University of Notre Dame
As I contemplate Keats’s 9 October letter to his special friend and early mentor, Charles Cowden Clarke, I look out my study window on the ruddy landscape of a Midwestern autumn and travel back to my first significant article publication, an essay on the intersection of mental maneuvers in Keats’s letters and poems (Kucich). I had learned by then to love and admire this epistolary treasure–already recognized by generations of Keats scholars as perhaps the most creatively vibrant body of letters ever produced by a poet–for their astonishing depth of wisdom about the infinite complexities of human experience, their tactile greeting of the spirit with so many great writers past and present, their stunning theoretical formulations of so many distinctive ways of knowing and writing, their utterly distinctive playfulness and humor, and, perhaps above all, their uniquely kind and charitable ways of thinking into our shared human frailties. As I read and re-read that first recorded prose letter of 9 October for this exercise, only a brief paragraph in length yet packed with the density of thought and good will that would become a hallmark of Keats’s correspondence, I imaginatively moved much further back to the promise-filled October of 1816 and then slightly forward to the more complicated autumns of 1819 and 1820. The “Era in my existence” literally refers to Keats’s fervid excitement about the prospect of meeting through Clarke’s introduction the renowned, controversial poet-critic-editor-political prisoner and hero of Liberty, Leigh Hunt, producer of many sensational poems as well as the influential weekly periodical, The Examiner. Keats had avidly consumed Hunt’s liberal political views writ large in The Examiner during his salad days at Enfield School and, far from coincidentally, he had published his first poem, “O Solitude! If I must with thee dwell,” in Hunt’s Sunday weekly. Unbeknownst to Keats at this moment, however, that “Era” may also be construed proleptically as the astonishing span of only four years during which he produced the vast majority of his poems and advanced through a lightening arc of creative acceleration that landed him “among the English Poets” (Letters 1: 394). That same stretch would also mark the onset of his fatal disease, congenital tuberculosis, and the tragic end of all that might have been. All this striking combination of transitional change linked to the turning of the seasons in autumn and a stark fixity of span, with the start containing subterranean traces of the end, resides in Keats’s first recorded letter, a rather mind-boggling prototype of the packed density of thought and feeling that his later poetry of 1818-19 would exemplify for so many amazed readers over the last two centuries.
The 9 October letter to Clarke marks several key transitions in Keats’s young life and literary career. His friendship with Clarke, son of and assistant to the Headmaster of progressive Enfield School, where Keats lived and studied from age 8-16, took on a special resonance during his last two years at Enfield, 1810-11. It was during those years, Clarke recalled years later in his Recollections of Writers, Keats began to display a passionate fascination with literature and a unique capacity for rapid, almost embodied assimilation of all that he read. Clarke, eight years older than Keats, played the role of mentor in an enduring relationship that continued through the next five years after Keats left Enfield to assume an apprenticeship with the surgeon Thomas Hammond in nearby Edmonton. (For Keats’s sustained acknowledgement of his debt to Clarke’s literary instruction, see Jayme Peacock’s recent post on this website regarding Keats’s verse epistle “To Charles Cowden Clarke.”) Clarke would later recall their many delightful sessions reading together and exchanging books in a “rustic arbour” near a pond on the Enfield School grounds, in which the song of nightingales could be heard during May evenings and the glories of Tasso, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, classical mythology and, eventually, Homer, in George Chapman’s seventeenth-century muscular translation, all unfolded for an impassioned young Keats (Clarke, “Note” 343-44). Enthralled with what Clarke helped reveal in the great traditions of literature, and inflamed with ardor for its sheer, physical fascinations, Keats virtually “ramp[ed]” like an unloosed horse through Spenser’s Faerie Queene and hoisted himself up, “[l]ike a true poet,” Clarke recalled, in tactile identification with Spenser’s grand, magnificent imagery, “looking burly and dominant, as he said, ‘what an image that is—sea-shouldering whales!’” (qtd. in Bate 33). Much as Keats experienced an almost devotional passion for the literature he explored with Clarke, he was also capable of discrimination from early on. Clearly remembering Keats’s self-directed immersion in classical mythology and Latin literature, Clarke later pointed out how Keats began translating Virgil’s Aeneid at 14 and felt self-confident enough to surprise his mentor by hazarding an opinion “that there was feebleness in the structure of the work” (qtd. in Bate 26).
