Romantic readings: 'On the Sea' by John Keats

by Colin Silver 
On Monday, 14 April 1817, John Keats took hold of his luggage and climbed aboard a coach from London to Southampton. His destination was the Isle of Wight, and his desire was to work without distraction on his new poem, Endymion (the famous first line, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ had already been written). In his luggage, along with his clothes, were a newly acquired seven-volume set of Whittingham’s Shakespeare, a book of Spenser’s poetry, some pens and ink and a picture drawn by his close friend, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon.
The next morning, he disembarked in Southampton’s High Street and went for breakfast at one of the city’s many inns. After breakfast, he walked down to the water – to the quay – in the early morning light. This is the ancient heart of Southampton and it retains much of the character it had at this time so it is not difficult to imagine Keats strolling around the streets ‘viewing the manners of the town’. When he returned to the inn he wrote a letter to be taken back to his brothers in London by a returning mail coach:

I am safe at Southampton – after having ridden three stages outside and the rest in for it began to be very cold. I did not know the Names of any of the Towns I passed through – all I can tell you is that sometimes I saw dusty hedges – sometimes ponds… I felt rather lonely this morning so I went and unbox’d a Shakespeare – ‘There’s my Comfort’. I went immediately after Breakfast to Southampton Water where I enquired for the Boat to the Isle of Wight… it will go at 3, so shall I after having taken a Chop…

Here’s my Comfort’ is a phrase uttered by a character, Stephano, in The Tempest. He enters the scene with a bottle of drink in his hand, singing a song:

I shall no more to sea, to sea,
Here shall I die ashore.
This is a very scurvy tune to sing at a man’s funeral.
Well, here’s my comfort. [Drinks]

After his dinner, or ‘chop’, Keats caught the 3 o’clock ferry, probably a wherry, an attractive wooden boat with both oars and sail which was very common around the Channel ports at this time. By now, Keats had come to love the sea. Even as a schoolboy he had enjoyed the imagery of the ‘sea-shouldering whales’ of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene and more recently, at Margate, he had written of the sea’s

vastness, its blue green,
Its ships, its rocks, its caves, its hopes, its fears,
Its voice mysterious, which whoso hears
Must think on what will be, and what has been.

Now, on this Tuesday afternoon in April 1817, he was sailing to a beautiful, largely unspoilt island with a copy of The Tempest in his pocket.
On Wednesday morning, on the Isle of Wight, Keats woke up in his Newport lodgings and decided to explore the island, to find somewhere to settle. From Newport he took a coach to the little village of Shanklin on the south coast. This was a village of perhaps 150 residents amid a landscape that was famous for its natural beauty. It had the ‘Shanklin Chine’, a cleft in a 300-foot cliff which led down past an old oak tree, a cottage and some fisherman’s huts to the sea. When Keats walked down it, one side was covered in primroses all the way to the water.
Many artists and writers in Keats’ day took notebooks with them on their travels. Shelley’s numerous vellum-bound notebooks still exist and are full of ideas and drawings (Shelley had a penchant for sketching trees and sailboats); these notebooks are now kept in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the New York Public Library. Keats, however, just scribbled his thoughts on scraps of paper and in the margins of his books. In fact, in his writing he was surprisingly messy and disorganised – he underlined and marked whole passages of The Tempest in his brand new volume of Shakespeare, and his markings were anything but neat. Pens were, at the time, mere goose feathers cut with a ‘pen knife’ so they wore out quickly and a writer would require several feathers in the course of a day’s work. Each of them was liable to leave globs of ink on paper and fingers. Keats didn’t care about how he wrote; he cared about what he wrote. He later complained of a fastidious friend who

…affronts my indolence and luxury by pulling out of his knapsack, first his paper; secondly his pens; and last, his ink. Now I would not care if he would change a little. I say now, why not take his pens first sometimes? But I might as well tell a hen to hold up her head before she drinks, instead of afterwards.

