CHAPTER II (About John Keats by Sidney Colvin)
OCTOBER 1815-MARCH 1817: HOSPITAL STUDIES: POETICAL AMBITIONS: LEIGH HUNT
Hospital days: summary—Aptitudes and ambitions—Teachers—Testimony of Henry Stephens—Pride and other characteristics—Evidences of a wandering mind—Services of Cowden Clarke—Introduction to Leigh Hunt—Summer walks at Hampstead—Holiday epistles from Margate—Return to London—First reading of Chapman’s Homer—Date of the Chapman sonnet—Intimacy with Leigh Hunt—The Examiner: Hunt’s imprisonment—His visitors in captivity—His occupations—The Feast of the poets—Hunt’s personality and charm—His ideas of poetical reform—The story of Rimini—Its popularity—Dante and namby-pamby—Hunt’s life at Hampstead—Hunt and Keats compared—Keats at Hunt’s cottage—Prints in the library—The intercoronation scene—Sonnets of Hunt to Keats—Sonnets of Keats to Hunt—Keats’s penitence.
The external and technical facts of Keats’s life as a medical student are these. His name, as we have said, was entered at Guy’s as a six months’ student (surgeon’s pupil) on October 1, 1815, a month before his twentieth birthday. Four weeks later he was appointed dresser to one of the hospital surgeons, Mr Lucas. At the close of his first six months’ term, March 3, 1816, he entered for a further term of twelve months. On July 25, 1816, he presented himself for examination before the Court of Apothecaries and obtained their licence to practise. He continued to attend lectures and live the regular life of a student; but early in the spring of 1817, being now of age and on the eve of publishing his first volume of verse, he determined to abandon the pursuit of medicine for that of poetry, declared his intention to his guardian, and ceased attending the hospitals without seeking or receiving the usual certificate of proficiency. For the first two or three months of this period, from the beginning of October 1815 till about the new year of 1816, Keats lodged alone at 8 Dean Street, Borough, and then for half a year or more with several other students over the shop of a tallow chandler named Markham (1) in St Thomas’s Street. Thence, in the summer or early autumn of 1816, leaving the near neighbourhood of the hospitals, he went to join his brothers in rooms in The Poultry, over a passage leading to the Queen’s Head Tavern. Finally, early in 1817, they all three moved for a short time to 76 Cheapside. For filling up this skeleton record, we have some traditions of the hospital concerning Keats’s teachers, some recollections of fellow students,—of one, Mr Henry Stephens, in particular,—together with further reminiscences by Cowden Clarke and impressions recorded in after years by one and another of a circle of acquaintances which fast expanded. Moreover Keats begins during this period to tell something of his own story, in the form of a few poems of a personal tenor and a very few letters written to and preserved by his friends.
As to his hospital work, it is clear that though his heart was not in it and his thoughts were prone to wander, and though he held and declared that poetry was the only thing worth living for, yet when he chose he could bend his mind and will to the tasks before him. The operations which as dresser he performed or assisted in are said to have proved him no fumbler. When he went up for examination before the Court of Apothecaries he passed with ease and credit, somewhat to the surprise of his fellow students, who put his success down to his knowledge of Latin rather than of medicine. Later, after he had abandoned the profession, he was always ready to speak or act with a certain authority in cases of illness or emergency, and though hating the notion of practice evidently did not feel himself unqualified for it so far as knowledge went. He could not find in the scientific part of the study a satisfying occupation for his thoughts; and though a few years later, when he had realized that there is no kind of knowledge but may help to nourish a poet’s mind, he felt unwilling to lose hold of what he had learned as apprentice and student, he was never caught by that special passion of philosophical curiosity which laid hold for a season on Coleridge and Shelley successively, and drew them powerfully towards the study of the mechanism and mysteries of the human frame. The practical responsibilities of the profession at the same time weighed upon him, and he was conscious of a kind of absent uneasy wonder at his own skill. Once when Cowden Clarke asked him about his prospects and feelings in regard to his profession, he frankly declared his own sense of his unfitness for it; with reasons such as this, that ‘the other day, during the lecture, there came a sunbeam into the room, and with it a whole troop of creatures floating in the ray; and I was off with them to Oberon and fairy-land.’ ‘My last operation,’ he once told another friend, ‘was the opening of a man’s temporal artery. I did it with the utmost nicety, but reflecting on what passed through my mind at the time, my dexterity seemed a miracle, and I never took up the lancet again.’
The surgeon to whom he was specially assigned as pupil, Mr Lucas, seems to have had few qualifications as a teacher. We have the following lively character of him from a man afterwards highly honoured in the profession, John Flint South, who walked the hospitals at the same time as Keats:—‘A tall ungainly awkward man, with stooping shoulders and a shuffling walk, as deaf as a post, not overburdened with brains, but very good natured and easy, and liked by everyone. His surgical acquirements were very small, his operations generally very badly performed, and accompanied with much bungling, if not worse.’ But the teacher from whom Keats will really, as all witnesses agree, have learnt the best of what he knew was the great dissector and anatomist, Astley Cooper, then almost in the zenith of his power as a lecturer and of his popular fame and practice. He is described as one of the handsomest and most ingratiating of men, as well as one of the most indefatigable and energetic, with an admirable gift of exposition made racy by a strong East Anglian accent; and it is on record that he took an interest in young Keats, and recommended him to the special care of his own dresser and namesake, George Cooper. It was in consequence of this recommendation that Keats left his solitary lodging in Dean Street and went to live as housemate in St Thomas’s Street with three other students, the aforesaid George Cooper, one George Wilson Mackereth, and Henry Stephens, the last-named afterwards a surgeon in good repute as well as a dabbler in dramatic literature. It is from Stephens that we get much the fullest picture of Keats in these student days. I give the pith of his reminiscences, partly as quoted from his conversation by an intimate friend in the same profession, Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, (2) partly as written down by himself for Lord Houghton’s information in 1847. (3)
Whether it was in the latter part of the year 1815 or the early part of the year 1816 that my acquaintance with John Keats commenced I cannot say. We were both students at the united hospitals of St Thomas’s and Guy’s, and we had apartments in a house in St Thomas’s Street, kept by a decent respectable woman of the name of Mitchell I think. [After naming his other fellow students, the witness goes on]—John Keats being alone, and to avoid the expense of having a sitting room to himself, asked to join us, which we readily acceded to. We were therefore constant companions, and the following is what I recollect of his previous history from conversation with him. Of his parentage I know nothing, for upon that subject I never remember his speaking, I think he was an orphan. He had been apprenticed to a Mr Hammond surgeon of Southgate from whence he came on the completion of his time to the hospitals. His passion, if I may so call it, for poetry was soon manifested. He attended lectures and went through the usual routine but he had no desire to excel in that pursuit…. He was called by his fellow students ‘little Keats,’ being at his full growth no more than five feet high…. In a room, he was always at the window, peering into space, so that the window-seat was spoken of by his comrades as Keats’s place…. In the lecture room he seemed to sit apart and to be absorbed in something else, as if the subject suggested thoughts to him which were not practically connected with it. He was often in the subject and out of it, in a dreamy way.
