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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *