John Keats and his Publishers

Page 1

by Colin Silver

 

There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. Keats was, of course, destined to become one of our very greatest writers so we may wonder why he did not attract a ‘conventional’ publishing contract, and what exactly was the process of publishing on commission.

In early 1817, in London, a former bank clerk called Charles Ollier and his younger brother, James, started a new venture trading as retail booksellers and publishers at 3 Welbeck Street, close to the wealthy residents of Cavendish Square and Portman Square. They also had a circulating library that charged for the loan of books by means of an annual subscription. Ollier had been a friend of the celebrated editor, poet and political agitator Leigh Hunt since 1810, after sending Hunt a theatrical review for one of his newspapers. By early 1817 Leigh Hunt lived in a modest (but elaborately furnished) cottage in the Vale of Health on Hampstead Heath and was the head of a literary set that met there on a regular basis.

Leigh Hunt, engraved by H. Meyer from a drawing by J. Hayter

Leigh Hunt, engraved by H. Meyer from a drawing by J. Hayter

Despite their veneer of residential respectability in Welbeck Street (their neighbours included a pianoforte manufacturer and a surgeon), the Ollier brothers were short of capital to invest in their business, but what they did have was their valuable connection to the Hunt circle. An early client was Hunt’s wealthy friend Percy Bysshe Shelley. He set up an account to buy books for the library of a house he had just taken in Marlow, Buckinghamshire (the library was large and furnished with classical statues) and requested that the Olliers forward his letters to his various friends and contacts in London – for these services the Olliers were paid on account. In return, the Olliers would have Shelley’s works printed, at Shelley’s own cost, by the printer Carew Henry Reynell at 21 Piccadilly.

Shelley’s first publication was a pamphlet that he wanted distributed to newspapers and Members of Parliament. It was called A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote ‘By the Hermit of Marlow’ and it sold for one shilling. But why would Shelley choose the Olliers for the publication of his pamphlet when they could not even afford the cost of printing it, let alone the cost of acquiring its copyright? Quite simply, Shelley was an unknown author at this time and, considering his potential audience, the ‘C & J Ollier’ imprint gave his writing a degree of credibility that it would otherwise lack.

‘Shelley’s ‘A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote’, Bodleian Library

As the months passed, the Olliers’ business attracted more of Hunt’s literary friends and acquaintances. They were in discussions with the journalist and essayist William Hazlitt, for example, about publishing his new book, The Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays. This was also printed by Reynell in Piccadilly and it eventually became a best seller.

Charles Ollier was aware that Leigh Hunt had publicly endorsed John Keats as one of a promising new generation of poets so when it became known that Keats was seeking a publisher for his first volume of poetry, Hunt’s influence once more came to the fore and a deal was struck with the Olliers. As had been the case with Shelley, Keats would have to pay the production costs of the book himself. The total was to be around £25, half the annual wages of a porter at the Royal Academy according to one contemporary report and a very large sum for Keats to risk on a speculative publishing venture. The Olliers would provide their imprint and then advertise and sell the book through their shop in Welbeck Street, taking 10% commission on all sales as payment.

Keats needed to employ a printer, and a young man called Charles Richards was approached. He was the brother of Thomas Richards, another friend of Leigh Hunt with whom Keats had recently spent an evening (a ‘whoreson a Night’ according to Keats, possibly referring to the atrocious weather at the time). Whether this was the occasion that Charles Richards was chosen is not known but he, too, had only recently set up in business. His printing workshop was at 18 Warwick Street, Golden Square. It was another respectable business address; his neighbours included a solicitor, an apothecary and a saddler.