These ongoing literary interactions with Clarke cemented their friendship and highlighted Keats’s evolving artistic interests throughout his adolescent years, but the letter of 9 October also flags a different transitional point of connection between the two men. Notwithstanding his self-awareness of his jejune status as an aspiring poet, Keats rather confidently stakes a higher access of literary awareness by somewhat casually quoting, as a maturing student might do for a former teacher, Horace’s warning about invoking the gods in poetry. “ . . . I think,” the younger man begins in what would become a characteristic mode of Keatsian nuancing and half-perception, “Horace says, ‘never presume to make a God appear but for an Action worthy of a God” (1: 113; accurately quoted, from Horace’s Ars Poetica, line 191). Further reinforcing a mutually shared love of reading and writing literature, Keats half-jokingly nudges Clarke to hand over some of his recent poetic efforts: “I have no doubt but that you have something in your Portfolio which I by rights should see—I will put you in Mind of it” (1: 114). This intensifying habit of sharing poems and jointly immersing themselves in the work of eternal writers reached a culminating moment later in October when, after opening Keats’s astonished eyes during one all-night session to the vigorous translation of Homer by George Chapman (published 1614), Clarke awoke the next morning to discover on his breakfast table a note containing what is widely regarded as Keats’s first great poem, the sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” “We had parted at day-spring,” Clarke remembered, “yet he contrived that I should receive the poem from a distance of, may be, two miles, by ten o’clock” (Recollections 130). By October of 1816, then, this intimate relationship had begun to launch Keats on his incandescent rise into the higher reaches of poetry.
Alongside such an inspiring bond of literary experience, Keats also strongly grounded his intimacy with Clarke in their shared commitment at Enfield School and beyond to the high significance of their time’s struggle for the ideals of political liberalism. Both found this ideal best exemplified in the public career of Leigh Hunt and his political writings in The Examiner. Together with Gilbert Burnett’s History of his Own Time, Hunt’s ceaseless mental fight in the pages of The Examiner against voting corruption, state prejudice toward Dissenters and Catholics, the British’s government’s attempts to prosecute its own liberal citizens for sedition, and its continuance of an unjust war against revolutionary France, all this and more in The Examiner, Clarke recalled, “no doubt laid the foundation for [Keats’s] love of civil and religious liberty” (qtd. in Bate 25). During his first years out of Enfield School, Keats drew on this political inspiration to create poetry that celebrated Hunt’s own love of sensuous beauty and his noble battle against political tyranny. Imprisoned for two years as a result of his relentless attacks on the Prince Regent’s excessive spending at taxpayer’s expense, his licentious lifestyle, and his betrayal of the cause of political reform, Hunt had created an incredible bower of bliss in his prison cell at Horsemonger Lane Gaol, complete with busts of poets, portraits of political/poetic heroes like Milton, a pianoforte, multiple cases filled with books, a ceiling painted blue to imitate the Italian sky, venetian blinds over the window bars, and flowers, flowers, everywhere. Here he continued to rail against the Government and the Regent in his weekly Examiner while reading Tasso aloud, playing the pianoforte, hosting wine-fests, and entertaining a non-stop parade of famous liberal visitors, including Bentham, Hazlitt, and Byron, the last of whom dubbed him “the Wit in the Dungeon.” Charles Lamb, also a frequent visitor, enjoyed the flabbergasted look of everyone who entered this phenomenally embowered site of detention to meet such an improbable Prospero of the Dungeon, declaring “there was no such other room, except in a fairy tale” (Hunt, Autobiography 243). Clarke, who had known Hunt for some time, was one of the regular visitors to this fantastic literary salon, regularly bringing baskets of fruit for Hunt and his family. He certainly would have shared such unbelievable experience with Keats, who then felt inspired to write sonnets honoring Hunt’s rare gifts for admiring and producing poetry of sensuous luxury while also unreservedly locking political horns with Britain’s top leadership—see “Written on the Day That Mr. Leigh Hunt Left Prison” (the first poem that Keats showed to Clarke) and “On The Story of Rimini.” Keats also featured Hunt, named “Libertas,” in his verse epistles of 1816 and his brief chivalric narrative “Specimen of an Induction to a Poem” (imitative of Hunt’s The Story of Rimini), as a kindly mentor, a projection of Clarke with zing, who would introduce him to his beloved Spenser’s amiable influence.
