Keats’s Delight With Spenser (via Charles Cowden Clarke)

Jayme Peacock
Pennsylvania State University

In this letter to his friend and mentor Charles Cowden Clarke, Keats puts on display his deep affinity for, emulation of, and modifications to the poetic style and career trajectory of Edmund Spenser. More so than “Imitation of Spenser,” which was penned the same year, this private correspondence contains a deep and nuanced demonstration of Spenser’s influence on the young poet. In the late sixteenth century, Spenser crafted for himself a publication career modeled on those of Virgil and Ovid, and his works correspondingly evolved from pastoral to epic to love lyric (Cheney). After “Imitation,” Keats would seldom write in the Spenserian stanza, and while he abandons Spenser’s form in this letter, he engages more subtly and more deeply with those same genres that Spenser used to build his literary career. Opening with pastoral, moving to epic, and ending on a version of amorous lyric, Keats portrays in microcosm the Spenserian trajectory. As Spenser repurposes the pagan poetics of Virgil and Ovid to suit an early modern Christian nation, Keats turns aside from Spenser’s antique didacticism to infuse this generic progression with Romantic feeling. Yet though Keats adheres to Spenser’s model, he must ultimately abandon Spenser’s moralizing to prioritize feeling as a specifically English characteristic.

Like Spenser, Keats anticipates his own poetic immortality in a published statement of career ambitions. He pens “Sleep and Poetry” in 1816 and strategically places it at the end of his first volume of poetry as a forecast of his intended achievements. He plans to move through “the realm . . . / Of Flora, and old Pan” (101-102), but he cannot linger there. He must move on to epic and “bid these joys farewell / . . . / for lo! I see afar, / O’er sailing the blue cragginess, a car / And steeds with streamy manes—the charioteer / Looks out upon the winds with glorious fear” (122-28). But Spenser does not end with epic, and neither will Keats. Near the end of the poem he predicts his eventual shift from epic to love lyric, envisioning “Petrarch, outstepping from the shady green, / Starts at the sight of Laura,” where “between them shone / The face of Poesy” (389-94). Pan, of course, is a crucial figure in Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender, and the reference to Petrarch may well stem from Sir Walter Ralegh’s “Methought I saw the grave where Laura lay,” which was published at the end of the 1590 Faerie Queene.

Unlike “Sleep and Poetry,” however, the 1816 letter to Clarke actually performs in miniature the Spenserian literary career—and makes some modifications to Spenser’s Christian, nationalist didacticism. Keats opens with an extended description of a swan—an image that frequently appears in his more Spenserian pieces—that takes a full fifteen lines to emerge as an epic simile: “Just like that bird am I in loss of time.” But the hero of this epic moment is no Red Cross Knight, but Keats-as-poet. The image of the swan often represents the poet in Spenser’s work (see, for example, the October Eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender), and Keats retains the Renaissance expectation of death following the swan’s song, worrying here and elsewhere about the “loss of time”—an inevitable loss that drives his creative urgency. This epic simile, however, operates very much within the mode of Spenserian pastoral. With an emphatic humility that resonates with the dedicatory epistle of The Shepheardes Calender; Keats writes of his “shatter’d boat, oar snapt, and canvas rent,” while on the “stream of rhyme” he sails, “scarce knowing my intent” (16-18). Where E.K. of The Shepheardes Calender anticipates a day when he no longer will be “Uncouthe unkiste,” but “his name / shall come into the knowledg of men, and his worthines be / sounded in the tromp of fame,” for which he will be “beloved of all” (1, 12-15), Keats maintains the tone of insecurity for his lone reader, “unwilling still / For you [Charles] to try my dull, unlearned quill” (50-51). Yet as Spenser goes on to demonstrate his learning and ability in the eclogues of the Calender, so does Keats move to perform all that he has gleaned from his mentor (a role Clarke had fulfilled during much of Keats’s time at Enfield School, where Clarke’s father was headmaster).

Shifting from the authorial simile of the swan, Keats enters a lengthy catalogue of sensuous, pastoral, romance, and importantly literary pleasures via apophasis. In enumerating all the ways in which his verse is unfit, he invokes an epic literary genealogy and places it in a sensuous, idyllic space, thereby invigorating these subjects with Romantic sensation. “[O]n Baiae’s shore,” he writes, Clarke has “reclin’d at ease,” tasted “sparkling Helicon,” and basked in the “soft music from Armida’s bowers” (27-31), transforming the world of Tasso’s epic into one of “fragrance,” “flowers,” and indulgence. Keats performs a similar transformation of Spenser, characterizing Clarke’s encounter with Spenser as that of

one who had by Mulla’s stream
Fondled the maidens with the breasts of cream;
Who had beheld Belphoebe in a brook,
And lovely Una in a leafy nook,
And Archimago leaning o’er his book. (33-7)

