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CHAPTER III (About John Keats by Sidney Colvin)
WINTER 1816-1817: HAYDON: OTHER NEW FRIENDSHIPS: THE DIE CAST FOR POETRY
Haydon and the Elgin marbles—Haydon as painter and writer—Vanity, pugnacity, and piety—Haydon on Leigh Hunt—Keats and Haydon meet—An enthusiastic friendship—Keats and the Elgin marbles—Sonnets and protestations—Hazlitt and Lamb—Friendship of Hunt and Shelley—Lamb and Hazlitt on Shelley—Haydon and Shelley: a battle royal—Keats and Shelley—A cool relation—John Hamilton Reynolds—His devotion to Keats—The Reynolds sisters—James Rice—Charles Wells—William Haslam—Joseph Severn—Keats judged by his circle—Described by Severn—His range of sympathies—His poetic ambition—The die is cast—First volume goes to press.
So much for the relations of Keats with Hunt himself in these first six months of their intimacy. Next of the other intimacies which he formed with friends to whom Hunt introduced him. One of the first of these, and for a while the most stimulating and engrossing, was with the painter Haydon. This remarkable man, now just thirty, had lately been victorious in one of the two great objects of his ambition, and had achieved a temporary semblance of victory in the other. For the last eight years he had fought and laboured to win national recognition for the deserts of Lord Elgin in his great work of salvage—for such under the conditions of the time it was—in bringing away the remains of the Parthenon sculptures from Athens. By dint of sheer justice of conviction and power of fight, and then only when he had been reinforced in the campaign by foreigners of indisputable authority like the archaeologist Visconti and the sculptor Canova, he had succeeded in getting the pre-eminence of these marbles among all works of the sculptor’s art acknowledged, and their acquisition for the nation secured, in the teeth of powerful and bitterly hostile cliques. His opponents included both the sentimentalists who took their cue from Byron’s Curse of Minerva in shrieking at Elgin as a vandal, and the dilettanti who, blinded to the true Greek touch by familiarity with smoothed and pumiced Roman copies, had declared the Parthenon sculptures to be works of the age of Hadrian.
Haydon’s victory over these antagonists is his chief title, and a title both sound and strong, to the regard of posterity. His other and life-long, half insane endeavour was to persuade the world to take him at his own estimate, as the man chosen by Providence to add the crown of heroic painting to the other glories of his country. His high-flaming energy and industry, his eloquence, vehemence, and social gifts, the clamour of his indomitable self-assertion and of his ceaseless conflict with the academic powers, even his unabashed claims for pecuniary support on friends, patrons, and society at large, had won for him much convinced or half convinced attention and encouragement, both in the world of art and letters and in that of dilettantism and fashion. His first and second great pictures, ‘Dentatus’ and ‘Macbeth,’ had been dubiously received; his third, the ‘Judgment of Solomon,’ with acclamation. This had been finished after his victory in the matter of the Elgin marbles. He was now busy on one larger and more ambitious than all, ‘Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem,’ in which it was his purpose to include among the crowd of lookers-on portraits of many famous men both historical and contemporary. While as usual sunk deep in debt, he was perfectly confident of glory. Vain confidence—for he was in truth a man whom nature had endowed, as if maliciously, with one part of the gifts of genius and not the other. Its energy and voluntary power he possessed completely, and no man has ever lived at a more genuinely exalted pitch of feeling and aspiration. ‘Never,’ wrote he about this time, ‘have I had such irresistible and perpetual urgings of future greatness. I have been like a man with air-balloons under his armpits, and ether in his soul. While I was painting, walking, or thinking, beaming flashes of energy followed and impressed me…. They came over me, and shot across me, and shook me, till I lifted up my heart and thanked God.’ But for all his sensations and conviction of power, the other half of genius, the half which resides not in energy and will, but in faculties which it is the business of energy and will to apply, was denied to Haydon. Its vision and originality, its gift of ‘heavenly alchemy’ for transmuting and new-creating the materials offered it by experience, its sovereign inability to see with any eyes or create to any pattern but its own, were not in him. Except for a stray note here and there, an occasional bold conception, a trick of colour or craftsmanship not too obviously caught from greater men, the pictures with which he exultingly laid siege to immortality belong, as posterity has justly felt, to the kingdom not of true great art but of imitative pictorial posturing and empty pictorial bombast.
As a draughtsman especially, Haydon’s touch is surprisingly loose, empty, and inexpressive. Even in drawing from the Elgin marbles, as he did with passionate industry, covering reams, he fails almost wholly to render the qualities which he so ardently perceived, and loses every distinction and every subtlety of the original. (1) Infinitely better is his account of them in words: for in truth Haydon’s chief intellectual power was as an observer, and his best instrument the pen. Readers of his journals and correspondence know how vividly and tellingly he can relate an experience or touch off a character. In this gift of striking out a human portrait in words he stood second in his age, if second, to Hazlitt alone, and in our later literature there has been no one to beat him except Carlyle. But passion and pugnacity, vanity and the spirit of self-exaltation, at the same time as they intensify vision, are bound to discolour and distort it; and the reader must always bear in mind that Haydon’s pen portraits of his contemporaries are apt to be not less untrustworthy than they are unforgettable. Moreover in this, the literary, form of expression also, where he aims higher, leaving description and trying to become imaginative and impressive, we find only the same self-satisfied void turgidity, and proof of spiritual hollowness disguised by temperamental fervour, as in his paintings.
