FEBRUARY-AUGUST 1820: HAMPSTEAD AND KENTISH TOWN: PUBLICATION OF LAMIA VOLUME.
Letters from the sick-bed—To Fanny Brawne—To James Rice—Barry Cornwall—Hopes of returning health—Haydon’s private view—Improvement not maintained—Summer at Kentish Town—Kindness of Leigh Hunt—Misery and jealousy—Severn and Mrs Gisborne—Invitation from Shelley—Keats onThe Cenci—La Belle Dame published—A disfigured version—The Lamia volume published—Charles Lamb’s appreciation—The New Monthly—Other favourable reviews—Taylor and Blackwood—A skirmish—Impenitence—And impertinence—Jeffrey in the Edinburgh—Appreciation full though tardy—Fury of Byron—Shelley on Hyperion—And on Keats in general—Impressions of Crabb Robinson.
Such and so gloomy, although with no ignoble gloom, had been Keats’s deeper thoughts on poetry and life, and such the imagery under which he figured them, during the last weeks when the state of his health enabled his mind to work with anything approaching its natural power. From the night of his seizure on February 3rd 1820, which was three months after his twenty-fourth birthday, he never wrote verse again: unless indeed the lines found on the margin of his manuscript of The Cap and Bells were written from his sick-bed and in a moment of bitterness addressed in his mind to Fanny Brawne: but from a certain pitch and formality of style in them, I should take them rather to be meant for putting into the mouth of one of the characters in some such historical play as he had been meditating in the weeks before Christmas:—
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.
For several days after the hæmorrhage he was kept to his room and his bed, and for nearly two months had to lead a strictly invalid life. At first he could bear no one in the room except the doctor and Brown. ‘While I waited on him day and night,’ testifies Brown, ‘his instinctive generosity, his acceptance of my offices, by a glance of his eye, a motion of his hand, made me regard my mechanical duty as absolutely nothing compared to his silent acknowledgment.’ (How often have these words come home to the heart of the present writer in days when he used to be busy about the mute sick-bed of another of these shining ones!) Severn, nursing Keats later under conditions even more trying and hopeless, bears similar testimony to his unabated charm and sweetness in suffering. Almost from the first he was able to write little letters to his sister Fanny, and is careful to give them a cheering and re-assuring turn. When after some days he is down on a sofa-bed made up for him in the front parlour he tells her what an improvement it is:—
Besides I see all that passes-for instance now, this morning—if I had been in my own room I should not have seen the coals brought in. On Sunday between the hours of twelve and one I descried a Pot boy. I conjectured it might be the one o’clock beer—Old women with bobbins and red cloaks and unpresuming bonnets I see creeping about the heath. Gipseys after hare skins and silver spoons. Then goes by a fellow with a wooden clock under his arm that strikes a hundred and more. Then comes the old French emigrant (who has been very well to do in France) with his hands joined behind on his hips, and his face full of political schemes. Then passes Mr David Lewis, a very good-natured, good-looking old gentleman who has been very kind to Tom and George and me. As for those fellows the Brick-makers they are always passing to and fro. I mustn’t forget the two old maiden Ladies in Well Walk who have a Lap dog between them that they are very anxious about. It is a corpulent Little beast whom it is necessary to coax along with an ivory-tipp’d cane. Carlo our Neighbour Mrs Brawne’s dog and it meet sometimes. Lappy thinks Carlo a devil of a fellow and so do his Mistresses.
Very soon his betrothed was allowed to pay him little visits from next door, and he was able to take pleasure in these and in a constant interchange of notes with her. He tells her of his thoughts and some of his words (which are not quite the same as Brown puts in his mouth) at the moment of his seizure:—
You must believe—you shall, you will—that I can do nothing, say nothing, think nothing of you but what has its spring in the Love which has so long been my pleasure and torment. On the night I was taken ill—when so violent a rush of blood came to my Lungs that I felt nearly suffocated—I assure you I felt it possible I might not survive, and at that moment thought of nothing but you. When I said to Brown ‘this is unfortunate’ I thought of you. ’Tis true that since the first two or three days other subjects have entered my head.
On the whole his love-thoughts keep peaceable and contented, and his jealousies are for the moment at rest. But he has to struggle with the sense that considering his health and circumstances he is bound in fairness to release her from her engagement: an idea which to her credit she seems steadily to have refused to entertain.
My greatest torment since I have known you has been the fear of you being a little inclined to the Cressid; but that suspicion I dismiss utterly and remain happy in the surety of your Love, which I assure you is as much a wonder to me as a delight. Send me the words ‘Good night’ to put under my pillow….
You know our situation—what hope is there if I should be recovered ever so soon—my very health will not suffer me to make any great exertion. I am recommended not even to read poetry, much less write it. I wish I had even a little hope. I cannot say forget me—but I would mention that there are impossibilities in the world. No more of this. I am not strong enough to be weaned—take no notice of it in your good night.
The healthier and more tranquil tenor of his thoughts and feelings for the time is beautifully expressed in the often quoted letter written to James Rice a fortnight after his attack:—
I may say that for six months before I was taken ill I had not passed a tranquil day. Either that gloom overspread me, or I was suffering under some passionate feeling, or if I turned to versify, that acerbated the poison of either sensation. The beauties of nature had lost their power over me. How astonishingly (here I must premise that illness, as far as I can judge in so short a time, has relieved my mind of a load of deceptive thoughts and images, and makes me perceive things in a truer light),—how astonishingly does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties upon us! Like poor Falstaff, though I do not ‘babble’, I think of green fields; I muse with the greatest affection on every flower I have known from my infancy—their shapes and colours are as new to me as if I had just created them with a superhuman fancy. It is because they are connected with the most thoughtless and the happiest moments of our lives. I have seen foreign flowers in hothouses, of the most beautiful nature, but I do not care a straw for them. The simple flowers of our Spring are what I want to see again.
Some time in the month he owns to his beloved that the thoughts of what he had hoped to do in poetry mingle with his thoughts of her:—
How illness stands as a barrier betwixt me and you! Even if I was well—I must make myself as good a Philosopher as possible. Now I have had opportunities of passing nights anxious and awake I have found other thoughts intrude upon me. ‘If I should die,’ said I to myself, ‘I have left no immortal work behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory—but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.’ Thoughts like these came very feebly whilst I was in health and every pulse beat for you—now you divide with this (may I say it?) ‘last infirmity of noble minds’ all my reflection.
Presently we learn from his letters that Reynolds, Dilke, and one or two other friends have been dropping in to see him. He expresses himself touched by the courtesy of a new poetical acquaintance of much more prosperous worldly connexions than his own, Mr Bryan Waller Procter (‘Barry Cornwall’) in sending him copies of his volumes lately published. Keats does not mention that one of these contains a version, The Sicilian Story, of the same tale from Boccaccio as his own as yet unpublished Isabella: but he cannot quite conceal his perception of those qualities in Barry Cornwall’s work, its prevailing strain of fluent imitative common-place, its affectations and exaggerations of Hunt’s and his own leanings towards over-lusciousness, which Shelley, as we shall see, found so exasperating. ‘However,’ he adds, ‘that is nothing—I think he likes poetry for its own sake not his.’ (1) Before the end of the month we find him taking pleasure, as in earlier Februaries, in the song of the thrush, which portends, he hopes, an end of the north-east wind. The month of March brings signs of gradually returning strength. Brown, he says, declares he is getting stout; and having in the first weeks of his illness avowed that he was so feeble he could be flattered into a hope in which faith had no part, he now begins really to believe in his own recovery and to let his thoughts run again on fame and poetry. He writes to Fanny Brawne the most trustful and least agitated of all his love letters:—
You uttered a half complaint once that I only lov’d your Beauty. Have I nothing else then to love in you but that? Do not I see a heart naturally furnish’d with wings imprison itself with me? No ill prospect has been able to turn your thoughts a moment from me. This perhaps should be as much a subject of sorrow as joy—but I will not talk of that. Even if you did not love me I could not help an entire devotion to you: how much more deeply then must I feel for you knowing you love me. My Mind has been the most discontented and restless one that ever was put into a body too small for it. I never felt my Mind repose upon anything with complete and undistracted enjoyment—upon no person but you. When you are in the room my thoughts never fly out of window: you always concentrate my whole senses. The anxiety shown about our Loves in your last note is an immense pleasure to me: however you must not suffer such speculations to molest you any more: nor will I any more believe you can have the least pique against me.
And again: ‘let me have another opportunity of years and I will not die without being remember’d. Take care of yourself dear that we may both be well in the summer.’
He began to get about again, and by the 25th of March was well enough to go into town to the private view of Haydon’s huge picture, finished at last, of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. This was the occasion which Haydon in his autobiography describes in language so vivid and with a self-congratulation so boisterous and contagious that it is impossible in reading not to share his sense of the day’s triumph. As in the case of the Elgin marbles three years earlier, he had achieved his object in the face of a thousand difficulties and enmities, living the while on the bounty of friends, some of them rich, others, as we know, the reverse, whom his ardour and importunity had whipped up to his help. At the last moment he had contrived to scrape together money enough to stop the mouths of his creditors and to pay the cost of hiring the Egyptian Hall and hanging up his gigantic canvas there, with the help of three gigantic guardsmen, his models and assistants; and the world of taste and fashion, realising how Haydon had been right and the established dilettanti wrong in regard to the Elgin marbles, were determined to be on the safe side this time in case he should turn out to be right also about the merits of his own work.
Some exalted and many distinguished personages had been to see the picture in his studio, and now, on the opening day, the hall was thronged in answer to his invitations. ‘All the ministers and their ladies, all the foreign ambassadors, all the bishops, all the beauties in high life, all the geniuses in town, and everybody of any note, were invited and came…. The room was full. Keats and Hazlitt were up in a corner, really rejoicing.’ Hazlitt expressed in the Edinburgh Review for the following August a tempered, far from undiscriminating admiration of certain qualities in the painting. Keats himself merely mentions to his sister Fanny, without comment, the fact of his having been there. One wonders whether he witnessed the scene which Haydon goes on in his effective way to narrate.