He never attached much consequence to his own studies in medicine, and indeed looked upon the medical career as the career by which to live in a workaday world, without being certain that he could keep up the strain of it. He nevertheless had a consciousness of his own powers, and even of his own greatness, though it might never be recognised…. Poetry was to his mind the zenith of all his aspirations: the only thing worthy the attention of superior minds: so he thought: all other pursuits were mean and tame. He had no idea of fame or greatness but as it was connected with the pursuits of poetry, or the attainment of poetical excellence. The greatest men in the world were the poets and to rank among them was the chief object of his ambition. It may readily be imagined that this feeling was accompanied with a good deal of pride and conceit, and that amongst mere medical students he would walk and talk as one of the Gods might be supposed to do when mingling with mortals. This pride exposed him, as may be readily imagined, to occasional ridicule, and some mortification.
Having a taste and liking for poetry myself, though at that time but little cultivated, he regarded me as something a little superior to the rest, and would gratify himself frequently by showing me some lines of his writing, or some new idea which he had struck out. We had frequent conversation on the merits of particular poets, but our tastes did not agree. He was a great admirer of Spenser, his Faerie Queene was a great favourite with him. Byron was also in favour, Pope he maintained was no poet, only a versifier. He was fond of imagery, the most trifling similes appeared to please him. Sometimes I ventured to show him some lines which I had written, but I always had the mortification of hearing them condemned, indeed he seemed to think it presumption in me to attempt to tread along the same pathway as himself at however humble a distance.
He had two brothers, who visited him frequently, and they worshipped him. They seemed to think their brother John was to be exalted, and to exalt the family name. I remember a student from St Bartholomew’s Hospital who came often to see him, as they had formerly been intimate, but though old friends they did not cordially agree. Newmarsh or Newmarch (I forget which was his name) was a classical scholar, as was Keats, and therefore they scanned freely the respective merits of the Poets of Greece and Rome. Whenever Keats showed Newmarch any of his poetry it was sure to be ridiculed and severely handled.
Newmarch was a light-hearted and merry fellow, but I thought he was rather too fond of mortifying Keats, but more particularly his brothers, as their praise of their brother John amounted almost to idolatry, and Newmarch and they frequently quarrelled. Whilst attending lectures he would sit and instead of copying out the lecture, would often scribble some doggrel rhymes among the notes of Lecture, particularly if he got hold of another student’s syllabus. In my syllabus of chemical lectures he scribbled many lines on the paper cover. This cover has been long torn off, except one small piece on which is the following fragment of doggrel rhyme:—
Give me women, wine and snuff
Until I cry out, ‘hold! enough’
You may do so, sans objection
Until the day of resurrection.
This is all that remains, and is the only piece of his writing which is now in my possession. He was gentlemanly in his manners and when he condescended to talk upon other subjects he was agreeable and intelligent. He was quick and apt at learning, when he chose to give his attention to any subject. He was a steady quiet and well behaved person, never inclined to pursuits of a low or vicious character.
The last words need to be read in the light of the convivial snatch of verse quoted just above. Keats in these days was no rake, indeed, but neither was he a puritan: his passions were strong in proportion to the general intensity of his being: and his ardent absorption in poetry and study did not save him from the risks and slips incident to appetite and hot blood.
Another fellow student relates:—‘even in the lecture room of St Thomas’s I have seen Keats in a deep poetic dream; his mind was on Parnassus with the Muses. And here is a quaint fragment which he one evening scribbled in our presence, while the precepts of Sir Astley Cooper fell unheeded on his ear.’ The fragment tells how Alexander the Great saw and loved a lady of surpassing beauty on his march through India, and reads like the beginning of an attempt to tell the story of the old French Lai d’Aristote in the style and spelling of an early-printed English prose romance,—possibly the Morte d’Arthure. Into his would-be archaic prose, luxuriantly describing the lady’s beauty, Keats works in tags taken direct from Spenser and Shakespeare and Milton, all three. He no doubt knew this favourite mediæval tale—that of the Indian damsel whose charms enslaved first Alexander in the midst of his conquests and then his tutor Aristotle—either in the eighteenth-century prose version of Le Grand or the recent English verse translation by G. L. Way, who turns the tale in couplets of this style:—
At the first glance all dreams of conquest fade
And his first thought is of his Indian maid.
I cannot but think the Indian maiden of this story must have been still lingering in Keats’s imagination when he devised the episode of that other Indian maiden in the fourth book of Endymion. (4)
Besides these records, we have an actual tangible relic to show how Keats’s attention in the lecture room was now fixed and now wandered, in the shape of a notebook in which some other student has begun to put down anatomy notes and Keats has followed. Beginning from both ends, he has made notes of an anatomical and also of a surgical course, which are not those of a lax or inaccurate student, but full and close as far as they go; only squeezed into the margins of one or two pages there are signs of flagging attention in the shape of sketches, rather prettily touched, of a pansy and other flowers. (5)
After the first weeks of autumn gloom spent in solitary lodgings in the dingiest part of London, Keats expresses, in a rimed epistle to Felton Mathew, the fear lest his present studies and surroundings should stifle the poetic faculty in him altogether. About the same time he takes pains to get into touch again with Cowden Clarke, who had by this time left Enfield and was living with a brother-in-law in Clerkenwell. In a letter unluckily not dated, but certainly belonging to these first autumn weeks in London, Keats writes to Clarke:—‘Although the Borough is a beastly place in dirt, turnings, and windings, yet No 8, Dean Street, is not difficult to find; and if you would run the gauntlet over London Bridge, take the first turning to the right, and, moreover, knock at my door, which is nearly opposite a meeting, you would do me a charity, which, as St Paul saith, is the father of all the virtues. At all events, let me hear from you soon: I say, at all events, not excepting the gout in your fingers.’ Clarke seems to have complied promptly with this petition, and before many months their renewed intercourse had momentous consequences. Keats’s fear that the springs of poetry would dry up in him was not fulfilled, and he kept trying his prentice hand in various modes of verse. Some of the sonnets recorded to have belonged to the year 1815, as Woman, when I behold thee, Happy is England, may have been written in London at the close of that year: a number of others, showing a gradually strengthening touch, belong, we know, to the spring and early summer of the next. For his brother George to send to his fiancée, Miss Georgiana Wylie, on Valentine’s day, Feb. 14, 1816, he wrote the pleasant set of heptasyllabics beginning ‘Hadst thou lived in days of old.’ In the same month was published Leigh Hunt’s poem The Story of Rimini, and by this, working together with his rooted enthusiasm for Spenser, Keats was immediately inspired to begin an attempt at a chivalrous romance of his own, Calidore; which went no farther than an Induction and some hundred and fifty opening lines.
