Keats’s Good Hair Day

Jayne Lewis
University of California Irvine

Re: Keats’s 23 January 1818 Letter to Benjamin Bailey

Irony and playful self-deprecation are not always the attitudes that spring to mind when we encounter a Keatsian declaration of poetic ambition. But both are on display in today’s letter to Keats’s then-friend, the learned and pious Benjamin Bailey. Braided into a typical mesh of on-the-ground gossip and philosophical rumination (“the best of Men have but a portion of good in them—a kind of spiritual yeast in their frames which creates the ferment of existence” [Rollins, 76]), we find an aspirational ode to no less a poetic predecessor than John Milton…or at least to his hair.

Milton’s hair? Can Keats have been serious? Milton’s eyes, or at least their tragic dimming, might have made sense as an occasion for the young poet’s “sacrifice of verse/And Melody.” So might Milton’s tongue, which indeed seems to be invoked as Milton’s “spirit…rolls about our ears/For ever and for ever.” Or what about the Puritan’s poet’s own “ear,” as he is begged to “lend” it “to a young delian oath”? Or even Milton’s “mortal Lips,” given how many immortal syllables fell from them? It’s not that Keats—trained as a surgeon after all—ignores these parts of Milton’s body. But in the end, it is all about the hair. The “bright hair,” to be exact. Its brightness seems to have afforded Keats some “glimpses” of his own “futurity.” Relatively speaking, Milton’s eyes, tongue, ears, and lips leave him in the dark.

The lock that presumably prompted this poem only turns up at the end of it: Keats’s “sudden it came” is therefore fake news. But where did Milton’s “bright hair” come from? Within the chronology of the poem, its source seems to be the speaker’s own “forehead hot and flush’d.” Does John Keats—or at least his speaker—discover John Milton’s sacred aura now hovering around himself? If so, he doesn’t at first recognize it for whose it is—this somehow despite having been thinking about the “chief of organic Numbers” from the start. He’s thus surprised if not by sin, then at least by the famous “name/Coupled” with an otherwise inert strand of keratin and dead skin cells. Milton’s name transforms and revitalizes that strand. And yet the word “Milton” is never actually uttered in the poem proper. All of which makes that poem somehow less than proper: a strange, ungainly ode mounted on the flimsiest of foundations. If it expresses its author’s desire to become a new Milton, it ironically demonstrates the unlikelihood of this.

But is it possible that, even before Keats wrote this poem, Milton’s hair meant more than meets our eye?

First, the hair was a real thing. Flushed forehead or no, Keats didn’t make it up. As he explains to Bailey, he had lately come across “a real authenticated Lock of Milton’s Hair” at the home of his friend Leigh Hunt (Rollins, 76). The poem is Keats’s response to it.

Hunt was in fact an inveterate collector of the locks of the famous; Milton’s was part of a larger collection that, at final tally, would include the locks of (among others) Swift, Johnson, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Maria Edgeworth, and Percy Shelley —a hirsute anthology of English literary history that Hunt eventually annotated with the tresses of Napoleon, George Washington and Lucrezia Borgia. You can visit Hunt’s collection today in the Ransom Library at the University of Texas. Milton’s hair holds pride of place there, tenderly affixed to ivory vellum:

Collection of Hair formed by J.H. Leigh Hunt: John Milton. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

It’s fun to think about what Hunt’s collection as a whole might represent. Many of the locks that it paginated can be seen as relics of those recently canonized secular saints that Johnson called the English poets…or as fetish objects that allow the collector to appropriate their original possessors as love objects. They half-fulfill longing for physical contact with an idol of the mind even as each might matter most as a charismatic token of exchange within a contemporary author-revering community.    The weight of so many meanings is a lot for one frail ring of hair to bear. Set beside that delicate wisp, Keats’s ode reads almost like mockery, as overblown as any canto of The Rape of the Lock. Even as he participates in what Deidre Lynch has recently chronicled as the uniquely modern cult of literary love (Lynch 2014), Keats cuts Milton down to size. This perhaps makes room for an up-and-coming writer but there’s also a twitch of the lip at that same writer’s own pretensions.