Keats captures Spenser’s lush scenes and creamy bodies, but rather than turning aside from such indulgence in pursuit of a higher spiritual truth, he makes it the point of this epic catalogue. “[A]ll that’s sweet” must be “tasted and seen” (38), from places to people. The kind of epic Keats appears to be formulating frees itself from Spenserian moralizing. If Spenser’s stated purpose for The Faerie Queene is to “fashion a gentleman” (Letter to Raleigh), then Keats’s unstated purpose is to indulge him, to flood him with sensation. This sensuous epic effusion would manifest most completely in Endymion, a work that Keats hoped would finally bring him “laurel chaplets, and Apollo’s glories” (45).

As if to prove his hybrid epic style a matter of choice rather than capability, Keats supplies a final catalogue, one of genres, that rises to the “great pith and moment” more traditionally associated with epic. He thanks Clarke for teaching him

The grand, the sweet, the terse, the free, the fine;
What swell’d with pathos, and what right divine:
Spenserian vowels that elope with ease,
And float along like birds o’er summer seas;
Miltonian storms, and more, Miltonian tenderness;
Michael in arms, and more, meek Eve’s fair tenderness. (54-9)

The force of these lines contrasts distinctly with those soft, almost indolent preceding passages. Keats tightly packs five styles into a single line—“The grand, the sweet, the terse, the free, the fine”—hammering home his own versatility. He employs loftier language and more robust verbs in characterizing these genres, from “the sonnet swelling loudly” to the “rapier-pointed epigram,” culminating in epic, “Round, vast, and spanning all like Saturn’s ring” (60-67). “Miltonic storms” and “Michael in arms” bring war-like images into the catalogue, and Keats carries them through in “The might of Alfred, and the shaft of Tell; / The hand of Brutus, that so grandly fell / Upon a tyrant’s head” (70-72). These lines also exhibit the Virgilian and later Spenserian nationalist agenda of “the patriot’s stern duty” (69), lauding those bloodied martial figures that contributed to the founding of Britain. And lest Clarke should think Keats incapable of Spenserian form, Keats includes a couplet of alexandrines conspicuously placed after the lines on Spenser. The tension in the proximity to and deliberate distance from the lines on Spenser defiantly reflect Keats resistance to a more exact imitation of the early modern epicist.

The catalogue of genres bears another important contrast to the catalogue of authors that precedes it: it is about writing, rather than reading, poetry. The previous catalogue expresses Keats’s wonder at the epics of Tasso and Spenser, thereby evoking the pleasures of encountering the text. Reading these literary masterpieces does not, for Keats, contribute to moral or spiritual growth, but carries him away on a wave of passion and sensation. By crafting his catalogue of genres in a more epic form and style, Keats rests the mantle of epic hero squarely on the poet’s shoulders. If reading is a Romantic, pastoral indulgence aimed toward “enjoyments” (74), writing itself is the grand epic accomplishment.

Keats, however, is not satisfied with casting himself in the role of epic hero. At the end of his genealogy of genre, he hopes his “rhymings please” Clarke, and if they do Keats “shall roll on the grass with two-fold ease” (79-80). With an awareness of the literary importance of epic, Keats still hopes to return to the pleasant and mild fields of the pastoral. But this pastoral differs from the mode Keats employed earlier in the verse letter. It does not dally in whimsical bowers and fondle imaginary maidens. Rather, it relishes the “pebbly water” of the “lucent Thames” and the “lawny fields” of London and the surrounding area (85-88). The poet needs to “feel the air that plays about the hills, / And sips its freshness from the little rills” (90-91). The moment Keats can feel and hear London in his mind, he finds himself inspired to write this verse epistle. Yet he needs more than the memory of London to pen this letter—he needs the memory of friendship. Here he revels in the memory of past conversation with Clarke, for the writing of this letter “required an inspiration / Of a peculiar sort—a consummation” (96). It is not the pastoral imagery or the epic adventure that follows Keats, but the memory of a “chat that ceased not” (117) until long after the two had parted, “your accents bland / Still sound[ing] in my ears” (122-23).