Cowden Clarke had kept up his acquaintance with Leigh Hunt, and was in the habit of going up to visit him at the cottage where he was now living at Hampstead, in the Vale of Health. Some time in the late spring of 1816 Clarke made known to Hunt first some of Keats’s efforts in poetry and then Keats himself. Both Clarke and Hunt have told the story, both writing at a considerable, and Clarke at a very long, interval after the event. In their main substance the two accounts agree, but both are in some points confused, telescoping together, as memory is apt to do, circumstances really separated by an interval of months. One firm fact we have to start with,—that Hunt printed in his paper, the Examiner, for May 5th, 1816, Keats’s sonnet, O Solitude, if I with thee must dwell. This was Keats’s first appearance in print, and a decisive circumstance in his life. Clarke, it appears, had taken up the ‘Solitude’ sonnet and a few other manuscript verses of Keats to submit to Leigh Hunt for his opinion, (6) and had every reason to be gratified at the result. Here is his story of what happened.
I took with me two or three of the poems I had received from Keats. I could not but anticipate that Hunt would speak encouragingly, and indeed approvingly, of the compositions—written, too, by a youth under age; but my partial spirit was not prepared for the unhesitating and prompt admiration which broke forth before he had read twenty lines of the first poem. Horace Smith happened to be there on the occasion, and he was not less demonstrative in his appreciation of their merits…. After making numerous and eager inquiries about him personally, and with reference to any peculiarities of mind and manner, the visit ended in my being requested to bring him over to the Vale of Health.
That was a ‘red-letter day’ in the young poet’s life, and one which will never fade with me while memory lasts. The character and expression of Keats’s features would arrest even the casual passenger in the street; and now they were wrought to a tone of animation that I could not but watch with interest, knowing what was in store for him from the bland encouragement, and Spartan deference in attention, with fascinating conversational eloquence, that he was to encounter and receive. As we approached the Heath, there was the rising and accelerated step, with the gradual subsidence of all talk. The interview, which stretched into three ‘morning calls,’ was the prelude to many after-scenes and saunterings about Caen Wood and its neighbourhood; for Keats was suddenly made a familiar of the household, and was always welcomed.
In connexion with this, take Hunt’s own account of the matter, as given about ten years after the event in his volume, Lord Byron and his Contemporaries:
To Mr Clarke I was indebted for my acquaintance with him. I shall never forget the impression made upon me by the exuberant specimens of genuine though young poetry that were laid before me, and the promise of which was seconded by the fine fervid countenance of the writer. We became intimate on the spot, and I found the young poet’s heart as warm as his imagination. We read and walked together, and used to write verses of an evening on a given subject. No imaginative pleasure was left unnoticed by us, or unenjoyed, from the recollections of the bards and patriots of old to the luxury of a summer’s rain at our window or the clicking of the coal in winter-time.
Some inquirers, in interpreting these accounts, have judged that the personal introduction did not take place in the spring or early summer at all, but only after Keats’s return from his holiday at the end of September. I think it is quite clear, on the contrary, that Clarke had taken Keats up to Hampstead by the end of May or some time in June. Unmistakeable impressions of summer strolls there occur in his poetry of the next few months. The ‘happy fields’ where he had been rambling when he wrote the sonnet to Charles Wells on June the 29th were almost certainly the fields of Hampstead, and there is no reason to doubt Hunt’s statement that the ‘little hill’ from which Keats drank the summer view and air, as told at the opening of his poem I stood tiptoe, was one of the swells of ground towards the Caen wood side of the Heath. At the same time it would seem that their intercourse in these first weeks did not extend beyond a few walks and talks, and that it was not until after Keats’s return from his summer holiday that the acquaintance ripened into the close and delighted intimacy which we find subsisting by the autumn.
For part of August and September he had been away at Margate, apparently alone. A couple of rimed epistles addressed during this holiday to his brother George and to Cowden Clarke breathe just such a heightened joy of life and happiness of anticipation as would be natural in one who had lately felt the first glow of new and inspiriting personal sympathies. To George, besides the epistle, he addressed a pleasant sonnet on the wonders he has seen, the sea, the sunsets, and the world of poetic glories and mysteries vaguely evoked by them in his mind. The epistle to George is dated August: that to Cowden Clarke followed in September. In it he explains, in a well-conditioned and affectionate spirit of youthful modesty, why he has hitherto been shy of addressing any of his own attempts in verse to a friend so familiar with the work of the masters; and takes occasion, in a heartfelt passage of autobiography, to declare all he has owed to that friend’s guidance and encouragement.
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?
Show’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 misspent;
Should it e’er be so, what a rich content!
Some of these lines are merely feeble and boyish, but some show a fast ripening, nay an almost fully ripened, critical feeling for the poetry of the past. The couplet about Spenser’s vowels could scarcely be happier, and the next on Milton anticipates, though without at all approaching in craftsmanship, the ‘Me rather all that bowery loneliness’ of Tennyson’s famous alcaic stanzas to the same effect.
Coming back from the seaside about the end of September to take up his quarters with his brothers in their lodging in the Poultry, Keats was soon to be indebted to Clarke for another and invaluable literary stimulus: I mean his first knowledge of Chapman’s translation of Homer. This experience, as every reader knows, was instantly celebrated by him in a sonnet, classical now almost to triteness, which is his first high achievement, and one of the masterpieces of our language in this form. The question of its exact date has been much discussed: needlessly, seeing that Keats himself signed and dated it in full, when it was printed in the Examiner for the first of December following, ‘Oct^r 1816, John Keats.’ The doubts expressed have been due partly to the overlooking of this fact and partly to a mistake in Cowden Clarke’s account of the matter written many years later. After quoting Keats’s invitation of October 1815 to come and find him at his lodging in the Borough, Clarke goes on:—
This letter having no date but the week’s day, and no postmark, preceded our first symposium; and a memorable night it was in my life’s career. A beautiful copy of the folio edition of Chapman’s translation of Homer had been lent me. It was the property of Mr. Alsager, the gentleman who for years had contributed no small share of celebrity to the great reputation of the Times newspaper by the masterly manner in which he conducted the money-market department of that journal….