In 1817, the typesetting, inking, pressing, drying, folding, stitching and binding of the pages in books were all done by experienced craftsmen, and all done by hand in a protracted and expensive process that had changed little for centuries. The manufacture of paper was more mechanised, but paper was likewise expensive – and watermarked – because it was heavily taxed. The paper that Charles Richards chose (and Keats ultimately purchased) for Poems 1817 bears the watermark ‘John Dickinson 1813’. Dickinson was an early industrialist and inventor with several paper mills in Hertfordshire. Though it was made from rags, mass-produced in a water-powered mill and sold in bulk (taxation rules prevented paper being supplied in less than half a ream, or approximately 250 sheets), his paper was of surprisingly good quality. Today, two hundred and six years after leaving one of Dickinson’s mills, the paper in a copy of Poems 1817 in the British Library is clean and fresh-looking.

Printing was done on heavy wooden presses that had changed little since Johannes Gutenberg began working with moveable type in fifteenth-century Strasbourg – indeed, the presses still owed a lot to the forerunners of the Gutenberg press, the wine and olive presses of the Roman Empire. The recently-introduced ‘Stanhope Printer’ – a weighty, cast iron contraption invented around 1800 by the 3rd Earl of Stanhope – could produce several hundred pages an hour but its cost was beyond the means of most small printers. It is not known from where Charles Richards sourced his printing ink, but he had a choice of several local suppliers – Richard Bell at 25 Brunswick Street, for example, or Blackwell & Colvin at 11 King Street.

 

Keats at this time lived with his brothers in lodgings in Cheapside near to the famous Bow Bells of St Mary-le-Bow. The Olliers’ office in Welbeck Street was a good half hour’s walk away and Charles Richards’ printing workshop in Warwick Street was a half hour’s walk beyond that, but there’s little doubt that Keats would have visited both to discuss his book and follow its progress through the press. Unfortunately, Charles Richards appears to have lacked experience in the printing of poetry – the little volume was, in fact, produced amateurishly. We know that Keats requested changes to the book as it was actually being typeset (not uncommon during the era of printing by hand) and that the changes were somewhat ineptly carried out. To give just one of many examples, Keats decided to insert a dedication to Leigh Hunt very late in the process (during a gathering of friends at his Cheapside lodgings). The request was transmitted to Charles Richards and the book duly appeared with the dedication, but without a contents page.

As the publication date of his book approached, Keats must have been both excited and nervous – he knew it was going to be a thin little volume with some fine poems in it (On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer had been highly praised by Leigh Hunt and others) but he also knew that some of the poems were among his very earliest (Imitation of Spenser, On Receiving a Curious Shell) and might appear somewhat juvenile. That wasn’t all. To My Brothers, written on his brother Tom Keats’ birthday, was undoubtedly sentimental and a poem called Great Spirits Now On Earth are Sojourning, written for a new friend he had met at Leigh Hunt’s cottage, the ever-controversial painter, diarist and essayist, Benjamin Robert Haydon, could well be taken as sycophantic.

The book, to be printed ‘in boards’, a common and cheap covering, had a selling price of six shillings (at the time of writing, you can buy a copy from a reputable London bookseller for £47,500). It is not known exactly how many copies were planned but the initial run was likely to be around 250 copies with further editions to be printed if demand were sufficient. Keats knew that if the book was a failure, he would find it very difficult to justify his considerable financial outlay. Unlike Shelley, he could not afford to lose such a sum, so any further publication ‘on commission’ would be out of the question.

Poems 1817 duly appeared in March, 1817. What followed is well known today, but was totally unexpected by Keats, Hunt and the Olliers. The book did not sell so George Keats wrote in protest to Charles Ollier and a famously indignant reply was received:-

3 Welbeck Street, 29th April, 1817

Sir, we regret that your brother ever requested us to publish his book… By far the greater number of persons who have purchased it from us have found fault with it in such plain terms that we have in many cases offered to take the book back…

 

It was fortunate for Keats that a devoted friend, the poet and journalist John Hamilton Reynolds, after writing a glowing review of Poems 1817, did not lose faith in him. Reynolds arranged for his own publisher to publish Keats’ next book and even to provide a little financial assistance to Keats. The publisher was called John Taylor and he was the son of a Nottinghamshire printer and bookseller. He was a refined and forward-thinking man who in 1817 was in partnership with James Hessey at their office, 93 Fleet Street (a street which, even then, had a long history of publishing and printing). Keats’ second book, the beautiful if very long poem, Endymion, was published in 1818 under the Taylor and Hessey imprint and though its 4000 lines are little read today, its first line, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’, is known to almost everyone.