But it was the gifts and faculties which Haydon possessed, and not those he lacked, it was the ardour and enthusiasm of his character, and not his essential commonness of gift and faculty, that impressed his associates as they impressed himself. Sturdy, loud-voiced, eloquent, high of colour, with a bald perpendicular forehead surmounting a set of squarely compressed, pugnacious features,—eyes, lips and jaw all prominent and aggressive together,—he was a dominating, and yet a welcome, presence in some of the choicest circles of his day. Wordsworth and Wordsworth’s firm ally, the painter-baronet Sir George Beaumont, Hazlitt, Horace Smith, Charles Lamb, Coleridge, Walter Scott, Mary Mitford, were among his friends. Some of them, like Wordsworth, held by him always, while his imperious and importunate egotism wore out others after a while. He was justly proud of his industry and strength of purpose: proud also of his religious faith and piety, and in the habit of thanking his maker effusively in set terms for special acts of favour and protection, for this or that happy inspiration in a picture, for deliverance from ‘pecuniary emergencies,’ and the like. ‘I always rose up from my knees,’ he says strikingly in a letter to Keats, ‘with a refreshed fury, an iron-clenched firmness, a crystal piety of feeling that sent me streaming on with a repulsive power against the troubles of life.’ And he was prone to hold himself up as a model to his friends in both particulars, lecturing them loftily on faith and conduct while he was living without scruple on their bounty.
BENJAMIN ROBERT HAYDON
In October 1816, the first month of Keats’s intimacy with Hunt, Haydon also made a short stay at Hampstead. He and Hunt were already acquainted, and Hunt had published in the Examiner the very able, cogent and pungent letter with which Haydon a few months before had clenched the Elgin marble controversy and practically brought it to an end. Hunt had congratulated Haydon in a sonnet on the occasion, closing with a gentle hint that, fine as such a victory was, he was himself devoted to a mission finer still, as
One of the spirits chosen by heaven to turn
The sunny side of things to human eyes.
Their intercourse was now warmly resumed, though never without latent risk of antagonism and discord. The following letter of Haydon to Wilkie, more just and temperate than usual, is good for filling in our picture both of Hunt and of Haydon himself, as well as for adding another to the number of bewildering contemporary estimates of Rimini.
27 October, 1816.
I have been at Hampstead this fortnight for my eyes, and shall return with my body much stronger for application. The greater part of my time has been spent in Leigh Hunt’s society, who is certainly one of the most delightful companions. Full of poetry and art, and amiable humour, we argue always with full hearts on everything but religion and Buonaparte, and we have resolved never to talk of these, particularly as I have been recently examining Voltaire’s opinions concerning Christianity, and turmoiling my head to ascertain fully my right to put him into my picture!
Though Leigh Hunt is not deep in knowledge, moral, metaphysical, or classical, yet he is intense in feeling, and has an intellect for ever on the alert. He is like one of those instruments on three legs, which, throw it how you will, always pitches on two, and has a spike sticking for ever up and ever ready for you. He ‘sets’ at a subject with a scent like a pointer. He is a remarkable man, and created a sensation by his independence, his courage, his disinterestedness in public matters, and by the truth, acuteness, and taste of his dramatic criticisms he raised the rank of newspapers, and gave by his example a literary feeling to the weekly ones more especially.
As a poet, I think him full of the genuine feeling. His third canto in Rimini is equal to anything in any language of that sweet sort. Perhaps in his wishing to avoid the monotony of the Pope school, he may have shot into the other extreme, and his invention of obscure words to express obscure feelings borders sometimes on affectation. But these are trifles compared with the beauty of the poem, the intense painting of the scenery, and the deep burning in of the passion which trembles in every line. Thus far as a critic, an editor, and a poet. As a man, I know none with such an affectionate heart, if never opposed in his opinions. He has defects of course: one of his great defects is getting inferior people about him to listen, too fond of shining at any expense in society, and a love of approbation from the darling sex bordering on weakness; though to women he is delightfully pleasant, yet they seem more to dandle him as a delicate plant. I don’t know if they do not put a confidence in him which to me would be mortifying.
He is a man of sensibility tinged with morbidity, and of such sensitive organisation of body that the plant is not more alive to touch than he. I remember once, walking in a field, we came to a muddy place concealed by grass. The moment Hunt touched it, he shrank back, saying, ‘It’s muddy!’ as if he meaned that it was full of adders…. He is a composition, as we all are, of defects and delightful qualities, indolently averse to worldly exertion, because it harasses the musings of his fancy, existing only by the common duties of life, yet ignorant of them, and often suffering from their neglect.
A few days later, on October 31, we find Keats writing to Cowden Clarke of his pleasure at ‘the thought of seeing so soon this glorious Haydon and all his creations.’ The introduction was arranged to take place at Leigh Hunt’s cottage, where they met for dinner. Haydon, the sublime egoist, could be rapturously sympathetic and genuinely kind to those who took him at his own valuation, and there was much to attract the spirits of eager youth about him as a leader. Keats and he were mutually delighted at first sight: each struck fire from the other, and they quickly became close friends and comrades. After an evening of high talk at the beginning of their acquaintance, on the 19th of November, 1816, the young poet wrote to Haydon as follows, joining his name with those of Wordsworth and Leigh Hunt:—
Last evening wrought me up, and I cannot forbear sending you the following:—
Great spirits now on earth are sojourning:
He of the cloud, the cataract, the lake,
Who on Helvellyn’s summit, wide awake,
Catches his freshness from Archangel’s wing:
He of the rose, the violet, the spring,
The social smile, the chain for Freedom’s sake,
And lo! whose steadfastness would never take
A meaner sound than Raphael’s whispering.
