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CHAPTER XI (About John Keats by Sidney Colvin)

DECEMBER 1818-JUNE 1819: KEATS AND BROWN HOUSEMATES: FANNY BRAWNE: WORK AND IDLENESS

Removal to Wentworth Place—Work on Hyperion—The insatiable Haydon—The Misses Porter—A mingled yarn—Charles Lamb and punning—Hunt and his satellites—Fanny Brawne—A sudden enslavement—Severn’s impressions—Visit to Hampshire—The Eve of St. Agnes—Return and engagement—Ode to Fanny—Love and jealousy—Haydon again—Letters to Fanny Keats—Two months’ idleness—Praise of claret—Bailey’s love-affairs—Fit of languor—Fight with a butcher—Sonnet-confessions—Reflections ethical and cosmic—Meeting with Coleridge—The same according to the sage—A tactful review—Sonnets on fame—La Belle Dame Sans Merci—The right version quoted—The five Odes—Their date and order—A fruitful May—Indecision and anxiety—A confidential letter—Departure for Shanklin.

Dilke and Brown, as has been said already, had built for themselves a joint block of two houses in a garden near the bottom of John Street, Hampstead, and had called the property Wentworth Place, after a name hereditary in the Dilke family. Dilke and his wife occupied the larger of the two houses forming the block, and Brown, who was a bachelor, the smaller house, standing to the west. (1) The accommodation in Brown’s quarters included a front and back sitting-room on the ground floor, with a front and back bedroom over them, and a small spare bedroom or ‘crib’ where a bachelor guest could be put up for the night. The arrangement with Keats was that he should share household expenses, occupying the front sitting-room for the sake of quiet at his work. His move to his new quarters does not seem to have been quite so immediate as Brown represents it. Beginning a new journal-letter to his brother and sister-in-law a week or two after Tom’s death, Keats writes, ‘With Dilke and Brown I am quite thick—with Brown indeed I am going to domesticate, that is, we shall keep house together. I shall have the front parlour and he the back one, by which I shall be able to avoid the noise of Bentley’s Children—and be better able to go on with my studies—which have been greatly interrupted lately, so that I have not a shadow of an idea for books in my head, and my pen seems to have grown gouty for verse.’

This phase of poetical stagnation, which had naturally set in as his cares for his dying brother grew more engrossing towards the end, passed away quickly. By about the middle of December Keats was settled at Wentworth Place, whither his ex-landlord, Bentley the postman, we are told, carried down his little library of some hundred and fifty books in a clothes-basket from Well Walk. In spite of the noisy children Keats parted not without regret from the Bentleys, and speaks feelingly of Mrs Bentley’s kindness and attention during his late trouble. As soon, relates Brown, as the consolations of nature and friendship had in some measure softened his grief, he plunged once more into poetry, his special task being Hyperion, at which he had already begun to work before his brother died. But he never got into a quite happy or uninterrupted flow of work on it. Once and again we find him moved to lay it aside for a bout of brotherly gossip with George and Georgiana in America. ‘Just now I took out my poem to go on with it—but the thought of my writing so little to you came upon me and I could not get on—so I have begun at random and I have not a word to say—and yet my thoughts are so full of you that I can do nothing else.’ And again: ‘I have no thought pervading me so constantly and frequently as that of you—my Poem cannot frequently drive it away—you will retard it much more than you could by taking up my time if you were in England. I never forget you except after seeing now and then some beautiful woman—but that is a fever—the thought of you both is a passion with me, but for the most part a calm one.’

This letter, covering some three weeks from mid-December to January 4, enables us, like others to the same correspondents, to lay our finger on almost every strand in the ‘mingled yarn’ of Keats’s life and doings. Of one tiresome interruption which befell him about Christmas he tells nothing, doubtless in order to spare his brother anxiety. This was a request for money from the insatiable Haydon. The correspondence on the matter cannot be read without anger against the elder man and admiring affection for the generous lad—yet not foolishly or recklessly generous—on whom he sponged. Haydon’s only excuses are a recent eye-trouble which had hindered his work, and his inflated belief, which had so far successfully imposed both upon himself and his friends, in his own huge importance to art and to his country. Keats writes, showing incidentally how last year’s critical rebuffs had changed, more or less permanently, his attitude in regard to the public and public recognition:—

Believe me Haydon I have that sort of fire in my heart that would sacrifice everything I have to your service—I speak without any reserve—I know you would do so for me—I open my heart to you in a few words. I will do this sooner than you shall be distressed: but let me be the last stay—Ask the rich lovers of Art first—I’ll tell you why—I have a little money which may enable me to study, and to travel for three or four years. I never expect to get anything by my Books: and moreover I wish to avoid publishing—I admire Human Nature but I do not like Men. I should like to compose things honourable to Man—but not fingerable over by Men. So I am anxious to exist without troubling the printer’s devil or drawing upon Men’s or Women’s admiration—in which great solitude I hope God will give me strength to rejoice. Try the long purses—but do not sell your drawings or I shall consider it a breach of friendship.

Haydon answers in a gush of grandiloquent gratitude, promising to try every corner first, but intimating pretty clearly that he knew his wealthier habitual helpers were for the present tired out with him. One of his phrases is a treasure. ‘Ah Keats, this is sad work for one of my soul and Ambition. The truest thing you ever said of mortal was that I had a touch of Alexander in me! I have, I know it, and the World shall know it, but this is a purgative drug I must first take.’ ‘This’ means his own perpetual need and habit of living on other people. In the next letter Haydon of course accepts Keats’s offer, and in the Christmas weeks, when he should have been wholly engrossed in Hyperion, Keats had much and for some time fruitless ado with bankers, lawyers, and guardian in endeavouring to fulfil his promise. To his brother he only says he has been dining with Haydon and otherwise seeing much of him; mentions the painter’s eye-trouble; and quotes him as describing vividly at second hand the sufferings of Captain (afterwards Sir John) Ross and his party on their voyage in search of the North-West passage.

From Ross in Baffin’s Bay the same letter rambles to Ritchie in the deserts of Morocco, and thence to gossip about the best way of keeping his own and George’s brotherly intimacy unbroken across the ocean; about the ‘sickening stuff’ printed in Hunt’s new Literary Pocket Book (it was when he was seeing most of Haydon that Keats was always most inclined to harsh criticism of Hunt); about Mrs Dilke’s cats, and about Godwin’s novels and Hazlitt’s opinion of them, and the rare pleasure he has had at Haydon’s in looking through a book of engravings after early Italian frescoes in a church at Milan. ‘Milan’ must be a mistake, for there are no such engravings, (2) and what Keats saw must certainly have been the fine series by Lasinio, published in 1814, after the frescoes of Orcagna, Benozzo Gozzoli, and the rest in the Campo Santo at Pisa. ‘I do not think I ever had a greater treat out of Shakespeare. Full of romance and the most tender feeling—magnificence of draperies beyond everything I ever saw, not excepting Raphael’s. But Grotesque to a curious pitch—yet still making up a fine whole—even finer to me than more accomplished works—as there was left so much room for Imagination.’ It is interesting to find Keats thus vividly awake, as very few yet were either by instinct or fashion, to the charm of the Italian primitives, and to remember how it was a copy of this same book of prints, in the possession of young John Everett Millais thirty years later, which first aroused the Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasm in him and his associates Gabriel Rossetti and Holman Hunt (the last-named is our witness for the fact).

Keats tells moreover how an unknown admirer from the west country had sent him a letter and sonnet of sympathy, with which was enclosed a further tribute in the shape of a £25 note; how he had been both pleased and displeased,—‘if I had refused it I should have behaved in a very braggadocio dunderheaded manner, and yet the present galls me a little’; and again how he has received through Woodhouse a glowing letter of sympathy and encouragement from Miss Jane Porter, the then famous authoress of Thaddeus of Warsaw and The Scottish Chiefs, who desires his acquaintance on her own behalf and that of her sister Anna Maria, almost equally popular at the hour by her romance of The Hungarian Brothers. By all this, says Keats, he feels more obliged than flattered—‘so obliged that I will not at present give you an extravaganza of a Lady Romancer. I will be introduced to them if it be merely for the pleasure of writing to you about it—I shall certainly see a new race of People.’ Pity he failed to carry out his purpose: pen-portraits satirical and other are not lacking of these admired sisters, the tall and tragical Jane, the blonde and laughing Anna Maria, ‘La Penserosa’ and ‘L’Allegra,’ but a sketch by Keats would have been an interesting addition to them. Still in the same letter, he complains of the sore throat which he finds it hard to shake off, and tells how he has given up or all but given up taking snuff (nearly everybody in that generation snuffed), and how he has been shooting with Dilke on Hampstead Heath and shot a tomtit,—a feat which for a moment calls up this divine poet to our minds in the guise of one of the cockney sportsmen of Seymour’s caricatures. Never mind: he can afford it.