A letter from Keats to Taylor and Hessey

 

During a long and distinguished career, John Taylor published such luminaries as Lamb, Coleridge and Hazlitt but, unlike Charles and James Ollier, he never regretted his decision to publish Keats. On the 5th December, 1818 he wrote that Keats was a genius whose gifts will make him ‘the brightest ornament of this Age’.

 

The author extends his thanks to Mr John Boneham of the British Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room for his valuable assistance with the research for this article.

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 available from Amazon.

 

24.04.2019

John Keats and his Publishers

by Colin Silver   There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. […]

Read More
30.03.2019

A wander through Wordsworth’s ‘Christabel’ notebook

by Rachael Tarrant   A jade-coloured rectangular box is laid delicately and ceremoniously on the table; hidden inside lies another treasure of the Wordsworth Trust. Our little group – enthused students of Romanticism – have already been shown a first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads – ‘shown’ because the book is considered so valuable as […]

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05.03.2019

Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the […]

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23.02.2019

When did John Keats die?

by Ian Reynolds   The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how […]

Read More
09.02.2019

Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, […]

Read More
21.01.2019

Nice ink, Keats

by Gareth Evans   An ephemeral post seems to be a good place to talk about doodles. In their purest form, you may have little idea when you start how either will finish. The youthful Keats’s marginal sketches in his 1815/1816 medical notebook are more purposeful than this but were nevertheless created to fill some […]

Read More
01.01.2019

Bringing Frankenstein back to life

by Andrew Weltch   Think of the ‘original’ cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, and the image that comes to mind is probably Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. But you actually have to go back a further two decades for the genuine original and the creature’s first appearance on film […]

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15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More

When did John Keats die?

Page 1

by Ian Reynolds

 

The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how the confusion arose in the first place.

 

Keats died of what we now know to be pulmonary tuberculosis. The story goes that in early February of 1820 he caught a fever and had a haemorrhage — coughed up blood — and by virtue of his medical training, Keats deemed this was arterial blood, thus signifying what he construed as his ‘death-warrant’. In August 1820, on the advice of his medical professionals, it was proposed that the best outcome for Keats would be to move abroad to somewhere with a milder climate. Funds were subsequently raised and in September he set off by sea bound for Italy, together with his friend the painter Joseph Severn. They arrived in Rome via Naples in mid November 1820. It is the Joseph Severn letters to others in the Keats circle, and later memoirs that are largely relied upon to record the tragic events leading up to his death.

 

He was buried on Monday February 26th at the Cemitero Acattolico (2)—the so-called Protestant Cemetery in Rome — the burial registry has the following entry:

John Keats, English Poet
Died the 24th of February, 1821

The gravestone reads:

On the fifty-eighth anniversary of his death an engraved plaque was placed in the wall of 26, Piazza di Spagna near to the window of the room in which Keats died:

 

Here is a brief summary (3) of other erroneous dates of John Keats’s death:

In the preface of later editions of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of Endymion, Hyperion, etc, originally published in July 1821, it states that “John Keats died of a consumption, in his twenty-fourth year on the 27th December 1820.”

Leigh Hunt in Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries (1828) repeats the date as December 27th 1820.

Sir Vincent Eyre in ‘The Old Stones of Rome’ a lecture, given in Rome in 1875, has the date as February 21st 1821.

GC Williamson in The Keats Letters, Papers and Other Relics forming the Dilke Bequest (1914) has it as February 20th 1821.