And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forehead of the age to come;
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings in some distant mart?
Listen awhile, ye nations, and be dumb.
Haydon was at no time of his life unused to compliments of this kind. About the same time as Keats another young member of Hunt’s circle, John Hamilton Reynolds, also wrote him a sonnet of eager sympathy and admiration; and the three addressed to him some years later by Wordsworth are well known. In his reply to Keats he proposed to hand on the above piece to Wordsworth—a proposal which ‘puts me,’ answers Keats, ‘out of breath—you know with what reverence I would send my well-wishes to him.’ Haydon suggested moreover the needless, and as it seems to me regrettable, mutilation of the sonnet by leaving out the words after ‘workings’ in the last line but one. The poet, however, accepted the suggestion, and his editors have respected his decision.
Some time after the turn of the year we find Keats presented with a copy of Goldsmith’s Greek History ‘from his ardent friend, B. R. Haydon.’ All the winter and early spring the two met frequently, sometimes at Haydon’s studio in Great Marlborough Street, sometimes in the rooms of the Keats brothers in the Poultry or in 66 those of their common acquaintance, and discussed with passionate eagerness most things in heaven and earth, and especially poetry and painting. ‘I have enjoyed Shakespeare,’ declares Haydon, ‘with John Keats more than with any other human being.’ Both he and Keats’s other painter friend, Joseph Severn, have testified that Keats had a fine natural sense for the excellencies of painting and sculpture. Both loved to take him to the British Museum and expatiate to him on the glories of the antique; and it would seem that through Haydon he must have had access also to the collection of one at least of the great dilettanti noblemen of the day. After a first visit to the newly acquired Parthenon marbles with Haydon at the beginning of March 1817, Keats tried to embody his impressions in a couple of sonnets, which Hunt promptly printed in the Examiner. It is characteristic of his unfailing sincerity with his art and with himself that he allows himself to break into no stock raptures, but strives faithfully to get into words the confused sensations of spiritual infirmity and awe that have overpowered him:—
My spirit is too weak—mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep.
And each imagin’d pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship, tells me I must die
Like a sick Eagle looking at the sky.
Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep,
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old Time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.
He sends this with a covering sonnet to Haydon asking pardon for its immaturity and justly praising the part played by Haydon in forcing the acceptance of the marbles upon the nation:—
Haydon! forgive me that I cannot speak
Definitely on these mighty things;
Forgive me that I have not Eagle’s wings—
That what I want I know not where to seek;
And think that I would not be over meek
In rolling out upfollow’d thunderings,
Even to the steep of Heliconian springs,
Were I of ample strength for such a freak—
Think too, that all those numbers should be thine;
Whose else? In this who touch thy vesture’s hem?
For when men star’d at what was most divine
With browless idiotism—o’erwise phlegm—
Thou hadst beheld the Hesperian shine
Of their star in the East, and gone to worship them.
Haydon’s acknowledgment is of course enthusiastic, but betrays his unfortunate gift for fustian in the following precious expansion of Keats’s image of the sick eagle:—
Many thanks, my dear fellow, for your two noble sonnets. I know not a finer image than the comparison of a poet unable to express his high feelings to a sick eagle looking at the sky, where he must have remembered his former towerings amid the blaze of dazzling sunbeams, in the pure expanse of glittering clouds; now and then passing angels, on heavenly errands, lying at the will of the wind with moveless wings, or pitching downward with a fiery rush, eager and intent on objects of their seeking….
In Haydon’s journal about the same date there is an entry which reads with ironical pathos in the light of after events:—‘Keats is a man after my own heart. He sympathises with me, and comprehends me. We saw through each other, and I hope are friends for ever. I only know that, if I sell my picture, Keats shall never want till another is done, that he may have leisure for his effusions: in short he shall never want all his life.’ To Keats himself, more hyperbolically still, and in terms still more suited to draw the pitying smile of the ironic gods, Haydon writes a little later:—
Consider this letter a sacred secret.—Often have I sat by my fire after a day’s effort, as the dusk approached and a gauzy veil seemed dimming all things—and mused on what I had done, and with a burning glow on what I would do till filled with fury I have seen the faces of the mighty dead crowd into my room, and I have sunk down and prayed the great Spirit that I might be worthy to accompany these immortal beings in their immortal glories, and then I have seen each smile as it passes over me, and each shake his hand in awful encouragement. My dear Keats, the Friends who surrounded me were sensible to what talent I had,—but no one reflected my enthusiasm with that burning ripeness of soul, my heart yearned for sympathy,—believe me from my soul, in you I have found one,—you add fire, when I am exhausted, and excite fury afresh—I offer my heart and intellect and experience—at first I feared your ardor might lead you to disregard the accumulated wisdom of ages in moral points—but the feelings put forth lately have delighted my soul. God bless you! Let our hearts be buried on each other.