He had tried to treat the head of Christ unconventionally, had painted and repainted it, and was nervous and dissatisfied over the result. The crowd seemed doubtful too. ‘Everybody seemed afraid, when in walked, with all the dignity of her majestic presence, Mrs Siddons, like a Ceres or a Juno. The whole room remained dead silent, and allowed her to think. After a few minutes Sir George Beaumont, who was extremely anxious, said in a very delicate manner, “How do you like the Christ?” Everybody listened for her reply. After a moment, in a deep, loud, tragic tone she said, “It is completely successful.” I was then presented with all the ceremonies of a levee, and she invited me to her house in an awful tone.’… I think it is not recorded whether Northcote’s acid comment in a different sense, ‘Mr Haydon, your ass is the Saviour of your picture’, was made on this famous occasion or privately. Certainly the ass, judging by photographs of the picture as it now hangs in a wrecked condition at Cincinnati, is the object that first takes the eye with its black ears and shoulders strongly relieved against the white drapery of Christ, and what looks like the realistic treatment of the creature in contrast with the ‘ideal,’ that is the vapidly pompous and pretentious, portraiture of geniuses past and present, Newton, Voltaire, Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Keats, introduced among the crowd in the foreground. (2)
In the course of April the improvement in Keats’s health failed to maintain itself. We find him complaining much of nervous irritability and general weakness. He is recommended, one would like to know by whom, to avoid the excitement of writing or even reading poetry and turn to the study of geometry—of all things!—as a sedative. He has no strength for the walk to Walthamstow to see his young sister, and even shrinks from the fatigue of going by coach. Brown having arranged to let his house again and go for another tramp through Scotland—not, one would have said under the circumstances, the course of a very considerate or solicitous friend, but he was probably misled by Keats’s apparent improvement the month before—Brown having made this arrangement, Keats, also on the recommendation of the doctors, thinks of sailing with him on the packet and returning alone, in hopes of getting strength from the sea-trip to Scotland and back. This plan, when it came to the point, he gave up, and only accompanied his friend down the river as far as Gravesend. Having to turn out of Wentworth Place in favour of Brown’s summer tenants, he thought of taking a lodging a few doors from the house where Leigh Hunt was then living in Kentish Town, then still a village on the way between London and Hampstead. Almost at the same time he writes to Dilke in regard to his future course of life, ‘My mind has been at work all over the world to find out what to do. I have my choice of three things, or at least two, South America, or surgeon to an Indiaman; which last, I think, will be my fate.’ For the present he moved as he had proposed to Kentish Town (2 Wesleyan Place). Here he stayed for six or seven weeks (approximately May 6-June 23), and then, having suffered a set-back in the shape of two slight returns of hæmorrhage from the lung, moved for the sake of better nursing into the household of the ever kind and affectionate, but not less ever feckless and ill-managing, Leigh Hunts at 13 Mortimer Terrace. With them he remained for another period of about seven weeks, ending on August 12th.
Those three months in Kentish Town were to Keats a time of distressing weakness and for the most part of terrible inward fretfulness and despondency. Early in the time he speaks of intending soon to begin (meaning begin again) on The Cap and Bells. When we read those vivid stanzas quoted above (p. 446) describing the welcome by the crowd of princess Bellanaine after her aerial journey, we are inevitably reminded of an event—the triumphal approach and entry of Queen Caroline into London from Dover—which happened on the 9th of June this same year. It would be tempting to suppose that Keats may have witnessed the event and been thereby inspired to his description. But he was too ill for such outings, and moreover the earlier of the two stanzas comes well back in the poem (sixty-fourth out of eighty-eight) and it is impossible to suppose that in his then state he could have added so much to the fragment as that would imply. So we must credit the stanzas to imagination only, and take it as certain that his only real occupation with poetry in these days was in passing through the press the new volume of poems (Lamia, Isabella, etc.,) which his friends had at last persuaded him to put forward. Even on this task his hold must have been loose, seeing that the publishers put in without his knowledge a note which he afterwards sharply disowned, to the effect that his reason for droppingHyperion had been the ill reception of Endymion by the critics.
His only outing, so far as we hear, was to an exhibition of English historical portraits at the British Institution, of which he writes to Brown with some interest and vividness. He tells at the same time of an invitation, which he was not well enough to accept, to meet Wordsworth, Southey, Lamb, Haydon, and some others at supper. Leigh Hunt, despite his engrossing literary and editorial occupations and a recent trying illness of his own, did his best, while Keats was his inmate, to keep him interested and amused. Keats in writing to his sister gratefully acknowledges as much. ‘Mr Hunt does everything in his power to make the time pass as agreeably with me as possible. I read the greatest part of the day and generally take two half-hour walks a day up and down the terrace which is very much pester’d with cries, ballad singers, and street music.’ But the obsession of his passion, its consuming jealousy and hopelessness, gave him little respite. He would keep his eyes fixed all day, as he afterwards avowed, on Hampstead; and once when, at Hunt’s suggestion, they took a drive as far as the Heath, he burst into a flood of unwonted tears and declared his heart was breaking.