Sir BW Richardson’s The Disciples of Aesculapius’(1900) has February 3rd 1821.

William Sharp in Century Magazine (1906) has February 27th or 28th 1821.

In 1861 Severn was considering a revised inscription for the gravestone. He first wrote Feb 26th but later changed this to Feb 24th (4).

 

For the purpose of this discussion it is best to ignore all of the above erroneous dates as they are clearly all obviously wrong (save for Severn’s Feb 24th). They are mentioned only to record the oft-repeated errors that can and did occur. In the immediate aftermath there was confusion because letters between Severn and other members of the Keats circle could take many weeks to reach England from Rome. When these actual letters eventually did arrive they were eagerly passed around, often being transcribed by one person, and given to another. Transcription in this context means that the original handwritten letter is copied by another person; sometimes errors in the original are ‘corrected’ in the copy, or if words are illegible the person doing the transcription will substitute or add what he/she thinks what the word, or intent was. It logically follows that the more transcriptions there were, the greater the chance for errors to creep in — particularly when we have subsequent transcriptions of transcriptions. Some material can become very inaccurate, especially in the case when the original letter has been lost, and all that’s left is a transcription.

 

To further compound the question of accuracy, some of the key witnesses, namely Joseph Severn and Charles Armitage Brown, wrote memoirs and letters in relation to Keats, often many years later. Some had transcription and factual inaccuracies which were later amended and embellished, including, for example, William Sharp’s, Life and Letters of Joseph Severn of 1892 (5). Brown’s Life of John Keats was not published until 1937, but his papers which he wrote in 1836-7 were included in Richard Monckton Milnes, later Lord Houghton’s, Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats published in 1848 (6). Sharp’s biography of Severn became a primary reference source for many biographers and scholars, including Sir Sidney Colvin (1920), Amy Lowell (1925), Sheila Birkenhead (1944 and 1965), Aileen Ward (1963), Walter Jackson Bate (1963), and Robert Gittings. All borrowed from Sharp and Milnes. According to Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs, edited by Grant F Scott, Severn’s memoir ‘My Tedious Life’ was the main source for Sharp’s narrative of Keats’s final months in Rome (7). This memoir was written in 1873—six years before Severn’s death and fifty-two years after Keats’s.

 

Joseph Severn in 1849, from a drawing by his daughter

 

To return to the date of John Keats’s death. But what is death? For the purpose of this discussion the medical determination of death is the irreversible cessation of heartbeat and breathing (cardiopulmonary death) and the irreversible cessation of the brain (brain death). A review of the correspondence from Rome follows. Note in particular the circumstances and the reported timings leading up to the moment of Keats’s death: the actual time is critical.

Milnes records a Severn journal entry for February 27th, 1821 (8)

Feb.27th — He is gone; he died with the most perfect ease —he seemed to go to sleep. On the twenty-third, about four, the approaches of death came on “Severn — I —lift me up — I am dying —I shall die easy; don’t be frightened — be firm, and thank God it has come.” I lifted him up in my arms. The phlegm seemed boiling in his throat, and increased until eleven, when he gradually sunk into death, so quiet that I still thought he slept…

Amy Lowell (1925) quotes from Sharp (9)

He is gone. He died with the most perfect ease. He seemed to go to sleep. On the 23rd, Friday, at half past-four, the approaches of death came on “Severn—I—lift me up—for I am dying. I shall die easy. Don’t be frightened! Thank God it has come”. I lifted him up in my arms and the phlegm seemed boiling in his throat. This increased until eleven at night, when he gradually sank into death so quiet, that I still thought he slept.

Note that the Lowell letter differs slightly from the previous Milnes letter, notably the time of 4 versus 4.30, when the approaches of death, allegedly came on. There is a further unfinished letter dated March 3rd 1821 (Keats Shelley Memorial Bulletin, 1, p 43) (10)

—at ½ past four he said—to lift him up in bed—I kept holding him until 11 o’clock, when he died in my arms.