Familiar visitors at this time of Haydon in the Marlborough Street studio and of Hunt in the Hampstead cottage were two men of finer gift than either, William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb. With both of these seniors (Lamb was forty-one and Hazlitt thirty-eight) Keats now became acquainted without becoming intimate. Unluckily neither of them has left any but the slightest personal impression of the young poet, whose modesty probably kept him somewhat in the background when they were by. Haydon used to complain that it was only after Keats’s death that he could get Hazlitt to acknowledge his genius; but Lamb, as we shall see, with his unerring critical touch, paid to Keats’s best work while he was still living a tribute as splendid as it was just. Keats on his part, after the publication of Hazlitt’s lectures on the characters of Shakespeare in 1817, reckoned his ‘depth of taste’ one of the things most to rejoice at in his age, and was a diligent attendant at his next course on the English poets. But he never frequented, presumably for lack of invitation, those Wednesday and Thursday evening parties at the Lambs of which Talfourd and B. W. Procter have left us such vivid pictures; and when he met some of the same company at the Novello’s, the friends of his friend Cowden Clarke, he enjoyed it, as will appear later, less than one would have hoped. He has left no personal impression of Hazlitt, and of Lamb only the slightest and most casual. Fortunately we know them both so well from other sources that we can almost see and hear them: Hazlitt with his unkempt black hair and restless grey eyes, lean, slouching, splenetic, an Ishmaelite full of mistrust and suspicion, his habitual action of the hand within the waistcoat apt in his scowling moments to suggest a hidden dagger; but capable withal, in company where he felt secure, of throwing into his talk much the same fine mixture as distinguishes his writing of impetuous fullness and variety with incisive point and critical lucidity: Lamb noticeable in contrast by his neat, sombrely clad small figure on its spindle legs and his handsome romantic head; by his hurried, stammering utterance and too often, alas! his vinous flush and step almost as titubant as his tongue; but most of all by that airy genius of insight and caprice, of deep tenderness and freakish wisdom, quick to break from him in sudden, illuminating phrases at any moment and in any manner save the expected.
Yet another acquaintance brought about by Hunt in these days was that between Keats and Shelley, who was Keats’s senior by only three years and with whom Hunt himself was now first becoming intimate. When Hunt was sentenced for sedition four years earlier, Shelley, then barely twenty, had been eager to befriend him and had sent him an offer of money help; which for once, not being then in immediate need, Hunt had honourably declined. Since then they had held only slight communication; but when Hunt included Shelley on the strength of his poem Alastor, among the young poets praised in his Examiner essay (December 1, 1816), a glowing correspondence immediately followed, and a few days later Shelley came up from Bath to stay at the Hampstead cottage. The result of a week’s visit was an immediate intimacy and enthusiastic mutual regard, with a prompt determination on Shelley’s part to rescue Hunt from the slough of debt (something like £1400) into which during and since his imprisonment he had cheerfully muddled himself.
It was the eve of the most harrowing crisis in Shelley’s life, when his principle of love a law to itself entailed in action so dire a consequence, and his obedience to his own morality brought him into such harsh collision with the world’s. First came the news of the suicide of his deserted wife Harriet (December 14) and three months later the sentence of Lord Eldon which deprived him of the custody of his and Harriet’s children. On the day of the first tragic news he writes to Mary Godwin, whom he had left at Bath, ‘Leigh Hunt has been with me all day, and his delicate and tender attentions to me, his kind speeches of you, have sustained me against the weight of horror of this event.’ In the interval between the shock of Harriet’s death and that of the judgment sequestering his children Shelley was a frequent guest in the Vale of Health, sometimes alone and sometimes with Mary, now legally his wife. Neither in these first days nor later could Hunt persuade his old intimates Hazlitt and Lamb to take kindly to his new friend Shelley either as man or poet. Lamb, who seems only to have seen him once, said after his death, ‘his voice was the most obnoxious squeak I ever was tormented with’; of his poetry, that it was ‘thin sown with profit or delight’; and of his ‘theories and nostrums,’ that ‘they are oracular enough, but I either comprehend ‘em not, or there is miching malice and mischief in ‘em.’ Hazlitt, opening the most studied of his several attacks on Shelley’s poetry and doctrine, gives one of his vivid portraits, saying ‘he has a fire in his eye, a fever in his blood, a maggot in his brain, a hectic flutter in his speech…. He is sanguine-complexioned, and shrill-voiced…. His bending, flexible form appears to take no strong hold of things, does not grapple with the world about him, but flows from it like a river.’ Still less was a good understanding possible between Shelley and Haydon, who met him more than once in these early days at the Vale of Health. He tells how, on the evening of their first meeting, Shelley, looking hectically frail and girlish, opened the conversation at dinner with the words, ‘as to that detestable religion, the Christian,’—and how he, Haydon, a man at all times stoutly and vociferously orthodox, waited till the meal was over and then, ‘like a stag at bay and resolved to gore without mercy,’ struck his hardest on behalf of the established faith, while Hunt in his airily complacent way kept skirmishing in on Shelley’s side, until the contention grew hot and stormy. The heat and noise, Haydon owns, were chiefly on his side, and we might guess as much without his admission, for we have abundant evidence of the unfailing courtesy and sweetness of manner with which Shelley would in that high-pitched feminine voice of his advance the most staggering propositions and patiently encounter the arguments of his adversaries.
Such contentions, victorious as he always held himself to be in them, annoyed Haydon. The queer blend, in the atmosphere of the Hampstead cottage, of eager kindness and hospitality and a graceful, voluble enthusiasm for the ‘luxuries’ of poetry, art, and nature with slatternly housekeeping and a spirit of fervent or flippant anti-Christianity, became distasteful to him, and he afterwards dated from these days his gradual estrangement from Hunt and his circle. At the same time he began to try and draw away Keats from Hunt’s influence.