His letters to his beloved in these same months are too agonizing to read. He is so little himself in them, so merely and utterly, to borrow words of his own, ‘a fever of himself,’ that many of us could not endure, when they were first published, the thought of this Keats-that-is-no-Keats being exposed before a hastily reading and carelessly judging after-world, and even now cannot but regret it. All the morbid self-torturing elements of his nature, which in health it had been a main part of the battle of his life to subdue, and of which he never suffered those about him to see a sign, now burst from control and flamed out against the girl he loved and the friends he loved next best to her. Once only, at the beginning of the time, he could write contentedly, telling her that he is marking for her the most beautiful passages in Spenser, ‘comforting myself in being somewhat occupied to give you however small a pleasure. It has lightened my time very much. God bless you.’ His other letters are in a tortured, almost frenzied, strain of jealous suspicion and reproach against her and against those of his intimates who had, as he imagined, disapproved their attachment, or pried into or made light of it, or else had shown her too marked attentions. Among the former were Reynolds and his sisters, from whom for the time being he was tacitly estranged. Among the latter he includes Brown and Dilke, with especial bitterness against Brown. Between them all they had made, he vows, a football of his heart, and again, ‘Hamlet’s heart was full of such misery as mine is when he cried to Ophelia, “Go to a Nunnery, go, go!”.’ That these were but the half-delirious promptings of his fevered blood is clear from the fact that a very few weeks both before and after such outbreaks he wrote to Brown as though counting him as much a friend as ever. As for his betrothed, wound as his reproaches might at the time, we know from her own words that they left no lasting impression of unkindness on her memory. Writing in riper years to Medwin, who had asked her whether the accounts current in Rome of Keats’s violence of nature were true, she says:—
That his sensibility was most acute, is true, and his passions were very strong, but not violent, if by that term, violence of temper is implied. His was no doubt susceptible, but his anger seemed rather to turn on himself than on others, and in moments of greatest irritation, it was only by a sort of savage despondency that he sometimes grieved and wounded his friends. Violence such as the letter describes, was quite foreign to his nature. For more than a twelvemonth before quitting England, I saw him every day, often witnessed his sufferings, both mental and bodily, and I do not hesitate to say, that he never could have addressed an unkind expression, much less a violent one, to any human being. (3)
These words of Fanny Brawne, then Mrs Lindon, to Medwin are not well known, and it is only fair to quote them as proving that if in youth the lady had not been willing to sacrifice her gaieties and her pleasure in admiration for the sake of her lover’s peace of mind, she showed at any rate in after life a true and loyal understanding of his character.
While Keats was staying in Kentish Town Severn went often to see him, and in the second week of July writes to Haslam struggling to keep up his hopes for their friend in spite of appearances and of Keats’s own conviction:—‘It will give you pleasure to say I trust he will still recover. His appearance is shocking and now reminds me of poor Tom and I have been inclined to think him in the same way. For himself—he makes sure of it—and seems prepossessed that he cannot recover—now I seem more than ever not to think so and I know you will agree with me when you see him—are you aware another volume of Poems was published last week—in which is “Lovely Isabel—poor simple Isabel”? I have been delighted with this volume and think it will even please the million.’ During the same period Shelley’s friends the Gisbornes twice met him at Leigh Hunt’s. The first time was on June 23. Mrs Gisborne writes in her journal that having lately been ill he spoke little and in a low tone: ‘the Endymion was not mentioned, this person might not be its author; but on observing his countenance and eyes I persuaded myself that he was the very person.’ It is always Keats’s eyes that strangers thus notice first: the late Mrs Procter, who met him only once, at a lecture of Hazlitt’s, remembered them to the end of her long life as like those of one ‘who had been looking at some glorious sight.’ This first time Keats and Mrs Gisborne had some talk about music and singing, but some three weeks later, on July 12th, the same lady notes, ‘drank tea at Mr Hunt’s; I was much pained by the sight of poor Keats, under sentence of death from Dr Lamb. He never spoke and looks emaciated.’
Doubtless it was under the impression of this last meeting that Mr Gisborne sent Shelley the account of Keats’s state of health which moved Shelley to write in his own and his wife’s name urging that Keats should come to Italy to avoid the English winter and take up his quarters with or near them at Pisa. Shelley repeats nearly the same kind and just opinion of Endymion as he had previously expressed in writing to the Olliers; saying he has lately read it again, ‘and ever with a new sense of the treasures of poetry it contains, though treasures poured forth with indistinct profusion. This people in general will not endure, and that is the cause of the comparatively few copies which have been sold. I feel persuaded that you are capable of the greatest things, so you but will.’ At the same time Shelley sends Keats a copy of his Cenci. Keats’s answer shows him touched and grateful for the kindness offered, but nevertheless, as always where Shelley is in question, in some degree embarrassed and ungracious. He says nothing of the invitation to Pisa, though he was already considering the possibility of going to winter in Italy. As to Endymion, he says he would willingly unwrite it did he care so much as once about reputation, and as to The Cenci, and The Prometheus announced as forthcoming, he makes the well-known, rather obscurely worded criticism of which the main drift is that to his mind Shelley pours out new poems too quickly and does not concentrate enough upon the purely artistic aims and qualities of his work. These, Keats goes on, are ‘by many spirits nowadays considered the Mammon. A modern work, it is said, must have a purpose which may be the God. An artist must serve Mammon; he must have ‘self-concentration’—selfishness, perhaps. You, I am sure, will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist, and load every rift of your subject with ore.’
Keats in these admonitions was no doubt remembering views of Shelley’s such as are expressed in his words ‘I consider poetry very subordinate to moral and political science.’ Judging by them, his mind would seem to have veered back from the convictions which inspired the pre-amble to the revised Hyperionthe autumn before, insisting, in language which might almost seem borrowed from the preface to Alastor, on the doom that awaits poets who play their art in selfishness instead of making it their paramount aim to ‘pour balm’ upon the miseries of mankind. With reference to the promised Prometheus he adds, ‘could I have my own wish effected, you would have it still in manuscript, or be but now putting an end to the second act. I remember your advising me not to publish my first blights, on Hampstead Heath. I am returning advice upon your hands.’ Finally, mentioning that he is sending out a copy of his lately published Lamiavolume, he says that most of its contents have been written above two years (a slip of memory, the statement being only true of Isabella and of one or two minor pieces) and would never have been published now but for hope of gain.