In a letter dated March 6th 1821, Severn writes to John Taylor (Keats’s friend and publisher) to confirm the events of the preceding days. The text is similar in places to the unfinished March 3rd letter (11):

—23rd at 4 oclock afternoon—the poor fellow bade me lift him up in bed—he breathed with great difficulty—and seemed to lose the power of coughing up the phlegm…” “…I held him in my arms—the mucus was boiling within him—it gurgled in his throat—this increased—but yet he seem’d without pain—his eyes look’d upon me with extreme sensibility but without pain—at 11 he died in my arms—

Keats on his Deathbed, by Joseph Severn. The inscription at the bottom reads “’28 Janry 3 o’clock mng. Drawn to keep me awake – a deadly sweat was on him all this night”

 

 

I have somewhat laboured the point about why February 23rd became the widely accepted view of the date John Keats died, even though ‘Feb 24th 1821’ is recorded on the gravestone and elsewhere. There are two factors to consider here. Firstly, the convention of Roman timekeeping prevalent at the time of his death; specifically the fact that any time after dusk would be attributed to the following day. In other words, the new day would begin at 6pm (12). So according to Roman convention, if Keats died after 6pm it would be deemed to be on the 24th, and not the 23rd. But there is significant doubt about the February 23rd date irrespective of Roman  timekeeping. In Severn’s letter of February 27th he writes “The phlegm seemed boiling in his throat, and increased until eleven, when he gradually sunk into death, so quiet that I still thought he slept…’. The obvious question is— at that point was he sleeping, dying or already dead?

 

Severn wrote that he had not slept for four, five or nine days (depending on which letter you read). He must have been a total emotional wreck — exhausted and worn-out by the grim reality of the situation he found himself in. Dr James Clark, the physician who attended Keats in Rome, was not present at the alleged time of death. It is not recorded if he visited 26 Piazza di Spagna between the hours of 11 and midnight on February 23rd, but he could have done, because he lived directly across from the house and had been routinely seeing Keats on a daily basis, reportedly often up to four to five times per day. Joseph Severn was the only witness. His is the only testimony.

 

Summary and conclusion

When questioned in later years about the date of Keats’s death, Joseph Severn would reply that the date on the gravestone was “the most reliable” record (13). That date is February 24th 1821.  In a letter written in 1937, Sir William Hale-White, head of Guys Hospital in London for many years and author of Keats as Doctor and Patient (Oxford University Press, 1938) wrote

It appears that at eleven at night on February 23rd Keats was dying. Whether he lingered until past midnight before his pulse stopped, it is impossible to say but it may have been that he did and thus the actual date of death became February 24th.
I much doubt whether we shall ever get any conclusive evidence as to the exact time at which his pulse stopped, but the entry in the Register of Burials in the Protestant Burial Ground in Rome is strongly in favour of the 24th. (14)

 

Perhaps we should leave it there: ‘The end came near to the midnight between the 23rd and the 24th of February, 1821’; this is according to the English clock time — by Roman time the date was the 24th.

 

 

 

 

Ian Reynolds is a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Oxfordshire. He has a personal interest in those associated with the Keats-Shelley Circle, and poets of the Romantic period, especially John Keats. He is unaffiliated. Ian’s other interests include reading, listening to music, particularly rock and jazz, road cycling and wine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

1. Everest, K. (2006, May25). Keats, John (1795–1821), poet. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: et al

2. John Keats is located in Tomb no. 159, Gravestone S31, (Zone A, Plot 51) of the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio, Rome. For further information see http://www.cemeteryrome.it

3. Rollins, Hyder E, The Keats Circle: Letters, (2nd Ed 1965), Cambridge MA: V1, 107, fn5, p 225-226

4. Pershing, James H, ‘John Keats: When Was He Born and When Did He Die?’, PMLA, Vol.55, No3 (Sep., 1940)

5. Sharp, William The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn, (1892), London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co