Emphasizing in the 9 October letter these deeply shared connections with Clarke’s literary experience, and his particular link to Hunt’s poetry and politics, Keats signaled two points of major transition and growth in his own literary life: his initial turn to intellectual life and its literary associations as a boy at Enfield School; and his more substantial, possible embrace of a life of poetry and politics, modeled on Hunt’s experience, in the autumn of 1816. He had recently completely his medical studies at Guy’s Hospital, passing the examination in mid-July that licensed him to practice as an apothecary and a surgeon, the middle-brow career picked out for him by his dubious advisor, Richard Abbey, some years ago. He refers to his graduation at the very beginning of this letter, telling Clarke that “The busy time has just gone by. . . .” (1: 113). Keats had to wait until he was twenty-one on 31 October before he could actually practice medicine, and during the interval he took a holiday at Margate on the sea, accompanied for part of the time by his younger brother, Tom. Instead of planning to launch into the medical profession, however, Keats now began to make his monumental turn to a life of poetry and immediately sought out literary associates upon his return to London at the end of September. Clarke undoubtedly saw the change coming and endorsed it. He showed some of Keats’s poems to Hunt, now released from prison and re-establishing the dungeon salon in his pastoral cottage within Hampstead’s leafy Vale of Health, just outside of London. Hunt’s response was immediately enthusiastic, and he asked to meet the young poet. As Clarke put it, “I could not but anticipate that Hunt would speak encouragingly . . . but my partial spirit was not prepared for the unhesitating and prompt admiration. . . . After making numerous and eager inquiries about him personally . . . the visit ended in my being requested to bring him over to the Vale of Health” (Recollections 132-33). A thrilled Keats then announces his memorable inclination to a literary instead of medical life when he begins the 9 October letter by telling Clarke since the “busy time” has ended, “I can now devote any time you may mention to the pleasure of seeing Mr. Hunt—‘t will be an Era in my existence . . .” (1: 113).
Several days later, Keats crossed the river from his residence near Guy’s Hospital in Dean Street, Borough, to Clarke’s home in Clerkenwell, not a short distance, and then the two set off for the walk of six miles to Hampstead. Decades later, Clarke still remembered Keats’s stunning look of keen anticipation as they traveled on: “The character and expression of Keats’s features would arrest even the casual passenger in the street. . . . As we approached [Hampstead] Heath, there was the rising and accelerated step, with the gradual subsidence of all talk” (Recollections 133). The visit was animating and successful beyond measure for the enchanted Keats, whose fiery energy and love of classical mythology and Spenser thoroughly delighted Hunt. “We became intimate on the spot,” Hunt recalled (Lord Byron 410). Heartily encouraged, Keats returned to Hunt’s cottage for three morning calls shortly after and soon became a regular member of Hunt’s circle, “a familiar of the household” (Clarke, Recollections 133), where he met painters, musicians, politicians, and poets, including Shelley, and found a generous, welcoming home in this world of art and conviviality. Furnished with such a new-found community of professional support and emotional encouragement, tellingly recorded in his Sleep and Poetry, Keats only needed several months before setting aside medicine and beginning the literary life that, lasting only four years, nevertheless made him immortal. Hence began his new “Era.”
