The artist breathes a divine
varnish, transfigures a body
to burn like sun on new snow.
So like grass to the rain I make him
my god, beg him to fall down
beside me, show me what colors
his hands invent. How everything
disappoints from a lesser
vantage: tempera on wood,
more viscous than it sounds,
the painting’s insistence on its own
smallness, and the artist’s pale body,
slight veins shadowing his hands.
Happy 221st birthday, Keats! As he was never one to know the day of the month, it’s no surprise that Keats doesn’t mention this fact in his letter to Charles Cowden Clarke. Let’s hope that they nonetheless celebrated with a glass or two of claret.
We at least know that Keats wrote this short letter to Clarke on 31 October 1816, in which he affectionately addresses his pal as, “My daintie Davie.” Keats’s circle of friends at this time was rapidly expanding. We’ve heard already from Noah Comet and Greg Kucich about Keats’s excitement at meeting Leigh Hunt. The painter Benjamin Robert Haydon was the next star in the firmament of Keats’s budding literary and artistic coterie. In this letter, Keats demonstrates his pleasure at visiting with Haydon, whom he refers to as “this glorious Haydon.” Their relationship would prove a fruitful one for both over the next few years. Among the many benefits their friendship bestowed on us is the life mask of Keats that Haydon would make later in 1816 (more on that to come on the KLP in December!). The KLP humbly admits that more than one copy of said life mask is owned by the editorial team.
For the text of this letter, the MS of which now resides in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library (digitized images to come at a later date, we hope), we refer you to the KLP’s favored late-19th-century edition of Keats’s letters, Harry Buxton Forman’s one-volume edition from 1895, published by Reeves and Turner in London. That publishing firm had realized the value of mimicking the visual design of private presses like William Morris’s Kelmscott Press or Charles Ricketts’s Vale Press, and as such, this particular book looks rather pretty. Also following in the spirit of commemoration on which the KLP is founded, Forman’s 1895 edition was published with the recognition that “On the 31st of October 1895, the hundredth year since his birth will be completed; and it may be fairly asked whether in the literary annals of the century a more significant date can be named” (xiii). The KLP avers that it may indeed be fairly asked. We hold that date near and dear to our collective hearts. So, happy 221st birthday, Keats!
To help celebrate this joyous occasion, the KLP invites you to read Hannah Dow’s poem inspired by this letter. We dare say it burns with a Keatsian intensity–a worthy tribute to Keats, to Haydon, and to Keats’s glorying in the gusto of Haydon’s art.