowed; Hazlitt has turned from the spectacle to whisper to Keats, and Keats is a study of intense attention, and concentrated gaze. (There is some debate about whether it’s Haydon’s protégé William Bewick whose head is tilted towards Keats’s, but I shall fancy Hazlitt for this occasion.)

“How is Keates, he is a youth of promise too great for the sorry company he keeps,” Wordsworth asked (meaning, in this post-Peterloo year, Hunt, and quite immediately in the painting, Hazlitt). What he could not know was that young Keats was in desperate health, little more than a year left to live. Innocent of this horizon, Wordsworth does Keats the honor of casting him for the company of the “great” spirits his sonnet had honored.

Susan Wolfson
Princeton University
20 November 2016

Letter #9: To Benjamin Robert Haydon, 20 November 1816

More exciting stuff for Keats today. During early November 1816 he began to cultivate a friendship with Benjamin Robert Haydon, an older man and an already established artist, one who happened to be friends with Wordsworth. It’s hard to imagine what Keats must have felt like as he moved into circles that brought him into direct contact with his literary heroes. He had recently also met Leigh Hunt, who in about ten days’ time would publish his “Young Poets” essay in The Examiner naming Keats (along with John Hamilton Reynolds and Percy Bysshe Shelley) as one of three promising writers poised to change the poetry world. Meeting Haydon was another important step in developing Keats’s literary and artistic network.

On 19 November 1816, Keats and Haydon spent the evening together. That evening gave at least two significant gifts to posterity: Haydon’s sketch of Keats in profile (one of the rotating title images for the KLP front page), and Keats’s “Great Spirits” sonnet. The latter Keats sent to Haydon on 20 November, along with a brief note indicating how the previous evening “wrought [him] up,” the topic explored in Susan Wolfson’s response to the letter. The sonnet persists as a testament to Keats’s belief in the social significance of poetry, and to his ability to compose rapidly and animatedly on the occasion of a seemingly great event, or at least one that seemed to mark an era in his existence.

Haydon proved a receptive audience for Keats’s sonnet, and how could he not, given that Haydon had been named as one of those “great spirits”? The interchange between the two on 20 November led to a revision and a second letter from Keats to Haydon the next day. But more on that tomorrow! For now, enjoy Keats’s sonnet and Susan Wolfson’s exquisitely wrought response to it.

Why We Need Keats

The KLP Editors

RE: Keats’s 8 or 11 Nov 1816 Letter to Charles Cowden Clarke

Sometimes plans go awry. Sometimes, as happened to Keats and Clarke with Benjamin Haydon in November 1816, your pal bails on you and goes to see Timon of Athens at Drury Lane instead of hanging out, sharing a bottle of claret (or two), talking, laughing, and punning into the wee small hours of the morning. Sometimes, as happened to the KLP in November 2016, you plan to debut a new feature on your website, one rooted in boisterousness, fun, and joy–and then, well, everything changes. All of a sudden the autumnal color orange seems less appealing, as a large self worshipper wins an election and really harshes your mellow fruitfulness. Then, instead of feeling jubliant, you just feel like shit.

The KLP does not intervene directly in the realm of politics. We’re not making any sort of statement about the relative merits of particular policies, or about individual voting decisions. But it would be disingenuous of the editorial board if we did not admit our disgust at the racism, bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, toxic masculinity, anti-Semitism, white nationalism–had we but world enough and time, this list of hate would probably never end–expressed over the last year plus by the Orange Menace, also known as the man recently elected to the Presidency of the United States of America. So consider our disgust admitted.