Keats, we are told, though much inclining in these days towards the Voltairian views of his host, would take little part in such debates as that above narrated, and once even supported another young member of the circle, Joseph Severn, in a defence of Christianity against Hunt and Shelley. To Shelley himself, his senior by three years, his relation was from the first and remained to the end one of friendly civility and little more. He did not take to Shelley as kindly as Shelley did to him, says Hunt, and adds the comment: ‘Keats, being a little too sensitive on the score of his origin, felt inclined to see in every man of birth a sort of natural enemy.’ ‘He was haughty, and had a fierce hatred of rank,’ says Haydon in his unqualified way. Where his pride had not been aroused by anticipation, Keats, as we have seen, was eagerly open-hearted to new friendships, and it may well be that the reserve he maintained towards Shelley was assumed at first by way of defence against the possibility of social patronage on the other’s part. But he must soon have perceived that from Shelley, a gentleman of gentlemen, such an attitude was the last thing to be apprehended, and the cause of his standing off was much more likely his knowledge that nearly all Shelley’s literary friends were his pensioners,—from Godwin, the greediest, to Leigh Hunt, the lightest-hearted,—and a fear that he too might be supposed to expect a similar bounty. It would seem that in his spirit of independence he gave Shelley the impression of being much better off than he was,—or possibly instances of his only too ready generosity in lending from his modest means to his intimates when they were hard pressed may have come to Shelley’s knowledge: at all events a few months later we find Shelley casting about for persons able to help him in helping Hunt, and writing under a false impression, ‘Keats certainly can.’
These two young poets, equally and conjointly beloved by posterity, were in truth at many points the most opposite-natured of men. Pride and sensitiveness apart, we can imagine that a full understanding was not easy between them. Keats, with the rich elements of earthly clay in his composition, his lively vein of every-day common-sense and humour, his keen, tolerant delight and interest in the aspects and activities of nature and human nature as he found them, may well have been as much repelled as attracted by Shelley, Shelley the ‘Elfin knight,’ the spirit all air and fire, with his passionate repudiation of the world’s ways and the world’s law, his passionate absorption in his vision of a happier scheme of things, a vision engendered in humanitarian 73 dreams from his readings of Rousseau and Godwin and Plato,—or was it rather one brought with him from some ante-natal sojourn among the radiances and serenities of the sunset clouds? Leigh Hunt’s way of putting it is this:—‘Keats, notwithstanding his unbounded sympathies with ordinary flesh and blood, and even the transcendental cosmopolitics of Hyperion, was so far inferior in universality to his great acquaintance, that he could not accompany him in his daedal rounds with nature, and his Archimedean endeavours to move the globe with his own hands.’ Of the incidents and results of their intercourse at Hampstead we know little more than that Shelley, wisely enough in the light of his own headlong early experiments, tried to dissuade Keats from premature publication; and that Keats on his part declined, ‘in order that he might have his own unfettered scope,’ a cordial invitation from Shelley to come and stay with him at Great Marlow. Keats, though he must have known that he could learn much from Shelley’s trained scholarship and fine literary sense, was doubtless right in feeling that whatever power of poetry might be in him must work its own way to maturity in freedom and not in leading-strings. To these scanty facts Shelley’s cousin Medwin adds the statement that the two agreed to write in friendly rivalry the long poems each was severally meditating for his summer’s work, Shelley Laon and Cythna, afterwards called The Revolt of Islam, and Keats Endymion. This may very well have been the case, but Medwin was a man so lax of memory, tongue, and pen that his evidence, unconfirmed, counts for little. Of the influence possibly exercised on Keats by Shelley’s first important poem, Alastor, or by his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty printed in the manner, Safie, oduring the January of their intercourse at Hunt’s, it will be time to speak later on.
A much closer intimacy sprang up between Keats and the other young poetic aspirant whom Hunt in his December essay in the Examiner had bracketed with him and Shelley. This was John Hamilton Reynolds, of whom we have as yet heard only the name. He was a handsome, witty, enthusiastic youth a year younger than Keats, having been born at Shrewsbury in September 1796. Part of his boyhood was spent in Devonshire near Sidmouth, a countryside to which he remained always deeply attached; but he was still quite young when his father came and settled in London as mathematical master and head writing master at Christ’s Hospital. The elder Reynolds and his wife were people of literary leanings and literary acquaintance, and seem to have been characters in their way: both Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt were frequenters of their house in Little Britain, and Mrs Reynolds is reported as holding her own well among the talkers at Lamb’s evenings. Their son John was educated at St Paul’s school and showed talent and inclinations which drew him precociously into the literary movement of the time. At eighteen he wrote an Eastern tale in verse in the Byronic manner, Safie, of which Byron acknowledged the presentation copy in a kind and careful letter several pages long. Two years later, just about the time of his first introduction to Keats at Leigh Hunt’s, the youngster had the honour of receiving a similar attention from Wordsworth in reply to a presentation of another poem, The Naiad (November 1816). Neither of these two youthful volumes, nor yet a third, The Eden of Imagination, showed much more than a quick susceptibility to nature and romance, and a gift of falling in readily and gracefully now with one and now with another of the poetic fashions of the hour. Byron, Scott, Wordsworth, and Leigh Hunt were alternately his models.
