A Cockney Celebration: “Go it!”

Christine Woody
University of Pennsylvania

Re: Keats’s 25 March 1817 letter to Charles Cowden Clarke

As Jayme Peacock’s response to the September 1816 letter to Charles Cowden Clarke outlines, Keats’s correspondent pays testament to the importance of his friendships to his conception of himself as a poet. In today’s short letter to Clarke, Keats writes from Hampstead, inviting his friend to an evening party on behalf of their mutual friend, composer and organist Vincent Novello. But the letter is more than a simple invitation—it traces a web of social connections through different places and artistic projects. The invitation itself indicates an earlier circuit of communication through the group, where “Mr Novello requested Mr Hunt to invite you per Letter the which I offered to do” (126). “So we shall meet you there tomorrow evening,” Keats asks, predicts, or commands, promising the entertainment of Hunt’s new poem on the Nymphs, his own poetic response to The Story of Rimini, and a hymn composed by Hunt (which H.S. Milford has since identified as “To the Spirit Great and Good”). This triad of literary pleasures serves to invoke Cowden Clarke’s presence at the party, Keats offers his own poem, “which I will copy for your against tomorrow”—a party-favour promised to the anticipated guest.

In my on-going research, I have been interested in the public representation of these kinds of poetic communities, from Francis Jeffrey’s attacks on the social isolation of Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Lake District as a shrinking from “the collision of equal minds” (3) to the representation of precisely the kind of party Cowden Clarke is invited to in the London Magazine writings of Charles Lamb’s “Elia” or in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine’s Noctes Ambrosianae. So, it is exciting to consider a letter like this one, which offers not the fantasy, nightmare, or simulacrum of such a meeting of poets, periodical writers, and artists, but rather its promise. The list of poetic productions with which the letter closes offers itself not as printed words but as the anticipation of a shared experience, one that calls on and requires not only the presence but the participation of each of the parties named. Keats’s postscript—“N.B. we shall have a Hymn of Mr H.’s composing 4 Voices—go it!” (127) seems to demand that Cowden Clarke take up his place in the song alongside the voices of the other three confirmed guests. The collaborative nature of Keats’s artistic circle is presented as a direct and unpretentious invitation. The hymn for four voices offers an artistic world in which there is place for all, without excess or shortfall.

For the Romantic literary mainstream this is a shocking assertion. Book reviewers in the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews had long lamented the surplus of texts that inundated them, objecting to the bad example of publication. In 1808 for instance, the Edinburgh complained that “not a merchant’s clerk now-a-days can cross the seas as supercargo, or exchange his Birmingham razors for silver shaving-basins at Buenos Ayres, but he must print, under the name of a voyage, his captain’s log-book, and his own accounts of sales, in order to add the wages of authorship to the profits of his venture” (Review of Bolingbroke’s Voyage, 411). The private circulation of verses, meanwhile, was represented as at best a “venial and amiable indulgence of vanity” which should be reserved, even then, for “the man of leisure and education” (Review of Mant’s Poems, 171). Reading Keats’s letter offers us, then, a hopeful alternative to this classism and pessimism, a place outside these anxieties where there is a need for all voices.

Yet reading this short letter, I am preoccupied with a sense of doom: I know that in mere months—beginning in October 1817—Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine will begin a series of attacks on precisely this group, branding them the “Cockney School of Poetry.” These attacks would conjure new versions of their domestic spaces, for instance comparing the experience of reading Hunt’s poems to entering “the gilded drawing-room of a little mincing boarding-school mistress, who would fain have an At Home in her house” (“On the Cockney School,” 39). Reading this letter with a sense of what is to come, I am struck by how this private letter, unseen by the writers of the Blackwood’s attacks, contains the seeds of the “Cockney” playfulness with genre and gender against which periodicals like Blackwood’s Magazine would recoil. The Blackwood’s attacks, however cruel, appear to have apprehended the texture of Keats’s social world. What they diagnose as dangerous and socially disruptive is present here, but present as generative, recreative engagement with both the literary and the social world.