If we weren’t so disgusted–we have no gust at all, let alone gusto–today the KLP would be launching, as we had planned to do, a special, semi-regular feature of the site, called “This Week in Keats.” The model for TWK is simple: KLP co-editors Brian Rejack and Mike Theune (and sometimes special guests) get together, share a bottle of claret (or two), and while so doing, they chat about what Keats and his buddies were up to 200 years ago. Oh, and we record the conversation, edit it for public consumption, and then share the video on the web. In short, TWK is meant to embody the spirit of conviviality which animated the circle formed around Keats (and really, around Leigh Hunt, but we’re the Keats Letters Project, so yeah–Keats) two centuries ago. The series is a more light-hearted and less scholarly way of corresponding with the record left to us by Keats, but we nonetheless maintain its value, particularly for its championing of what Greg Kucich calls, in an earlier KLP response, “the joy of warm-hearted, supportive sociality.” As Kucich points out, those values are “Central to [Huntian] republican poetics and politics.” The KLP feels that we would benefit from pursuing those values now as well. Today, though, we just couldn’t find that joy. Not yet.

Here is Leigh Hunt, in his manifesto laying out some of these very ideals, from the preface to his 1818 volume, Foliage:

It is high time for […] all of us, to look after health and sociality; and to believe, that although we cannot alter the world with an ipse dixit, we need not become desponding, or mistake a disappointed egotism for humility. We should consider ourselves as what we really are,–creatures made to enjoy more than to know, to know infinitely nevertheless in proportion as we enjoy kindly, and finally, to put our own shoulders to the wheel and get out of the mud upon the green sward again.

Consider this post, then, our first thrust at the wheel of despondency, which we humbly hope might lead us out of this mud–mud from a muddy spring, no doubt–sometime soon. The KLP takes seriously the notion that enjoyment, and kindly enjoyment at that, is key to the movement from the muddiness of ignorance into the greenery of awareness. And so we must work and fight for our enjoyment of life, of love, and of one another. And for our right to party, of course. We will unveil “This Week in Keats” at a later date, and it will be full of joy, ideally a joy emerging from kindness and urging us to know.

But to our title–why do we need Keats? As much as it pains the editors of the Keats Letters Project to admit, we may not really need Keats. If it weren’t Keats, it’d be someone else (why not Mary Wollstonecraft, Helen Maria Williams, Mary and/or Percy Shelley, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, John Clare?). What we do need is what we build around Keats. We need the network of affectionate, empathetic, curious friends and colleagues who enjoy Keats’s letters with us, and who spin an airy citadel between the varied points of the intellectual twigs and leaves comprising the ongoing cultural record. We need clovers who open their hearts and minds to the fair guerdons on offer by the bees. We need those willing to devote themselves wholly to another, to a sparrow or some other being, and then take part in its existence. We need communication, correspondence–to commune, to co-respond. Keats doesn’t have to be the center around which we circulate our kindly enjoyment and its attendant knowledge.

Keats, however, does offer a good model for how to approach one’s relationship to the world and to one another. That said, he’s no savior for us and all our ills. Keats has his issues too. He’s sometimes cruel, sometimes impatient, irritable, unforgiving. But maybe we do need Keats, precisely because he gives us ways to acknowledge these faults and failures. Maybe we need Keats because he was the erstwhile misogynist who nevertheless pursues the feminine idyll around the vase that he knows he does not know, while also knowing that he must keep contemplating until it can tease him out of thought. Maybe we need Keats because he is the Cockney poet of accessibility wrought not through Wollstonecraftian reason but through wondrous awe at the pure serene of respeaking Homer and the wild surmise it incites. Maybe we need Keats because he gives us leave to think of social change not as Shelley’s beloved, windy spirit of necessity, but the product of hard labor and frequent missteps, not achieved through masculine epic (which he tries twice, only to finally give up), but through the odes of paradoxical praise and productive uncertainty. And maybe Keats can teach us something distinctive about a temporality that imagines the past continually recirculating, not as the Phantom of the revolution, but as a re-lived experience, dying into life with fierce convulse.

Whether we need Keats or not, we know that his letters o’erbrim with goodness. So why not start there, get right down to the job. Let’s put our shoulders–Ginsbergian queer, trans, cis, and whatever else–to the wheel. Let’s strive continually for the goodness that is never given but always earned. Plans go awry, but we come back the next day, write a new letter, sing a new song, spin a new web.