Well then, we were put in possession of the Homer of Chapman, and to work we went, turning to some of the ‘famousest’ passages, as we had scrappily known them in Pope’s version. There was, for instance, that perfect scene of the conversation on Troy wall of the old Senators with Helen, who is pointing out to them the several Greek Captains; with the Senator Antenor’s vivid portrait of an orator in Ulysses, beginning at the 237th line of the third book:—
But when the prudent Ithacus did to his counsels rise,
He stood a little still, and fix’d upon the earth his eyes,
His sceptre moving neither way, but held it formally,
Like one that vainly doth affect. Of wrathful quality,
And frantic (rashly judging), you would have said he was;
But when out of his ample breast he gave his great voice pass,
And words that flew about our ears like drifts of winter’s snow,
None thenceforth might contend with him, though naught admired for show.
The shield and helmet of Diomed, with the accompanying simile, in the opening of the third book; and the prodigious description of Neptune’s passage to the Argive ships, in the thirteenth book:—
The woods and all the great hills near trembled beneath the weight
Of his immortal-moving feet. Three steps he only took,
Before he far-off Ægas reach’d, but with the fourth, it shook
With his dread entry.
One scene I could not fail to introduce to him—the shipwreck of Ulysses, in the fifth book of the Odysseis, and I had the reward of one of his delighted stares, upon reading the following lines:—
Then forth he came, his both knees falt’ring, both
His strong hands hanging down, and all with froth
His cheeks and nostrils flowing, voice and breath
Spent to all use, and down he sank to death.
The sea had soak’d his heart through; all his veins
His toils had rack’d t’a labouring woman’s pains.
Dead-weary was he.
On an after-occasion I showed him the couplet, in Pope’s translation, upon the same passage:—
From mouth and nose the briny torrent ran,
And lost in lassitude lay all the man. (!!!)
Chapman supplied us with many an after-treat; but it was in the teeming wonderment of this his first introduction, that, when I came down to breakfast the next morning, I found upon my table a letter with no other enclosure than his famous sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. We had parted, as I have already said, at day-spring, yet he contrived that I should receive the poem from a distance of, may be, two miles by ten o’clock.
The whole of the above is a typical case of what I have called the telescoping action of memory. Recollections not of one, but of many, Homer readings are here compressed into a couple of paragraphs. They will have been readings carried on at intervals through the autumn and winter of 1816-17: an inspiring addition to the other intellectual gains and pleasures which fell to Keats’s lot during those months. There is no reason to doubt the exactness of Clarke’s account of the first night the friends spent together over Chapman and its result in the shape of the sonnet which lay on his table the next morning. His error is in remembering these circumstances as having happened when he and Keats first foregathered in London in the autumn of 1815, whereas Keats’s positive evidence above quoted shows that they did not really happen until a year later, after his return from his summer holiday in 1816. (7) Before printing the Chapman sonnet, Leigh Hunt had the satisfaction of hearing his own opinion of it and of some other manuscript poems of Keats confirmed by good judges. I quote his words for the sake of the excellent concluding phrase. ‘Not long afterwards, having the pleasure of entertaining at dinner Mr Godwin, Mr Hazlitt, and Mr Basil Montague, I showed them the verses of my young friend, and they were pronounced to be as extraordinary as I thought them. One of them was that noble sonnet on first reading Chapman’s Homer, which terminates with so energetic a calmness, and which completely announced the new poet taking possession.’ But by this time Keats had become an established intimate in the Leigh Hunt household, and was constantly backwards and forwards between London and the Hampstead cottage.
This intimacy was really the opening of a new chapter both in his intellectual and social life. At first it was a source of unmixed encouragement and pleasure, but seeing that it carried with it in the sequel disadvantages and penalties which gravely affected Keats’s career, it is necessary that we should fix clearly in our mind Hunt’s previous history and the place held by him in the literary and political life of the time. He was Keats’s senior by eleven years: the son of an eloquent and elegant, self-indulgent and thriftless fashionable preacher, sprung from a family long settled in Barbadoes, who having married a lady from Philadelphia had migrated to England and exercised his vocation in the northern suburbs of London. Brought up at Christ’s Hospital about a dozen years later than Lamb and Coleridge, Leigh Hunt gained at sixteen a measure of precocious literary reputation with a volume of juvenile poems which gave evidence of great fluency and, for a boy, of wide and eager reading. A few years later he came into notice as a theatrical critic, being then a clerk in the War Office: an occupation which he abandoned at twenty-four (in 1808) in order to take part in the conduct of the Examiner newspaper, then just founded by his brother John Hunt. For nearly five years the brothers Hunt, as manager and editor of that journal, helped to fight the losing battle of liberalism, in those days of tense grapple with the Corsican ogre abroad and stiff re-action and repression at home, with a dexterous brisk audacity and an unflinching sincerity of conviction. So far they had escaped the usual penalty of such courage. Several prosecutions directed against them failed, but at last, late in 1812, they were caught tripping. To go as far as was safely possible in satire of the follies and vices of the Prince Regent was a tempting exercise to the reforming spirits of the time. Provoked by the grovelling excesses of some of the Prince’s flatterers, the Examiner at last broke bounds and denounced him as ‘a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who had just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country or the respect of posterity.’ This attack followed within a few weeks of another almost as stinging contributed anonymously by Charles Lamb. Under the circumstances the result of a prosecution could not be doubtful: and the two Hunts were condemned to a fine of £500 each and two years imprisonment in separate jails. Leigh Hunt bore himself in his captivity with cheerful fortitude, suffering severely in health but flagging little in spirits or industry. He decorated his apartment in Horsemonger Lane Gaol with a rose-trellis paper and a ceiling to imitate a summer sky, so that it looked, said Charles Lamb, like a room in a fairy tale, and spent money which he had not got in converting its backyard into a garden of shrubs and flowers.
Very early in life Hunt had been received into a family called Kent at the instance of an elder daughter who greatly admired him. Not long afterwards he engaged himself to her younger sister, then almost a child, and married her soon after the Examiner was started. She proved a prolific, thriftless woman and ill housekeeper, but through all the rubs and pinches of his after years he was ever an affectionate husband and father. His wife was allowed to be with him in prison, and there they received the visits of many friends old and new. Liberal statesmen, philosophers, and writers, including characters so divers as Bentham and Byron, Brougham and Hazlitt, James Mill and Miss Edgeworth, Tom Moore and Wilkie the painter, pressed to offer this victim of political persecution their sympathy and society. Charles Lamb and his sister were the most constant of all his visitors. Tom Moore, who both before and after the sentence on the brothers Hunt managed in his series of verse skits, The Twopenny Post Bag, to go on playing with impunity the game of Prince-Regent-baiting,—the light-hearted Tom Moore joined in deepest earnest the chorus of sympathy with the prisoners:—
Yet go—for thoughts as blessed as the air
Of Spring or Summer flowers await you there:
Thoughts such as He, who feasts his courtly crew
In rich conservatories, never knew;
Pure self-esteem—the smiles that light within—
The Zeal, whose circling charities begin
With the few lov’d ones Heaven has plac’d it near,
And spread, till all Mankind are in its sphere;
The Pride, that suffers without vaunt or plea,
And the fresh Spirit, that can warble free,
Through prison-bars, its hymn to Liberty!