From an enquiry about the expected baby in America,—‘will the little bairn have made his entrance before you have this? Kiss it for me, and when it can first know a cheese from a Caterpillar show it my picture twice a week,’—from this he passes to the re-assuring statement that the attack upon him in the Quarterly has in some quarters done him actual service. He tells how constrained and out of his element he feels in ordinary society; a common experience of genius, and part of the price it pays for living at a different level and temperature of thought and feeling from the herd. ‘I am passing a Quiet day—which I have not done for a long while—and if I do continue so, I feel I must again begin with my poetry—for if I am not in action of mind or Body I am in pain—and from that I suffer greatly by going into parties where from the rules of society and a natural pride I am obliged to smother my Spirit and look like an Idiot—because I feel my impulses given way to would too much amaze them—I live under an everlasting restraint—never relieved except when I am composing—so I will write away.’ And resuming apparently on Christmas Day:—‘I think you knew before you left England, that my next subject would be “the fall of Hyperion.” I went on a little with it last night, but it will take some time to get into the vein again. I will not give you any extracts, because I wish the whole to make an impression. I have however a few Poems which you will like, and I will copy out on the next sheet.’ Nearly a week later he adds, ‘I will insert any little pieces I may write—though I will not give any extracts from my large poem which is scarce began.’ The phrase about Hyperion must be taken as indicating on how great a scale he had conceived the poem rather than how little he had yet written of it. In point of fact all we have of this mighty fragment must have been written either by his brother’s bedside in September-October 1818 (but then certainly only a little) or else in these Christmas weeks from mid-December to mid-January 1818-19. The short poems he sends are the spirited sets of heptasyllabics, Fancy, and Lines on the Mermaid Tavern, the former one of the best things in the second and lighter class of his work: and with them the fragment written for music, ‘I had a dove.’ In relation to these he says ‘It is my intention to wait a few years before I publish any minor poems—and then I hope to have a volume of some worth—and which those people will relish who cannot bear the burthen of a long poem.’

Presently Charles Lamb comes for a moment upon the scene. ‘I have seen Lamb lately—Brown and I were taken by Hunt to Novello’s—there we were devastated and excruciated with bad and repeated puns—Brown don’t want to go again.’ Punning, like snuffing, was the all but universal fashion of that age, as those of us can best realize who are old enough to remember grandfathers that belonged to it; and judging by the specimens Brown and Keats have themselves left, puns too bad for them are scarce imaginable. Novello is of course the distinguished organist, composer and music-publisher, Vincent Novello, whose Sunday evening musical parties were frequented by all the Lamb and Hunt circle, and whose eldest daughter, Mary Victoria, was married some ten years later to Cowden Clarke. At this time she was but a child of ten, but writing many years afterwards she has left a vivid reminiscence of Keats at her father’s house, ‘with his picturesque head, leaning against the instruments, one foot raised on his knee and smoothed beneath his hands’ (an attitude said to have been perpetuated in a lost portrait by Severn). Is the above a memory of the one evening only which Keats himself mentions, or of others when his love of music may have drawn him to the Novellos’ house in spite of the puns and of company for the moment not much to his taste? For the ways of Hunt and some of his circle, their mutual flatteries, their habit of trivial, chirping ecstasy over the things they liked, their superfluity of glib, complacent comment rubbing the bloom off sacred beauties of art and poetry and nature, were jarring on Keats’s nerves just now; and though perfectly aware of Hunt’s essential virtues of kind-heartedness and good comradeship, he writes with some irritability of impatience:—

Hunt has asked me to meet Tom Moore some day so you shall hear of him. The night we went to Novello’s there was a complete set-to of Mozart and punning. I was so completely tired of it that if I were to follow my own inclinations I should never meet any one of that set again, not even Hunt who is certainly a pleasant fellow in the main when you are with him—but in reality he is vain, egotistical, and disgusting in matters of taste and in morals. He understands many a beautiful thing; but then, instead of giving other minds credit for the same degree of perception as he himself professes—he begins an explanation in such a curious manner that our taste and self-love is offended continually. Hunt does one harm by making fine things petty and beautiful things hateful. Through him I am indifferent to Mozart, I care not for white Busts—and many a glorious thing when associated with him becomes a nothing. This distorts one’s mind—makes one’s thoughts bizarre—perplexes one in the standard of Beauty.

A little later he improvises a sample, not more than mildly satirical, from a comedy he professes to be planning on the ways and manners of Hunt and his satellites.

In the same letter a new personage makes her momentous entry on the scene. ‘Mrs Brawne who took Brown’s house for the summer still resides at Hampstead—she is a very nice woman—and her daughter senior is I think beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable, and strange—we have a little tiff now and then, and she behaves better, or I must have sheered off.’ This Mrs Brawne was a widow lady of West Indian connexions and some little fortune, with a daughter, Fanny, just grown up and two younger children. She had rented Brown’s house while he and Keats were away in Scotland, and had naturally become acquainted with the Dilkes living next door and sharing a common garden. After Brown’s return Mrs Brawne moved with her family to a house in Downshire Street close by. The acquaintance with the Dilkes was kept up, and it was through them, not long after he came back from Scotland, that Keats first met Fanny Brawne. His next words about her are these:—

Shall I give you Miss Brawne? She is about my height with a fine style of countenance of the lengthened sort—she manages to make her hair look well—her nostrils are fine—though a little painful—her mouth is bad and good—her Profile is better than her full-face which indeed is not full but pale and thin without showing any bone. Her shape is very graceful and so are her movements—her Arms are good, her hands bad-ish her feet tolerable—she is not seventeen—but she is ignorant—monstrous in her behaviour, flying out in all directions, calling people such names that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx—this is I think not from any innate vice but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly. I am however tired of such style and shall decline any more of it.

An attraction which has begun by repulsion is ever the most dangerous of all. The heightened emotional strain of his weeks of tendance on his dying brother had laid Keats open to both influences at their fullest power; he was ripe, as several passages from his letters have made us feel, for the tremendous adventure of love; and the ‘new, strange, and threatening sorrow’ from which he had with relief declared himself escaped when the momentary lure of the East-Indian Charmian left him fancy-free, was about to fall on him in good earnest now. Before many weeks he was hopelessly enslaved, and passion teaching him a sensitive secretiveness and reserve, he says to brother and sister no word more of his enslaver except by way of the lightest passing allusion. From his first semi-sarcastic account of her above quoted, as well as from Severn’s mention of her likeness to the draped figure in Titian’s picture of Sacred and Profane Love, and from the full-length silhouette of her that has been preserved, it is possible to realise something of her aspect and presence.

A brisk and blooming young beauty of a little over eighteen (Keats’s ‘not seventeen’ is a mistake) with blonde hair and vivid palish colouring, a somewhat sharply cut aquiline cast of features, a slight, shapely figure rather short than tall, a liveliness of manner bordering on the boisterous, and no doubt some taking air and effluence of youth and vitality and sex,—such was Fanny Brawne externally, but of her character we have scant means of judging. Neither she nor her mother can have been worldly-minded, or they would never have encouraged the attentions of a youth like Keats, whose prospects were problematical or null. It is clear that, though certainly high-spirited, inexperienced, and self-confident, she was kind and in essentials constant to her lover, and patient and unresentful under his occasional wild outbursts of jealousy and suspicion. But it seems equally clear that she did not half realise what manner of man he was, nor how high and privileged was the charge committed to her. She had no objection to the prospect of a long engagement, and despite her lover’s remonstrances held herself free in the meantime to enjoy to the full the pleasures of her age and the admiration of other men.3 One day early in the new year Keats took the devoted Severn to call on his new friends. Severn was much pleased with the mother, who seems to have been in truth a cultivated kind and gentle person; but he did not take to the daughter or even much admire her looks, and though perceiving her attraction for Keats did not then or till long afterwards realise the fatal strength of its hold upon him. ‘That poor idle Thing of Womankind to whom he has so unaccountably attached himself’—so she is styled by Reynolds in a letter to Taylor a year and a half later. Brown, who knew her much better, and whose friendship with her sometimes showed itself in gallantries at which Keats writhed in secret, writes of her always in terms of kindness and respect, but never very explicitly. The very few of Keats’s friends who came to be in his confidence, including Dilke and his wife, seem to have been agreed, although they bore her no ill will, in regarding the attachment as a misfortune for him.