Yr sincere friends and Coscribblers,
Anne, Brian, Emily, Ian, Kate, and Mike

Letter #8: To Charles Cowden Clarke, 8 or 11 November 1816

The esteemed editor of Keats’s letters, Hyder Edward Rollins, offers an estimate of this letter’s date based on the mention of Timon of Athens (or, as Keats has it, “Timon ye Misantrophos”), which was performed at Drury Lane several times in early November 1816. Eliminating a few other options based on information we have about Keats’s activities during this period, Rollins settles on the two remaining possibilities, 8 or 11 November 1816.

As in the 1 November 1816 letter to Severn, here we see Keats again in the heady rush of “urban time,” as Matthew Sangster described it in his response to that letter. The difference here is that Keats’s new friend Benjamin Haydon is the one in a hurry. Haydon apparently had to break an engagement to visit with Keats and Clarke in order to attend a performance of the aforementioned Timon of Athens. Keats dashes off this letter to let Clarke know that the plans are off and that Keats will “rest your hermit.”

Keats also shows off one of his typical modes of humor: the mock-formal, or as he’ll describe it in a much later letter, writing “hoity-toityishly.” Of course, Keats’s letters are well-known for their seriousness of thought, but they ought to be just as highly regarded for their levity. He regularly adopts the language of legal documents or other formal modes, and he appears to get a kick out of hamming it up by so doing. Good on you, Keats.

Since we don’t know the date for certain, we’ll take Rollins’s guesses as our guides for this letter. For your enjoyment on this election day in the US, we hope that Keats’s brief note will provide a moment of respite from the ennui, anxiety, terror, despair, or whatever other feelings (maybe even some good ones!) brought on by today’s events.

And be on the lookout for a response to the letter this Friday, November 11–the KLP figures why not cover both dates!

John Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.2.1). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

John Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.2.1). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

John Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.2.1). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

John Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.2.1). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

John Keats and Urban Time

Matthew Sangster
University of Glasgow

RE: Keats’s 1 Nov 1816 letter to Severn

In the most canonical aspects of Keats’ surviving traces, when time is evoked, it is commonly languid, vast or arrested. The Grecian Urn, despite its age, remains a “still unravish’d bride”, the “foster-child of Silence and slow Time”, a stalled moment that persists over centuries, changing only as its viewers change. In “The Eve of St. Agnes”, the events play out with a teasing languor; the poem is framed by the ancient castle, with its traditions and its elderly inhabitants, and it concludes with the deflection of all that it evokes and depicts into “ages long ago”. Where other poets might rush on, Keats commonly hesitates and dwells, sometimes leisurely, sometimes listless. He often depicts himself as a figure caught up in aftermaths – “too late for antique vows”, as he puts it in the “Ode to Psyche”. The imperative to “Stop and consider!” (from “Sleep and Poetry”) is one that many of his most famous writings both evoke and model.

The other kind of time often associated with Keats is his brief lifespan, a circumstance that we might be reminded of when we note that the addressee of this letter is Joseph Severn, the young artist who would accompany Keats to Italy in 1820 and who nursed the poet during his final illness in their rooms above the Spanish Steps. However, in its content and its form this brief letter also suggests other kinds of temporalities that we associate less commonly with Keats. What I like most about it is how it reminds us that at this point in his career John Keats was a young man in a hurry.

This short epistle is not a letter for the ages, like the commonly-quoted meditations in which Keats reflects on life and art. Instead, it is a slightly slapdash note written busily to a friend to explain Keats’ refusing an invitation due to the pressure of other engagements. This was a moment in the aspirant poet’s life when a whole series of new prospects were opening up, allowing him potential access to a powerful range of cultural spaces, both social and physical. His tone in this letter makes it clear that Keats was keen to take advantage of these opportunities. If he was to make himself a poet, he had to sell himself to influential figures as someone who would be valuable in filling that role. Without the approbation of periodical conductors, publishers and tastemakers, his productions had little chance of success.