The same gift of adaptiveness which Reynolds showed in serious work made him when he chose a deft, sometimes even a masterly, parodist in the humourous vein, and his work done in this vein a few years later in collaboration with Thomas Hood holds its own well beside that of his associate. Partly owing to the persuasions of the lady to whom he was engaged, Reynolds early gave up the hope of a literary career and went into business as a solicitor. In 1818 he inscribed a farewell sonnet to the Muses in a copy of Shakespeare which he gave to Keats, and in 1821 he writes again
As time increases
I give up drawling verse for drawing leases.
In point of fact he continued to write occasionally for some years, and in the end failed somewhat tragically to prosper in the profession of law. During these early years he was not only one of the warmest friends Keats had but one of the wisest, to whom Keats could open his innermost mind with the certainty of being understood, and who once at least saved him from a serious mistake. A sonnet written by him within three months of their first meeting proves with what warmth of affection as well as with what generosity of admiration the one young aspirant from the first regarded the other. Keats one day, calling on Cowden Clarke and finding him asleep over Chaucer, passed the time by writing on the blank space at the end of The Floure and the Lefe, a poem with which he was already familiar, the sonnet beginning ‘This pleasant tale is like a little copse.’ (2) Reynolds’s comment after reading it is as follows:—
Thy thoughts, dear Keats, are like fresh-gathered leaves,
Or white flowers pluck’d from some sweet lily bed;
They set the heart a-breathing, and they shed
The glow of meadows, mornings, and spring eyes,
O’er the excited soul.—Thy genius weaves
Songs that shall make the age be nature-led,
And win that coronal for thy young head
Which time’s strange hand of freshness ne’er bereaves.
Go on! and keep thee to thine own green way,
Singing in that same key which Chaucer sung;
Be thou companion of the summer day,
Roaming the fields and older woods among:—
So shall thy muse be ever in her May
And thy luxuriant spirit ever young.
Reynolds had two sisters, Marianne and Jane, older than himself, and a third, Charlotte, several years younger. With the elder two Keats was soon on terms of almost brotherly intimacy and affection, seeing them often at the family home in Little Britain, exchanging lively letters with them in absence, and contributing to Jane’s album sets of verses some of which have only through this means been preserved. A little later the piano-playing of the youngest sister, Charlotte, was often a source of great pleasure to him.
Outside his own family Reynolds had an inseparable friend with whom Keats also became quickly intimate: this was James Rice, a young solicitor of literary tastes and infinite jest, chronically ailing or worse in health, but always, in Keats’s words, ‘coming on his legs again like a cat’; ever cheerful and willing in spite of his sufferings, and indefatigable in good offices to those about him: ‘dear noble generous James Rice,’ records Dilke,—‘the best, and in his quaint way one of the wittiest and wisest men I ever knew.’ It was through Rice that there presently came to Reynolds that uncongenial business opening which in worldly wisdom he held himself bound to accept. Besides Reynolds, another and more insignificant young versifying member, or satellite, of Hunt’s set when Keats first joined it was one Cornelius Webb, remembered now, if remembered at all, by the derisory quotation in Blackwood’s Magazine of his rimes on Byron and Keats, as well as by a disparaging allusion in one of Keats’s own later letters. He disappeared early from the circle, but not before he had caught enough of its spirit to write sonnets and poetical addresses which might almost be taken for the work of Hunt, or even for that of Keats himself in his weak moments; and for some years afterwards served as press-reader in the printing-office of Messrs. Clowes, being charged especially with the revision of the Quarterly proofs.
To turn to other close associates of Keats during the same period, known to him not through Hunt but through his brothers,—a word may suffice for Charles Wells, to whom we find him addressing in the summer of 1816 a sonnet of thanks for a gift of roses. Wells had been a schoolmate of Tom Keats and R.H. Horne, and is described as in those days a small, red-headed, snub-nosed, blue-eyed youth of irrepressible animal spirits. Now or somewhat later he formed an intimacy, never afterwards broken, with Hazlitt. Keats’s own regard for Wells was short-lived, being changed a year or so later into fierce indignation when Wells played off a heartless practical joke upon the consumptive Tom in the shape of a batch of pretended love-letters from an imaginary ‘Amena.’ It was after Keats’s death that Wells earned a place of his own in literature with the poetic drama Joseph and his Brethren, dead-born in its first anonymous form and re-animated after many years, but still during the life-time of its author, through the enthusiasm which its qualities of intellect and passion inspired in Rossetti and Swinburne.
Of far different importance were two other acquaintanceships, which Keats owed to his brother George and which in the same months were ripening into affection, one of them into an affection priceless in the sequel. The first was with a young solicitor called William Haslam (it is odd how high a proportion of Keats’s intimates were of this profession). Of him no personal picture has come down to us, but in the coming days we find him, of all the set, the most prompt and serviceable on occasions of practical need or urgency: ‘our oak friend’ he is called in one such crisis by Joseph Severn. It was as the friend of Haslam, and through Haslam of his brother George, that Keats first knew Joseph Severn, whose name is now inseparable from his own. He was two years Keats’s senior, the son of a music-master sprung from an old Gloucestershire stock and having a good connexion in the northern suburbs of London. The elder Severn seems to have been much of a domestic tyrant, and in all things headstrong and hot-headed, but blessed with an admirable wife whom he appreciated and who contrived to make the household run endurably if not comfortably. Joseph, the son, showing a precocious talent for drawing, was apprenticed to a stipple engraver, but the perpetual task of ‘stabbing copper’ irked him too sorely: his ambition was to be a painter, and against the angry opposition of his father he contrived to attend the Royal Academy schools, picking up meanwhile for himself what education in letters he could. He had a hereditary talent for music, an untrained love for books and poetry, and doubtless some touch already of that engaging social charm which Ruskin noted in him when they first met five and twenty years later in Rome. He was beginning to get a little practice as a miniature painter and to make private attempts in history-painting when he met the brilliant young poet-student of Guy’s, with whom he was shy and timid at first, as with a sort of superior being. But before long he became used to drinking in with delight all that Keats, in communicative hours, was moved to pour out from the play of his imagination or the stores—infinite as to the innocent Severn they appeared—of his reading in poetry and history. What especially, he recorded in after life, used to enrapture him was Keats’s talk on the meaning and beauty of the Greek polytheism as a ‘religion of joy.’ On his own part he was proud to act as cicerone to Keats in the British Museum or the British Institution (the National Gallery as yet was not), and deferentially to point out to him the glories of the antique or of Titian and Claude and Poussin.