So it assuredly was: so probably under the circumstances must any passion for a woman have been. Blow on blow had in truth begun to fall on Keats, as though in fulfilment of the constitutional misgivings to which he was so often secretly a prey. First the departure of his brother George had deprived him of his closest friend, to whom alone he had from boyhood been accustomed to confide those obsessions of his darker hours and in confiding to find relief from them. Next the exertions of his Scottish tour had proved too much for his strength, and laid him open to the attacks of his hereditary enemy, consumption. Coming back, he had found his brother Tom almost at his last gasp in the clutch of that enemy, and in nursing him had both lived in spirit through all his pains and breathed for many weeks a close atmosphere of infection. At the same time the gibes of the reviewers, little as they might touch his inner self, came to teach him the harshness and carelessness of the world’s judgments, and the precariousness of his practical hopes from literature. Now were to be added the pangs of love,—love requited indeed, but having no near or sure prospect of fruition: and even love disdained might have made him suffer less. The passion took him, as it often takes consumptives, in its fiercest form: Love the limb-loosener, the bitter-sweet torment, the wild beast there is no withstanding, never harried a more helpless victim. (4)

By what stages the coils closed on him we can only guess. His own account of the matter to Fanny Brawne was that he had written himself her vassal within a week of their first meeting: which took place, we know, some time during the period of watching by Tom’s sick-bed. After he went to live with Brown in December they must have met frequently. Probably it was this new attraction, as well as his chronic throat trouble and his concern over Haydon’s affairs, which made him postpone a promised visit to Dilke’s relations in Hampshire from Christmas until mid-January. He then carried out his promise, going to join Brown at Bedhampton, the home of Dilke’s brother-in-law Mr John Snook. He liked his hosts and received pleasure from his visit, but was unwell and during a stay of a fortnight only once went outside the garden. This was to a gathering of country clergy reinforced by two bishops, at the consecration of a chapel built by a great Jew-convertor, a Mr Way. The ceremony got on his nerves and caused him to write afterwards to his brother an entertaining splenetic diatribe on the clerical character and physiognomy. He spent also a few days with Dilke’s father in Chichester, and went out twice to dowager card parties. These social pleasures were naught to him, and his spirits, like his health, were low. But his genius was never more active. We have seen in the midst of what worries and interruptions he had worked before and during Christmas at Hyperion, the fragment which in our language stands next in epic quality to Paradise Lost. At Bedhampton in January, on some thin sheets of thin paper brought down for the purpose, he wrote the Eve of St Agnes, for its author merely ‘a little poem,’ for us a masterpiece aglow in every line with the vital quintessence of romance.

No word of Keats’s own or of his friends prepares us for this new achievement or informs when he began first to think of the subject. It must of course have been ripening in his mind some good while before he thus suddenly and swiftly cast it into shape. When he wrote three months earlier of having to seek relief beside the sick-bed of his brother by ‘plunging into abstract images,’ were they images of primeval Greek gods and Titans only, or were these contrasted figures and colours of mediæval romance beginning to occupy his imagination at the same time? Had the subject perhaps come into his mind as long ago as the preceding March, when Hunt and Reynolds and he were having the talks about Boccaccio which resulted in Keats’s Isabella and Reynolds’s Garden of Florence and Ladye of Provence? We shall see that Boccaccio counts for something in Keats’s treatment of the St Agnes’ Eve story, so that the supposition is at least plausible. Or may it even have been of this story and not, as is commonly assumed, of Hyperion that he was thinking as far back as September 1817 when he wrote to Haydon from Oxford of the ‘new romance’ he had in his mind? Woodhouse does not throw much light on such questions when he tells us that ‘the subject was suggested by Mrs Jones.’ This name, uncongenial to the muse (excepting the muse of Wordsworth) is otherwise unknown in connexion with Keats. Did the same lady also tell him of the tradition concerning St Mark’s day (April 25th), and so become the ‘only begetter’ of that remarkable fragment The Eve of St Mark, which he wrote (Woodhouse again is the authority for the dates) between the 13th and 17th of February after his return to Hampstead? In connexion with Keats few stones have been left unturned for further personal or critical research, but here is one.

Keats was back at Hampstead by the end of January and it must have been very soon afterwards that he became the declared and accepted lover of Fanny Brawne, savouring intensely thenceforward all the tantalising sweets and bitters of that estate, though nothing was said to friends about the engagement. From the first he suffered severely from the sense of her freedom to enjoy pleasures and excitements for which neither his health nor his social habits and inclinations fitted him. The tale of the Eve of St Mark, begun and broken off just at this time, may possibly, as Rossetti thought, have been designed to turn on the remorse of a young girl for sufferings of a like kind inflicted on her lover and ending in his death. However that may be, we have two direct cries from his heart, one of pure love-yearning, the other of racking jealousy, which were written, if I read the evidences aright, almost immediately after the engagement and can be dated almost to a day. These are the first version, which has only lately become known, of the ‘Bright Star’ sonnet, and the ode To Fanny published posthumously by Lord Houghton. Both carry internal evidence of having been written before the winter was out: the sonnet in the words which invoke the star as watching the moving waters,

Or gazing at the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors;

 

the ode in the lines,

I come, I see thee as thou standest there,
Beckon me not into the wintry air. (5)

Now it happens that this year there was frost and rough weather late in February, with snowfalls on the afternoon of the 24th and again the following morning. I imagine both sonnet and ode to have been written while the cold spell lasted, the sonnet probably before dawn on the actual morning of the 25th.6 As slightly changed in form a year and a half later this sonnet has been long endeared to us all as one of the most beautiful in the language: I shall defer its discussion till we come to the date of this recast. The ode has flaws, for to make good or even bearable poetry out of that humiliating and grotesque passion of physical jealousy is a hard matter. It begins poorly, with a sense of discord, in the first stanza, between the choking violence of feeling expressed and the artificial form into which its expression is cast. But if we leave out this stanza, and also the fifth and sixth, which are a little common and unequal, we get an appeal as painful, indeed, as it is passionate, yet lacking neither in courtesy nor dignity, and conveyed in a strain of verse almost without fault:—

Ah! dearest love, sweet home of all my fears,

And hopes, and joys, and panting miseries,—

To-night, if I may guess, thy beauty wears

A smile of such delight,

As brilliant and as bright,

As when with ravished, aching, vassal eyes,

Lost in soft amaze,

I gaze, I gaze!

Who now, with greedy looks, eats up my feast?

What stare outfaces now my silver moon?

Ah! keep that hand unravished at the least;

Let, let the amorous burn—

But, pr’ythee, do not turn

The current of your heart from me so soon.

O! save, in charity,

The quickest pulse for me.

Save it for me, sweet love! though music breathe

Voluptuous visions into the warm air;

Though swimming through the dance’s dangerous wreath,

Be like an April day,

Smiling and cold and gay,

A temperate lily, temperate as fair;

Then, Heaven! there will be

A warmer June for me.

Ah! if you prize my subdu’d soul above

The poor, the fading, brief pride of an hour;

Let none profane my Holy See of Love,

Or with a rude hand break

The sacramental cake:

Let none else touch the just new-budded flower:

If not—may my eyes close,

Love! on their last repose.