Keats’s demonstration of his Spenserian, laureate abilities transition from pastoral to epic and back to pastoral, ending finally with an affectionate love lyric to a dear friend. Spenser, too, sets epic aside for a time to focus on (specifically romantic) love lyrics, producing his Amoretti and Epithalamion (on Keats and Epithalamion, see Kucich 147-8). Keats knew his Spenser well, and he expressed a desire for poetic immortality that echoes Spenser’s throughout his poetic career. And while his career is certainly less linear (and perhaps less well received) than Spenser’s, the bones of a Spenserian career model provide a skeleton for Keats’s 1816 letter to Clarke. Like Spenser, Keats was not happy simply to follow a path already trod by others. Where Spenser fused the career models of Virgil and Ovid and molded them to be specifically English, Keats abandons Spenser’s moralizing agenda and re-Englishes his poetics (Cheney). Keats injects Romantic sensibility into Spenser’s early modern career model. He focuses not on teaching readers how to live but on showing them how to feel, and ties that feeling to a new sort of nationalism. For, as Spenser asks and Keats repeats in the epigraph to his 1817 Poems, “What more felicity can fall to creature, / Than to enjoy delight with Liberty”?

Works Cited

Cheney, Patrick. Spenser’s Famous Flight: A Renaissance Idea of a Literary Career. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993. Print.
Keats, John. John Keats. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. New York: Pearson Education-Longman, 2007.
—. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.
Kucich, Greg. Keats, Shelley, and Romantic Spenserianism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.
Spenser, Edmund. “Letter to Raleigh.” The Faerie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. Harlow: Pearson Education-Longman, 2001. 713–18.
—. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. Harlow: Pearson Education-Longman, 2001.
—. The Shorter Poems. Ed. Richard A. McCabe. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Pengiun, 1999.

Letter #4: To Charles Cowden Clarke, September 1816

Charles Cowden Clarke died in March 1877, and the next year his widow, Mary Cowden Clarke (née Novello) would publish their co-written Recollections of Writers. Friends of Keats likely know this text for the extended memoir of the poet which Charles had written and published in a shorter form in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861. But Mary’s contributions are valuable too, particularly for the poignancy of her autobiographical “General Recollections” which open the volume, and which can’t but be read in light of her husband’s recent death. The book’s preface features this heart-breaking conclusion:

Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke may with truth be held in tender remembrance by their readers as among the happiest of married lovers for more than forty-eight years, writing together, reading together, working together, enjoying together the perfection of loving, literary consociation; and kindly sympathy may well be felt for her who is left singly to subscribe herself,

Her readers’ faithful servant,


One example of their “loving, literary consociation” can be found in Mary’s recollection of their honeymoon in Enfield in July 1828, where two decades before, Keats and Charles began their own affectionate relationship rooted in reading and writing together. As the newlyweds Mary and Charles make their way from Edmonton to Enfield, strolling in post-nuptial bliss, they pass the spot where Keats “used to lean over the rail of the foot-bridge, looking at the water and watching ‘Where swarms of minnows show their little heads, / Staying their wavy bodies ‘gainst the streams, / To taste the luxury of sunny beams / Temper’d with coolness.” Next they come upon “the exact spot recorded in Keats’ Epistle to C. C. C., where the friends used to part.” After again quoting some lines from Keats, this time from the epistle from September 1816, Mary remembers that she and Charles “loitered under a range of young oak-trees, now grown into more than stout saplings, that were the result of some of those carefully dropped acorns planted by Charles and his father.” One wonders if they then thought of the poet who had been outlived by those young trees.

But we do rush ahead of ourselves, dwelling as we are in 1828, when a newlywed couple celebrated their union by remembering the departed Keats, and in 1878 when the recently widowed Mary published a book that was the product of a life-long literary partnership between her and Charles. In 1816 we see a different sort of partnership, but one based as deeply in the bonds of “loving, literary consociation.” Keats’s “Epistle to C. C. C.” is a moving tribute to the poet’s friend and the experience of poetry they shared together. And as Jayme Peacock shows in her response to the epistle, Keats uses that relationship with Clarke to think through his own emerging sense of himself as a poet. From the beginning, Keats expressed a deep commitment to poetry as a social endeavor, and we certainly see that on display here.


“To Charles Cowden Clarke”

Oft have you seen a swan superbly frowning,
And with proud breast his own white shadow crowning;
He slants his neck beneath the waters bright
So silently, it seems a beam of light
Come from the galaxy: anon he sports,—
With outspread wings the Naiad Zephyr courts,
Or ruffles all the surface of the lake
In striving from its crystal face to take
Some diamond water drops, and them to treasure
In milky nest, and sip them off at leisure.
But not a moment can he there insure them,
Nor to such downy rest can he allure them;
For down they rush as though they would be free,
And drop like hours into eternity.
Just like that bird am I in loss of time,
Whene’er I venture on the stream of rhyme;
With shatter’d boat, oar snapt, and canvass rent,
I slowly sail, scarce knowing my intent;
Still scooping up the water with my fingers,
In which a trembling diamond never lingers.