6. Milnes, Richard H, Life, Letters and Literary Remains, of John Keats (1848), Edward Moxon, London: hereafter called ‘Milnes’

7. Scott, Grant F, Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs (2005), Aldershot/Burlington VT: Ashgate,: “My Tedious Life” included in entirety pp 625-664

8. Milnes, V2, p 93

9. Sharp, p 94

10. Pershing, p 806-807

11. Rollins, V1, 107, pp 223-228

12. Rollins, V1, fn 5, p 225-226

13. Pershing, p 810

14. Pershing, p 813

 

Further Reading

For further information on William Sharp’s process of writing see Scott, Grant F, ‘Writing Keats’s Last Days: Severn, Sharp and Romantic Biography’ Studies in Romanticism, Vol 42, No1 (Spring, 2003), pp 3-26

Davies, Michael (ed), Chantler, Ashley (ed), Shaw, Philip (ed); Literature and Authenticity 1780-1900: Essays in honour of Vincent Newey, (2011), Farnham/Burlington VT: Ashgate: see in particular pp 39-49 ‘Undefinitive Keats’ by Nicholas Roe

24.04.2019

John Keats and his Publishers

by Colin Silver   There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. […]

Read More
30.03.2019

A wander through Wordsworth’s ‘Christabel’ notebook

by Rachael Tarrant   A jade-coloured rectangular box is laid delicately and ceremoniously on the table; hidden inside lies another treasure of the Wordsworth Trust. Our little group – enthused students of Romanticism – have already been shown a first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads – ‘shown’ because the book is considered so valuable as […]

Read More
05.03.2019

Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the […]

Read More
23.02.2019

When did John Keats die?

by Ian Reynolds   The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how […]

Read More
09.02.2019

Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, […]

Read More
21.01.2019

Nice ink, Keats

by Gareth Evans   An ephemeral post seems to be a good place to talk about doodles. In their purest form, you may have little idea when you start how either will finish. The youthful Keats’s marginal sketches in his 1815/1816 medical notebook are more purposeful than this but were nevertheless created to fill some […]

Read More
01.01.2019

Bringing Frankenstein back to life

by Andrew Weltch   Think of the ‘original’ cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, and the image that comes to mind is probably Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. But you actually have to go back a further two decades for the genuine original and the creature’s first appearance on film […]

Read More
15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More

Nice ink, Keats

Page 1

by Gareth Evans

 

An ephemeral post seems to be a good place to talk about doodles. In their purest form, you may have little idea when you start how either will finish. The youthful Keats’s marginal sketches in his 1815/1816 medical notebook are more purposeful than this but were nevertheless created to fill some unexpected vacuum of time. By any other hand they would be overlooked, however, this medical student was to become a poet, one who relished meaningful imagery. Together these miniature flower portraits appear like hieroglyphs that have yet to been interpreted. That they are so minute adds to their obscurity, the book itself is only 18.5 by 11 cm, while good graphic reproductions can be hard to access. In fact, I only first started thinking seriously about the sketches when I saw the original on display at the Keats House Museum some time ago.

 

Their instant of creation seems to be a hiatus in the course of a lecture during Keats’s study at the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St Thomas’. Unlike some other parts of Keats’s existing notes this is clearly not a fair copy, but raw notes taken down in the lecture room. Astley Cooper is a probable candidate for the lecturer, a draw for the Hospital’s prospective students, he came to be known as ‘the greatest surgical teacher in Europe’. The lines of Keats’s writing begin to curve as they move down the page around a hand that held the quick-moving pen with an iron grip. Then, mid- sentence, when an alternative manipulation of a dislocated jaw is about to be revealed, the writing stops.

