Penn State University
Re: Keats’s 19 February 1818 letter to Horace Smith
Wit and sense,
Virtue and human knowledge; all that might
Make this dull world a business of delight,
Are all combined in Horace Smith.
–Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Letter to Maria Gisborne”
Horace Smith was a stockbroker by profession and a poet by inclination. He immersed himself in the life of literary London in the early decades of the nineteenth century, spending his days in the counting-house and evenings at the theatre. With his brother James, he published the breakout success, Rejected Addresses, in 1812—a volume of poetic parodies in the style of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and many other leading poets of the day. Leigh Hunt found him “delicious” and remarked that “His figure was good and manly, inclining to robust; and his countenance extremely frank and cordial, sweet without weakness” (Reiman xxii, xxiii). By most accounts, he seems to have been a lot of fun to be around, willing to share his good financial fortune with his friends, and, especially after he retired from business in 1821 to devote himself to literary pursuits, a prolific writer of poems, novels, plays, and memoirs. He was a longtime contributor to the New Monthly Magazine, where his “A Greybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance” ran to thirteen installments in 1847-48. In a delightful, if somewhat morbid, turn of events, his final story—a highly-underrated three-part novella about a man who is buried alive called the Posthumous Memoir of Myself—appeared just after his death in 1849.
His best friend among the Romantic poets was Shelley who, in addition to praising him in the “Letter to Maria Gisborne,” characterized Smith as “the only truly generous person I ever knew, who had money to be generous with” (qtd. in Reiman xxii). By all accounts, Smith managed Shelley’s finances with skill and delicacy; for his part, Shelley always made sure that Smith was on the list to receive his new work. And it was Smith, incidentally, whose conversation helped provoke the contest that led to the writing of “Ozymandias.” You can read Smith’s poem here (image below).
In short, it would seem like everyone who was anyone enjoyed the company of Horace Smith. Except, perhaps, for John Keats.
“Dislike” is probably too strong a word. Still, in this letter we see Keats involved in a diplomatic refusal of Smith’s hospitality, pleading that familiar combination of too much work and too little time. Perhaps “Nehemiah Muggs,” for all its “Wit and imaginative fun,” was not entirely to his taste. The work still to be done on Endymion did loom, even though—as Rollins’ footnote tells us—it would be several more weeks before Keats made it to Devonshire.
When Smith met Keats and Shelley at Leigh Hunt’s house in 1816, his first impression of Keats was that “to an observant eye his looks and his attenuated frame already foreshadowed the consumption that had marked him for its prey. His manner was shy, and embarrassed, as of one unused to society, and he spoke little” ([Smith] 239). Smith’s biographer, Arthur Beavan, also records the following anecdote:
[H]is eldest daughter remembers that, when she was a child, she was solemnly led into the garden by her father one lovely afternoon in July to take a peep at a fragile-looking and rather ill-dressed gentleman sitting “immanteled in ambrosial dark” beneath a wide-spreading ilex. “Do you see that man?” said her father; “that’s a poet.” It was poor Keats, then fast nearing his end, whom Smith had enticed from Wentworth Place, Hampstead, to dine and spend a long day with him. (134)
Beavan goes on to describe this less-than-immortal dinner: it was “served earlier than usual to lengthen the exquisite evening, and everything that could be thought of to tempt the poet’s feeble appetite was there,” along with “a dozen bottles of Keats’s favorite beverage”—claret, one can only assume, to be consumed outdoors on this pleasant evening (135). Smith seems to have tried his best, that is, but there’s a sense that “poor Keats” might be struggling with this hospitality.
Beavan blurs the issue a bit, for he follows this anecdote with Keats’s report of a dinner with the Smith brothers, where he confesses that “They only served to convince me how superior humour is to wit in respect to enjoyment. These men say things which make one start without making one feel; they all know fashionables; they all have a mannerism in their very eating and drinking, in their mere handling of a decanter” (qtd. in Beavan 135-6). Here, of course, we can begin to understand why Keats, in February 1818, might want to put off a visit to Knightsbridge as being less relaxing than his host intended. But Beavan implies that this is a commentary on that “lovely afternoon in July”—that after all that had been done for him, Keats remained unmoved. But eagle-eyed Keatsians (or those of us capable of using Google) will recognize that the description of dinner with the Smith brothers is part of the negative capability letter—and, thus, that it cannot refer either to a gathering in July or, for that matter, to a visit where Keats was “fast nearing his end.”
I don’t want to read too much into this particular disjunction, of course. At best, it draws attention to certain temperamental differences between Shelley and Keats, a reminder that Keats did not always feel himself at his best in certain kinds of company. Perhaps—and this is speculation on my part—Smith was too much Keats’s opposite, with a robustness, good nature, and general comfort in the world that threatened to overwhelm him. In the final throes of Endymion, he may not have had the energy for “wit” or “mannerism,” and he could trust that Smith would be disappointed, but not offended, by his refusal. Gratitude and hospitality can be tricky sometimes, and, at least on this day, Keats decides that sociability comes at too high a cost.
Beavan, Arthur H. James and Horace Smith: A Family Narrative based upon Hitherto Unpublished Private Diaries, Letters, and Other Documents. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1899.
Reiman, Donald H. “Introduction.” Rejected Addresses and Horace in London by Horace and James Smith. New York: Garland Publishing, 1977.
[Smith, Horace.] “A Greybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance, No. VIII.” The New Monthly Magazine and Humorist Vol. 81, no. 322 (October 1847): 227-40.