Among ardent young men who brought their tributes was Cowden Clarke with a basket of fruit and flowers from his father’s garden; and this was followed up by a weekly offering in the same kind. ‘Libertas, the loved Libertas,’ was the name found for Hunt by such fond young spirits and adopted by Keats.
During his captivity Hunt was allowed the full use of his library, and his chief reading was in the fifty volumes of the Parnaso Italiano. As a result he acquired and retained for life a really wide and familiar knowledge of Italian poetry. He continued to edit the Examiner from prison and occupied himself moreover with three small volumes in verse. One of these was The Descent of Liberty, A Mask, celebrating the downfall of Napoleon in 1814, and embodying gracefully enough the Liberal’s hope against hope that with that catastrophe there might return to Europe not only peace but freedom. (We have told already how Keats at Edmonton tried his boyish hand at a sonnet on the same occasion and to the same purpose.) Another of his prison tasks was the writing of his poem, The Story of Rimini; a third, the recasting and annotating of his Feast of the Poets, an airily presumptuous trifle in verse first printed two years before and modelled on the precedent of several rimed skits of the Caroline age such as Suckling’s Session of the Poets and the Duke of Buckinghamshire’s Election of a Poet Laureate. It represented Apollo as convoking the contemporary British poets, or pretenders to the poetical title, to a session, or rather to a supper. Some of those who present themselves the god rejects with scorn, others he cordially welcomes, others he admits with reserve and admonition. In revising this skit while he was in prison, Hunt modified some of his earlier verdicts, but in the main he let them stand. Moore and Campbell fare the best; Southey and Scott are accepted but with reproof; Coleridge and Wordsworth admonished (but Wordsworth in much more lenient terms than in the first edition) and dismissed. Hunt’s notes are of still living interest as setting forth, at that pregnant moment of our literary history, the considered judgments of a kindly and accomplished critic on his contemporaries. Seen at a distance of a hundred years they look short-sighted enough, as almost all contemporary judgments must, and are coloured as a matter of course with party feeling, though not so grossly as was the habit of the hour. Since Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth had been transformed, first by the Terror and then by the aggressions of Bonaparte, from ardent revolutionary idealists into vehement partisans of reaction both at home and abroad, the bitterness of the ‘Lost Leader’ feeling, common to all liberals, accounts for much of Hunt’s disparagement of them; while besides sharing the prejudice of his party in general against Scott as a known high Tory and friend to kings, he had ignorantly and peevishly conceived a special grudge against that great generous and chivalrous spirit on account of his lenient handling of Charles II in his Life of Dryden. Hunt in his new notes fully acknowledged the genius, while he condemned the defection and also what he thought the poetical perversities, of Wordsworth; but his treatment of Scott, as little more than a mere money-making manufacturer of pinchbeck northern lays in a sham antique ballad dialect, is idly flippant and patronizing. The point is of importance in Keats’s history, for hence, as we shall see in the sequel, came probably a part at least of the peculiar and as it might seem paradoxical rancour with which the genial Hunt, and Keats as his friend and supposed follower, were by-and-by to be persecuted in Blackwood.
When Hunt’s ordeal was over in the first days of February 1815, he issued from it a butt for savage and vindictive obloquy to the reactionary half of the lettered world, but little less than a hero and martyr to the reforming half. He retained the private friendship of many of those who had sought him out from public sympathy. Tall, straight, slender, charmingly courteous and vivacious, with glossy black hair, bright jet-black eyes, full, relishing nether lip, and ‘nose of taste,’ Leigh Hunt was one of the most winning of companions, full of kindly smiles and jests, of reading, gaiety, and ideas, with an infinity of pleasant things to say of his own and a beautiful caressing voice to say them in, yet the most sympathetic and deferential of listeners. To the misfortune of himself and his friends, he had no notion of even attempting to balance income and expenditure, and was perfectly light-hearted in the matter of money obligations, which he shrank neither from receiving nor conferring,—only circumstances made him almost invariably a receiver. But men of sterner fibre and better able to order their affairs have often been much more ready than he was to sacrifice conviction to advantage, and his friends found more to admire in his smiling steadfastness under obloquy and persecution than to blame in his chronic incapacity to pay his way. Hardly anyone had warmer well-wishers or requited them, so far as the depth of his nature went, with truer loyalty and kindness. His industry as a writer was incessant, hardly less than that of Southey himself. The titles he gave to the several journals he conducted, The Examiner, The Reflector, The Indicator, define accurately enough his true vocation as a guide to the pleasures of literature. His manner in criticism has at its best an easy penetration, and flowing unobtrusive felicity, most remote from those faults to which De Quincey and even the illustrious Coleridge, with their more philosophic powers and method, were subject, the faults of roundaboutness and over-laboured profundity.
The weakness of Leigh Hunt’s style is of an opposite kind. ‘Matchless,’ according to Lamb’s well-known phrase, ‘as a fire-side companion,’ it was his misfortune to carry too much of a fire-side or parlour tone, and sometimes, it must be owned, a very second-rate parlour tone, into literature. He could not walk by the advice of Polonius, and in aiming at the familiar was apt, rarely in prose but sadly often in verse, to slip into an underbred strain of airy and genteel vulgarity, hard to reconcile with what we are told of his acceptable social qualities in real life. (8) He was as enthusiastic a student of our sixteenth and seventeenth century literature as Coleridge or Lamb, and though he had more appreciation than they of the characteristic excellencies of what he always persists in calling the ‘French school,’ the school of polished artifice and convention which came in after Dryden and swore by the precepts of Boileau, he was not less bent on seeing it overthrown. In English poetry his predilection was for the older writers from Chaucer to Dryden, and above all others for Spenser: in Italian for Boiardo, Ariosto, Pulci and the later writers of the chivalrous-fanciful epic style. He insisted that such writers were much better models for English poets to follow than the French, and fought as hard as anyone for the return of English poetry from the urbane conventions of the eighteenth century to the paths of nature and of freedom. But he had his own conception of the manner in which this return should be effected. He did not admit that Wordsworth with his rustic simplicities and his recluse philosophy had solved the problem. ‘It was his intention,’ he wrote in prison, ‘by the beginning of next year to bring out a piece of some length … in which he would attempt to reduce to practice his own ideas of what is natural in style, and of the various and legitimate harmony of the English heroic.’ The result of this intention was the Story of Rimini, begun before his prosecution and published a year after his release, in February or March, 1816. ‘With the endeavour,’ so he repeated himself in the preface, ‘to recur to a freer spirit of versification, I have joined one of still greater importance,—that of having a free and idiomatic cast of language.’
