Keats, Confidence, and the October Spring

Noah Comet
US Naval Academy

Oh, to be John Keats at this moment.

Keats was a poet whose best writing was perhaps the best writing, and I think most of us find much to admire in the man, too. Modest yet pugnacious, brilliant yet never secure enough in his brilliance to lord it over his readers like Wordsworth did, Keats was a small, impecunious man in a giant city that, for him, loomed “beastly” and rattled with death and classism: he was the under-est of underdogs.

Many of us might wish to write like Keats; few of us would wish to live like him; none of us, I think, would wish to die like him. But to be Keats here, in this moment, in October of 1816?—yes, please.

Here is Keats positively amped-up to meet one his idols, and he can hardly know what a fortuitous meeting it will be. Leigh Hunt—the liberal champion and editor of The Examiner, who with his brother had declined to recant his verbal attack on the Prince Regent and so did two years’ time; whose narrative poem The Story of Rimini, published six months before, had given Keats a template for fluid sentiment, irreverent, even anti-authoritarian classicism, metrical departures and neologistic play; who was perhaps no less an influence on Keats than Spenser was, in style, subject, and versification, and who had, in May, published one of Keats’s own sonnets in his magazine—had invited him to his home. Keats, diverging from his medical training, had written several poems by this time, and was, largely thanks to Hunt’s example, gaining some meager confidence in his own talents.

Much was to come of this visit, which extended to three visits, actually, and was followed by many more in the ensuing months. Keats and Hunt would grow enchanted with each other, and Keats would produce several poems to, about and in imitation of Hunt. Hunt, for his part, would pen his essay “Young Poets” that December, canonizing Keats (with Shelley) as part of a new school of verse. (For the conservative Blackwood’s, Hunt’s endorsement would be provocation enough to brand this school “the Cockney School,” and to make Keats an object of the magazine’s scorn.)

Hunt was the first established poet that Keats would meet; Keats could little imagine that he would have such a warm reception from him, such encouragement, and a playful nickname (“Junkets”)—to say nothing of the fact that The Examiner would go on to publish and brag on several more of his works.

Even more inconceivable at this moment is the time when the two men would grow estranged from each other (if never quite unfriendly), when Keats would seek to distance himself from the Hunt style that had dominated his earliest poems and that would overshadow his critical reception. It is something of a cliché in Keats studies to say that the ‘good Keats’—the poet of 1818 and ‘19—is he that has exhausted the Huntian phase of his career and awakened to self-criticism and original idiom. If that is to be true, it is yet far from true in this moment, when all is new and thrillingly possible, when Hunt represents novelty, defiance, and boundless potential. It is October, but Keats hears the songs of spring.

Charles Cowden Clarke, whose father ran the Enfield School, which Keats had attended, and who had helped introduce Keats to The Examiner, was a close acquaintance of Hunt and had been feeding him Keats’s verses for a few months, hence, at last, this invitation. For his efforts, Clarke merits a thankful “Sir” and perhaps more than that: editors are at pains to decide just who is the author of the “Sonnet to the Sun,” but some have suggested Clarke himself, in which case his facilitations with Hunt elicit Keats’s own esteem in the literary arena. (The commentary on taste—not conflating Shakespeare and Darwin—is presumably an inside joke between Keats and his school-friend.)

What I love about this early letter is how much of himself Keats packs into it. There is the (likely) posturing of “busy time”: after all, can we really believe that, however frantic his medical training may have been, Keats would have deferred a meeting with Hunt if summoned earlier? There is what would become an abiding feature of his poetry and letters, the self-historicizing of a young man keen to understand his own stadial growth within larger historical frames: “an Era in my existence.” There is the ambivalent confidence of his neoclassicism (“what, I think, Horace says”), recalling the still-recent sonnet on Chapman’s Homer (sent to Clarke, then published by Hunt), here both an assertion of his learning and the fixture of his embarrassment at having sinned against it. There is, as ever, his goodness to his friends, whose writings and commonplace journalings he will read, appreciatively. There is Keats the pragmatist (often at odds with Keats the poet), the proto-Garmin, providing Clarke with turn-by-turn guidance through Southwark. There is the sly mocking of charity by someone so ready to give and so reluctant to need it, and, finally, the goofiness of “Gout.”

So much of Keats’s temperament—his humor and his humility—is visible here.

And what stands out for me is best v. worst, a semantic challenge, and a representational one to those who would print his letters in posterity. In sorting through his small portfolio of poems Keats claims to find little worthy of Hunt’s reading. Of what he has “coppied” (a misspelling that inadvertently puns on the smallness and infantilization of a coppy stool or a coppice woods [later, for him, a “copse”]) he first writes that [even] the “best” deserves to be burned. Subsequently, above the line, he writes “worst,” but (an editorial frustration) never cancels “best.” You weren’t the first, Charles Dickens.


From MS letter. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

It is always fun to see how modern editors, working within the parameters of their publishers, handle this. Oxford is perhaps the most visually faithful, placing “worst” just above “best” like so:

From Keats's Selected Letters (Oxford). Courtesy Google Books.

From Keats’s Selected Letters (Oxford). Courtesy Google Books.

But in doing this they give “worst” a rather powerful isolation. It’s far less prominent in the ms. Norton takes the opposite tack, via superscript (“some time ago, and find so much to blame in them that the best worst part”), in which case “worst” has been unfairly bested. Some editors avoid the confusion, leaving “worst” out altogether; advantage “best.”

Of course, if we take Keats at his word(s), “best” and “worst” are in equal proportion to each other, each intact, each meant to mean what they do all at once. (One can imagine a hypertext edition in which best and worst alternate ad infinitum.) It’s a bit early in the Keats Letters Project to reach for “negative capability” and to drop it, quite stylishly, into a new context, but we are confronted here with an uncertainty that might irritate us if we let it.

To return to Keats’s temperament, I think this ambivalence (and it is as ambi-valent as an ambivalence can be) captures an important part of it. I don’t mean anything too profound here, only that this is Keats accepting a self-contradictory measure of his own early talent: that his best is also his worst, as it is merely the greatest expression of his embarrassing lack (in his estimation, not mine). Of course his confidence grows over the next four years but it seldom appears without some alloy of diffidence and uncertainty (“I think I shall be among the English poets…”).

So it is that Keats’s correspondence begins and ends with an “awkward bow” (though here what might seem gauche is truly an insightful deprecation). Regardless, we will mark the immense talent that erupts between these bows, both before and after Hunt’s “era,” and find many ways not to share in Keats’s apologies for himself.

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