Before issuing his invitation to Cowden Clarke, Keats employs his opening lines to rewrite the beginning of Macbeth, adapting for his friend the greeting of the witches at their meeting during Duncan’s battle against the treacherous Thane of Glamis. But where the witches situated themselves in the natural world of thunder, lightning, and rain, barely removed from the hurly-burly of the battle that will set the political plot of the play in motion, Keats rewrites the lines to meditate on his separation from his friend, representing their friendship as one that spans both a metaphysical and a resolutely Cockney terrain: “When shall we see each other again? In Heaven or in Hell, or in deep Places? In crooked Lane are we to meet or on Salisbury Plain? Or jumbled together at Drury Lane Door?”(126).

Keats plays with the cluster of tropes that would define the Cockney poets for their detractors. From this choice of literary allusion, to catalogue of cosmological and urban places, Keats produces the kind of mixture that reviewers found so unsettling in the poetry of his circle. He freely adapts Shakespeare, moreover, fracturing the metre and rhyme of the original—not so much a rewriting as a riff on the lines of the play. In his choice of literary allusion, Keats privately enacts the transgression of his poetry, what Blackwood’s baulked at as a Cockney inclination to “look upon yourselves as so many future Shakespeares and Miltons” (“Cockney School No. IV,” 520). Representing himself and his friends as the witches, Keats claims for them at once a supernatural power, and an equivocal gender—representing under a playful aegis what his critics would blast as effeminacy.

In his catalogue of meeting-places, meanwhile, Keats effects a particularly Cockney slippage from the metaphysical to the mundane. Thus, from the “deep Places” beyond Heaven and Hell, he moves to a trio of locations that characterizes the London poet. The crooked lane, evidently, signals urban spaces, as does the more specific Drury Lane Door. In placing himself and Cowden Clarke at the door a of a Drury Lane theatre, moreover, Keats invokes not merely the urban but the site of his friends’ periodical labour: Leigh Hunt wrote theatre criticism for The News between 1805 and 1807 as well as in his own Examiner, while William Hazlitt contributed the same to The Morning Chronicle beginning in 1813 and published Characters of Shakspear’s Plays in 1817. Finally, Salisbury plain, while not as resolutely Cockney as Hampstead Heath, nevertheless invokes the city with its geographic proximity. Unlike the very literal movement of the witches, Keats grants to himself and his friend a movement that pivots between reality and ideality, proposing a meeting of the minds and souls as somehow interchangeable with the everyday movement of the poet through the London streets.

At this moment before the worst of the attacks on Keats, Hunt, and their literary friends, before the storm of personal invective and classist derision, Keats’s letter offers a moment of potential, where the poetic world imagined is one that incorporates rather than rejects the mundane, one that has a hymn for each of the voices and calls us, each, to “go it.”


Works Cited

Jeffrey, Francis. “Review of Wordsworth’s Excursion.” Edinburgh Review. Vol. 24, no. 47 (October 1814): 100-117.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats 1814-1821. Vol. 1. Edited by Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge University Press, 1958.

Lockhart, John Gibson. “On the Cockney School of Poetry.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Vol. 2, no. 7 (October 1817): 38-41.

—. “Cockney School of Poetry. No. IV.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Vol. 3, no. 17 (August 1818): 519-524.

“Review of Bolingbroke’s Voyage to the Demerary.Edinburgh Review. Vol. 12, no. 24 (July 1808): 410-416.

“Review of Mant’s Poems.Edinburgh Review. Vol. 11, no. 21 (October 1807): 167-171.

Letter #14: To Charles Cowden Clarke, 25 March 1817

Today we return to the early friend and mentor of Keats, Charles Cowden Clarke, about whom we heard a great deal during the first year of the KLP. Five of the ten letters from 1816 were addressed to Clarke. To the shock of the KLP editors, we realized only upon preparing for today’s letter that it is in fact the last extant letter from Keats to Clarke! The two, of course, remained friends, but certainly after the spring of 1817 they saw less of each other. It seemed like we were just getting to know friend Charles, and now he’s about to disappear from Keats’s epistolary record.