Now it happens that this year there was frost and rough weather late in February, with snowfalls on the afternoon of the 24th and again the following morning. I imagine both sonnet and ode to have been written while the cold spell lasted, the sonnet probably before dawn on the actual morning of the 25th. (6) As slightly changed in form a year and a half later this sonnet has been long endeared to us all as one of the most beautiful in the language: I shall defer its discussion till we come to the date of this recast. The ode has flaws, for to make good or even bearable poetry out of that humiliating and grotesque passion of physical jealousy is a hard matter. It begins poorly, with a sense of discord, in the first stanza, between the choking violence of feeling expressed and the artificial form into which its expression is cast. But if we leave out this stanza, and also the fifth and sixth, which are a little common and unequal, we get an appeal as painful, indeed, as it is passionate, yet lacking neither in courtesy nor dignity, and conveyed in a strain of verse almost without fault:—

In both of these poems Keats soothes himself with thoughts of dying, and they are doubtless among the things he had in mind when two or three months later, in the ode To a Nightingale, he speaks of having invoked Death by soft names ‘in many a musèd rhyme.’

Fearing the intrusion of what in another sonnet of the time he calls ‘The dragon-world and all its hundred eyes,’ he was intensely jealous in guarding his secret from friends and acquaintances; and in writing even to those dearest to him he lets slip no word that might betray it. To his brother he merely says, ‘Miss Brawne and I have now and then a chat and a tiff,’ while to his young sister he writes on February 27th that he wishes he could come to her at Walthamstow for a month or so, packing off Mrs Abbey to town, and get her to teach him ‘a few common dancing steps,’—for what reason, to us too pathetically evident, he of course gives no hint.

On February 14th, about a fortnight after his return from Hampshire, and on the very day when according to Woodhouse he began The Eve of St Mark, Keats had put pen to a new journal-letter for America. A straw showing how the wind was blowing with him is his mention that the Reynolds sisters, whose company used to be among his chief pleasures, are staying at the Dilkes next door and that he finds them ‘very dull.’ So, we may guess, will they on their parts have found him. His only other correspondents in these weeks are Haydon and his young sister Fanny. Early in March Haydon returned to the charge about the loan. ‘My dear Keats—now I feel the want of your promised assistance…. Before the 20th if you could help me it would be nectar and manna and all the blessings of gratified thirst.’ Keats had intended for Haydon’s relief some of the money due to him from his brother Tom’s share in their grandmother’s gift; which he expected his guardian to make over to him at once on his application. But difficulties of all sorts were raised, and for some time after the new year he had the annoyance of finding himself unable to do as he had hoped. When by-and-by Haydon writes, in the true borrower’s vein, reproaching him with his promise and his failure to keep it, Keats replies without loss of temper, explaining that he had supposed himself to have the necessary means in his hand, but has been baffled by unforeseen difficulties in getting possession of his money. Moreover he finds that much less remains of his small inheritance than he had supposed, and even if all he had were laid on the table, the intended loan would leave him barely enough to live on for two years. Incidentally he mentions that he has already lent sums to various friends amounting in all to near £200, of which he expects the repayment late if ever. The upshot of the matter was that Keats contrived somehow to lend Haydon thirty pounds which he could very ill spare.

To his young sister Keats’s letters during the same period are charming. He lets her perceive nothing of his anxieties, and is full of brotherly tenderness and careful advice; of interest in her preparation for her approaching confirmation; of regrets that she is kept so much from him by the scruples of Mr and Mrs Abbey, with humorous admonitions to patience under that lady’s ‘unfeeling and ignorant gabble’; and of plans for coming over to see her when the weather and his throat allow or when he is in cash to pay the coach fare. On one day he is serious, begging her to lean on him in all things:—‘We have been very little together: but you have not the less been with me in thought. You have no one else in the world besides me who would sacrifice anything for you—I feel myself the only Protector you have. In all your little troubles think of me with the thought that there is at least one person in England who if he could would help you out of them—I live in hopes of being able to make you happy.’ Another day he is all playfulness, thinking of various little presents to please her, a selection of Tassie’s gems, flowers from the Tottenham nursery garden, drawing materials—and here follows the passage above quoted (p. 10) against keeping live birds or fishes:—

They are better in the trees and the water,—though I must confess even now a partiality for a handsome globe of gold-fish—then I would have it hold ten pails of water and be fed continually fresh through a cool pipe with another pipe to let through the floor—well ventilated they would preserve all their beautiful silver and crimson. Then I would put it before a handsome painted window and shade it all round with Myrtles and Japonicas. I should like the window to open on to the Lake of Geneva—and there I’d sit and read all day like the picture of somebody reading.

For some time, in these letters to his sister, Keats expresses a constant anxiety at getting no news from their brother George at the distant Kentucky settlement whither he and his bride had at their last advices been bound. Pending such news, he keeps writing up his journal for them, and for nearly four months it grew and grew. Still in February, he promises to send in the next packet his ‘Pot of Basil, St Agnes’ Eve, and if I should have finished it, a little thing called the Eve of St Mark. You see what fine Mother Radcliffe names I have—it is not my fault—I do not search for them. I have not gone on with Hyperion, for to tell the truth I have not been in great cue for writing lately—I must wait for the spring to rouse me up a little!’

As it fell out, he never went on either with Hyperion or with the Eve of St Mark, the romance just so promisingly begun. For fully two months after breaking off the latter fragment (February 17th or 18th) he was quite out of cue for writing, and produced nothing except the ode To Fanny (if I am right as to its date) and a few personal sonnets. Many causes, we can feel, were working together to check for the time being the creative impulse within him: the mere disturbing influence of the spring season for one thing; discouragement at the public reception of his work for another, though this was a motive external and relatively secondary; the results of a deliberate mental stock-taking of his own powers and performances for a third; and more deep-seated and compulsive, though unexpressed, than any of these, the love-passion by which three-fourths of his soul and consciousness had come to be absorbed. Here, from a letter to Haydon of March 8, is an example of what I mean by his mental stock-taking. The resolution it expresses is of course more a matter of mood than of fixed purpose:—

I have come to this resolution—never to write for the sake of writing or making a poem, but from running over with any little knowledge or experience which many years of reflection may perhaps give me; otherwise I will be dumb. What imagination I have I shall enjoy, and greatly, for I have experienced the satisfaction of having great conceptions without the trouble of sonnetteering. I will not spoil my love of gloom by writing an Ode to Darkness.

With respect to my livelihood, I will not write for it,—for I will not run with that most vulgar of all crowds, the literary. Such things I ratify by looking upon myself, and trying myself at lifting mental weights, as it were. I am three and twenty, with little knowledge and middling intellect. It is true that in the height of enthusiasm I have been cheated into some fine passages; but that is not the thing.

Some five weeks later, about mid-April, we find that Haydon himself has been a contributing cause to Keats’s poetic inactivity by his behaviour in regard to the loan which Keats had hoped but so far been unable to make him. The failure he writes, has not been his fault:—

I am doubly hurt at the slightly reproachful tone of your note and at the occasion of it,—for it must be some other disappointment; you seem’d so sure of some important help when last I saw you—now you have maimed me again; I was whole, I had begun reading again—when your note came I was engaged in a Book. I dread as much as a Plague the idle fever of two months more without any fruit. I will walk over the first fine day: then see what aspect your affairs have taken, and if they should continue gloomy walk into the City to Abbey and get his consent for I am persuaded that to me alone he will not concede a jot.

In the journal-letter of these weeks to his brother and sister-in-law, mentioning how he had been asked to join Woodhouse over a bottle of claret at his coffee-house, he breaks into a rhapsody over the virtues and wholesomeness of that beverage and adds ‘this same claret is the only palate-passion I have—I forgot game—I must plead guilty to the breast of a Partridge, the back of a hare, the back-bone of a grouse, the wing and side of a Pheasant, and a Woodcockpassim.’ Turning to his own affairs, he says,—

I am in no despair about them—my poem has not at all succeeded; in the course of a year or so I think I shall try the public again—in a selfish point of view I should suffer my pride and my contempt of public opinion to hold me silent—but for yours and Fanny’s sake I will pluck up a spirit and try again. I have no doubt of success in a course of years if I persevere—but it must be patience—for the Reviews have enervated and made indolent men’s minds—few think for themselves. These Reviews are getting more and more powerful, especially the Quarterly—they are like a superstition which the more it prostrates the Crowd and the longer it continues the more powerful it becomes just in proportion to their increasing weakness. I was in hopes that when people saw, as they must do now, all the trickery and iniquity of these Plagues they would scout them, but no, they are like the spectators at the Westminster cock-pit—they like the battle—and do not care who wins or who loses.

