Letter #11: To Charles Cowden Clarke, 17 December 1816

And so we come to the end of the first full year in which Keats leaves behind a significant textual record, and during which he develops so quickly and impressively as a writer. He’s now attracted not just one but two established cultural figures as potential mentors—or rather, those two figures (Hunt and Haydon) have both actively worked to claim Keats as their own. On 1 Dec 1816, Hunt made a case for his ownership stake by featuring Keats as the third and final featured poet in his ‘Young Poets’ essay in The Examiner. And not to be outdone, Haydon has made plans to include Keats’s ‘awful visage’ in his massive painting, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (which Susan Wolfson discussed in her response to Keats’s late-November letters to Haydon). Haydon sketched Keats in the famous profile that eventually makes its way into the painting at its completion in 1820. And now, probably just a few days before the 17 December letter to Clarke, Haydon has also made a life mask of the budding poet (perhaps to help with his depiction of Keats in the painting, but also certainly as a preliminary gesture toward preserving Keats’s legacy).

At the beginning of the letter for today, we see Keats playfully referring to that life mask—he reasons that since his awful visage has not yet turned Clarke into a John Doree, his friend will be safe owning a ‘legetimate copy’ (our response to this letter features some lively debate about Keats’s punny spelling!). But the main purpose of this letter seems to be to remind Clarke that he had promised, way back on 1 November, to spend the evening of 17 December with Keats. And to seal the deal, Keats tells Clarke that Severn and Reynolds are both down to hang out, so he better not bail on them!

Why schedule this meeting so long in advance? Well, according to Nick Roe in his recent biography of Keats, this gathering was essentially a coming out party for Keats the Poet. Roe speculates that Keats hit on this particular date in part because it coincides with the Saturnalia (this won’t be the last time we see Keats appreciating the old gods). And he needed to plan it far in advance since, lest we forget, young Keats is still serving as a surgeon’s dresser at Guy’s Hospital! Not only does that mean he’s in a sort of perpetual “busy time.” It also means that he’s spending many of his days and nights during these last months of 1816 amid human suffering of a sort that’s probably hard for most of us to imagine. And yet on some days and nights, like this one on the occasion of the Saturnalia, there must also be such joy, such pleasure, such giddy anticipation at the prospect of a life lived “overwhelm[ed] … / in Poesy.”

What a fine way, then, to end 2016 with Keats. We do not forget the pains and sorrows of those around us. We do not shirk our responsibility to strive always to alleviate and eliminate suffering. Amidst those recognitions we also revel in the joy of conviviality, and we gratefully gather with friends and loved ones for evenings filled with food, wine, and poetry.

Keats’s 17 Dec 1816 letter to Charles Cowden Clarke. Harvard Keats Collection, Houghton Library. Page 1. (click image for full size)

Keats’s 17 Dec 1816 letter to Charles Cowden Clarke. Harvard Keats Collection, Houghton Library. Page 2. (click image for full size)

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