By Colin Silver
William Wordsworth brought out a new, two-volume edition of his poems in 1815 and Keats bought a copy some time that autumn. Wordsworth was not, in 1815, the giant of English poetry that he would later become. He was both the Comptroller of Stamps for Westmorland and the writer (in collaboration with Samuel Taylor Coleridge) of a book of poetry called Lyrical Ballads, a book that was now 16 years old. Wordsworth’s poetry had always been read with ambivalence by the critics because on the one hand it was occasionally unfathomable – plain, abstruse and rustic – but on the other it contained some beautiful sentiments, and Wordsworth’s deep love of the natural world (and his almost mystical connection with it) always shone though.
One of Wordsworth’s poems which Keats read and remembered was a Prefatory Sonnet:
‘Nuns fret not at their Convent’s narrow room;
And Hermits are contented with their Cells;
And Students with their pensive Citadels:
Maids at the Wheel, the Weaver at his Loom,
Sit blithe and happy; Bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest peak of Furness Fells,
Will murmur by the hour in Foxglove bells:
In truth, the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence to me,
In sundry moods, ‘twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground:
Pleas’d if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find short solace there, as I have found.’
This poem is a Petrarchan Sonnet, and very much more weighty, more profound than anything Keats had read with George Felton Mathew and his cousins. It was a different type of poem when compared to anything he had read with Charles Cowden Clarke. It was different from James Beattie’s The Minstrel – if anything, it was more philosophical even than that, the poem of a professional philosopher. Wordsworth’s Prefatory Sonnet is introspective and meditative. It has a powerful message, the message imparted by all the great religious and philosophical thinkers of antiquity, that we must live our lives fully focused on the present moment, that we must discover eternity not in some future life after death, but here and now. If we try, we can achieve spiritual fulfilment even in the most mundane work. Nuns in their narrow rooms; hermits in their cells; maids at the wheel; weavers at the loom; even bees murmuring in foxglove bells – none are imprisoned, none are trapped, none are fretful, none are harking after an irretrievable past nor dreaming about a possibly non-existent future. All are contented and fulfilled merely by living in the present moment. Wordsworth himself is doing exactly the same thing – living within the confines of his sonnet, its ‘scanty ground’ ready to be sown with the ideas that he is formulating in his mind. The very process of writing the sonnet is a peaceful and fulfilling one. He finds solace in it, and he hopes that in the future someone with a busy, fretful, discontented life, a life of too much liberty, will pause and find solace in it too.
Keats read this poem not long after he had started living and working in Southwark, when he was still coming to terms with the squalor of his surroundings, and the terrible pain and suffering he found in the local hospitals. At some point he would have read the Supplementary Essay that Wordsworth included in the first volume of the poems:
‘With the young of both sexes, poetry is, like love, a passion; but, for much of the greater part of those who have been proud of its power over their minds, a necessity soon arises of breaking the pleasing bondage…’
Keats would have recognised this sentiment immediately, for it was the sentiment he himself had recently expressed in the lines:
‘Far different cares
Beckon me sternly from soft ‘Lydian airs’…’
‘Poetry then becomes only an occasional recreation; while to those whose existence passes away in a course of fashionable pleasures, it is a species of luxurious amusement. In middle and declining age, a scattered number of serious persons resort to poetry, as to religion, as a protection against the pressure of trivial employments, and as consolation for the afflictions of life.’
Poetry ‘as consolation for the afflictions of life’ was exactly what Keats had been thinking about even before he had arrived in Southwark. Here, in Wordsworth, Keats was discovering a kindred spirit, a poet with the depth and gravity that Keats himself aspired to. Wordsworth goes on to discuss the role of the critic in the appreciation and dissemination of new poetry. He says that only those people whose youth is behind them have the experience and knowledge required to judge poetry on its merits:
‘When a juvenile Reader is in the height of his rapture with some vicious passage, should experience throw in doubts, or common sense suggest suspicions, a lurking consciousness that the realities of the muse are but shows, and that her liveliest excitements are raised by transient shocks of conflicting feeling and successive assemblages of contradictory thoughts – is ever at hand to justify extravagance, and to sanction absurdity.’
Juvenile readers, says Wordsworth, are delighted with shows, conflicting feelings, contradictory thoughts and absurdities in poetry because they expect them, because they think they are the ‘realities of the muse’. The juvenile mind considers poetry to be nothing but an occasional recreation, a mere diversion. But to the poet who aspires to provide consolation to the afflicted, a more mature, thoughtful and philosophical approach to poetry (that’s to say, to its subject) is required.
After having bought and read Wordsworth’s new book, Keats decided to write a poem about his own life of solitude and confinement in Southwark. The new poem reveals just how much he had assimilated from Wordsworth’s poem and its accompanying essay. It is much more mature and sophisticated than anything he had written before and, once again, it demonstrates his innate gift for emulation (the tone of the poem is recognisably Wordsworthian).
In the octave of the poem, O Solitude, if I must with thee dwell, Keats expresses a desire to escape from his life of solitude among ‘the jumbled heap of murky buildings’ in Southwark to a life among the hills and vales of the countryside. The sestet is a caveat, an acknowledgement that he would rather spend his time not in solitude, but in ‘sweet converse’ with ‘an innocent mind’. Solitude, of course, is the state of being alone, but a solitude is a remote and solitary place, the type of place about which Wordsworth wrote so eloquently. It must be the height of human happiness, Keats concludes, when two kindred spirits can flee there together:
‘O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; – climb with me the steep,
Nature’s observatory – whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes – its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span: let me thy vigils keep
‘Mongst boughs pavilioned; where the Deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the foxglove bell.
Ah! fain would I frequent such scenes with thee,
But the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refined,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.’
Keats already knew that he had an innate gift for emulation, for seizing upon the essence of great poetry and re-creating it in original poems of his own. This latest poem was another example of this, and it established his abilities beyond doubt. Now, for the first time in his life, he began to think of publication. The question was, to whom should he send the poem? There were so many newspapers and periodicals in London at this time, so many outlets for publishing poetry, that the choice was bewildering.
Keats had been an avid reader of Leigh Hunt’s Examiner for many years – he had almost certainly been introduced to it by the Clarkes at their school in Enfield – and he had the same sort of enthusiasm for its lead writer and editor, Leigh Hunt, as had hundreds of other poets, writers, theatre-goers and artists in London at the time. (Benjamin Robert Haydon thought Hunt, ‘as fine a specimen of a London editor as could be imagined’.) In the early part of 1816, Keats sent his Solitude sonnet to Leigh Hunt and Hunt was sufficiently impressed that he published it in the Examiner on Sunday, 5 May 1816.
Keats was now a published poet, and his life would never be the same again.
This post is an edited extract from Colin Silver’s book: John Keats and Benjamin Robert Haydon: The Pursuit of Beauty and Truth.
Colin Silver lived for many years near the Lake District. He developed a deep interest in the life and work of the great 19th century art critic John Ruskin whose house overlooked Coniston Water. Following Ruskin, Colin developed a love of the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Romantics, particularly Keats and Shelley.
When he moved to Oxfordshire, Colin continued his studies and began writing articles on a freelance basis for the Oxford Times’ Limited Edition magazine. His subjects included Keats, Shelley, Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites, Shakespeare and the celebrated 19th century physician Henry Acland. His first book, John Keats and Benjamin Robert Haydon: The Pursuit of Beauty of Truth is now available from Amazon.