Thus our obscurely-born and half-schooled young medical student, the orphan son of a Finsbury stable-keeper, found himself at twenty-one, before the end of his second winter in London, fairly launched in a world of art, letters, and liberal aspirations and living in familiar intimacy with some, and friendly acquaintance with others, of the most gifted spirits of his time. The power and charm of genius already shone from him, and impressed alike his older and his younger companions. Portraits of him verbal and other exist in abundance. A small, compact, well-turned figure, broad-chested for its height, which was barely an inch over five feet; a shapely head set off by thickly clustering gold-brown hair and carried with an eager upward and forward thrust from the shoulders; the features powerful, finished, and mobile, with an expression at once bold and sensitive; the forehead sloping and not high, but broad and strong: the brows well arched above hazel-brown, liquid flashing eyes, ‘like the eyes of a wild gypsy maid in colour, set in the face of a young god,’ Severn calls them. To the same effect Haydon,—‘an eye that had an inward look, perfectly divine, like a Delphian priestess who saw visions’: and again Leigh Hunt,—‘the eyes mellow and glowing, large, dark, and sensitive. At the recital of a noble action or a beautiful thought, they would suffuse with tears and his mouth tremble.’ In like manner George Keats,—‘John’s eyes moistened and his lip quivered at the relation of any tale of generosity or benevolence or noble daring, or at sights of loveliness or distress.’ And once more Haydon,—‘Keats was the only man I ever met who seemed and looked conscious of a high calling, except Wordsworth…. He was in his glory in the fields. The humming of a bee, the sight of a flower, the glitter of the sun, seemed to make his nature tremble, then his eyes flashed, his cheek glowed and his mouth quivered.’ ‘Nothing seemed to escape him,’—I now quote paragraphs compiled by the late Mr William Sharp from many jotted reminiscences of Severn’s,—
Nothing seemed to escape him, the song of a bird and the undernote of response from covert or hedge, the rustle of some animal, the changing of the green and brown lights and furtive shadows, the motions of the wind—just how it took certain tall flowers and plants—and the wayfaring of the clouds: even the features and gestures of passing tramps, the colour of one woman’s hair, the smile on one child’s face, the furtive animalism below the deceptive humanity in many of the vagrants, even the hats, clothes, shoes, wherever these conveyed the remotest hint as to the real self of the wearer. Withal, even when in a mood of joyous observance, with flow of happy spirits, he would suddenly become taciturn, not because he was tired, not even because his mind was suddenly wrought to some bewitching vision, but from a profound disquiet which he could not or would not explain.
Certain things affected him extremely, particularly when ‘a wave was billowing through a tree,’ as he described the uplifting surge of air among swaying masses of chestnut or oak foliage, or when, afar off, he heard the wind coming across woodlands. ‘The tide! the tide!’ he would cry delightedly, and spring on to some stile, or upon the low bough of a wayside tree, and watch the passage of the wind upon the meadow grasses or young corn, not stirring till the flow of air was all around him, while an expression of rapture made his eyes gleam and his face glow till he ‘would look sometimes like a wild fawn waiting for some cry from the forest depths,’ or like ‘a young eagle staring with proud joy before taking flight.’…
Though small of stature, not more than three-quarters of an inch over five feet, he seemed taller, partly from the perfect symmetry of his frame, partly from his erect attitude and a characteristic backward poise (sometimes a toss) of the head, and, perhaps more than anything else, from a peculiarly dauntless expression, such as may be seen on the face of some seamen….
The only time he appeared as small of stature was when he was reading, or when he was walking rapt in some deep reverie; when the chest fell in, the head bent forward as though weightily overburdened, and the eyes seemed almost to throw a light before his face….
The only thing that would bring Keats out of one of his fits of seeming gloomful reverie—the only thing, during those country-rambles, that would bring the poet ‘to himself again’ was the motion ‘of the inland sea’ he loved so well, particularly the violent passage of wind across a great field of barley. From fields of oats or barley it was almost impossible to allure him; he would stand, leaning forward, listening intently, watching with a bright serene look in his eyes and sometimes with a slight smile, the tumultuous passage of the wind above the grain. The sea, or thought-compelling images of the sea, always seemed to restore him to a happy calm.
In regard to Keats’s social qualities, he is said, and owns himself, to have been not always quite well conditioned or at his ease in the presence of women, but in that of men all accounts agree that he was pleasantness itself: quiet and abstracted or brilliant and voluble by turns, according to his mood and company, but thoroughly amiable and unaffected. His voice was rich and low, and when he joined in discussion, it was usually with an eager but gentle animation, while his occasional bursts of fierce indignation at wrong or meanness bore no undue air of assumption, and failed not to command respect. ‘In my knowledge of my fellow beings,’ says Cowden Clarke, ‘I never knew one who so thoroughly combined the sweetness with the power of gentleness, and the irresistible sway of anger, as Keats. His indignation would have made the boldest grave; and they who had seen him under the influence of injustice and meanness of soul would not forget the expression of his features—“the form of his visage was changed.”’