Keats’s closeness to Hunt has long been the subject of great critical controversy about his overall creative development and only recently the impetus for what have become arguably the most exciting new breakthroughs in Keats scholarship. The core essentials of this ongoing communication between Keats and Hunt may actually be traced in the 9 October letter, which provides additional evidence for several compelling, new ways of comprehending Keats’s “Era.” Until recently, Keats scholars have tended to regard his involvement with Hunt in severely divided ways—fortuitous in serving Keats with vital professional support when he most needed it, but damaging both in its political imperatives, thought to be an unproductive distraction from the craft of poetry, and particularly in what has been considered an undisciplined and superficial kind of chatty, sometimes even vulgar, poetic style favored by Hunt and pervasive throughout Keats’s poetry of 1816-17. Only when Keats distanced himself from Hunt’s politics and poetics, so the argument runs, did he ascend to the bold density of poetic phrasing that distinguished his major poetry of 1818-19 (see Bate 77-82, 97-101, 185-87, 312-15). More recently, an increasing number of Keats scholars, led primarily by the path-finding work of Nicholas Roe and Jeffrey Cox, have substantially qualified this history, tracking a much more complex type of Huntian poetic continuing throughout Keats’s later work and grounded in a performative “Cockneyism” that aligns aesthetic luxury, grammatical and linguistic innovation, open-ended couplets, and high-spirited sociality with a determined republican politics. All of these poetic qualities surface in the one poem Keats mentions in the Clarke letter that he will “suffer to meet the eye of Mr. H.” (1: 113), his verse epistle “To George Felton Mathew.” That early effort from 1815 also celebrates the liberty loving heroics of King Alfred, William Tell, and William Wallace, historical figures whom the more conservative Mathew later repudiated in their linkage to what he called the “republican school” (Rollins 2: 186-87).
Central to this republican poetics and politics is the joy of warm-hearted, supportive sociality, which Keats had already experienced with Clarke but could now hope for on a broader level in Hunt’s Hampstead coterie. The Huntian model was a form of boisterous, sometimes conspiratorial sociality, raucously practiced during wine-drinking, poetry-reciting, Mozart-playing late evenings in the unbelievable jail cell and then transported to the pastoral charms of the Vale of Health. This was the world of innovative poetics, republican politics, and optimistic, metropolitan sociality that Keats yearned to join, just the obverse of the small-minded, oppressing sphere of government tyranny and the isolating, conservative despondency that plagued Wordsworth and so many of his generation after the perceived failure of the French Revolution. In telling Clarke about the “Era” he expected in his existence, Keats immediately links it with his eagerness “to become acquainted with Men” of Hunt’s character (1: 113).
Many Keats scholars have examined the complex gender dynamics of his poetry, which frequently entail imaginative gender crossing, even transitioning; but not enough has been written yet about the unique inspiration and support that Keats felt pouring into his heart and mind from the company of supportive, invariably gentle, affectionate men like Clarke and Hunt and others he would meet at the Vale of Health cottage. One of the most significant forces of inspiration throughout Keats’s experience in the Hunt circle is what he calls the “gentle amity” of male friends who nurture, support, and enable each other to thrive in poetry, politics, and life (“Imitation of Spenser” line 30). Keats often addresses Clarke by his given name, “My dear Charles” (the only friend so greeted in all of Keats’s correspondence), and affectionately calls him, echoing Burns, “My daintie Davie” (1: 114). Hunt describes himself to Keats several years later, when the fatal illness was coming on, as “Your Affectionate Friend.” In Keats’s verse epistle “To My Brother George,” “knightly Spenser” most generously teaches Hunt, or “Libertas” (line 24), the pleasures of poetry. Hunt, as “lov’d Libertas,” intercedes with Spenser to assist Keats in “Specimen of an Induction to a Poem” (lines 57-62). “[K]ind Spenser” does just so, coming pleasantly to a comforted Keats in imagination “like a clear sunrise to my mind” (lines 50-51). In “Calidore,” Keats’s “gentle,” young knight first receives guidance from the “kind voice” of good Sir Clerimond, and then enjoys a heart-warming welcome from “the far-famed, brave, Sir Gondibert,” who, looking very much like both Spenser and Libertas, “Came up—a courtly smile upon his face, / And mailed hand held out / ready to greet / The large-eyed wonder . . . Of the aspiring boy . . .” (lines 32, 99, 122-28). Finally, as Keats reflects dreamily in Sleep and Poetry upon a day passed amid the “brotherhood” and the “gentleness” of affectionate friends at “the poet’s house” in the Vale of Health, he listens in recollection to “the chimes / Of friendly voices” that give way to a “sweet silence, / When I ‘gan retrace / The pleasant day, upon a couch at ease.” Such an experience leaves him feeling “refreshed and glad and gay” after spending the entire night in delighted wakeful reverie at the “poet’s house,” resolving to begin that very day / These lines,” which he conceives as a kind of transgendered “father” giving birth to “a son” (lines 314-18, 350-54, 402-4).