Now, it’s worth reminding our dear readers that for each letter which has survived, there are probably another dozen which have not (caveat: not a mathematically sound or statistically informed estimate). According to Clarke himself, there’s at least one other letter from Keats to him, written in the aftermath of young Tom Keats’s death in early December 1818. In the close of Clarke’s 1878 Recollections of Writers (a work discussed in an earlier post about another Clarke letter), he notes that Keats expressed to him his “firm belief in the immortality of the soul,” a belief he says the recently departed Tom also held. (In other letters Keats’s belief seems less firm.) Surely some other letters were sent and received long after 25 March 1817 as well.

Speaking of lost letters, we’re lucky to have today’s letter! It was not printed until 1932. Long before that, Clarke gave the letter to an Edinburgh collector, bookseller and sometime printer named William Finley (or Findlay) Watson. When exactly remains a mystery. Watson ran his shop (and probably maintained lodgings above it) at 52 Princes Street in Edinburgh–next door to the famous Jenners department store–until at least 1860, and perhaps later. One imagines that at least some of those Victorian shoppers might have wanted to extend their window-shopping route over to Watson’s for a peak at Keats! In any case, after Watson’s death in 1881, he bequeathed his collection of thousands of prints, drawings, manuscripts, paintings, and autograph letters to the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland. The letter to Clarke was found there in 1929 by Louis Arthur Holman, an eccentric Bostonian Keats acolyte (about whom you can read more in Ann Rowland’s excellent essay in her recent collection co-edited with Paul Westover, Transatlantic Literature and Author Love in the Nineteenth Century). 1929-32 may have been a rough time for the global economic system, but it was quite the boom period for newly discovered Keats letters! Regular KLP readers will recall that the 9 October 1816 letter to Clarke was discovered during these years as well, thanks to some dumb luck by a Melville scholar named John Howard Birss–and when he found that letter at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the 12 November 1819 letter to George Keats turned up for the first time as well! Holman printed accounts of all three letters’ reentries into the light of day in his short-lived magazine, Within the Compass of a Print Shop. One of the KLP editors may have recently purchased a copy of said magazine. We’ll make sure to update this post if it yields any more intriguing tidbits.

That checkered history out of the way, let’s proceed to the letter! Even though last time we encountered Keats writing to Reynolds about his need for solitude, we know Keats felt some ambivalence about that future prospect. Well, here he is again in the thick of a wine-, music-, poetry-, and friend-filled evening. He tells Clarke to join him, Leigh Hunt, and Vincent Novello the next evening, where they will presumably discuss Hunt’s and Keats’s latest poetic efforts, and, of course, our favorite component, sing “a Hymn of Mr H.’s composing 4 voices.” What an evening it must have been.

Since we don’t yet have Holman’s magazine copy of the letter to share with you, we’ll just go ahead and offer a transcription of our own. And then you can head over to read Christine Woody’s fabulous response! As have many of our earlier correspondents, Woody wonderfully captures the excitement and potential represented by Keats’s sociability during these early years, and what the experiences described and alluded to in the letters must have meant for Keats’s developing notion of himself as a poet. Also be on the lookout for Woody’s article on this topic (specifically on the trope of the “Cockney” author) in the Keats-Shelley Journal later this year.



Hampstead Tuesday Aft

My dear Charles,

When shall we see each other again? In Heaven or in Hell, or in deep Places? In crooked Lane are we to meet or on Salisbury Plain? Or jumbled together at Drury Lane Door? For my part I know not where it is to be except that it may be possible to take place at Mr Novello’s tomorrow evening whither Mr Hunt and myself are going and wher Mr Novello requested Mr Hunt to invite you per Letter the which I offered to do. So we shall meet you there tomorrow evening–Mr H. has got a great way into a Poem on the Nymphs and has said a number of beautiful things I have also written a few Lines and a Sonnet on Rimini which I will copy for you against tomorrow–Mr H. desires to be remembered to you–

Your’s sincerely
John Keats–

 N.B. we shall have a Hymn of Mr H.’s composing 4 Voices–go it!

