Re: Keats’s 9 Mar 1817 letter to J. H. Reynolds
Knowing how I feel about William Hazlitt—and knowing, of course, that Keats had similar feelings—the KLP editors were kind and foolhardy enough to indulge me with this chance to make a big deal out of a short letter, and the relation it predicts between two writers. The March 9, 1817 letter was written a week or so after his visit, with Haydon and Reynolds, to see the Elgin Marbles, in fact on the same day that his sonnets on the subject were published (in the Champion and Examiner). It was written not long before he performed his last surgical duties at Guy’s Hospital, and became, we might say, a full-time poet. And it was written less than a week after his first volume, Poems (1817), appeared before the public, on the previous Monday, March 3rd. In substance, it is a thank-you note to his first book’s friendliest reviewer. It also happens to contain Keats’s first recorded reference to Hazlitt.
The relation of Keats to Hazlitt has been reconstructed in various shapes from explicit and implicit cues scattered across letters, essays, reminiscences and best guesses. Like the wine-stains on a table-cloth the morning after a dinner, these cues don’t do much to tell us what kind of conversation was being had, but they do suggest it was a lively one. After each writer became aware of the other’s work, they read and quoted one another, alternating between admiration and criticism, and would in their literary afterlives graze against, help angle and contour, each others’ received reputations and literary personae. At some moments in the history of scholarship on Romanticism, signs of Hazlitt’s lasting influence on Keats might have seemed the best reason to take more seriously Hazlitt’s force within the field; at others, Keats’s high estimate of Hazlitt’s “depth of Taste” (see Susan Wolfson’s response to Letter #9) registers as a sign of his intellectual maturity, makes us read his poetry with new eyes. Evoked by these cues, though they may be no more than the light pressures of barely perceptible attachments, is a general mood of mutual regard—whether we are called back to a dinner both attended, where a topic of mutual concern did or did not come up; a walk they took together; a critical judgment about which they disagreed, which was then publicly revised in a lecture; a work in manuscript that may or may not have been shared; a piece of advice solicited, or a line of verse recalled. We sense two paths through a shared literary world that periodically crossed, two pairs of prints that left the odd reference to one another preserved now in their literary remains. We sense their convergences by way of passing glimpses, quotes retrieved, rewritten, scrawled over, thoughts and convictions shared or amended.
The path I’m on, it’s probably clear, is the one worn down by a genealogy of critics for whom the traces of the Keats-Hazlitt relation reveal high regard and lasting impact on one another (a genealogy that includes, notably, Bate, Bromwich, and more recently Jacques Khalip). But I don’t want to make a point here of re-submitting the same old wine-stains as evidence of this: I take it for granted there was a lively conversation at the dinner we didn’t attend. What a relief, in the KLP format, not to have to pretend to have a privileged view, or new information! What could be nicer than the chance to revisit, without the need to revise? So let’s just bookmark this note as the first preserved instance when Keats refers to Hazlitt, and find a few ways to repeat that Hazlitt was to become one light in the constellation of intellectual forces that would guide our favorite “Cockney poetaster,” our favorite “city spark.”
What does this letter let us revisit? Amplifying its emotional high–the sheer elation of the line “It’s the finest thing by God”—we feel this phrase escape against a background of palpable anxiety (felt in the author’s repeated desire that he should “not deceive” his admiring reviewer). Let’s take the measure, as well as we can, of the note’s emotional topography. Though brief, it is heartfelt—in fact brief, so Keats claims, because of how deeply felt it is, meaning its brevity is the result of his feeling overwhelmed. Feeling too much, elsewhere the spur to write and write and write, is here a reason to write little. He has evidently just read that day’s anonymous review in The Champion of the newly published Poems, and dashes off a note of thanks to its author, whom he knows to be John Reynolds, a close friend and fellow-poet. (He seems to have received a letter from Reynolds himself—hence the aside “I will be ready at the time you mention.”) In the text of his review, Reynolds had emphasized Keats’s nearness to nature, his youth and promise: “The author is a very young man, and one, as we augur from the present work, that is likely to make a great addition to those who would overthrow that artificial taste which French criticism has long planted amongst us” (297); “[he] starts suddenly before us, with a genius that is likely to eclipse [Byron, Moore, Rogers, and Campbell]” (297); he is “fated … to lay his name in the lap of immortality” (298). Who can blame Keats for feeling overwhelmed, or “extremely anxious,” with promises like this? Reynolds’s hyperbolic praise may all have come true, but at the time it was bluster, and Keats’s response suggests he is at least as disquieted as he is delighted. That it “affects [him] so sensibly” that he can barely write projects a physical tremor that’s enough to make the reader shiver. We are used to taking Keats’s life and running it through his letters, so they feel like live wires. When Wordsworth later famously called Keats’s “Hymn to Pan” a “very pretty piece of paganism”—in contemporary poet Tom Clark’s retelling—“Keats / actually trembled, like the string of / a lyre when it has been touched” (50).