Once he had descended the Shanklin Chine, Keats put his thoughts about Endymion to one side and composed a new poem, a Petrarchan sonnet called ‘On the Sea’.
As well as studying The Tempest in volume 1 of his Shakespeare, he had been reading King Lear in volume 7. He later said that the line of Edgar to the recently blinded Duke of Gloucester, when Gloucester thought they were approaching a cliff at Dover, ‘Hark, do you hear the sea?’ (King Lear, Act IV, Scene VI) had haunted him intensely. Now here was Keats, standing in front of the sea as it moved across the sand and shingle below the cliffs at Shanklin, and he listened to it carefully.
On the Sea is a beautiful and technically brilliant evocation of this single experience. Keats used the technique of onomatopoeia throughout the whole of the octave to replicate the hissing of the waves across sand and shingle, as, for example:

It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns

The octave describes the immense bulk and power of the sea but notes that the twice-daily tides are controlled by the moon goddess, Hecate, who (as Tooke’s Pantheon had informed Keats) keeps ‘all the ghosts and spirits in subjection’. Sometimes the sea is very gentle and stays so for days until the wind heaves it up again.
In the sestet, Keats implores people who are ‘vexed’ and have ‘tired eyes’ to enjoy the palliative effect of looking at the sea, and those who have been subjected to too much noise (the implication being people who are trapped in towns and cities, as Keats had been himself for almost the whole of his life) to sit near a cavern and simply listen to it. You will be lost to yourself, as Keats clearly was. When, finally, some intervening thought brings you back to yourself, you will be aware of the ‘music’ of the sea (the verb ‘quired’ in the last line is an archaic form of ‘choired’).
Here is the final version of Keats’ ‘On the Sea’, with its ‘whispering’ octave:

It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often ‘tis in such gentle temper found
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.
O ye! who have your eye-balls vexed and tired,
Feast them on the wideness of the sea;
O ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody,
Sit ye near some old cavern’s mouth and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quired!

It is possible that a starting point for ‘On the Sea’ was a piece of music about the sea, the beautiful terzettino, Soave sia il vento [May the wind be gentle] from Mozart’s opera, Cosi fan tutte. Keats would certainly have been familiar with it- it was all around him. Italian opera was staged at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket throughout the 1810s, and Keats’ new friend, the famous writer and editor Leigh Hunt, had reviewed Cosi fan tutte for his newspaper (the Examiner). A seat in the gallery cost just five shillings and the price remained the same for decades. Opera was also performed at the hugely popular Covent Garden Theatre. From 1813 onwards, concerts, including selections from Cosi fan tutte, were performed by The Philharmonic Society of London at the Argyll Rooms on the corner of King Street. This venue was just around the corner from the studio of Keats’ friend Benjamin Robert Haydon, a man who loved the opera. Finally, Keats’ school friend Edward Holmes was Mozart’s first English biographer, and Keats still met him occasionally at the house of a mutual friend, the musician Vincent Novello, where Mozart was played.
Keats loved Mozart’s music. He called Mozart ‘divine’ and once said that the beauty of a woman had kept him awake one night ‘as a tune of Mozart’s might do’. Soave sia il vento is an aria that a man who was familiar with Mozart could hardly fail to recall if he had escaped from the city and was standing on the shore watching the movement and contemplating the ‘temper’ and the ‘music’ of the sea:

Soave sia il vento [May the wind be gentle]
Tranquilla sia l’onda [May the waves be calm]
Ed ogni elemento [And may every one of the elements]
Benigno risponda [Answer warmly]
Ai nostri desir [To our desires]

Whether Keats wrote ‘On the Sea’ while standing on the shore at Shanklin, as scratchy scribblings on a scrap of paper, or composed it more carefully back in his lodgings, we will never know, but it was included in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds the very next day. By that time, however, Keats had packed up his meagre belongings and moved to new vistas, on the road to Carisbrooke.
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.