 

Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London

 

Lectures within a hospital that housed the lecturer’s in-patients may have been liable to this sort of interruption. Keats was left in mid-flow with a pen nib quivering with ink. He may have just tapped the ink back into the inkpot before it dried up while the – no doubt mildly frustrated – students waited for any sign of whether the lecture would continue or not. If this indeed was the state of affairs, he seems to have dissipated his nervous energy by the dispatch of some small sketches.

 

First, he draws a flower, one that could be seen as having elements of both the ambiguous and the exact. The wild pansy (viola tricolor) is a native flower that is not short of cultural and poetical associations. Among the ragbag of names applied to it are heartsease and love-in-idleness. Traditionally some people have seen two, or sometimes three, faces kissing in the outline of the petals. A poetical book-name was added, sometime in the 1500s, from the French pensée (‘thought’).

 

Scientifically, the wild pansy does not conform to a precise description; the markings on the face of its flower being variable within certain parameters. The outline of the distinctive pansy of Keats’s time was still close to the wild type, called by plant breeders ‘horse-faced’ (always popular in gardens, early 19th-century plant breeders were beginning to bring it into the fold of ‘fancy flowers’ by selection and hybridisation, a process that was to eventually lead to the round-flowered, blousy type familiar to us from garden centres and supermarkets).  Ornate and diverse, the wild pansy has the appearance of being purposefully streaked with pigment. Often the upper petals, or ‘ears’, are purple, also spots can occur near the ‘eye’ of the plant around which there can also be radial streaks, or nectar lines as we now know they are.

 

As in his poetry, Keats could visually recall and characterise a flower without the need of a model. Interestingly, this species’ natural variability means that he can be accurate while at the same time have some license. Within the outline he added precise strokes to represent the top two petals in horizontal half-moon shapes and a splatter of dots around the central ‘eye’. Also, he characteristically captured what might be called the gesture or posture of the whole plant: in this case the wild pansy’s recognisable ‘chin-up’ flower on a high, articulated stem.

 

Leigh Hunt’s sister-in-law Elizabeth Kent deemed it an impertinence to describe such a familiar plant: as she says in her Flora Domestica of 1823, they could be had at ‘a nursery, or Covent Garden flower-market, six or more may be had for shilling, all of them covered with flowers and buds’. In terms of the purest contemporary scientific culture the pansy’s variability was an irritant; given its garden associations it was in danger of being too close to triviality. In the context of Keats’s formal studies his sketch can be seen as a similar act to drawing a likeness of ZZ Top in your lecture notes; a tremor of release, or even rebelliousness.

 

However, Keats’s sketch appears to be depicting something very particular, not rocker or punk, more Puck. Shakespeare’s ‘little western flower’ was a wild pansy, the source of functional magic that drives the action in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oberon tells of its conception

Yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell.
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound.
And maidens call it ‘love-in-idleness.’
Fetch me that flower. The herb I showed thee once.
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
Fetch me this herb, and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.

 

In an age, and a class, which prided itself on exercising a new botanical literacy, authors (including Elizabeth Kent and Leigh Hunt) expressed no doubt in the identity of Shakespeare’s love-in-idleness. The botanical authority William Curtis gave this passage a serious, but also half jocular, justification in his attractive Flora Londinensis, 1777-1798:

Linnaeus remarks [on] the black lines which sometimes appear on the Petals, Milton had observed the same, ‘Pansies sreakt with Jet’. In a poor soil the purple and yellow in the bloom of this flower frequently become very faint, and sometimes fade into a perfect white, this variation in colour gives a propriety to the Metamorphosis of this flower in which Shakespear [sic] pays an elegant compliment to his royal mistress.

‘Viola tricolor’ from Curtis’ Flora Londinensis

In conjuring up the magic flower, the young Keats tapped into his then parallel literary life, while at the same time pointing to an early mentor. He was to go on to make a passionate study of Shakespeare plays in 1817 when, newly qualified, he had left the prospect of a medical career behind him. But as we learn from Robert White’s Keats as a Reader of Shakespeare (1987), of all the plays we can be sure of his familiarity with A Midsummer Night’s Dream during 1816 through his reading of it with Charles Cowden Clarke, son of the headmaster at his school at Enfield.