Anticipating such a gentle welcome from Mr. H. in the 9 October letter, Keats not surprisingly considers “Charity” in the same letter as, according to St. Paul, “the father of all the Virtues” (1: 114) He would later find such affectionate masculine charity, which he did indeed receive at the poet’s house, coming vitally to his aid whenever his notorious anxieties about facing the sublimity of poetic tradition, that phallic “Cliff of Poesy” towering above (Letters 1: 141), threatened to overwhelm his creative aspirations. He makes one other Huntian association in this same letter that would in time help enormously to catapult himself over that Cliff into the Olympian heights of immortal poetry—that is, the complex duality of all human experience, what Hunt often refers to in his own writings as “the grave and gay.” The famous drama of contraries or play of opposites that empowers so much of Keats’s later poetry—in the major odes, The Eve of St. Agnes, Lamia, and especially the contrariety of mutable seasons and eternal life cycles in “To Autumn”—already surfaces more than once in the Clarke letter, as Keats considers the pointed distinction men like Hunt, “in their admiration of Poetry,” know how to make between Shakespeare and Erasmus Darwin; or in the vividly material difference between Keats’s own congested Borough neighborhood, “a beastly place in dirt” (1: 114), and the leafy expansiveness he would soon inhale in Hampstead Heath and the Vale of Health.
The beginning of Keats’s epistolary life thus prefigures in such an amplitude of provocative richness so much of that lofty creative destination toward which he would travel. Yet perhaps the most poignant anticipatory element of this first letter rests with its combination of Mr. H. and that “Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,” the autumnal “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” Keats would embrace in “To Autumn” (lines 1-2). As he walked hurriedly with Clarke through the burnished foliage of Hampstead Heath, Keats could not have known that four years later, when he would set sail in mid-September on that last voyage to Italy, Hunt would pen an Indicator essay on the “Return of Autumn,” resonant with echoes of Keats’s ode to the season, in which he would bid a plangent adieu to his “dear friend” who had just “gone away with the swallows to seek a kindlier clime” in Italy. Thinking of the way of swallows and nightingales, Hunt would also hope for Keats’s renewal and return:
. . . thou shalt return with thy friend the nightingale, and make all thy other friends as happy with thy voice as they are sorrowful to miss it. . . . farewell, for awhile: thy heart is on our fields: and thou wilt soon be back to rejoin it. (Selected Writings 316-17).
Such hope denied, so would come to a close the “Era” that began on 9 October 1816.
Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1963.
Clarke, Charles Cowden. “Note on the School House . . . at Enfield.” The Complete Works of John Keats.. Ed. H. B. Forman. New York: T.Y. Crowell & Co., 1900-01. Vol. 5.
Clarke, Charles Cowden and Mary Cowden Clarke. Recollections of Writers. 2nd edition. London 1878.
Cox, Jeffrey. Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and their Circle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Hunt, Leigh. The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt. Ed. J.E. Morpurgo. London: The Cresset P, 1949.
. . . Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries. 2 vols. London 1828. 2nd. edition. Vol. 1.
. . . Selected Writings of Leigh Hunt. Eds. Greg Kucich and Jeffrey N. Cox. 2 vols. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2003. Vol. 2.
Keats, John. The Poems of John Keats. Ed. Jack Stillinger. London: Heinemann, 1978.
Kucich, Greg. “The Poetry of Mind in Keats’s Letters.” Style 21.1 (1987): 76-94
Roe, Nicholas. John Keats and the Culture of Dissent. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1997.
. . . John Keats: A New Life. New Haven, Yale UP, 2012.
Rollins, Hyder, ed. The Keats Circle. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1965.