Given that it is a response to his first book’s first review, it is no surprise that the relation of writers and critics preoccupies each of the letter’s short paragraphs: in Keats’s writing here, as an author newly exposed in his own printed volume, you can feel the same ambivalence in the dash that first separates “Your kindness” from “Your criticism,” in the opening sentences; in the strong distinction that then separates Hazlitt’s (imaginary) approval from the beard-scratching uncertainty of “some acquaintances of mine,” whom Keats teases; and in the implicit self-comparison Keats makes between himself and the rumors of an author even more precocious (the reputed “young lady of 16” whose tragedy is already being performed). In fact just about the only note of certainty here rings from the mimicked voice of Hazlitt, The Critic Personified, emphatically directing the letter’s energies. By adopting Hazlitt’s voice, tone, manner—“it’s the finest thing by God”—Keats can be flip and yet mean what he says, mimicking a voice and naming its source (“—as Hazlitt wo’d say”). We don’t usually think of a stylistic influence from Hazlitt to Keats (despite Bromwich’s interesting thoughts on the matter: 370), but he was to try on Hazlitt’s voice elsewhere, as in a rare theater review written in December 1817 to celebrate the Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean, who had returned to the stage after a long absence. Here it is only natural to ventriloquize Hazlitt: for instance, Keats says of Kean, “His return was full of power. He is not the man to ‘bate a jot.'” Strings of “mono-sentences” like this are pure Hazlitt, down to the casual citation of a phrase from Milton. In this review, Keats attributes to Kean an “intense power of anatomizing the passion of every syllable”; the same skill, of recognizing with surgical precision the almost physical texture of the passions in language, was one Keats saw in Hazlitt and wished to emulate, not as actor or critic but as poet.
It is not until the year after this letter was written that an acceleration of references to Hazlitt in Keats’s letters indicates an increasing familiarity and even intimacy; yet with the early effusion “It’s the finest thing by God,” it is clear that Hazlitt’s voice is already circulating for Keats not only in the pages of the Examiner, but anecdotally, in the air. According to the editor’s speculative note (Rollins 123), “It’s the finest thing by God” may approximate Hazlitt’s sometime exclamatory way of enjoying liquor at a party—that is, without drinking it. If so, it encapsulates the critic who inhales and judges, without drowning in drink. “It’s the finest thing by God—as Hazlitt wo’d say”: if this is a reference to Hazlitt tasting with his nose rather than imbibing (which again is no more than a guess), then the “depth of taste” Keats finds in Hazlitt might be a kind of immersive yet reflective enjoyment, without excessive indulgence (that is, more the Keats of “Hence burgundy, claret, and port,” than the Keats of “Give me women, wine, and snuff”). To be a good—to be a great—poet, Keats may need to practice his Hazlitt: his voice, maybe, but more so his methods of taste.
In a scribbled note from the margins of his copy of Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays—which he seems to have acquired just as he was writing the review of Kean, in late 1817—Keats likens the passions themselves to a cellarful of wine-barrels that the poet explores, like a good critic, without wallowing in them: “If we compare the Passions to different tuns and hogsheads of wine in a vast cellar—thus it is—the poet by one cup should know the scope of any particular wine without getting intoxicated—this is the highest exertion of Power, and the next step is to paint from memory of gone self storms” (Bate 262). I love without understanding these “gone self storms”—let’s assume they mean more than yesterday’s (emotional) hangovers—but in any case they are surely more lovely and quenching than the lines in Hazlitt that inspired them, which though perfectly wise sound, by contrast, awfully square: “the greatest strength of genius is shewn in describing the strongest passions: for the power of the imagination, in words of invention, must be in proportion to the force of the natural impressions, which are the subject of them” (Hazlitt 271). So says the critic; so translates the poet. Give us a taste of those tuns and hogsheads, but please give us more of those gone self storms.
Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1963.
Bromwich, David. Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic. New Haven: Yale UP, 1983.
Clark, Tom. Junkets on a Sad Planet: Scenes from the Life of John Keats. Black Sparrow Press, 1994.
Hazlitt, William. Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays. London: Everyman’s Library, 1964.
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Rollins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.
Khalip, Jacques. Anonymous Life: Romanticism and Dispossession. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2008.
Reynolds, J. H. (?). Anonymous review of Poems (1817), The Champion March 9, 1817. Romantic Bards and British Reviewers, ed. John O. Hayden. London: Routledge, 1971.