Letter #4: To Charles Cowden Clarke, September 1816

Charles Cowden Clarke died in March 1877, and the next year his widow, Mary Cowden Clarke (née Novello) would publish their co-written Recollections of Writers. Friends of Keats likely know this text for the extended memoir of the poet which Charles had written and published in a shorter form in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861. But Mary’s contributions are valuable too, particularly for the poignancy of her autobiographical “General Recollections” which open the volume, and which can’t but be read in light of her husband’s recent death. The book’s preface features this heart-breaking conclusion:

Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke may with truth be held in tender remembrance by their readers as among the happiest of married lovers for more than forty-eight years, writing together, reading together, working together, enjoying together the perfection of loving, literary consociation; and kindly sympathy may well be felt for her who is left singly to subscribe herself,

Her readers’ faithful servant,


One example of their “loving, literary consociation” can be found in Mary’s recollection of their honeymoon in Enfield in July 1828, where two decades before, Keats and Charles began their own affectionate relationship rooted in reading and writing together. As the newlyweds Mary and Charles make their way from Edmonton to Enfield, strolling in post-nuptial bliss, they pass the spot where Keats “used to lean over the rail of the foot-bridge, looking at the water and watching ‘Where swarms of minnows show their little heads, / Staying their wavy bodies ‘gainst the streams, / To taste the luxury of sunny beams / Temper’d with coolness.” Next they come upon “the exact spot recorded in Keats’ Epistle to C. C. C., where the friends used to part.” After again quoting some lines from Keats, this time from the epistle from September 1816, Mary remembers that she and Charles “loitered under a range of young oak-trees, now grown into more than stout saplings, that were the result of some of those carefully dropped acorns planted by Charles and his father.” One wonders if they then thought of the poet who had been outlived by those young trees.

But we do rush ahead of ourselves, dwelling as we are in 1828, when a newlywed couple celebrated their union by remembering the departed Keats, and in 1878 when the recently widowed Mary published a book that was the product of a life-long literary partnership between her and Charles. In 1816 we see a different sort of partnership, but one based as deeply in the bonds of “loving, literary consociation.” Keats’s “Epistle to C. C. C.” is a moving tribute to the poet’s friend and the experience of poetry they shared together. And as Jayme Peacock shows in her response to the epistle, Keats uses that relationship with Clarke to think through his own emerging sense of himself as a poet. From the beginning, Keats expressed a deep commitment to poetry as a social endeavor, and we certainly see that on display here.


“To Charles Cowden Clarke”

Oft have you seen a swan superbly frowning,
And with proud breast his own white shadow crowning;
He slants his neck beneath the waters bright
So silently, it seems a beam of light
Come from the galaxy: anon he sports,—
With outspread wings the Naiad Zephyr courts,
Or ruffles all the surface of the lake
In striving from its crystal face to take
Some diamond water drops, and them to treasure
In milky nest, and sip them off at leisure.
But not a moment can he there insure them,
Nor to such downy rest can he allure them;
For down they rush as though they would be free,
And drop like hours into eternity.
Just like that bird am I in loss of time,
Whene’er I venture on the stream of rhyme;
With shatter’d boat, oar snapt, and canvass rent,
I slowly sail, scarce knowing my intent;
Still scooping up the water with my fingers,
In which a trembling diamond never lingers.

By this, friend Charles, you may full plainly see
Why I have never penn’d a line to thee:
Because my thoughts were never free, and clear,
And little fit to please a classic ear;
Because my wine was of too poor a savour
For one whose palate gladdens in the flavour
Of sparkling Helicon:—small good it were
To take him to a desert rude, and bare,
Who had on Baiae’s shore reclin’d at ease,
While Tasso’s page was floating in a breeze
That gave soft music from Armida’s bowers,
Mingled with fragrance from her rarest flowers:
Small good to 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:
Who had of all that’s sweet tasted, and seen,
From silv’ry ripple, up to beauty’s queen;
From the sequester’d haunts of gay Titania,
To the blue dwelling of divine Urania:
One, who, of late, had ta’en sweet forest walks
With him who elegantly chats, and talks—
The wrong’d Libertas,—who has told you stories
Of laurel chaplets, and Apollo’s glories;
Of troops chivalrous prancing through a city,
And tearful ladies made for love, and pity:
With many else which I have never known.
Thus have I thought; and days on days have flown
Slowly, or rapidly—unwilling still
For you to try my dull, unlearned quill.
Nor should I now, but that I’ve known you long;
That you first taught me all the sweets of song:
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 slenderness.
Who read for me the sonnet swelling loudly
Up to its climax and then dying proudly?
Who found for me the grandeur of the ode,
Growing, like Atlas, stronger from its load?
Who let me taste that more than cordial dram,
The sharp, the rapier-pointed epigram?
Shew’d me that epic was of all the king,
Round, vast, and spanning all like Saturn’s ring?
You too upheld the veil from Clio’s beauty,
And pointed out the patriot’s stern duty;
The might of Alfred, and the shaft of Tell;
The hand of Brutus, that so grandly fell
Upon a tyrant’s head. Ah! had I never seen,
Or known your kindness, what might I have been?
What my enjoyments in my youthful years,
Bereft of all that now my life endears?
And can I e’er these benefits forget?
And can I e’er repay the friendly debt?
No, doubly no;—yet should these rhymings please,
I shall roll on the grass with two-fold ease:
For I have long time been my fancy feeding
With hopes that you would one day think the reading
Of my rough verses not an hour mispent;
Should it e’er be so, what a rich content!
Some weeks have pass’d since last I saw the spires
In lucent Thames reflected:—warm desires
To see the sun o’er peep the eastern dimness,
And morning shadows streaking into slimness
Across the lawny fields, and pebbly water;
To mark the time as they grow broad, and shorter;
To feel the air that plays about the hills,
And sips its freshness from the little rills;
To see high, golden corn wave in the light
When Cynthia smiles upon a summer’s night,
And peers among the cloudlet’s jet and white,
As though she were reclining in a bed
Of bean blossoms, in heaven freshly shed.
No sooner had I stepp’d into these pleasures
Than I began to think of rhymes and measures:
The air that floated by me seem’d to say
“Write! thou wilt never have a better day.”
And so I did. When many lines I’d written,
Though with their grace I was not oversmitten,
Yet, as my hand was warm, I thought I’d better
Trust to my feelings, and write you a letter.
Such an attempt required an inspiration
Of a peculiar sort,—a consummation;—
Which, had I felt, these scribblings might have been
Verses from which the soul would never wean:
But many days have past since last my heart
Was warm’d luxuriously by divine Mozart;
By Arne delighted, or by Handel madden’d;
Or by the song of Erin pierc’d and sadden’d:
What time you were before the music sitting,
And the rich notes to each sensation fitting.
Since I have walk’d with you through shady lanes
That freshly terminate in open plains,
And revel’d in a chat that ceased not
When at night-fall among your books we got:
No, nor when supper came, nor after that,—
Nor when reluctantly I took my hat;
No, nor till cordially you shook my hand
Mid-way between our homes:—your accents bland
Still sounded in my ears, when I no more
Could hear your footsteps touch the grav’ly floor.
Sometimes I lost them, and then found again;
You chang’d the footpath for the grassy plain.
In those still moments I have wish’d you joys
That well you know to honour:—“Life’s very toys
“With him,” said I, “will take a pleasant charm;
“It cannot be that ought will work him harm.”
These thoughts now come o’er me with all their might:—
Again I shake your hand,—friend Charles, good night.

September, 1816.

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