But what about the contemporary community within which these lines took shape? The lines that Lucy Newlyn finds “embarrassingly fetishistic” and Lorna Clymer “a tribute” overwhelmed by “the difficulties of writing a tribute” in effect steal Milton’s hair from Hunt (Newlyn, 27; Clymer, 108).   From this point of view, Keats transmutes that hair into the more spiritualized element of verse; then, in the makeshift reliquary that his letter provides, he passes it on to Bailey. Later in the year, Hunt would steal it back, publishing two sonnets on Milton’s hair in his 1818 volume Foliage, the so-called “Cockney manifesto” that, as Jeffrey Cox has shown, bound an otherwise marginalized and disparate group of contemporary writers together and made them major players in English literary history (Cox 1998). Or perhaps stealing is the wrong trope: once etherealized in this fashion, Milton’s hair might belong to anyone.

But was the physical hair in Hunt’s possession actually Milton’s? Certainly, today’s letter presents it to Bailey as a “real, authenticated Lock” (Rollins, 76). Yet “authenticated” doesn’t necessarily mean authentic: in fact, this variant of the word raises the question of whether the hair at issue actually grew on Milton’s head. The letter’s ta-da moment keeps the question open. “Here it is,” Keats announces, “as they say of a Sheep in a Nursery Book” (Rollins, 76). It’s hard to know if “it” is the hair or the poem it instigated, or indeed if Keats’s words are ironic. Yet does it ultimately matter whether Milton’s hair was more real than the fleece in a nursery book?   As is well known by anyone whose pate has grown hot and itchy under a wig, fake hair is no less “real” than hair that isn’t fake.  In any case, as long as everybody agrees to accept Milton’s hair as his—or at least as once his—its transactional value will be the same whether it is authentic or not.

Speaking of transactional value: Hunt himself claimed to have been given this small sample of Milton’s “Apollonian tresses” by his own physician, William Batty (Hunt 1818: cxxxii). “This treasure,” he later wrote in what became one of his Wishing Cap essays, “was generously given us by [Batty], who claimed to have gotten it from his father-in-law, who had it from [Samuel] Johnson.” Hunt admitted that “the link of evidence is here lost; but Johnson was famous for his veracity, and he would not have given it as Milton’s, had he not believed it genuine” (Hunt 1833: 368). As Keats’s twentieth-century editor Maurice Forman wryly observed, “this pedigree, though not sufficiently authoritative to satisfy a rigid regard for the ordinary laws of evidence, was ample justification for the faith of the imaginative Keats” (Forman: 86).

Whether Keats’s faith was misplaced or simply facetious may be beside the point. In his lifetime, Milton’s hair really was a big deal, at least to him. Its luster and abundance were one of the reasons that, as a Cambridge undergraduate, he was teased as the “Lady of Christ’s.” Milton indeed seems to have been quite vain of his hair, maintaining a full head of tresses in the Cavalier style even through his years of political affiliation with the Roundheads. His poems too make hair matter. In Paradise Lost, Eve’s “wanton ringlets” at once foretell postlapsarian complications and, as Stephen Dobranski has shown, represent matter’s spiritual potential before the fall. We usually see the Samson of the closet tragedy Samson Agonistes as a stand-in for the blind poet Milton. But the Jewish hero’s “puissant” hair was another common denominator.

In Milton’s seventeenth century hair was often believed to have a life of its own independent of the bodies on which it grew (Geisweidt 2009). So it’s possible to picture the same locks literally migrating from Eve’s head to Samson’s to Milton’s own. Stranger things have happened, absolutely. And now that one thinks of it, Benjamin Bailey himself is on record as having found Keats’s own hair to be “beautiful—a fine brown rather than auburn.” Indeed, panted Bailey, “if you placed your hand upon his head, the silken curls felt like the rich plumage of a bird” (Colvin, 143).  Small wonder that among the small businesses today clustered about Hampstead Heath it is possible to find the popular salon Keats Hair. (It rates four stars on Yell, the British Yelp.)  A photograph of that establishment was posted by the Keats Shelley Association this past December, glossed with Susan Wolfson’s playful concordance to apparently widespread appreciation of Keats’s “silken curls.”