Among other matters he has a long story to tell about his friend Bailey’s fickleness in love. It appears that Bailey, after a first unfortunate love-affair, had during the past year been paying his addresses to Mariane Reynolds, begging that she would take time to consider her answer, and that while her decision was still uncertain Bailey, to the great indignation of all the Reynolds family and a little to Keats’s own, had engaged himself in Scotland to the sister of his friend Gleig, afterwards well known as author of The Subaltern and Chaplain General to the Forces. Next Keats begins quoting with a natural zest of admiration, almost in full, that incomparable piece of studied and sustained invective, Hazlitt’s Letter to William Gifford Esqr., beside which Gifford’s own controversial virulences seem relatively blunt and boorish. Half way through Keats has to say he will copy the rest tomorrow,—

for the candles are burnt down and I am using the wax taper—which has a long snuff on it—the fire is at its last click—I am sitting with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet—I am writing this on the Maid’s tragedy which I have read since tea with Great pleasure. Beside this volume of Beaumont and Fletcher—there are on the table two volumes of Chaucer and a new work of Tom Moore’s called Tom Cribb’s Memorial to Congress,—nothing in it. These are trifles but I require nothing so much of you but that you will give me a like description of yourselves, however it may be when you are writing to me. Could I see that same thing done of any great Man long since dead it would be a great delight: As to know in what position Shakespeare sat when he began ‘To be or not to be’—such things become interesting from distance of time or place. I hope you are both now in that sweet sleep which no two beings deserve more than you do—I must fancy you so—and please myself in the fancy of speaking a prayer and a blessing over you and your lives—God bless you—I whisper good night in your ears and you will dream of me.

This is on the 13th of March. Six days later he gives another picture, this time of his state of body rather than of mind:—

This morning I am in a sort of temper, indolent and supremely careless—I long after a stanza or two of Thomson’s Castle of Indolence—my passions are all asleep, from my having slumbered till nearly eleven, and weakened the animal fibre all over me, to a delightful sensation, about three degrees on this side of faintness. If I had teeth of pearl and the breath of lilies I should call it languor, but as I am I must call it laziness. In this state of effeminacy the fibres of the brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body, and to such a happy degree that pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable power. Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness of countenance as they pass by me; they seem rather like figures on a Greek vase—a Man and two women whom no one but myself could distinguish in their disguisement. This is the only happiness, and is a rare instance of the advantage of the body over-powering the Mind.

Greek vase

 

Though Keats’s letters to his brother and sister-in-law contain no confidence on the subject, some of the verses he encloses betray in abstract form the strain of passion under which he was living; notably the fine weird sonnet on a dream which came to him after reading the Paolo and Francesca passage in Dante, and the other sonnet beginning ‘Why did I laugh to-night?’ In copying this last, he adds careful and considerate words of re-assurance lest his brother should take alarm for his sake:The criticism is foolish which sees in this passage the expression of a languid, self-indulgent nature, and especially foolish considering the footnote in which Keats observes that at the moment he has a black eye. The black eye was no doubt the mark of the fight in which he had lately well thrashed a young blackguard of a butcher whom he found tormenting a kitten. That the said fight took place just about this time is clear by the following evidences. Cowden Clarke, in his recollections communicated privately to Lord Houghton, writes, ‘The last time I saw Keats was during his residence with Mr Brown. I spent the day with him; and he read to me the poem he had last finished—The Eve of St Agnes. Shortly after this I removed many miles from London, and was spared the sorrow of beholding the progress of the disease that was to take him from us. When I last saw him he was in fine health and spirits; and he told me that he had, not long before our meeting, had an encounter with a fellow who was tormenting a kitten, or puppy, and who was big enough to have eaten him; that they fought for nearly an hour; and that his opponent was led home.’7 The reading of the Eve of St Agnes fixes the date of Clarke’s visit as after Keats’s return from Chichester at the end of January, and a remark of Keats, writing to his brother between February the 14th and 19th, that he has not seen Clarke ‘for God knows how long’, further fixes it as after mid-February; while the latest limit is set by the fact that by Easter Clarke had gone away to live with his family at Ramsgate, where they had settled after his father had given up the Enfield school. What the ‘effeminacy’ passage really expresses is of course no more than a passing mood of lassitude, gratefully welcomed as a relief from the strain of feelings habitually more acute than nature could well bear. Ambition he was schooling, or trying to school, himself to cherish in moderation, but it was not often or for long that the stings either of poetry or of love abated for him the least jot of their bitter-sweet intensity, or that anticipations of poverty or the fever of incipient disease relaxed their grip.

I am ever afraid that your anxiety for me will lead you to fear for the violence of my temperament continually smothered down: for that reason I did not intend to have sent you the following sonnet—but Look over the two last pages and ask yourselves whether I have not that in me which will bear the buffets of the world. It will be the best comment on my sonnet; it will show you that it was written with no Agony but that of ignorance; with no thirst of anything but Knowledge when pushed to the point though the first steps to it were through my human passions—and perhaps I must confess a little bit of my heart—

Why did I laugh to-night? No voice will tell:
No God, no Demon of severe response
Deigns to reply from Heaven or from Hell.—
Then to my human heart I turn at once—
Heart! thou and I are here sad and alone;
Say wherefore did I laugh? O mortal pain!
O Darkness! Darkness! ever must I moan
To question Heaven and Hell and Heart in vain!
Why did I laugh? I know this being’s lease;
My fancy to its utmost blisses spreads:
Yet could I on this very midnight cease
And the world’s gaudy ensigns see in shreds.
Verse, fame and Beauty are intense indeed
But Death intenser—Death is Life’s High meed.

I went to bed and enjoyed uninterrupted sleep. Sane I went to bed and sane I arose.

This is yet another of those invocations to friendly Death to which he himself refers in the Ode to the Nightingale written a few weeks later, and in its phrase ‘on this very midnight cease’ anticipates one of the great lines of the ode itself.

No letter of Keats—or of any one—is richer than this of February to May 1819 in variety of mood and theme and interest. It contains two of the freshest and most luminous of his discursive passages of meditation on life and on the nature of the soul and the meaning of things: passages showing a native power of thought untrained indeed, but also unhampered, by academic knowledge and study, and hardly to be surpassed for their union of steady human common-sense with airy ease and play of imaginative speculation. In one, starting from reflections on the unforeseen way in which circumstances, like clouds, gather and burst, reflections suggested by the expected death of the father of his friend Haslam, he calls up a series of pictures of the instinctiveness with which men, like animals,—the hawk, the robin, the stoat, the deer,—go about their purposes; considers the rarity of the exceptional human beings whose disinterestedness helps on the progress of the world; and then turns his thoughts on himself with the comment,—

Even here, though I myself am pursuing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of, I am, however young, writing at random, straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness, without knowing the bearing of any one assertion, of any one opinion. Yet may I not in this be free from sin? May there not be superior beings, amused with any graceful, though instinctive, attitude my mind may fall into as I am entertained with the alertness of the Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer?

In the other passage he disposes of all Rousseau-Godwin theories of human perfectibility by a consideration of the physical frame and order of the world we live in, the flaws and violences which mar and jar it, and which its human offspring are likely to derive from and share with it until the end; and, provisionally accepting the doctrine of immortality, he broaches of his own a scheme of the spiritual discipline for the sake of which, as he suggests, the life of men on this so imperfect earth may have been designed.