In lighter moods his powers of mimicry and dramatic recital are described as great and never used unkindly. He loved the exhibition of any kind of energy, and was as almost as keen a spectator of the rough and violent as of the tender and joyous aspects and doings of life and nature. ‘Though a quarrel in the streets,’ he says, ‘is a thing to be hated the energies displayed in it are fine; the commonest man shows a grace in his quarrel.’ His yearning love for the old polytheism and instinctive affinity with the Greek spirit did not at all blunt his relish of actualities. To complete our picture and illustrate the wide and unfastidious range of his contact with life and interest in things, let us take Cowden Clarke’s account of the way he could enjoy and re-enact such a scene of brutal sport and human low-life as our refinement no longer tolerates:—
His perception of humour, with the power of transmitting it by imitation, was both vivid and irresistibly amusing. He once described to me having gone to see a bear-baiting. The performance not having begun, Keats was near to, and watched, a 82 young aspirant, who had brought a younger under his wing to witness the solemnity, and whom he oppressively patronized, instructing him in the names and qualities of all the magnates present. Now and then, in his zeal to manifest and impart his knowledge, he would forget himself, and stray beyond the prescribed bounds into the ring, to the lashing resentment of its comptroller, Mr William Soames, who, after some hints of a practical nature to ‘keep back’ began laying about him with indiscriminate and unmitigable vivacity, the Peripatetic signifying to his pupil. ‘My eyes! Bill Soames giv’ me sich a licker!’ evidently grateful, and considering himself complimented upon being included in the general dispensation. Keats’s entertainment with and appreciation of this minor scene of low life has often recurred to me. But his concurrent personification of the baiting, with his position,—his legs and arms bent and shortened till he looked like Bruin on his hind legs, dabbing his fore paws hither and thither, as the dogs snapped at him, and now and then acting the gasp of one that had been suddenly caught and hugged—his own capacious mouth adding force to the personation, was a remarkable and as memorable a display.
Thus stamped by nature, and moving in such a circle as we have described, Keats found among those with whom he lived nothing to check, but rather everything to foster, his hourly growing, still diffident and half awe-stricken, passion for the poetic life. Poetry and the love of poetry were at this period in the air. It was a time when even people of business and people of fashion read: a time of literary excitement, expectancy, discussion, and disputation such as England has not known since. Fortunes, even, had been made or were being made in poetry; by Scott, by Byron, by Moore, whose Irish Melodies were an income to him and who was known to have just received a cheque of £3000 in advance for Lalla Rookh. In such an atmosphere Keats, having enough of his inheritance left after payment of his school and hospital expenses to live on for at least a year or two, soon found himself induced to try his luck and his powers with the rest. The backing of his friends was indeed only too ready and enthusiastic. His brothers, including the business member of the family, the sensible and practical George, were as eager that John should become a famous poet as he was himself. So encouraged, he made up his mind to give up the pursuit of surgery for that of literature, and declared his decision, being now of age, firmly to his guardian; who naturally but in vain opposed it to the best of his power. The consequence was a quarrel, which Mr Abbey afterwards related, in a livelier manner than we should have expected from him, in the same document, now unfortunately gone astray, to which I have already referred as containing his character of the poet’s mother. The die was cast. In the Marlborough Street studio, in the Hampstead cottage, in the City lodgings of the three brothers and the social gatherings of their friends, it was determined that John Keats (or according to his convivial alias ‘Junkets’) should put forth a volume of his poems. Leigh Hunt brought on the scene a firm of publishers supposed to be sympathetic, the brothers Charles and James Ollier, who had already published for Shelley and who readily undertook the issue. The volume was printed, and the last proof-sheets were brought one evening to the author amid a jovial company, with the intimation that if a dedication was to be added the copy must be furnished at once. Keats going to one side quickly produced the sonnet To Leigh Hunt Esqr, with its excellent opening and its weak conclusion:—
Glory and Loveliness have pass’d away;
For if we wander out in early morn,
No wreathed incense do we see upborne
Into the East to meet the smiling day:
No crowd of nymphs soft-voiced and young and gay,
In woven baskets bringing ears of corn,
Roses and pinks, and violets, to adorn
The shrine of Flora in her early May.
But there are left delights as high as these,
And I shall ever bless my destiny,
That in a time when under pleasant trees
Pan is no longer sought, I feel a free,
A leafy luxury, seeing I could please,
With these poor offerings, a man like thee.
With this confession of a longing retrospect towards the beauty of the old pagan world and of gratitude for present friendship, the young poet’s first venture was sent forth, amid the applauding expectations of all his circle, in the first days of March 1817.
(1) These drawings are preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.
(2) Cowden Clarke, writing many years later, suggests that this was Keats’s first acquaintance with Chaucer. He is certainly mistaken. It was on Feb. 27, 1817, that Keats called and found him asleep as related in the text. Within a week was published the volume of Poems, with the principal piece, Sleep and Poetry, partly modelled on the Floure and the Lefe itself and headed with a quotation from it. It is needless to add that later criticism does not admit The Floure and Lefe into the canon of Chaucer’s works.