Shelley’s letter was written from Pisa on the 27th of July and received by Keats on the 13th of August. On the previous day he had fled suddenly from under the Leigh Hunts’ roof, having been thrown into a fit of uncontrollable nervous agitation by the act of a discharged servant, who kept back a letter to him from Fanny Brawne and on quitting the house left it to be delivered, opened and two days late, by one of the children. His first impulse on leaving the Hunts’ was to go back to his old lodging with Bentley the postman, but this Mrs Brawne would not hear of, and took him into her own house, where she and her daughter for the next few weeks nursed him and did all they could for his comfort.
During those unhappy months at Kentish Town Keats’s best work was given to the world. First, in Leigh Hunt’s Indicator for May 20, La Belle Dame sans Merci, signed, obviously in bitterness, ‘Caviare’ (Hamlet’s ‘caviare to the general’), and unluckily enfeebled by changes for which we find no warrant either in Keats’s autograph or in extant copies made by his friends Woodhouse and Brown. Keats’s judgment in revising his own work had evidently by this time become unsure. We have seen how in recasting Hyperion the previous autumn he changed some of the finest of his original lines for the worse: and it is conceivable that in the case of La Belle Dame he may have done so again of his own motion, but much more likely, I should say, that the changes, which are all in the direction of the slipshod and the commonplace, were made on Hunt’s suggestion and that Keats acquiesced from fatigue or indifference, or perhaps even from that very sense of lack of sympathy in most readers which made him sign ‘Caviare.’ Hunt introduced the piece with some commendatory words, showing that he at all events felt nothing amiss with it in its new shape, and added a short account of the old French poem by Alain Chartier from which the title was taken. It is to be deplored that in some recent and what should be standard editions of Keats the poem stands as thus printed in the Indicator, instead of in the original form rightly given by Lord Houghton from Brown’s transcript, in which it had become a classic of the language. (4)
It is surely a perversion in textual criticism to perpetuate the worse version merely because it happens to be the one printed in Keats’s lifetime. No sensitive reader but must feel that ‘wretched wight’ is a vague and vapid substitute for the clear image of the ‘knight-at-arms,’ while ‘sigh’d full sore’ is ill replaced by ‘sighed deep,’ and ‘wild wild eyes’ still worse by ‘wild sad eyes’: that the whimsical particularity of the ‘kisses four,’ removed in the new version, gives the poem an essential part of its savour (Keats was fond of these fanciful numberings, compare the damsels who stand ‘by fives and sevens’ in the Induction to Calidore, and the ‘four laurell’d spirits’ in the Epistle to George Felton Matthew): and again, that the loose broken construction—‘So kissed to sleep’ is quite uncharacteristic of the poet: and yet again, that the phrase ‘And there we slumbered on the moss,’ is what any amateur rimester might write about any pair of afternoon picknickers, while the phrase which was cancelled for it, ‘And there she lulled me asleep,’ falls with exactly the mystic cadence and hushing weight upon the spirit which was required. The reader may be interested to hear the effect which these changes had upon the late William Morris, than whom no man had a better right to speak. Mr Sydney Cockerell writes me:—
In February 1894 the last sheets of the Kelmscott Press Keats, edited by F. S. Ellis, were being printed. A specimen of each sheet of every book was brought in to Morris as soon as it came off the press. I was with him when he happened to open the sheet on which La Belle Dame sans Merci was printed. He began to read it and was suddenly aware of unfamiliar words, ‘wretched wight’ for ‘knight at arms,’ verses 4 and 5 transposed, and several changes in verse 7. Great was his indignation. He swiftly altered the words and then read the poem to me, remarking that it was the germ from which all the poetry of his group had sprung—The sheet was reprinted and the earlier and better version restored—I still have the cancelled sheet with his corrections.
Six weeks later, in the first days of July, appeared the volume Lamia, Isabella, and other Poems in right of which Keats’s name is immortal. La Belle Damewas not in it, nor In drear-nighted December, nor any sonnets, nor any of the verses composed on the Scotch tour, nor the fragment of The Eve of St Mark, nor, happily, The Cap and Bells: but it included all the odes except that on Indolence and the fragment To Maia, as well as nearly all the other minor pieces of any account written since Endymion, such as Fancy, the Mermaid Tavern and Robin Hood lines, with the three finished Tales, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, andLamia, and the great fragment of Hyperion in its original, not its recast, form. Keats was too far gone in illness and the hopelessness of passion to be much moved by the success or failure of his new venture. But the story of its first reception is part of his biography, and shall be briefly told in this place.