It’s funny how Milton and Keats seem to have had much the same hair. Maybe this is an unspoken prerequisite for English poetic magnitude: Thomas DeQuincey thought that Wordsworth’s hair also looked like Milton’s (DeQuincey, 123). But then again, isn’t that the thing about hair? It marks identity and yet is completely anonymous. In terms of any pantheon of British poets—under construction over the eighteenth century—hair playfully undercuts the glory of each denizen therein. In terms of power, meanwhile, good hair is alluring. But it is also vulnerable, as Judges’ Samson and Pope’s Belinda both discovered. It’s trivial. It makes light of glory. And yet it also outlasts and shines. It matters and does not. All of these potentialities collide in Keats’s ode. He did with them what in fact Milton himself, seldom to be recommended for deep coherence, might have done: twisted them into one messy chignon. Who knows what Bailey made of it all? We don’t have his response to this poem, and he and Keats would fall out in time. But he probably continued to think that Keats’s own hair was awfully pretty.

As for Milton’s hair, just how did it escape his head in the first place? This is an unfathomable mystery. Swift’s hair was trimmed on his deathbed and distributed among his friends, who perhaps identified it with the hair that apparently made Gulliver so vulnerable to the Lilliputians (they use it to tie him down). Not so Milton’s. As far as we know, it accompanied him to the grave. However, in 1790, a body believed to be his was exhumed from his supposed burial place in St Giles Church. The corpse’s hair, reported the barrister and Milton aficionado Philip Neve, turned out to be “perfectly straight and even,” despite the moldering state of the scalp to which it was attached (Neve 17). What to do but cut it off? Better late than never. Locks of Milton’s hair were soon for sale. Lots of locks. Locks and locks of Milton’s hair. Indeed, remarked one wag writing for the English Chronicle, “the head of the poet must have vegetated a great variety of hair, and of various colors, as the Public are alternately presented in the streets with grey, black, red, and auburn hair, each of which they are solemnly assured is real and genuine” (Chronicle, 1801; Barton n.p.).

We can assume that the hair Hunt owned and showed to Keats in the winter of 1818 was higher far descended. Certainly, Hunt later claimed that it was. However, the essay in which he does so moves with suspicious speed away from the question of provenance. With respect to authenticity, Hunt is happier to expand on “the internal evidence of the hair itself.” Which evidence, he declares, “is strong,” for “the colour is brown, which is known to have been Milton’s.” Nor is it simply brown: “This lock of the great poet is […] beautiful. It is remarkable for its excessive and almost preternatural fineness—we mean the softness and slenderness of its individual hairs. […] Certainly, it is more like the hair of the most delicate girl….” (Hunt 1833: 370)

So, as we’ve seen, was the no less brown hair of Keats. Perhaps the Milton ode was a way of offering a notional bit of it to Bailey. As for the hair that grew on Keats’s own head, it too eventually found its way into Hunt’s collection. Where it, alongside Milton’s, is living at this hour.

Collection of Hair formed by J.H. Leigh Hunt: John Keats. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.


Works Cited


Barton, Carol. “Ill Fare the Hands that Heaved the Stone’; John Milton, A Preliminary Thanatography.“ Milton Studies 43 (2004), 198-260.

The Chronicle, 7-9 September 1790, no. 1801.

Clymer, Lorna. “Cromwell’s Head and Milton’s Hair: Corpse Theory in Spectacular Bodies of the Interregnum.” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation  40 (Summer, 1999): 91-112.

Colvin, Sidney. John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends, Critics, and After-Fame London: Macmillan, 1920.

Cox, Jeffrey N. Poetry in the Cockney School: Keas Shelley, Hunt and Their Circle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

DeQuincey, Thomas. Recollections of the Lakes and Lake Poets [1862], ed. Edward Sackville-West (London: John Lehmann, 1958).

Dobranski, Stephen. “Clustering and Curling Locks: The Matter of Hair in Paradise Lost,” PMLA 125 (2010), 337-53.

Forman, Maurice Buxton ed. The Letters of John Keats. London: Oxford, 1947.

Geisweidt, Edward J. “Horticulture of the Head: The Vegetable Life of Hair in Early        Modern English Thought.” Early Modern Literary Studies 12 (2009), 95-116.

Hunt, Leigh. “Milton’s Hair,” in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine (January 1833) rpt. in Edmund Blunden, Leigh Hunt and His Circle. New York: Harper, 1930, 368-74.

——–. Foliage; or Poems Original and Translated. London: Ollier, 1818.

Lynch, Deidre Shauna. Loving Literature: A Cultural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Neve, Philip. A Narrative of the Disinterment of Milton’s Coffin. 2nd. ed. London: 1790.

Newlyn, Lucy, Paradise Lost and the Romantic Reader. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.

Rollins, Hyder Edward. The Letters of John Keats. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1958