We shall have to consider Hunt’s effort to revive the old freedom of the English heroic metre when we come to the study of Keats’s first volume, written much under Hunt’s influence. As to his success with his ‘ideas of what is natural in style,’ and his free and idiomatic—or as he elsewhere says ‘unaffected, contemporaneous’—cast of language to supersede the styles alike of Pope and Wordsworth, let us take a sample of Rimini at its best and worst. Relating the gradual obsession of Paolo’s thoughts by the charm of his sister-in-law,—
And she became companion of his thought;
Silence her gentleness before him brought,
Society her sense, reading her books,
Music her voice, every sweet thing her looks,
Which sometimes seemed, when he sat fixed awhile,
To steal beneath his eyes with upward smile;
And did he stroll into some lonely place,
Under the trees, upon the thick soft grass,
How charming, would he think, to see her here!
How heightened then, and perfect would appear
The two divinest things this world has got,
A lovely woman in a rural spot!
The first few lines are skilfully modulated, and in an ordinary domestic theme might be palatable enough; but what a couplet, good heavens! for the last. At the climax, Hunt’s version of Dante is an example of milk-and-water in conditions where milk-and-water is sheer poison:—
As thus they sat, and felt with leaps of heart
Their colour change, they came upon the part
Where fond Genevra, with her flame long nurst,
Smiled upon Launcelot when he kissed her first:—
That touch, at last, through every fibre slid;
And Paulo turned, scarce knowing what he did,
Only he felt he could no more dissemble,
And kissed her, mouth to mouth, all in a tremble.
The taste, we see, which guided Hunt so well in appreciating the work of others could betray him terribly in original composition. The passages of light narrative in Rimini are often vivacious and pleasant enough, those of nature description genuinely if not profoundly felt, and written with an eye on the object: but they are the only tolerable things in the poem. Hunt’s idea of a true poetical style was to avoid everything strained, stilted, and conventional, and to lighten the stress of his theme with familiar graces and pleasantries in the manner of his beloved Ariosto. But he did not realize that while any style, from that of the Book of Job to that of Wordsworth’s Idiot Boy, may become poetical if only there is strength and intensity of feeling behind it, nothing but the finest social instinct and tradition can impart the tact for such light conversational graces as he attempted, and that to treat a theme of high tragic passion in the tone and vocabulary of a suburban tea-party is intolerable. Contemporaries, welcoming as a relief any change from the stale conventions and tarnished glitter of eighteenth century poetic rhythm and diction, and perhaps sated for the moment with the rush and thrill of new romantic and exotic sensation they had owed in recent years, first to Scott’s metrical tales of the Border and the Highlands, then to Byron’s of Greece and the Levant,—contemporaries found something fresh and homefelt in Leigh Hunt’s Rimini, and sentimental ladies and gentlemen wept over the sorrows of the hero and heroine as though they had been their own. No less a person than Byron, to whom the poem was dedicated, writes to Moore:—‘Leigh Hunt’s poem is a devilish good one—quaint here and there, but with the substratum of originality, and with poetry about it that will stand the test. I do not say this because he has inscribed it to me.’ And to Leigh Hunt himself Byron reports praise of the poem from Sir Henry Englefield the dilettante, ‘a mighty man in the blue circles, and a very clever man anywhere,’ from Hookham Frere ‘and all the arch literati,’ and says how he had left his own sister and cousin ‘in fixed and delighted perusal of it.’ Byron’s admiration cooled greatly in the sequel, with or even before the cooling of his regard for the author. But it is an instructive comment on standards of taste and their instability that cultivated readers should at any time have endured to hear the story of Paolo and Francesca—Dante’s Paolo and Francesca—diluted through four cantos in a style like that of the above quotations. When Keats and Shelley, with their immeasurably finer poetical gifts and instincts, successively followed Leigh Hunt in the attempt to add a familiar ease of manner to variety of movement in this metre, Shelley, it need not be said, was in no danger of falling into Hunt’s faults of triviality and under-breeding: but Keats was only too apt to be betrayed into them.
Hunt had spent the first months after his release in London, but by the end of 1815, some time before the publication of Rimini, had settled at Hampstead, where he soon made himself a sort of self-crowned laureate of the beauties of the place, and continued to vary his critical and political labours with gossiping complimentary verses to his friends in the form both of sonnet and epistle. The gravest of the epistles is one addressed in a spirit of good-hearted loyalty to Byron in that disastrous April when, after four years spent in the full blaze of popularity and fashion, he was leaving England under the storm of obloquy aroused by the scandals attending his separation from his wife. This is in Hunt’s reformed heroic couplet: the rest are in a chirruping and gossiping anapaestic sing-song which is perhaps the writer’s most congenial vein. Here is a summer picture of Hampstead from a letter to Tom Moore:—
And yet how can I touch, and not linger a while,
On the spot that has haunted my youth like a smile?
On its fine breathing prospects, its clump-wooded glades,
Dark pines, and white houses, and long-allied shades,
With fields going down, where the bard lies and sees
The hills up above him with roofs in the trees?
Now too, while the season,—half summer, half spring,—
Brown elms and green oaks—makes one loiter and sing;
And the bee’s weighty murmur comes by us at noon,
And the cuckoo repeats his short indolent tune,
And little white clouds lie about in the sun,
And the wind’s in the west, and hay-making begun?—
and here an autumn night-sketch, from a letter expressing surprise that the wet weather has not brought a visit from Charles Lamb, that inveterate lover of walking in the rain:—
We hadn’t much thunder and lightning, I own;
But the rains might have led you to walk out of town;
And what made us think your desertion still stranger,
The roads were so bad, there was really no danger;
At least where I live; for the nights were so groping,
The rains made such wet, and the paths are so sloping,
That few, unemboldened by youth or by drinking,
Came down without lanthorns,—nor then without shrinking.
And really, to see the bright spots come and go,
As the path rose or fell, was a fanciful shew.
Like fairies they seemed, pitching up from their nooks,
And twinkling upon us their bright little looks.