The first critic in the field was the best: no less a master than Charles Lamb, who within a fortnight of the appearance of the volume contributed to the New Times a brief notice, anonymous but marked with all the charm and authority of his genius. (5) He begins by quoting the four famous stanzas picturing Madeline at her prayers in the moonlit chamber, and comments—‘Like the radiance, which comes from those old windows upon the limbs and garments of the damsel, is the almost Chaucer-like painting, with which this poet illumes every subject he touches. We have scarcely anything like it in modern description. It brings us back to ancient days and “Beauty making-beautiful old rhymes.”’ ‘The finest thing,’ Lamb continues, ‘in the volume is The Pot of Basil.’ Noting how the anticipation of the assassination is wonderfully conceived in the one epithet of ‘the murder’d man,’ he goes on to quote the stanzas telling the discovery of and digging for the corpse, ‘than which,’ he says. ‘there is nothing more awfully simple in diction, more nakedly grand and moving in sentiment, in Dante, in Chaucer or in Spenser.’ It is to be noted that Lamb, who loved things Gothic better than things Grecian, ignores Hyperion, which most critics in praising the volume pitched on to the neglect of the rest, and proceeds to tell of Lamia, winding up with a return to The Pot of Basil:—
More exuberantly rich in imagery and painting is the story of the Lamia. It is of as gorgeous stuff as ever romance was composed of. Her first appearance in serpentine form—
—A beauteous wreath with melancholy eyes—
her dialogue with Hermes, the Star of Lethe, as he is called by one of these prodigal phrases which Mr Keats abounds in, which are each a poem in a word, and which in this instance lays open to us at once, like a picture, all the dim regions and their inhabitants, and the sudden coming of a celestial among them; the charming of her into woman’s shape again by the God; her marriage with the beautiful Lycius; her magic palace, which those who knew the street, and remembered it complete from childhood, never remembered to have seen before; the few Persian mutes, her attendants,
—who that same year
Were seen about the markets: none knew where
They could inhabit;—
the high-wrought splendours of the nuptial bower, with the fading of the whole pageantry, Lamia, and all, away, before the glance of Apollonius,—are all that fairy land can do for us. They are for younger impressibilities. To us an ounce of feeling is worth a pound of fancy; and therefore we recur again, with a warmer gratitude, to the story of Isabella and the pot of basil, and those never-cloying stanzas which we have cited, and which we think should disarm criticism, if it be not in its nature cruel; if it would not deny to honey its sweetness, nor to roses redness, nor light to the stars in Heaven; if it would not bay the moon out of the skies, rather than acknowledge she is fair.
Leigh Hunt, who during all this time was in all ways loyally doing his best for Keats’s encouragement and comfort, and had just dedicated his translation of Tasso’s Aminta to him as to one ‘equally pestered by the critical and admired by the poetical,’—Leigh Hunt within a month of the appearance of the volume reviewed and quoted from it with full appreciation in two numbers of the Indicator. His notice contained those judicious remarks which we have already cited on the philosophical weakness of Lamia, praising at the same time the gorgeousness of the snake description, and saying, of the lines on the music being the sole support of the magical palace-roof, ‘this is the very quintessence of the romantic.’ ‘When Mr Keats errs in his poetry,’ says Hunt in regard to the Pot of Basil, ‘it is from the ill-management of a good thing—exuberance of ideas’; and, comparing the contents of this volume with his earlier work, concludes as follows:—
The author’s versification is now perfected, the exuberances of his imagination restrained, and a calm power, the surest and loftiest of all power, takes place of the impatient workings of the younger god within him. The character of his genius is that of energy and voluptuousness, each able at will to take leave of the other, and possessing, in their union, a high feeling of humanity not common to the best authors who can less combine them. Mr Keats undoubtedly takes his seat with the oldest and best of our living poets.
But Leigh Hunt’s praise of one of his own supposed disciples of the Cockney School would carry little weight outside the circle of special sympathizers. A better index to the way the wind was beginning to blow was the treatment of the volume in Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine, of which the poet Thomas Campbell had lately been appointed editor, with the excellent Cyrus Redding as acting editor under him:—‘These poems are very far superior’, declares the critic, ‘to any which the author has previously committed to the press. They have nothing showy, or extravagant, or eccentric about them; but are pieces of calm beauty, or of lone and self-supported grandeur.’ In Lamia, ‘there is a mingling of Greek majesty with fairy luxuriance which we have not elsewhere seen.’Isabella is compared with Barry Cornwall’s Sicilian Story: ‘the poem of Mr Keats has not the luxury of description, nor the rich love-scenes, of Mr Cornwall; but he tells the tale with a naked and affecting simplicity which goes irresistibly to the heart. The Eve of St Agnes is ‘a piece of consecrated fancy’, in which ‘a soft religious light is shed over the whole story.’ In Hyperion ‘the picture of the vast abode of Cybele and the Titans is ‘in the sublimest style of Æschylus’: and in conclusion the critic takes leave of Mr Keats ‘with wonder at the gigantic stride which he has taken, and with the good hope that if he proceeds in the high and pure style which he has now chosen, he will attain an exalted and a lasting station among English poets.’ Of the other chief literary reviews in England, the old-established Monthly begins in a strain scarcely less laudatory, but wavers and becomes admonitory before the end, while Keats’s dismal monitor of three years before, the sententious Eclectic Review, acknowledging in him ‘a young man possessed of an elegant fancy, a warm and lively imagination, and something above the average talents of persons who take to writing poetry’, proceeds to warn him against regarding imagination as the proper organ of poetry, to lecture him on his choice of subjects, his addiction to the Greek mythology, and to poetry for poetry’s sake (‘poetry, after all, if pursued as an end, is but child’s play’). The British Critic, more contemptuous even than Blackwood or the Quarterly in its handling of Endymion, this time prints a kind of palinode, admitting that ‘Mr Keats is a person of no ordinary genius’, and prophesying that if he will take Spenser and Milton for models instead of Leigh Hunt he ‘need not despair of attaining to a very high and enviable place in the public esteem’.