Within the geography of London’s streets, Keats was not positioned particularly advantageously for achieving the notice that he required. The No. 8 Dean Street from which he addressed Severn was not the No. 8 Dean Street that still exists in Soho, close to the shops, theatres and high-society amenities of the West End, but a No. 8 Dean Street now eliminated by the vast footprint of London Bridge Station and the railway lines that run away from it. In Keats’ age, this was a location that was unfashionably far to the east and unfashionably south of the river.

Dean Street as depicted in Richard Horwood's Plan (1792-99). See www.romanticlondon.org to navigate in more detail

Dean Street as depicted in Richard Horwood’s Plan (1792-99). Visit www.romanticlondon.org to navigate in more detail, and watch the video below for tips on how to do so.

It was close to Guy’s Hospital, where Keats trained, but also close to the bustling wharves and warehouses that lined the Thames, to the busy inns along Borough High Street, to the stinking tanneries and glue manufactories of Long Lane and to the hustling commerce of Borough Market. This was not an address with particular éclat or with easy access to the centres of polite culture, which were mostly located along the Strand and in the West End.

Severn too was located some way from the centre of the action. He lodged on Goswell Street (now Goswell Road–and though now a different building, the location of Severn’s lodgings at 128 Goswell Street can be seen here), north of the river, but also north of the commercial heart of the city, surrounded by modest properties and close to a dye house, a substantial brewery and the Charterhouse, a long-established residence for impoverished scholars. While neither young man was more than ten minutes’ walk from the fields that surrounded the city, both were a considerable distance from its cultural heartlands.

This, however, was a distance that Keats for one was determined to close. Madison C. Bates notes in the 1954 article within which this letter was first published that Keats’ opening apology – “nearly sorry” – might not be quite as strange as it first seems, even if that “nearly” is not an error replacing a “really”. “Nearly” could mean “particularly” within the contexts of Keats’ time, making it “both courteous and appropriate” (78) for Keats to tell his friend that he was “nearly sorry” that he wouldn’t be able to meet with him. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this letter sees Keats prioritising other opportunities over socialising with his similarly green friend. Having relatively recently formed the connection with Leigh Hunt that would both smooth the publication and complicate the reception of much of his early verse, he asks his friend to tolerate the attention that he must necessarily give to his desired vocation. Keats also invites Severn to recognise the importance of the acquaintance that he had engineered with Benjamin Robert Haydon, in whose Lisson Grove studio he would eventually participate in the ‘Immortal Dinner’ alongside William Wordsworth and Charles Lamb.

When he visited Haydon in the West End and Hunt in Hampstead, Keats was making considerable investments of time in order to cover the distances involved. However, he was also inserting himself into situations in which he was able to practice self-fashioning himself as a poet. His invitation to Severn to congratulate him on his forthcoming meeting with Haydon indicates that this networking, made possible by the clustering of writers within the metropolis, was something that Keats knew very well that he was engaging in. In attempting to accelerate his acculturation into the society of those who produced and mediated poetry and art, Keats sought to learn through association how he might succeed. His circumstances meant that he did not have infinite time to make poetry work for him. While his verse personae might commonly linger, he himself had some considerable financial incentives to rush.

As this brief note also demonstrates, Keats was assisted in making connections by the fast mechanisms of the city. He was able to dispatch his letter to Severn on a Friday afternoon confident that it would reach his friend either on the same day or, at the worst, early enough on the next for news of his engagement to be of use. This is not a letter like those sent to George and Georgiana Keats after their emigration to the United States, within which the long view was for practical purposes the only one that could be taken. This was a cheap dispatch by the twopenny post, with Keats taking advantage of the speed of the London mail to produce something closer to the quick email apology that harried twenty-first century correspondents might dash off than the worked epistles that he would later use to lay out his ideas about poetry. In being so, it serves as a salutatory reminder that Keats was not always profound and eloquent, providing a little trace of his being, in W.H. Auden’s words, “silly like us”.