Such were Leigh Hunt’s antecedents, and such his literary performances and reputation, when Keats at the age of twenty-one became his intimate. So far as opinions and public sympathies were concerned, those of Keats had already, as we have seen, been largely formed in boyhood by familiarity, under the lead of Cowden Clarke, with Leigh Hunt’s writings in the Examiner. Hunt was a confirmed Voltairian and sceptic as to revealed religion, and supplied its place with a private gospel of cheerfulness, or system of sentimental optimism, inspired partly by his own invincibly sunny temperament and partly by the hopeful doctrines of eighteenth-century philosophy in France. Keats shared the natural sympathy of generous youth for Hunt’s liberal and kind-hearted view of things, and he had a mind naturally unapt for dogma: ready to entertain and appreciate any set of ideas according as his imagination recognized their beauty or power, he could never wed himself to any as representing ultimate truth. In matters of poetic feeling and fancy the two men had up to a certain point not a little in common. Like Hunt, Keats at this time was given to ‘luxuriating’ too effusively and fondly over the ‘deliciousness’ of whatever he liked in art, books, or nature. To the every-day pleasures of summer and the English fields Hunt brought in a lower degree the same alertness of perception and acuteness of enjoyment which in Keats were intense beyond parallel. In his lighter and shallower way Hunt also truly felt with Keats the perennial charm and vitality of classic fable, and was scholar enough to produce about this time some agreeable translations of the Sicilian pastorals, and some, less adequate, of Homer. But behind such pleasant faculties in Hunt nothing deeper or more potent lay hidden. Whereas with Keats, as time went on, delighted sensation became more and more surely and instantaneously transmuted and spiritualized into imaginative emotion; his words and cadences came every day from deeper sources within him and more fully charged with the power of far-reaching and symbolic suggestion. Hence, as this profound and passionate young genius grew, he could not but be aware of what was shallow in the talent of his senior and cloying and distasteful in his ever-voluble geniality. But for many months the harmony of their relations was complete.
The ‘little cottage’ in the Vale of Health must have been fairly overcrowded, one would suppose, with Hunt’s fast-growing family of young children, but a bed was made up for Keats on a sofa, ‘in a parlour no bigger than an old mansion’s closet,’ says Hunt, which nevertheless served him for a library and had prints after Stothard hung on the walls and casts of the heads of poets and heroes crowning the bookshelves. Here the young poet was made always welcome. The sonnet beginning ‘Keen, fitful gusts are whispering here and there’ records a night of October or November 1816, when, instead of staying to sleep, he preferred to walk home under the stars, his head full of talk about Petrarch 53 and the youth of Milton, to the city lodgings where he lived with his brothers the life affectionately described in that other pleasant sonnet written on Tom’s birthday, November 18, beginning ‘Small, busy flames play through the fresh-laid coals.’ The well-known fifty lines at the end of Sleep and Poetry, a poem on which Keats put forth the best of his half-fledged strength this winter, give the fullest and most engaging account of the pleasure and inspiration he drew from Hunt’s hospitality:—
Of friendly voices had just given place
To as sweet a silence, when I ‘gan retrace
The pleasant day, upon a couch at ease.
It was a poet’s house who keeps the keys
Of pleasure’s temple. Round about were hung
The glorious features of the bards who sung
In other ages—cold and sacred busts
Smiled at each other. Happy he who trusts
To clear Futurity his darling fame!
Then there were fauns and satyrs taking aim
At swelling apples with a frisky leap
And reaching fingers, ‘mid a luscious heap
Of vine-leaves. Then there rose to view a fane
Of liny marble, and thereto a train
Of nymphs approaching fairly o’er the sward:
One, loveliest, holding her white hand toward
The dazzling sun-rise: two sisters sweet
Bending their graceful figures till they meet
Over the trippings of a little child:
And some are hearing, eagerly, the wild
Thrilling liquidity of dewy piping.
See, in another picture, nymphs are wiping
Cherishingly Diana’s timorous limbs;—
A fold of lawny mantle dabbling swims
At the bath’s edge, and keeps a gentle motion
With the subsiding crystal: as when ocean
Heaves calmly its broad swelling smoothness o’er
Its rocky marge, and balances once more
The patient weeds; that now unshent by foam
Feel all about their undulating home…
Petrarch, outstepping from the shady green,
Starts at the sight of Laura; nor can wean 54
His eyes from her sweet face. Most happy they!
For over them was seen a free display
Of out-spread wings, and from between them shone
The face of Poesy: from off her throne
She overlook’d things that I scarce could tell.
It is easy from the above and from some of Keats’s later work to guess at most of the prints which had caught his attention on Hunt’s walls and in his portfolios and worked on his imagination afterwards:—Poussin’s ‘Empire of Flora’ for certain: several, probably, of his various ‘Bacchanals,’ with the god and his leopard-drawn car, and groups of nymphs dancing with fauns or strewn upon the foreground to right or left: the same artist’s ‘Venus and Adonis’: Stothard’s ‘Bathers’ and ‘Vintage,’ his small print of Petrarch as a youth first meeting Laura and her friend; Raphael’s ‘Poetry’ from the Vatican; and so forth. These things are not without importance in the study of Keats, for he was quicker and more apt than any of our other poets to draw inspiration from works of art,—prints, pictures, or marbles,—that came under his notice, and it is not for nothing that he alludes in this same poem to
—the pleasant flow
Of words on opening a portfolio.
A whole treatise might be written on matters which I shall have to mention briefly or not at all,—how such and such a descriptive phrase in Keats has been suggested by this or that figure in a picture; how pictures by or prints after old masters have been partly responsible for his vision alike of the Indian maiden and the blind Orion; what various originals, paintings or antiques or both, we can recognize as blending themselves into his evocation of the triumph of Bacchus or his creation of the Grecian Urn.
On December the 1st, 1816, Hunt, as has been said, did Keats the new service of printing the Chapman sonnet as a specimen of his work in an essay in the Examiner on ‘Young Poets,’ in which the names of Shelley and Reynolds were bracketed with his as poetical beginners of high promise. With reference to the custom mentioned by Hunt of Keats and himself sitting down of an evening to write verses on a given subject, Cowden Clarke pleasantly describes one such occasion on December 30 of the same year, when the chosen theme was The Grasshopper and the Cricket:—‘The event of the after scrutiny was one of many such occurrences which have riveted the memory of Leigh Hunt in my affectionate regard and admiration for unaffected generosity and perfectly unpretentious encouragement. His sincere look of pleasure at the first line:—
The poetry of earth is never dead.
“Such a prosperous opening!” he said; and when he came to the tenth and eleventh lines:—
On a lone winter morning, when the frost
Hath wrought a silence—
“Ah that’s perfect! Bravo Keats!” And then he went on in a dilatation on the dumbness of Nature during the season’s suspension and torpidity.’ The affectionate enthusiasm of the younger and the older man (himself, be it remembered, little over thirty) for one another’s company and verses sometimes took forms which to the mind of the younger and wiser of the two soon came to seem ridiculous. One day in early spring (1817) the whim seized them over their wine to crown themselves ‘after the manner of the elder bards.’ Keats crowned Hunt with a wreath of ivy, Hunt crowned Keats with a wreath of laurel, and each while sitting so adorned wrote a pair of sonnets expressive of his feelings. While they were in the act of composition, it seems, three lady callers came in—conceivably the three Misses Reynolds, of whom we shall hear more anon, Jane, afterwards Mrs Thomas Hood, Marianne, and their young sister Charlotte. When visitors were announced Hunt took off his wreath and suggested that Keats should do the same: he, however, ‘in his enthusiastic way, declared he would not take off his crown for any human being,’ and accordingly wore it as long as the visit lasted. (9) Here are Hunt’s pair of sonnets, which are about as good as any he ever wrote, and which he not long afterwards printed:—
A crown of ivy! I submit my head
To the young hand that gives it,—young, ’tis true,
But with a right, for ’tis a poet’s too.