Writing to Brown from Hampstead in the latter half of August, Keats seems aware that the critics are being kinder to him than before. ‘My book,’ he says, ‘has had good success among the literary people, and I believe has a moderate sale;’ and again, ‘the sale of my book has been very slow, but it has been very highly rated.’ The great guns of Scottish criticism had not yet spoken. Constable’s Edinburgh (formerly the Scots) Magazine, which never either hit or bit hard, and whose managers had preferred the ways of prudence when Bailey urged them two years before boldly to denounce the outrages of the ‘Z’ gang in Blackwood, in due course praised Keats’s new volume, but cautiously, saying that ‘it must and ought to attract attention, for it displays the ore of true poetic genius, though mingled with a large portion of dross…. He is continually shocking our ideas of poetical decorum, at the very time when we are acknowledging the hand of genius. In thus boldly running counter to old opinions, however, we cannot conceive that Mr Keats merits bitter contempt or ridicule; the weapons which are too frequently employed when liberal discussion and argument would be unsuccessful.’ As to Blackwood’s Magazine itself, we are fortunate in having an amusing first-hand narrative of an encounter of its owner and manager with Keats’s publisher which preceded the appearance of Keats’s new volume. The excellent Taylor, staunch to his injured young friend and client even at some risk, as in his last words he shows himself aware, to his own interests, writes from Fleet Street on the last day of August to his partner Hessey:—
I have had this day a call from Mr Blackwood. We shook hands and went into the Back Shop. After asking him what was new at Edinburgh, and talking about Clare, the Magazine, Baldwin, Peter Corcoran and a few other subjects, (6) I observed that we had published another Volume of Keats’s Poems on which his Editors would have another opportunity of being witty at his expense. He said they were disposed to speak favourably of Mr K. this time—and he expected that the article would have appeared in this month’s mag.
‘But can they be so inconsistent?’ ‘There is no inconsistency in praising him if they think he deserves it.’ ‘After what has been said of his talents I should think it very inconsistent.’ ‘Certainly they found fault with his former Poems but that was because they thought they deserved it.’ ‘But why did they attack him personally?’ ‘They did not do so.’
‘No? Did not they speak of him in ridicule as Johnny Keats, describe his appearance while addressing a Sonnet to Ailsa Crag, and compare him as a (?) hen to Shelley as a Bird of Paradise, besides, what can you say to that cold blooded passage when they say they will take care he shall never get £50 again for a vol. of his Poems—what had he done to deserve such attacks as these?’
‘Oh, it was all a joke, the writer meant nothing more than to be witty. He certainly thought there was much affectation in his Poetry, and he expressed his opinion only—It was done in the fair spirit of criticism.’
‘It was done in the Spirit of the Devil, Mr Blackwood. So if a young man is guilty of affectation while he is walking the streets it is fair in another Person because he dislikes it to come and knock him down.’
‘No,’ says B., ‘but a poet challenges public opinion by printing his book, but I suppose you would have them not criticized at all?’
‘I certainly think they are punished enough by neglect and by the failure of their hopes and to me it seems very cruel to abuse a man merely because he cannot give us as much pleasure as he wishes. But you go even beyond his …(?) you strike a man when he is down. He gets a violent blow from the Quarterly—and then you begin.’
‘I beg your pardon,’ says B., ‘we were the first.’
‘I think not, but if you were the first, you continued it after, for that truly diabolical thrust about the £50 appeared after the critique in the Quarterly.’
‘You mistake that altogether,’ said B., ‘the writer does not like the Cockney School, so he went on joking Mr K. about it.’
‘Why should not the manners of gentlemen continue to regulate their conduct when they are writing of each other as much as when they are in conversation? No man would insult Mr Keats in this manner in his company, and what is the difference between writing and speaking of a person except that the written attack is the more base from being made anonymously and therefore at no personal risk.—I feel regard for Mr Keats as a man of real Genius, a Gentleman, nay more, one of the gentlest of Human Beings. He does not resent these things himself, he merely says of his Opponents “They don’t know me.” Now this mildness(?) his friends feel the more severely when they see him ill used. But this feeling is not confined to them. I am happy to say that the Public Interest is awakened to the sense of the Injustice which has been done him and the attempts to ruin him will have in the end a contrary effect.’ Here I turned the conversation to another subject by asking B. if he read the Abbot, and in about 10 minutes more he made his Exit with a formal Bow and a Good Morning.