“Banish all the world”

Jacob Risinger
Ohio State University

Re: Keats’s 17 March 1817 letter to J. H. Reynolds

“My Brothers are anxious that I shod go by myself into the country—they have always been extremely fond of me; and now that Haydon has pointed out how necessary it is that I shod be alone to improve myself, they give up the temporary pleasure of living with me continually for a great good which I hope will follow—” (Keats I: 125)

Anxiety. Fondness. Pleasure. Hope. In this short letter to Reynolds—one of the first after a long silence—Keats puzzles over the affective experience of others before finally circling around to his own anticipation. It’s a funny bit of indirection or harmless transference, maybe even a flash of the way in which uncertainty can breed obfuscation. Taking Haydon’s suggestion to heart, Keats screws his courage to the sticking place and prepares to set off on a solitary poetic errand into the wilderness. If lucky, Endymion will arise out of the ensuing peace and quiet. Only George and Tom, he suggests, would be left to experience this quest as sacrifice—to worry over the pleasures lost when sociable routines give way to solitude.  It brings to mind an assertion that Haydon would make in his journal three weeks later: “Keats is the only man I ever met with who is conscious of a high call and is resolved to sacrifice his life or attain it” (Haydon 107). And yet here at this moment of renewed dedication, that consciousness seems to run up against a sense of all that might be demanded by its realization. Do all great spirits have to go into the country by themselves?

It is as if Keats has been sucked-in by what Duncan Wu counts as one of the Thirty Great Myths About the Romantics: “The Romantic poets were misunderstood, solitary geniuses.” Keats would encounter misunderstanding soon enough, but here I want to say a word about solitude. Eighteen months later, in a letter to George and Georgiana, he would make a rousing case for the inspiration that can only emerge out of isolation: “Notwithstand[ing] your Happiness and your recommendation I hope I shall never marry … my Happiness would not be so fine, as my Solitude is sublime … I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds. No sooner am I alone than shapes of epic greatness are stationed around me, and serve my Spirit the office which is equivalent to a King’s body guard—then ‘Tragedy with scepter’d pall, comes sweeping by’” (I: 403). However sublime the vision, there is a strange note of self-defense in all of this. I think of Simon and Garfunkel’s great lines: “I have my books / And my poetry to protect me / I am shielded in my armor.” But Keats’s ambition here easily outpaces his evasive maneuvers. To the imagination at the height of its power, solitary moments are effortlessly peopled by “shapes of epic greatness.” As the demands and domestic routines of the real world recede, the power that can create a thousand worlds comes into its own. And yet this version of Haydon’s “high call” was still a long way off. In March 1817, Keats wanted not a thousand worlds but simply four thousand lines. “So,” he writes, “I shall soon be out of Town” (I: 125).

It is not hard to see why Keats might have looked skeptically or anxiously at the thought of poetic solitude. Two weeks earlier, his first book Poems made its way into the world. Unlike Byron, Keats did not awake one morning and find himself famous, though the slim volume was championed by the circle of friends that had fostered its development. Nicholas Roe’s magisterial biography paints a vivid picture of this fostering sociability and its unmistakable centrality. His mock-up of the volume’s unprinted table of contents is striking in itself. For so many of these poems, catalyst and recipient are one and the same. The brothers who would give up a “temporary pleasure” for the sake of poetry could also inspire it: there are two poems “To My Brother George,” and one “To My Brothers.” Keats ended the sonnet to George with a pointed question (discussed at length in the most recent episode of This Week in Keats): “But what, without the social thought of thee, / Would be the wonders of the sky and sea?”

The lines of sociability and exchange stretched on and on in Keats’s debut volume: there were two poems for Georgiana, and two for Haydon. George Felton Mathew and Charles Cowden Clarke merited verse epistles. Other poems celebrated the reciprocity of exchange: “On Receiving a Curious Shell and a Copy of Verses from The Same Ladies” and “To a Friend Who Sent Me Some Roses.” Leigh Hunt’s release from prison prompted a sonnet, and his friendship resulted in a last-minute dedication. Roe’s description of its genesis is especially striking:

Keats read the proofs and then, one evening in late February, a last sheet came with a note saying that if he wished to have a dedication it must be sent forthwith. He stepped to a side table, and while brothers and friends chatted, wrote this dedication sonnet. (Roe 145)

Dashing off a sonnet while his brothers and friends talked on was impressive, but then so too was “On the Grasshopper and Cricket”—forward-looking lines that resulted from a fifteen-minute sonnet competition around Hunt’s Hampstead hearth.