If we think of Keats as a Londoner in the twenty-first century, it is often in the context of the “Cockney School” attacks, which mocked his pretensions to poetry in part through associating him with crude urban commerce and with prostitution, describing one of his short amatory poems as a set of “prurient and vulgar lines, evidently meant for some young lady east of Temple-bar” (521) and concluding by ordering him “back to the shop” (524). Even in his short note to Severn, there is evidence that Keats was aware that his roots in the city might be employed against him as he sought to make his reputation through poetry. His slightly pretentious desire to “look into some beautiful Scenery—for poetical purposes” implies that he did not see his everyday metropolitan surroundings as proper subjects for his work, an attitude shared by a great many of his contemporaries. However, while the commerce and fast time of the city were not seen as being conducive for inspiring poetry, they were often crucial for forging the kinds of networks and reputations that made it possible to achieve notice, as they proved to be in Keats’ case. While “slow time” seems more characteristic of the Keats who communicates to us most powerfully today, the networked speed of the metropolis in the 1810s was crucial for his accessing and maintaining the connections through which he launched himself into print and – ultimately – into posterity.


Works Cited

Auden, W.H. “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”. Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber, 2007: 245-7.

Bates, Madison C. “Two New Letters of Keats and Byron”. Keats-Shelley Journal 3 (Winter 1954): 75-88.

Keats, John. Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Sangster, Matthew. Romantic London. 2015-. http://www.romanticlondon.org.

[Lockhart, John Gibson]. “On the Cockney School of Poetry: No. IV”. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 3 (August 1818): 519-24.

Letter #7: To Joseph Severn, 1 November 1816

Here at the KLP, especially in the early years of our endeavor, we like to keep Keats alive as long as possible. It’s all too easy to dwell on the poet’s tragic end in Italy in 1821. And now, with the first letter to Joseph Severn, the sensitive and caring companion who would spend several grueling months watching Keats die, we have to work particularly hard to go not to Lethe, to resist the allure of wolf’s-bane’s poisonous wine.

Alas. Sorry, Keats, but we’re going to try a different tack than glutting our sorrow. Instead, as Matthew Sangster suggests in his response to this brief letter to Severn, let us invoke “other kinds of temporalities” than the melancholic “slow Time” so often associated with Keats’s poetry. As Sangster writes, this letter shows “something closer to the quick email apology that harried twenty-first century correspondents might dash off than the worked epistles that he would later use to lay out his ideas about poetry.” In other words, here we see Keats traveling in the fast lane of modern urban life. Let’s do what we can to keep him like that in our minds.

Another harried moment marks the life of this letter as well. Severn outlived Keats by 58 years, and yet, he seems to have kept the poet always lively in his mind during that long period. In 1878, he wrote to Charles Dilke of Keats’s poetry, “I begin to live on them [!!!]” (emphasis, and exclamation marks, added). Even at that late date, Severn seemed able to still call up a new beginning, a new liveliness associated with his old friend. A few months after that, on 27 May 1879, the ailing Severn slowly but surely made his way through a different urban environment than the London of his youth, and arrived at the British embassy in Rome. He brought with him the remaining Keats letters and manuscripts still in his possession. The British vice-consul, Alexander Roesler Franz, attested to the letters’ authenticity, and marked them with his diplomatic seal, alongside Severn’s shaky but insistent signature. It was an act that marked a new beginning for this letter from November 1816. Across a gap of nearly 63 years, Keats’s rushed epistle made its way through slow time and back into another brief but lively moment, when his aging friend added some of his last vital traces to the history of Keats’s letters.

So here’s to you, Severn! The KLP hopes to do our part in helping others “begin to live” on your and Keats’s correspondence.