The story of Keats’s early years cannot be told without considering Leigh Hunt, the indefatigable poet, essayist, and editor who, among other things, published Keats’s first poem (in The Examiner, before he and Keats had ever met in person), introduced him to the literary circle gathered around him in London during these years, and continued to champion the poet after his untimely death in Rome in 1821. Curiously enough, however, only two letters from Keats to Hunt still exist: today’s letter and a brief one from late in 1820.
In addition to this letter being the first to Hunt, it has another significant honor: it is, as far as the KLP knows, the first of Keats’s letters to ever appear in print. Thanks here go to Susan Wolfson for pointing out sometime last year to one of the KLP founders, who shall not be named for fear of the opprobrium that would surely be heaped upon him for his egregious oversight, that his assertion that the first Keats letters to appear in print were the two published by James Freeman Clarke in The Western Messenger in 1836 was, in fact, wrong. Hunt beat Clarke to it by 8 years! Ok, we admit–it was that dastardly Brian Rejack who made the mistake. For his crimes against Keats, his status at the KLP is currently under review.
Back to Hunt. It was in his 1828 Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries that Hunt published the greater part of Keats’s letter (he excised a few things, most notably Keats’s congratulations for Hunt’s recent Examiner essay, which he described as a “Battering Ram against Christianity”). The chapter on Keats was also one of the more extensive biographical treatments to have appeared by that point. It reinforced some of the elements of the narrative established powerfully by Percy Shelley in Adonais, namely that Keats was a delicate flower rudely cut down in his prime by harsh criticism from the periodicals, a narrative that we now know had more to do with Shelley’s own axes to grind than with the truth of the situation. One delightful detail from Hunt, whether it be true or no, we feel we ought to share here. He claims that Keats, as did Byron and Shelley, had a “head [that] was a puzzle for the phrenologists, being remarkably small in the skull.” Hunt adds of the three small-skulled poets, “none of [their] hats I could get on.” Who knew?
In today’s letter Keats does not discuss skull size, which is a shame. But the letter is a lively one, with Keats ranging across many topics, and with him seeming to be in particularly good cheer, an appropriate mood with which to meet his correspondent, Hunt being the great Cockney champion of cheerfulness. In that same spirit, our response for today comes from John Strachan, who imagines what one of Hunt’s poems from his series written as “Harry Brown’s Letters to His Friends” might have looked like if he had written one to Keats. Strachan certainly captures Hunt’s voice as he responds to Keats’s letter in verse. Enjoy!
Images of the MS come to us courtesy of the British Library. You can read the letter in Hunt’s 1828 book, or if you prefer a fuller text of it, Forman’s 1883 edition is based on the MS without any excisions.