In October 1818, Keats’s embrace of solitude and the sublime would come with the force of an imperative: “Th[i]nk of my Pleasure in Solitude, in comparison of my commerce with the world” (Keats I: 404). But here, in March 1817, his poetic identity was brilliantly tied-up in the conviviality of that commerce. Can you fault a chap for worrying that a solitary excursion might not be the best way forward? In any case, Haydon’s grand plan did not work out as expected. After a week on the Isle of Wight, Keats “set off pell mell for Margate.” His rationale: “I was too much in Solitude, and consequently was obliged to be in continual burning of thought as an only resource” (Keats I: 138-9).

Intimations of this fruitless “burning of thought” shape the marked ambivalence that closes-down Keats’s short letter. In a “pretty piece of Paganism,” he sides rather half-heartedly with the fox in Aesop’s fable:

Text from 1790 edition (click for full size)

Image from 1792 edition with prints and “instructive applications” (click for full size)

In the letter, Keats puts it like this: “You must soon bring all your present troubles to a close, and so must I, but we must, like the Fox, prepare for a fresh swarm of flies.” It is almost as if Keats combines the wisdom of the fox with the impetuosity of the hedgehog. He knows that he might find in solitude “a fresh swarm of flies” who will make the torment of writing ten times worse than it would ever be in his sociable circle. But he runs the probable hazard anyway. Banish all the world? Against his better judgment, Keats follows Prince Harry’s lead: “I do; I will.”



Aesop’s Fables, With Instructive Morals and Reflections, Abstracted from all Party Considerations, Adapted to all Capacities; and design’d to promote Religion, Morality, and Universal Benevolence. York: T. Wilson and R. Spence, 1790.

Croxall, Samuel. Fables of Aesop and Others: Translated into English with Instructive Applications and a Cut Before Each Fable. London: A. Miller, W. Law, and R. Cater, 1792.

Haydon, Benjamin Robert. The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, ed. Willard Bissell Pope. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins.  2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Letter #13: To J. H. Reynolds, 17 March 1817

As with our last letter, today we find Keats again writing to his pal John Hamilton Reynolds (and again we have the text of the letter thanks only to Richard Woodhouse’s transcription). If you’ve been following This Week in Keats (because who wouldn’t??), you know that Keats’s first volume of poetry came out in early March 1817, and you know that as much as he must have been proud of the accomplishment, he doesn’t waste any time getting started on the next thing. His new project will become Endymion, a poem which is, according to the KLP’s favorite damning praise of it, “at least as full of genius as of absurdity” (so claimed Francis Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review late in 1820, too, too late to defend Keats against Blackwood’s and the Quarterly–but as is our wont, we do get ahead of ourselves).

Never one to shy away from a grand undertaking, with Endymion Keats sets out to “make 4000 lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry.” We know this was his intention thanks to Keats’s own act of epistolary transcription. Sometime during the spring of 1817, Keats wrote to his brother George expressing that sentiment as well as other thoughts about his new poetic aspirations. But that letter has been lost. We only know it existed because Keats himself copied extracts from it in a letter to Benjamin Bailey in October 1817 (which has survived). If anyone happens to find that letter to George, let us know! Wouldn’t that be nice?

It may be just after Keats writes to Reynolds on 17 March that he writes the now-lost letter to George, because as we learn from today’s letter to Reynolds, Keats is preparing to leave town. Jacob Risinger’s response for today expertly sketches Keats’s ambivalence about leaving behind his friends (including his brothers) in London. Keats knows the potential value in seeking solitude so that he can work on his poetry in peace. But he also knows the pain his absence will cause his friends (and, though he doesn’t say so explicitly, the pain it will cause him as well). Keats leaves for the Isle of Wight (via Southampton) on 14 April, but stays there only a week or so. He then relocates to Margate, where he will reunite with Tom. As Risinger notes, part of Keats’s reasoning for leaving the Isle of Wight after such a brief stay was his being “too much in Solitude.” What we see today–and what we’ll continue to see throughout the letters from this spring–is Keats sorting out how his different social and personal connections affect his continuing commitment to poetry. So please enjoy this lively letter, and come back to see the several others on the docket over the coming weeks!