In marked, not always entirely pleasant contrast with these passages of thought and beauty Keats sends his brother such things as a summary of a satiric fairy story of Brown’s and an impromptu comic tale of his own in verse, much in Brown’s manner, about a princess, a mule, and a dwarf: both of them apparently to his mind amusing, but to us rather silly and the former a little coarse: also some friendly satiric verses of his own on Brown in the Spenserian stanza. He tells how he has been turning over the love-letters palmed off by way of hoax upon his brother Tom by Charles Wells in the character of a pretended ‘Amena’, and vows fiercely to make Wells suffer for his heartlessness; gossips further of Dilke and his overstrained parental anxiety about his boy at school; asks a string of playful questions about his sister-in-law and her daily doings; and in another place gives us, in the mention of a casual walk and talk with Coleridge, the liveliest record we have of the astonishing variety of matters and mysteries over which that philosopher was capable, in a short hour’s conversation, of ranging without pause or taking breath:—

Last Sunday I took a walk towards Highgate and in the lane that winds by the side of Lord Mansfield’s park I met Mr Green our Demonstrator at Guy’s8 in conversation with Coleridge—I joined them, after enquiring by a look whether it would be agreeable—I walked with him at his alderman-after-dinner pace for near two miles I suppose. In those two Miles he broached a thousand things—let me see if I can give you a list—Nightingales, Poetry—on Poetical Sensation—Metaphysics—Different genera and species of Dreams—Nightmare—a dream accompanied with a sense of touch—single and double touch—a dream related—First and second consciousness—the difference explained between will and Volition—so say metaphysicians from a want of smoking the second consciousness—Monsters—the Kraken—Mermaids—Southey believes in them—Southey’s belief too much diluted—a Ghost story—Good morning—I heard his voice as he came towards me—I heard it as he moved away—I had heard it all the interval—if it may be called so. He was civil enough to ask me to call on him at Highgate.

It is amusing to note how the time and distance covered by his own encyclopædic volubility shrank afterwards in Coleridge’s memory. In his Table Talktaken down thirteen years later his account of the meeting is recorded as follows (with the name of his companion left blank: I fill it in from Keats’s letter): ‘A loose, slack, not well-dressed youth met Mr Green and myself in a lane near Highgate. Green knew him, and spoke. It was Keats. He was introduced to me, and stayed a minute or so. After he had left us a little way, he came back, and said, “Let me carry away the memory, Coleridge, of having pressed your hand!” “There is death in that hand,” I said to Green, when Keats was gone; yet this was, I believe, before the consumption showed itself distinctly.’ The story of Coleridge’s observation after the handshake is no doubt exact: the ‘not well-dressed’ in his description of Keats may very well be so too: but the ‘loose’ and ‘slack’ applied to his appearance must have been drawn from the sage’s inward eye, as all accounts are agreed as to Keats’s well-knit compactness of person. One cannot but regret that Keats failed to follow up the introduction by going, as invited, to see Coleridge at Highgate: but in all cases save those of Hunt and Haydon, his contact with distinguished seniors seems thus to have stopped short at kindly and respectful acquaintance and not to have been pushed to intimacy.

Another, somewhat divergent, account of the meeting taken down, also from Coleridge’s lips, by Mr John Frere three years earlier has only lately been published. Its inaccuracy in details is evident, but there is much sense as well as kindness in Coleridge’s remarks on the reviews and their effect:—

C. Poor Keats, I saw him once. Mr Green, whom you have heard me mention, and I were walking out in these parts, and we were overtaken by a young man of a very striking countenance whom Mr Green recognised and shook hands with, mentioning my name; I wish Mr Green had introduced me, for I did not know who it was. He passed on, but in a few moments sprung back and said, ‘Mr Coleridge, allow me the honour of shaking your hand.’ I was struck by the energy of his manner, and gave him my hand. He passed on and we stood still looking after him, when Mr Green said, ‘Do you know who that is? That is Keats, the poet.’ ‘Heavens!’ said I, ‘when I shook him by the hand there was death!’ This was about two years before he died.

F. But what was it?

C. I cannot describe it. There was a heat and a dampness in the hand. To say that his death was caused by the Review is absurd, but at the same time it is impossible adequately to conceive the effect which it must have had on his mind. It is very well for those who have a place in the world and are independent to talk of these things, they can bear such a blow, so can those who have a strong religious principle; but all men are not born Philosophers, and all men have not those advantages of birth and education. Poor Keats had not, and it is impossible I say to conceive the effect which such a Review must have had upon him, knowing as he did that he had his way to make in the world by his own exertions, and conscious of the genius within him.9

In the Leigh Hunt circle it had always been the fashion to regard with contempt, mingled with regret, Wordsworth’s more childishly worded poems and ballads of humble life such as The Idiot Boy and Alice Fell. The announcement of his forthcoming piece, Peter Bell, now drew from John Hamilton Reynolds an anonymous skit in the shape of an adroit and rather stinging anticipatory parody, which Taylor and Hessey published in the course of this April despite a strong letter of protest addressed to them by Coleridge when he heard of their intention: a protest greatly to his credit considering his and Wordsworth’s recent estrangement. Keats copies for his brother the draft of a notice which at Reynolds’s request he has been writing of this skit for the Examiner, taking care to turn it compatibly with due reverence for the sublimer works of the master parodied. The thing is quite deftly and tactfully done, and seems to show that Keats might have made himself, could he have bent his mind to it, a skilled hand at newspaper criticism. ‘You will call it a little politic,’ he says to his brother—‘seeing I keep clear of all parties—I say something for and against both parties—and suit it to the tone of the Examiner—I mean to say I do not unsuit it—and I believe I think what I say—I am sure I do—I and my conscience are in luck to-day—which is an excellent thing.’

At intervals throughout these two months Keats asserts and re-asserts the strength of the hold which idleness has laid upon him so far as poetry is concerned. Thus on March 13 to his brother and sister-in-law:—‘I know not why poetry and I have been so distant lately; I must make some advances or she will cut me entirely’: and again to the same on April 15, ‘I am still at a standstill in versifying, I cannot do it yet with any pleasure.’ To his young sister Fanny he had written two days earlier that his idleness had been growing upon him of late, ‘so that it will require a great shake to get rid of it. I have written nothing and almost read nothing—but I must turn over a new leaf.’ Within the next two weeks the dormant impulse began to re-awake in him with power. As we have seen, he had never quite stopped writing personal sonnets. Towards the end of the month we find him trying, not very successfully, to invent a new sonnet form, but soon reverting to his accustomed Shakespearean type of three quatrains closed by a couplet. Here is the better of two sonnets which he wrote on April 30 to express the present abatement of his former hot desire for fame:—

Fame, like a wayward Girl, will still be coy
To those who woo her with too slavish knees,
But makes surrender to some thoughtless Boy,
And dotes the more upon a heart at ease;
She is a Gipsy, will not speak to those
Who have not learnt to be content without her;
A Jilt, whose ear was never whisper’d close,
Who thinks they scandal her who talk about her;
A very Gipsy is she, Nilus-born,
Sister-in-law to jealous Potiphar;
Ye love-sick Bards, repay her scorn for scorn,
Ye Artists lovelorn, madmen that ye are!
Make your best bow to her and bid adieu,
Then, if she likes it, she will follow you.

 

The thought here is curiously anticipated in a passage of Browne’s Britannia’s Pastorals, itself reminiscent of a well known line in Theocritus. Is the coincidence a coincidence merely, or had the lines from Browne been working unconsciously in Keats’s mind?

True Fame is ever liken’d to our shade,
He sooneth misseth her, that most hath made 
To overtake her; who so takes his wing,
Regardless of her, she’ll be following:
Her true proprieties she thus discovers,
‘Loves her contemners and contemns her Lovers.’ (10)

Two days earlier Keats had copied out in his letter for America, side by side with the words for a commonplace operatic chorus of the Fairies of the Four Elements, and as though it were of no greater value, that masterpiece of romantic and tragic symbolism on the wasting power of Love, La Belle Dame sans Merci. This title had already been haunting Keats’s imagination when he wrote the Eve of St Agnes. He calls by it the air to which Porphyro touches his lute beside the sleeping Madeline. It is the title of a cold allegoric dialogue of the old French court poet Alan Chartier, which Keats knew in the translation traditionally ascribed to Chaucer. But except the title, Keats’s new poem has nothing in common with the French or the Chaucerian Belle Dame. The form, the poetic mould, he chooses is that of a ballad of the ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ class, in which a mortal passes for a time into the abode and under the power of a being from the elfin world. Into this mould Keats casts—with suchlike imagery he invests—all the famine and fever of his private passion, fusing and alchemising by his art a remembered echo from William Browne, ‘Let no bird sing,’ and another from Wordsworth, ‘Her eyes are wild,’ into twelve stanzas of a new ballad music vitally his own and as weirdly ominous and haunting as the music of words can be. The metrical secret lies in shortening the last line of each stanza from four feet11 to two, the two to take in reading the full time of four, whereby the movement is made one of awed and bodeful slowness—but let us shrink from the risk of laying an analytic finger upon the methods of a magic that calls to be felt, not dissected. Known as it is by heart to all lovers of poetry, I will print the piece again here, partly for the reason that in some of the most accessible and authoritative recent editions it is unfortunately given with changes which rob it of half its magic:—

 

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing!