The above is the Substance and as clearly as possible the words, I made use of. His replies were a little more copious than I have stated but to the same effect. I have written this conversation down on the day it took place because I suspect some allusion may hereafter be made to it in the Mag. and I fully expect that whatever Books we publish will be received with reference to the feeling it is calculated to excite in the bosoms of these freebooting….(7)
In the upshot, the Blackwood critics took no direct notice of the Lamia volume at all, but made occasion during the autumn to say their new say about Keats in a review of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. This time the hand is unmistakably that of Wilson. For the last year or more Wilson, following a hint given him by De Quincey, had chosen to take Shelley boisterously under his patronage as a poet of true genius, for whom scarcely any praise would be too high could he only be weaned from his impious opinions. Now, after rebutting a current and really gratuitous charge that the magazine praised Shelley from the knowledge that he was a man of means and family, and denounced Hunt and Keats because they were poor and struggling, the critic blusters characteristically on, in a strain half apologetic in one breath and in the next as odiously insolent as ever:—
As for Mr Keats, we are informed that he is in a very bad state of health, and that his friends attribute a great deal of it to the pain he has suffered from the critical castigation his Endymion drew down on him in this magazine. If it be so, we are most heartily sorry for it, and have no hesitation in saying, that had we suspected that young author, of being so delicately nerved, we should have administered our reproof in a much more lenient shape and style. The truth is, we from the beginning saw marks of feeling and power in Mr Keats’s verses, which made us think it very likely, he might become a real poet in England, provided he could be persuaded to give up all the tricks of Cockneyism, and forswear for ever the thin potations of Mr Leigh Hunt. We, therefore, rated him as roundly as we decently could do, for the flagrant affectations of those early productions of his. In the last volume he has published we find more beauties than in the former, both of language and of thought, but we are sorry to say, we find abundance of the same absurd affectations also, and superficial conceits, which first displeased us in his writings;—and which we are again very sorry to say, must in our opinion, if persisted in, utterly and entirely prevent Mr Keats from ever taking his place among the pure and classical poets of his mother tongue. It is quite ridiculous to see how the vanity of these Cockneys makes them overrate their own importance, even in the eyes of us, that have always expressed such plain unvarnished contempt for them, and who do feel for them all, a contempt too calm and profound, to admit of any admixture of anything like anger or personal spleen. We should just as soon think of being wroth with vermin, independently of their coming into our apartment, as we should of having any feelings at all about any of these people, other than what are excited by seeing them in the shape of authors. Many of them, considered in any other character than that of authors, are, we have no doubt, entitled to be considered as very worthy people in their own way. Mr Hunt is said to be a very amiable man in his own sphere, and we believe him to be so willingly. Mr Keats we have often heard spoken of in terms of great kindness, and we have no doubt his manners and feelings are calculated to make his friends love him. But what has all this to do with our opinion of their poetry? What, in the name of wonder, does it concern us, whether these men sit among themselves, with mild or with sulky faces, eating their mutton steaks, and drinking their porter at Highgate, Hampstead, or Lisson Green?… Last of all, what should forbid us to announce our opinion, that Mr Shelley, as a man of genius, is not merely superior, either to Mr Hunt, or to Mr Keats, but altogether out of their sphere, and totally incapable of ever being brought into the most distant comparison with either of them.
The critical utterance on Keats’s side likely to tell most with general readers was that of Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review. A year earlier Keats had written from Winchester expressing impatience at what he thought the cowardice of the Edinburgh in keeping silence as to Endymion in face of the Quarterly attack. ‘They do not know what to make of it, and they will not praise it for fear. They are as shy of it as I should be of wearing a Quaker’s hat. The fact is they have no real taste. They dare not compromise their judgments on so puzzling a question. If on my next publication they should praise me, and so lug in Endymion, I will address them in a manner they will not at all relish. The cowardliness of the Edinburgh is more than the abuse of the Quarterly’. Exactly what Keats had anticipated now took place. Jeffrey’s natural taste in poetry was conservative, and favoured the correct, the classical and traditional: but in this case, whether from genuine and personal opinion, or to please influential well-wishers of Keats on his own side in politics and criticism like Sir James Mackintosh, he on the appearance of the new volume took occasion to print, now when Keats was far past caring about it, an article on his work which was mainly in eulogy ofEndymion: eulogy not unmixed with reasonable criticism, but in a strain, on the whole, gushing almost to excess:—
We had never happened to see either of these volumes till very lately—and have been exceedingly struck with the genius they display, and the spirit of poetry which breathes through all their extravagance. That imitation of our older writers, and especially of our older dramatists, to which we cannot help flattering ourselves that we have somewhat contributed, has brought on, as it were, a second spring in our poetry;—and few of its blossoms are either more profuse of sweetness or richer in promise than this which is now before us. Mr Keats, we understand, is still a very young man; and his whole works, indeed, bear evidence enough of the fact. They are full of extravagance and irregularity, rash attempts at originality, interminable wanderings, and excessive obscurity. They manifestly require, therefore, all the indulgence that can be claimed for a first attempt: but we think it no less plain that they deserve it; for they are flushed all over with the rich lights of fancy, and so coloured and bestrewn with the flowers of poetry, that even while perplexed and bewildered in their labyrinths, it is impossible to resist the intoxication of their sweetness, or to shut our hearts to the enchantments they so lavishly present. The models upon which he has formed himself, in the Endymion, the earliest and by much the most considerable of his poems, are obviously theFaithful Shepherdess of Fletcher, and the Sad Shepherd of Ben Jonson;—the exquisite metres and inspired diction of which he has copied, with great boldness and fidelity—and, like his great originals, has also contrived to impart to the whole piece that true rural and poetical air which breathes only in them and in Theocritus—which is at once homely and majestic, luxurious and rude, and sets before us the genuine sights and sounds and smells of the country, with all the magic and grace of Elysium.
Then, after acknowledgment of the confusedness of the narrative and the fantastic wilfulness of some of the incidents and style, the critic goes on:—
There is no work, accordingly, from which a malicious critic could cull more matter for ridicule, or select more obscure, unnatural, or absurd passages. But we do not take that to be our office:—and just beg leave, on the contrary, to say, that any one who, on this account, would represent the whole poem as despicable, must either have no notion of poetry, or no regard to truth. It is, in truth, at least is full of genius as of absurdity; and he who does not find a great deal in it to admire and to give delight, cannot in his heart see much beauty in the two exquisite dramas to which we have already alluded, or find any great pleasure in some of the finest creations of Milton and Shakespeare. There are many such persons, we verily believe, even among the reading and judicious part of the community—correct scholars we have no doubt many of them, and, it may be, very classical composers in prose and in verse—but utterly ignorant of the true genius of English poetry, and incapable of estimating its appropriate and most exquisite beauties. With that spirit we have no hesitation in saying that Mr K. is deeply imbued—and of those beauties he has presented us with many striking examples. We are very much inclined indeed to add, that we do not know any book which we would sooner employ as a test to ascertain whether anyone had in him a native relish for poetry, and a genuine sensibility to its intrinsic charm.