Transcript of Keats’s letter to J. H. Reynolds, 17 Mar 1817 (click for full size). From Richard Woodhouse’s letter notebook. John Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.


“Gone Self Storms”

Tristram Wolff
Northwestern University

Re: Keats’s 9 Mar 1817 letter to J. H. Reynolds

Knowing how I feel about William Hazlitt—and knowing, of course, that Keats had similar feelings—the KLP editors were kind and foolhardy enough to indulge me with this chance to make a big deal out of a short letter, and the relation it predicts between two writers. The March 9, 1817 letter was written a week or so after his visit, with Haydon and Reynolds, to see the Elgin Marbles, in fact on the same day that his sonnets on the subject were published (in the Champion and Examiner). It was written not long before he performed his last surgical duties at Guy’s Hospital, and became, we might say, a full-time poet. And it was written less than a week after his first volume, Poems (1817), appeared before the public, on the previous Monday, March 3rd. In substance, it is a thank-you note to his first book’s friendliest reviewer. It also happens to contain Keats’s first recorded reference to Hazlitt.

The relation of Keats to Hazlitt has been reconstructed in various shapes from explicit and implicit cues scattered across letters, essays, reminiscences and best guesses. Like the wine-stains on a table-cloth the morning after a dinner, these cues don’t do much to tell us what kind of conversation was being had, but they do suggest it was a lively one. After each writer became aware of the other’s work, they read and quoted one another, alternating between admiration and criticism, and would in their literary afterlives graze against, help angle and contour, each others’ received reputations and literary personae. At some moments in the history of scholarship on Romanticism, signs of Hazlitt’s lasting influence on Keats might have seemed the best reason to take more seriously Hazlitt’s force within the field; at others, Keats’s high estimate of Hazlitt’s “depth of Taste” (see Susan Wolfson’s response to Letter #9) registers as a sign of his intellectual maturity, makes us read his poetry with new eyes. Evoked by these cues, though they may be no more than the light pressures of barely perceptible attachments, is a general mood of mutual regard—whether we are called back to a dinner both attended, where a topic of mutual concern did or did not come up; a walk they took together; a critical judgment about which they disagreed, which was then publicly revised in a lecture; a work in manuscript that may or may not have been shared; a piece of advice solicited, or a line of verse recalled. We sense two paths through a shared literary world that periodically crossed, two pairs of prints that left the odd reference to one another preserved now in their literary remains. We sense their convergences by way of passing glimpses, quotes retrieved, rewritten, scrawled over, thoughts and convictions shared or amended.

The path I’m on, it’s probably clear, is the one worn down by a genealogy of critics for whom the traces of the Keats-Hazlitt relation reveal high regard and lasting impact on one another (a genealogy that includes, notably, Bate, Bromwich, and more recently Jacques Khalip). But I don’t want to make a point here of re-submitting the same old wine-stains as evidence of this: I take it for granted there was a lively conversation at the dinner we didn’t attend. What a relief, in the KLP format, not to have to pretend to have a privileged view, or new information! What could be nicer than the chance to revisit, without the need to revise? So let’s just bookmark this note as the first preserved instance when Keats refers to Hazlitt, and find a few ways to repeat that Hazlitt was to become one light in the constellation of intellectual forces that would guide our favorite “Cockney poetaster,” our favorite “city spark.”