By this, friend Charles, you may full plainly see
Why I have never penn’d a line to thee:
Because my thoughts were never free, and clear,
And little fit to please a classic ear;
Because my wine was of too poor a savour
For one whose palate gladdens in the flavour
Of sparkling Helicon:—small good it were
To take him to a desert rude, and bare,
Who had on Baiae’s shore reclin’d at ease,
While Tasso’s page was floating in a breeze
That gave soft music from Armida’s bowers,
Mingled with fragrance from her rarest flowers:
Small good to one who had by Mulla’s stream
Fondled the maidens with the breasts of cream;
Who had beheld Belphoebe in a brook,
And lovely Una in a leafy nook,
And Archimago leaning o’er his book:
Who had of all that’s sweet tasted, and seen,
From silv’ry ripple, up to beauty’s queen;
From the sequester’d haunts of gay Titania,
To the blue dwelling of divine Urania:
One, who, of late, had ta’en sweet forest walks
With him who elegantly chats, and talks—
The wrong’d Libertas,—who has told you stories
Of laurel chaplets, and Apollo’s glories;
Of troops chivalrous prancing through a city,
And tearful ladies made for love, and pity:
With many else which I have never known.
Thus have I thought; and days on days have flown
Slowly, or rapidly—unwilling still
For you to try my dull, unlearned quill.
Nor should I now, but that I’ve known you long;
That you first taught me all the sweets of song:
The grand, the sweet, the terse, the free, the fine;
What swell’d with pathos, and what right divine:
Spenserian vowels that elope with ease,
And float along like birds o’er summer seas;
Miltonian storms, and more, Miltonian tenderness;
Michael in arms, and more, meek Eve’s fair slenderness.
Who read for me the sonnet swelling loudly
Up to its climax and then dying proudly?
Who found for me the grandeur of the ode,
Growing, like Atlas, stronger from its load?
Who let me taste that more than cordial dram,
The sharp, the rapier-pointed epigram?
Shew’d me that epic was of all the king,
Round, vast, and spanning all like Saturn’s ring?
You too upheld the veil from Clio’s beauty,
And pointed out the patriot’s stern duty;
The might of Alfred, and the shaft of Tell;
The hand of Brutus, that so grandly fell
Upon a tyrant’s head. Ah! had I never seen,
Or known your kindness, what might I have been?
What my enjoyments in my youthful years,
Bereft of all that now my life endears?
And can I e’er these benefits forget?
And can I e’er repay the friendly debt?
No, doubly no;—yet should these rhymings please,
I shall roll on the grass with two-fold ease:
For I have long time been my fancy feeding
With hopes that you would one day think the reading
Of my rough verses not an hour mispent;
Should it e’er be so, what a rich content!
Some weeks have pass’d since last I saw the spires
In lucent Thames reflected:—warm desires
To see the sun o’er peep the eastern dimness,
And morning shadows streaking into slimness
Across the lawny fields, and pebbly water;
To mark the time as they grow broad, and shorter;
To feel the air that plays about the hills,
And sips its freshness from the little rills;
To see high, golden corn wave in the light
When Cynthia smiles upon a summer’s night,
And peers among the cloudlet’s jet and white,
As though she were reclining in a bed
Of bean blossoms, in heaven freshly shed.
No sooner had I stepp’d into these pleasures
Than I began to think of rhymes and measures:
The air that floated by me seem’d to say
“Write! thou wilt never have a better day.”
And so I did. When many lines I’d written,
Though with their grace I was not oversmitten,
Yet, as my hand was warm, I thought I’d better
Trust to my feelings, and write you a letter.
Such an attempt required an inspiration
Of a peculiar sort,—a consummation;—
Which, had I felt, these scribblings might have been
Verses from which the soul would never wean:
But many days have past since last my heart
Was warm’d luxuriously by divine Mozart;
By Arne delighted, or by Handel madden’d;
Or by the song of Erin pierc’d and sadden’d:
What time you were before the music sitting,
And the rich notes to each sensation fitting.
Since I have walk’d with you through shady lanes
That freshly terminate in open plains,
And revel’d in a chat that ceased not
When at night-fall among your books we got:
No, nor when supper came, nor after that,—
Nor when reluctantly I took my hat;
No, nor till cordially you shook my hand
Mid-way between our homes:—your accents bland
Still sounded in my ears, when I no more
Could hear your footsteps touch the grav’ly floor.
Sometimes I lost them, and then found again;
You chang’d the footpath for the grassy plain.
In those still moments I have wish’d you joys
That well you know to honour:—“Life’s very toys
“With him,” said I, “will take a pleasant charm;
“It cannot be that ought will work him harm.”
These thoughts now come o’er me with all their might:—
Again I shake your hand,—friend Charles, good night.

September, 1816.