Letter #9: To Benjamin Robert Haydon, 20 November 1816

More exciting stuff for Keats today. During early November 1816 he began to cultivate a friendship with Benjamin Robert Haydon, an older man and an already established artist, one who happened to be friends with Wordsworth. It’s hard to imagine what Keats must have felt like as he moved into circles that brought him into direct contact with his literary heroes. He had recently also met Leigh Hunt, who in about ten days’ time would publish his “Young Poets” essay in The Examiner naming Keats (along with John Hamilton Reynolds and Percy Bysshe Shelley) as one of three promising writers poised to change the poetry world. Meeting Haydon was another important step in developing Keats’s literary and artistic network.

On 19 November 1816, Keats and Haydon spent the evening together. That evening gave at least two significant gifts to posterity: Haydon’s sketch of Keats in profile (one of the rotating title images for the KLP front page), and Keats’s “Great Spirits” sonnet. The latter Keats sent to Haydon on 20 November, along with a brief note indicating how the previous evening “wrought [him] up,” the topic explored in Susan Wolfson’s response to the letter. The sonnet persists as a testament to Keats’s belief in the social significance of poetry, and to his ability to compose rapidly and animatedly on the occasion of a seemingly great event, or at least one that seemed to mark an era in his existence.

Haydon proved a receptive audience for Keats’s sonnet, and how could he not, given that Haydon had been named as one of those “great spirits”? The interchange between the two on 20 November led to a revision and a second letter from Keats to Haydon the next day. But more on that tomorrow! For now, enjoy Keats’s sonnet and Susan Wolfson’s exquisitely wrought response to it.

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