What does this letter let us revisit? Amplifying its emotional high–the sheer elation of the line “It’s the finest thing by God”—we feel this phrase escape against a background of palpable anxiety (felt in the author’s repeated desire that he should “not deceive” his admiring reviewer). Let’s take the measure, as well as we can, of the note’s emotional topography. Though brief, it is heartfelt—in fact brief, so Keats claims, because of how deeply felt it is, meaning its brevity is the result of his feeling overwhelmed. Feeling too much, elsewhere the spur to write and write and write, is here a reason to write little. He has evidently just read that day’s anonymous review in The Champion of the newly published Poems, and dashes off a note of thanks to its author, whom he knows to be John Reynolds, a close friend and fellow-poet. (He seems to have received a letter from Reynolds himself—hence the aside “I will be ready at the time you mention.”) In the text of his review, Reynolds had emphasized Keats’s nearness to nature, his youth and promise: “The author is a very young man, and one, as we augur from the present work, that is likely to make a great addition to those who would overthrow that artificial taste which French criticism has long planted amongst us” (297); “[he] starts suddenly before us, with a genius that is likely to eclipse [Byron, Moore, Rogers, and Campbell]” (297); he is “fated … to lay his name in the lap of immortality” (298). Who can blame Keats for feeling overwhelmed, or “extremely anxious,” with promises like this? Reynolds’s hyperbolic praise may all have come true, but at the time it was bluster, and Keats’s response suggests he is at least as disquieted as he is delighted. That it “affects [him] so sensibly” that he can barely write projects a physical tremor that’s enough to make the reader shiver. We are used to taking Keats’s life and running it through his letters, so they feel like live wires. When Wordsworth later famously called Keats’s “Hymn to Pan” a “very pretty piece of paganism”—in contemporary poet Tom Clark’s retelling—“Keats / actually trembled, like the string of / a lyre when it has been touched” (50).

Given that it is a response to his first book’s first review, it is no surprise that the relation of writers and critics preoccupies each of the letter’s short paragraphs: in Keats’s writing here, as an author newly exposed in his own printed volume, you can feel the same ambivalence in the dash that first separates “Your kindness” from “Your criticism,” in the opening sentences; in the strong distinction that then separates Hazlitt’s (imaginary) approval from the beard-scratching uncertainty of “some acquaintances of mine,” whom Keats teases; and in the implicit self-comparison Keats makes between himself and the rumors of an author even more precocious (the reputed “young lady of 16” whose tragedy is already being performed). In fact just about the only note of certainty here rings from the mimicked voice of Hazlitt, The Critic Personified, emphatically directing the letter’s energies. By adopting Hazlitt’s voice, tone, manner—“it’s the finest thing by God”—Keats can be flip and yet mean what he says, mimicking a voice and naming its source (“—as Hazlitt wo’d say”). We don’t usually think of a stylistic influence from Hazlitt to Keats (despite Bromwich’s interesting thoughts on the matter: 370), but he was to try on Hazlitt’s voice elsewhere, as in a rare theater review written in December 1817 to celebrate the Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean, who had returned to the stage after a long absence. Here it is only natural to ventriloquize Hazlitt: for instance, Keats says of Kean, “His return was full of power. He is not the man to ‘bate a jot.'” Strings of “mono-sentences” like this are pure Hazlitt, down to the casual citation of a phrase from Milton. In this review, Keats attributes to Kean an “intense power of anatomizing the passion of every syllable”; the same skill, of recognizing with surgical precision the almost physical texture of the passions in language, was one Keats saw in Hazlitt and wished to emulate, not as actor or critic but as poet.

It is not until the year after this letter was written that an acceleration of references to Hazlitt in Keats’s letters indicates an increasing familiarity and even intimacy; yet with the early effusion “It’s the finest thing by God,” it is clear that Hazlitt’s voice is already circulating for Keats not only in the pages of the Examiner, but anecdotally, in the air. According to the editor’s speculative note (Rollins 123), “It’s the finest thing by God” may approximate Hazlitt’s sometime exclamatory way of enjoying liquor at a party—that is, without drinking it. If so, it encapsulates the critic who inhales and judges, without drowning in drink. “It’s the finest thing by God—as Hazlitt wo’d say”: if this is a reference to Hazlitt tasting with his nose rather than imbibing (which again is no more than a guess), then the “depth of taste” Keats finds in Hazlitt might be a kind of immersive yet reflective enjoyment, without excessive indulgence (that is, more the Keats of “Hence burgundy, claret, and port,” than the Keats of “Give me women, wine, and snuff”). To be a good—to be a great—poet, Keats may need to practice his Hazlitt: his voice, maybe, but more so his methods of taste.