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever dew;
And on thy cheek a fading rose
Fast withereth too—

I met a lady in the meads
Full beautiful, a faery’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild—

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan—

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing
A faery’s song—

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew;
And sure in language strange she said,
I love thee true—

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gazed and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dreamed
On the cold hill side. 

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall.’

I saw their starv’d lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Keats of course gives his brother no hint of what to us seems so manifest, the application of these verses to his own predicament, and only adds a light and laughing comment on one of the rime-words. Closing his packet a few days later (May 3) he adds, as the last poem he has written, the Ode to Psyche. He wrote, as is well known, four other odes this spring, those On Indolence, On a Grecian Urn, To a Nightingale and To Melancholy. The Ode to Psyche has commonly been taken to be the latest of the five. I take it, on the contrary, to have been the first. Had he been ready with any of the others when he finished his letter, I think he would almost certainly have copied and sent on one or more of them also. Coupled with his re-iterated assertion of complete poetic idleness,—‘the idle fever of two months without any fruit,’—lasting from mid-February until well past mid-April, the absence of all the four other odes from this packet must count as evidence that the Ode to Psyche represents the first wave of a new tide of inspiration—inspiration this time not narrative and creative but lyric and meditative—and that the rest of the odes followed and were composed in the course of May. Personally I am convinced that this was the case. I make no exception in regard to the ode On Indolence, although, seeing that it embodies just such a relaxed mood of mind and body as we have found recorded by Keats in his letter to his brother under date March 19, and embodies it with the self-same imagery, it is usually assumed to have been written at or very nearly about the same date. But Keats in the ode itself expressly tells us otherwise, calling his mood at the hour of writing one of ‘summer indolence’ and defining the season as May-time, when the outdoor vines are newly bursting into leaf. Of course, it may be answered, a poet writing in March may perfectly well choose to advance the season to May by a poetic fiction. But would Keats in this case have felt any need or impulse to do so? I doubt it. Moreover a reference to the poem by Keats in a letter of early June shows that phrases of it were still hanging freshly in his memory and seems to imply that it was a thing then lately written. What happened, I take it, was either that Keats let the March vision, with its imagery of symbolic figures following one another as on a Greek sculptured urn, ripen in his mind until he was ready to compose upon it, and then attributed the vision itself to the season when he was actually putting it into verse; or else that, having fallen some time in May into a second mood of drowsiness and relaxation nearly repeating that of March, the same imagery for its expression arose naturally again in his mind.

The ode On a Grecian Urn is obviously of kindred, and probably of contemporary, inspiration with that On Indolence, and if the one belongs to May so doubtless does the other. That this is true of the Nightingale ode we know. Some time early in May, nightingales heard both in the Wentworth Place garden and in the grove beside the Spaniards inn at the upper end of the heath set Keats brooding on the contrast between the age-long permanence of that bird-song, older than history, and the fleeting lives of the generations of men that have listened to it; and one morning he took his chair out under a plum-tree in the garden and wrote down the immortal verses, in and out and back and forth on a couple of loose sheets which Brown, two hours after seeing him go out, found him folding away carelessly behind some books in his room. This discovery, says Brown, made him search for more such neglected scraps; and Keats acquiesced in the search, and moreover gave Brown leave to make copies of anything he might find. (12) Haydon tells how Keats recited the new ode to him, ‘in his low, tremulous under-tone,’ as they walked together in the Hampstead meadows; and it was no doubt on Haydon’s suggestion that Keats let James Elmes, a subservient ally of Haydon’s in all his battles with the academic powers, have it for publication in his periodical, the Annals of the Fine Arts, during the following July. For the date of the Ode on Melancholy the clues are less definite. Burton’s Anatomy has clearly to do with inspiring it, but of this, and especially of the sections on the cure of Love-Melancholy, Keats’s letters and some of his verses furnish evidence that he had been much of a reader all the spring. Particular phrases, however, in letters of May and early June expressing a very similar strain of feeling to that of the ode, besides its general resemblance to the rest of the group both as to form and mood, may be taken as approximately dating it.Keats of course gives his brother no hint of what to us seems so manifest, the application of these verses to his own predicament, and only adds a light and laughing comment on one of the rime-words. Closing his packet a few days later (May 3) he adds, as the last poem he has written, the Ode to Psyche. He wrote, as is well known, four other odes this spring, those On Indolence, On a Grecian Urn, To a Nightingale and To Melancholy. The Ode to Psyche has commonly been taken to be the latest of the five. I take it, on the contrary, to have been the first. Had he been ready with any of the others when he finished his letter, I think he would almost certainly have copied and sent on one or more of them also. Coupled with his re-iterated assertion of complete poetic idleness,—‘the idle fever of two months without any fruit,’—lasting from mid-February until well past mid-April, the absence of all the four other odes from this packet must count as evidence that the Ode to Psyche represents the first wave of a new tide of inspiration—inspiration this time not narrative and creative but lyric and meditative—and that the rest of the odes followed and were composed in the course of May. Personally I am convinced that this was the case. I make no exception in regard to the ode On Indolence, although, seeing that it embodies just such a relaxed mood of mind and body as we have found recorded by Keats in his letter to his brother under date March 19, and embodies it with the self-same imagery, it is usually assumed to have been written at or very nearly about the same date. But Keats in the ode itself expressly tells us otherwise, calling his mood at the hour of writing one of ‘summer indolence’ and defining the season as May-time, when the outdoor vines are newly bursting into leaf. Of course, it may be answered, a poet writing in March may perfectly well choose to advance the season to May by a poetic fiction. But would Keats in this case have felt any need or impulse to do so? I doubt it. Moreover a reference to the poem by Keats in a letter of early June shows that phrases of it were still hanging freshly in his memory and seems to imply that it was a thing then lately written. What happened, I take it, was either that Keats let the March vision, with its imagery of symbolic figures following one another as on a Greek sculptured urn, ripen in his mind until he was ready to compose upon it, and then attributed the vision itself to the season when he was actually putting it into verse; or else that, having fallen some time in May into a second mood of drowsiness and relaxation nearly repeating that of March, the same imagery for its expression arose naturally again in his mind.

Following these so fruitful labours (if I am right as to the dates) of May, came a month of strained indecision and anxiety during which Keats again could do no work. Questions of his own fortune and future were weighing heavily on his mind. For the time being he could not touch such small remainder of his grandmother’s legacy as was still unexpended. A lawsuit threatened by the widow of his uncle Captain Jennings against his guardian Mr Abbey, in connexion with the administration of the trust, had had the effect for the time being of stopping his supplies from that quarter altogether. Thereupon he very gently asked Haydon to make an effort to repay his recent loan; who not only made none—‘he did not,’ says Keats, ‘seem to care much about it, but let me go without my money almost with nonchalance.’ This was too much even for Keats’s patience, and he declares that he shall never count Haydon a friend again. Nevertheless he by and by let old affection resume its sway, and entered into the other’s interests and endured his exhortations as kindly as ever. Apart from Mrs Jennings’s bequest, there was a not inconsiderable sum which, as we know, had been left invested by Mr Jennings for the direct benefit of his Keats grandchildren; but this sum could not be divided until Fanny Keats came of age, and there seems to have been no thought of John’s anticipating his reversionary share. Indeed it is doubtful if the very existence of these and other funds lying by for them had not at this time been forgotten. (13)

In this predicament Keats began very seriously to entertain the idea, which we have seen broached by him several times already, of seeking the post of surgeon on an East Indiaman as at least a temporary means of livelihood. He mentions the idea not only to George and to his young sister, but he debates it with a new correspondent, one of the Miss Jeffrey’s of Teignmouth, whom he suddenly now addresses in terms of confidence which show how warm must have been their temporary friendship the year before:—