How pleasant the leaves feel! and how they spread
With their broad angles, like a nodding shed
Over both eyes! and how complete and new,
As on my hand I lean, to feel them strew
My sense with freshness,—Fancy’s rustling bed!
Tress-tossing girls, with smell of flowers and grapes
Come dancing by, and downward piping cheeks,
And up-thrown cymbals, and Silenus old
Lumpishly borne, and many trampling shapes,—
And lastly, with his bright eyes on her bent,
Bacchus,—whose bride has of his hand fast hold.
It is a lofty feeling, yet a kind,
Thus to be topped with leaves;—to have a sense
Of honour-shaded thought,—an influence
As from great Nature’s fingers, and be twined
With her old, sacred, verdurous ivy-bind,
As though she hallowed with that sylvan fence
A head that bows to her benevolence,
Midst pomp of fancied trumpets in the wind.
’Tis what’s within us crowned. And kind and great
Are all the conquering wishes it inspires,—
Love of things lasting, love of the tall woods,
Love of love’s self, and ardour for a state
Of natural good befitting such desires,
Towns without gain, and haunted solitudes.
Keats had the good sense not to print his efforts of the day; they are of slight account poetically, but have a real biographical interest:—
ON RECEIVING A LAUREL CROWN FROM LEIGH HUNT
Minutes are flying swiftly, and as yet
Nothing unearthly has enticed my brain
Into a delphic labyrinth—I would fain
Catch an immortal thought to pay the debt
I owe to the kind poet who has set
Upon my ambitious head a glorious gain.
Two bending laurel sprigs—’tis nearly pain
To be conscious of such a coronet.
Still time is fleeting, and no dream arises
Gorgeous as I would have it—only I see
A trampling down of what the world most prizes,
Turbans and crowns and blank regality;
And then I run into most wild surmises
Of all the many glories that may be.
TO THE LADIES WHO SAW ME CROWNED
What is there in the universal earth
More lovely than a wreath from the bay tree?
Haply a halo round the moon—a glee
Circling from three sweet pair of lips in mirth;
And haply you will say the dewy birth
Of morning roses—ripplings tenderly
Spread by the halcyon’s breast upon the sea—
But these comparisons are nothing worth.
Then there is nothing in the world so fair?
The silvery tears of April? Youth of May?
Or June that breathes out life for butterflies?
No, none of these can from my favourite bear
Away the palm—yet shall it ever pay
Due reverence to your most sovereign eyes.
Here we have expressed in the first sonnet the same mood as in some of the holiday rimes of the previous summer, the mood of ardent expectancy for an inspiration that declines (and no wonder considering the circumstances) to come. It was natural that the call for an impromptu should bring up phrases already lying formed or half formed in Keats’s mind, and the sestet of this sonnet is interesting as containing in its first four lines the germs of the well-known passage at the beginning of the third book of Endymion,—
There are who lord it o’er their fellow-men
With most prevailing tinsel—
and in its fifth a repetition of the ‘wild surmise’ phrase of the Chapman sonnet. The second sonnet has a happy line or two in its list of delights, and its opening is noticeable as repeating the interrogative formula of the opening lines of Sleep and Poetry, Keats’s chief venture in verse this winter.
Very soon after the date of this scene of intercoronation (the word is Hunt’s, used on a different occasion) Keats became heartily ashamed of it, and expressed his penitence in a strain of ranting verse (his own name for compositions in this vein) under the form of a hymn or palinode to Apollo:—
God of the golden bow,
And of the golden lyre,
And of the golden hair,
And of the golden fire,
Of the patient year,
Where—where slept thine ire,
When like a blank idiot I put on thy wreath,
Thy laurel, thy glory,
The light of thy story,
Or was I a worm—too low crawling, for death?
O Delphic Apollo!
And so forth: the same half-amused spirit of penitence is expressed in a letter of a few weeks later to his brother George: and later still he came to look back, with a smile of manly self-derision, on those days as a time when he had been content to play the part of ‘A pet-lamb in a sentimental farce.’
(1) Another account says Mitchell.
(2) In The Asclepiad, April 1884.
(3) Houghton MSS.
(4) Le Grand: Fabliaux ou Contes, 1781. G. L. Way: Fabliaux or Tales, London, 1800; 2nd ed. 1815. See Appendix I.
(5) This note-book is in the collection bequeathed by the late Sir Charles Dilke to the public library at Hampstead.
(6) In a review of Keats’s first book written the next year (Examiner, July 9, 1817) Hunt says that when he printed the ‘Solitude’ sonnet he knew no more of Keats than of any other anonymous correspondent: but this probably only means that he had not yet met Keats personally.
(7) Putting day-break in early October at a little before six, there would have been fully time enough for Keats to walk to the Poultry, composing as he went, and to commit his draft to paper and send it to Clerkenwell by ten o’clock. The longer walk to and from the Borough, had the date been a year earlier, would have made the feat more difficult. Moreover the feat itself becomes less of a miracle when we recognize it as performed not at the end of the poet’s twentieth year but at the end of his twenty first. But in view of Keats’s own explicit dating of the piece, the point seems to need no labouring: or else it might be pointed out that if Clarke had really introduced him to Chapman in October 1815 Chapman would assuredly not have been left out of the list of masters whom he quotes as having known through Clarke in his epistle of the following August quoted above (pp. 37, 38).
(8) Both Byron and Barry Cornwall have expressed their sense of contrast between certain vulgarities of Hunt’s diction and his personal good breeding. Byron before their quarrel declared emphatically that he was ‘not a vulgar man’; and Barry Cornwall, admitting that he ‘indulged himself occasionally in pet words, some of which struck me as almost approaching to the vulgar,’ goes on to say that ‘he was essentially a gentleman in conduct, in demeanour, in manner, in his consideration for others,’ and to praise him for his ‘great fund of positive active kindness,’ his freedom from all irritable vanity, his pleasure and liberality in praising (Bryan Walter Procter, An Autobiographical Fragment, 1877, pp. 197-200).
(9) This reconstruction of the scene is founded on a comparison of the sonnets themselves with Woodhouse’s note on Keats’s subsequent palinode, A Hymn to Apollo. Woodhouse says the friends were both crowned with laurel, but it seems more likely that he should have made this mistake than that a similar performance should have been twice repeated (Houghton MSS.).
Permanent link to this article: http://keats-poems.com/chapter-ii-about-john-keats-by-sidney-colvin/