In a scribbled note from the margins of his copy of Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays—which he seems to have acquired just as he was writing the review of Kean, in late 1817—Keats likens the passions themselves to a cellarful of wine-barrels that the poet explores, like a good critic, without wallowing in them: “If we compare the Passions to different tuns and hogsheads of wine in a vast cellar—thus it is—the poet by one cup should know the scope of any particular wine without getting intoxicated—this is the highest exertion of Power, and the next step is to paint from memory of gone self storms” (Bate 262). I love without understanding these “gone self storms”—let’s assume they mean more than yesterday’s (emotional) hangovers—but in any case they are surely more lovely and quenching than the lines in Hazlitt that inspired them, which though perfectly wise sound, by contrast, awfully square: “the greatest strength of genius is shewn in describing the strongest passions: for the power of the imagination, in words of invention, must be in proportion to the force of the natural impressions, which are the subject of them” (Hazlitt 271). So says the critic; so translates the poet. Give us a taste of those tuns and hogsheads, but please give us more of those gone self storms.


Works Cited

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1963.

Bromwich, David. Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic. New Haven: Yale UP, 1983.

Clark, Tom. Junkets on a Sad Planet: Scenes from the Life of John Keats. Black Sparrow Press, 1994.

Hazlitt, William. Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays. London: Everyman’s Library, 1964.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Rollins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.

Khalip, Jacques. Anonymous Life: Romanticism and Dispossession. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2008.

Reynolds, J. H. (?). Anonymous review of Poems (1817), The Champion March 9, 1817. Romantic Bards and British Reviewers, ed. John O. Hayden. London: Routledge, 1971.

Letter #12: To J. H. Reynolds, 9 March 1817

Today at the KLP we encounter for the first time two heroic figures in the story of Keats: John Hamilton Reynolds and Richard Woodhouse. The former is one of Keats’s great epistolary partners. The latter is one of Keats’s great preservationists, of both his poetry and his prose. Today’s letter we have thanks to them both. Of Keats’s 21 letters to Reynolds which still exist in whole or in part, only three exist via the original MS (19 Feb 1818 at Princeton, 24 Aug 1819 at the New York Public Library, and 28 Feb 1820 at the University of Texas). The other 18 exist via transcripts made by Woodhouse. He copied 57 of Keats’s letters (and many of his poems). Out of those 57 letters, 20 exist in no other source. For all you math fans out there, that means all but two of the letters for which Woodhouse’s transcripts are the sole source are letters to Reynolds. And what a loss it would have been had Woodhouse not copied these letters to Reynolds! The KLP editorial board might disagree on this assessment, but one or two of us subscribe to the argument that after Keats’s brothers, sisters (counting his sister-in-law), and Fanny Brawne, Reynolds is the most significant correspondent for Keats across his epistolary career.

Admittedly, however, the 9 Mar 1817 letter to Reynolds is not one of the most consequential sent to him by Keats. But as we’ve seen before at the KLP, even some of these short, seemingly throwaway letters still have moments of brilliance and fascination that our correspondents’ responses help to shine through. Tristram Wolff’s response for today’s letter is no exception in this regard. From this brief note in which Keats thanks Reynolds for the favorable review the latter had just published on the former’s recently published book (see This Week in Keats, Episode 2 for more on Keats’s first book!), Wolff helps us see flickers of William Hazlitt’s brilliance and the influence it will have on Keats. This letter marks the first recorded reference to Hazlitt by Keats, but as Wolff demonstrates, it testifies to a connection between the two that was by this point in 1817 already well established and firmly ingrained (at least in Keats’s mind). Wolff also shows us that at this early stage in Keats’s poetic career, the young poet is keenly attuned to the realm of literary reviewing, long before he becomes embroiled in it in more significant ways. So you should really go read his post–the KLP may be a bit biased in the matter, but we think it’s a pretty fantastic piece. Enjoy!


From Richard Woodhouse’s letter-book. John Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.


From Richard Woodhouse’s letter-book. John Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.