Your advice about the Indiaman is a very wise advice, because it just suits me, though you are a little in the wrong concerning its destroying the energies of Mind: on the contrary it would be the finest thing in the world to strengthen them—to be thrown among people who care not for you, with whom you have no sympathies forces the Mind upon its own resources, and leaves it free to make its speculations of the differences of human character and to class them with the calmness of a Botanist. An Indiaman is a little world. One of the great reasons that the English have produced the finest writers in the world is, that the English world has ill-treated them during their lives and foster’d them after their deaths. They have in general been trampled aside into the bye paths of life and seen the festerings of Society. They have not been treated like the Raphaels of Italy. And where is the Englishman and Poet who has given a magnificent Entertainment at the christening of one of his Hero’s Horses as Boyardo did? He had a Castle in the Appenine. He was a noble Poet of Romance; not a miserable and mighty Poet of the human heart. The middle age of Shakespeare was all clouded over; his days were not more happy than Hamlet’s who is perhaps more like Shakespeare himself in his common every day Life than any other of his Characters—Ben Johnson was a common Soldier and in the Low Countries in the face of two armies, fought a single combat with a French Trooper and slew him—For all this I will not go on board an Indiaman, nor for example’s sake run my head into dark alleys: I daresay my discipline is to come, and plenty of it too. I have been very idle lately, very averse to writing; both from the overpowering idea of our dead poets and from abatement of my love of fame. I hope I am a little more of a Philosopher than I was, consequently a little less of a versifying Pet-lamb. I have put no more in Print or you should have had it. You will judge of my 1819 temper when I tell you that the thing I have most enjoyed this year has been writing an ode to Indolence.

The reader will have noticed in the phrase about ‘versifying Pet-lamb’ a repetition from this very ode On Indolence. Here is another confidence imparted to the same correspondent concerning his present mood and disposition:—

I have been always till now almost as careless of the world as a fly—my troubles were all of the Imagination—My brother George always stood between me and any dealings with the world. Now I find I must buffet it—I must take my stand upon some vantage ground and begin to fight—I must choose between despair and Energy—I choose the latter though the world has taken on a quakerish look with me, which I once thought was impossible—

‘Nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass and glory in the flower.’

I once thought this a Melancholist’s dream.

His immediate object in writing had been to ask, in case he should decide against the Indiaman project and in favour of another attempt at the literary life, for the address of a cheap lodging somewhere in the Teign valley, the beauties of which, seen in glimpses through the rain, he had sung in some doggrel stanzas the year before. Brown, more than ever impressed during these last months with the power and promise of his friend’s genius, was dead against the Indiaman scheme and in the end persuaded Keats to accept an advance of money for his present needs and to devote the summer to work in the country. Part of such work was to be upon a tragedy to be written by the two in collaboration and on a basis of half profits. Brown had not less belief in Keats’s future than affection for his person, and it was the two combined that made him ready and eager, as he frankly told Keats, to sail in the same boat with him. In the end the Devonshire idea gave place to a new plan, that of joining the invalid James Rice for a stay at Shanklin. ‘I have given up the idea of the Indiaman’, Keats writes to his young sister on June 9; ‘I cannot resolve to give up my favourite studies: so I propose to retire once more. A friend of Mine who has an ill state of health called on me yesterday and proposed to spend a little time with him at the back of the Isle of Wight where he said we might live cheaply. I agreed to his proposal.’

 


(1) Later occupants re-named the place Lawn Bank and threw the two semi-detached houses into one, making alterations and additions the exact nature of which were pointed out to me in 1885 by Mr William Dilke, the then surviving brother of Keats’s friend. This gentleman also showed me a house across the road which he himself had built in early life, occupied for a while, and then let on a sixty years’ lease: ‘which lease,’ he added, as though to outlive a sixty years’ agreement contracted at thirty were the most ordinary occurrence in the world, ‘fell in a year or two ago.’ He died shortly afterwards, aged 93. He and Mrs Procter, the widow of Barry Cornwall the poet—staunchest, wittiest, and youngest-hearted defier of Time that she was—were the only two persons I have known and spoken to who had known and spoken to Keats.

(2) The only set of engravings existing in Keats’s time after pictures at Milan was the Raccolta, etc., of G. Zanconi (1813), which gives only panels and canvases by masters of the full Renaissance in private collections.

(3) The fullest and, it must be said, least favourable account we have of her is in the retrospect of a cousin who had frequented her mother’s house as a young boy about 1819-20, and seventy years later gave his impressions as follows (New York Herald, April 12, 1889). ‘Miss Fanny Brawne was very fond of admiration. I do not think she cared for Keats, although she was engaged to him. She was very much affected when he died, because she had treated him so badly. She was very fond of dancing, and of going to the opera and to balls and parties. Miss Brawne’s mother had an extensive acquaintance with gentlemen, and the society in which they mingled was musical and literary. Through the Dilkes, Miss Brawne was invited out a great deal, and as Keats was not in robust health enough to take her out himself (for he never went with her), she used to go with military men to the Woolwich balls and to balls in Hampstead; and she used to dance with these military officers a great deal more than Keats liked. She did not seem to care much for him. Mr Dilke, the grandfather of the present Sir Charles Dilke, admired her very much in society, and although she was not a great beauty she was very lively and agreeable. I remember that among those frequenting Mrs Brawne’s house in Hampstead were a number of foreign gentlemen. Keats could not talk French as they could, and their conversation with his fiancée in a language he could not understand was a source of continual disagreement between them. Keats thought that she talked and flirted and danced too much with them, but his remonstrances were all unheeded by Miss Brawne.’ Against these impressions should be set Brown’s testimony, contained in letters of the time to Severn and others, to her signs of acute distress on the news coming from Italy of the hopelessness of her lover’s condition and finally of his death: and stronger still, her own words written in later years to Medwin, which seem to show a true, and even tender, understanding of his character if not of his genius (see below p. 465).

(4)

ἔρος δ᾽ αὖτε μ᾽ ὁ λυοιμέλης δονεῖ
γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὀρπετόν.—Sappho, Fr. 40.

(5) There is no autograph of this ode, only transcripts by friends, and Mr Buxton Forman was most likely right in suggesting that the true reading for ‘not’ should be ‘out.’

(6) Keats was staying that night and two more at Mr Taylor’s in London: but there is nothing against my theory in this: he might have composed the sonnet as well in Fleet Street as at Hampstead.

(7) In his printed account of the matter Clarke calls the victim definitely a kitten, and says of Keats: ‘He thought he should be beaten, for the fellow was the taller and stronger; but like an authentic pugilist, my young poet found that he had planted a blow which “told” upon his antagonist; in every succeeding round therefore (for they fought nearly an hour), he never failed of returning to the weak point, and the contest ended in the hulk being led home.’

(8) Joseph Henry Green, afterwards F.R.S. and Professor of Anatomy to the Royal Academy; distinguished alike as a teacher in his own profession and as a disciple and interpreter of Coleridge’s philosophy.

(9) Cornhill Magazine, April 1917: ‘A Talk with Coleridge,’ edited by Miss E. M. Green.

(10) καὶ φεύγει φιλέοντα καὶ οὐ φιλέοντα διώκει. Theocr. Idyll. vi. 27.

(11) I use the foot nomenclature for convenience, because to count by stresses seems to make the point less immediately clear, while to count by syllables would involve pointing out that in the last lines of stanzas ii, iv, ix and xi the movement is varied by resolving the light first syllable into two that take the time of one.

(12) Brown, writing many years after the events, must be a little out here, seeing that already on April 30th Keats tells his brother that Brown is busy ‘rummaging out his Keats’s old sins, that is to say sonnets.’ (Note that Keats mentions no odes). Brown is in like manner wrong in remembering the draft of the Nightingale ode as written on ‘four or five scraps’ when it was in fact written on two, as became apparent when it appeared in the market thirteen years ago (see Monthly Review, March 1903). It is now in the collection of Lord Crewe.

(13) When in 1823-4 their existence was disclosed and they were divided on the order of the Court of Chancery between George Keats and his sister, they amounted with accumulations of interest to a little over £4500.

 

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