 

Keats’s fellow lodger Henry Stephens had still to devise his blue-black ink, so Keats’s ink was probably purple-black or purple-brown oak gall ink. Away from the study of a painful anatomical correction, with his surplus ink he streaks and splatters the white flower he had outlined, ‘now purple with love’s wound’. Was he playing with Cupid’s blot? Here Keats was – appropriately – enacting Puck’s gesture in marking numerous carefully placed spots with ink/juice on the flower’s face as Puck was to on the eyelids of random mortals;

Through the forest have I gone.
But Athenian found I none,
On whose eyes I might approve
This flower’s force in stirring love.
Night and silence.–Who is here?
Weeds of Athens he doth wear:
This is he, my master said,
Despised the Athenian maid;
And here the maiden, sleeping sound,
On the dank and dirty ground.
Pretty soul! she durst not lie
Near this lack-love, this kill-courtesy.
Churl, upon thy eyes I throw
All the power this charm doth owe.
When thou wakest, let love forbid
Sleep his seat on thy eyelid:
So awake when I am gone;
For I must now to Oberon.

Puck grasping pansies. Sir Joshua Reynolds for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, 1789

 

Sketching to the words of Shakespeare, little wonder that Keats could appear distracted at this time. Here is Charles Cowden Clarke’s story of the reply that the student Keats gave when quizzed about his attitudes to his medicinal training:

he expressed his grave doubt if he should go on with it. ‘The other day,’ he said to me ‘During the lecture, there came a sunbeam into the room, and with it a whole troop of creatures floating in the ray; and I was off with them to Oberon and fairy land’.

 

In this reading, Keats’s sketch is more a flower of the imagination than of the field or garden, holding multiple meanings during process of its creation. But what of the other three flower sketches? Here there are many things to question and consider. Frustratingly, some that can just be discerned in reproduction have a much greater potential interest; some that are a little clearer are difficult to positively identify. Collectively they can appear like a random chord sequence without obvious significance. However, it is possible that there may be a theme to the sequence, even between just two of them, as one completed sketch suggested another. Of course, there is also Keats’s other early reading; remembering that flowers take on several literary masks according to time and place: daffodil, narcissus, narcisse, asphodel. A passage in Keats’s own early work particularly strikes me. In a poem dated November 1815, he addresses an affected poet friend, George Felton Matthew, for criticising his poetry. With an earnestness which, at best, these sketches possess he chides Matthew; ‘For thou wast was once a floweret blooming wild / Close to the source, bright, pure and undefil’d’.

 

Whichever way this interesting subject may go, this thought-doodle is spent for now – my intellectual ink has run dry.

 

 

Gareth Evans writes articles on the history and culture of plants and their use (garethhevans.com). He worked in, and with, botanic gardens for 16 years, specialising in the history of plants and medicine. Recent Highlights include: ‘Seeds of Inspiration’, Linder Memorial Lecture, Beatrix Potter Society, March 2018, and ‘Keats’s Flight from the Vegetable Monster’, a paper at the 4th Bicentennial John Keats Conference 1817.

24.04.2019

John Keats and his Publishers

by Colin Silver   There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. […]

Read More
30.03.2019

A wander through Wordsworth’s ‘Christabel’ notebook

by Rachael Tarrant   A jade-coloured rectangular box is laid delicately and ceremoniously on the table; hidden inside lies another treasure of the Wordsworth Trust. Our little group – enthused students of Romanticism – have already been shown a first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads – ‘shown’ because the book is considered so valuable as […]

Read More
05.03.2019

Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the […]

Read More
23.02.2019

When did John Keats die?

by Ian Reynolds   The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how […]

Read More
09.02.2019

Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, […]

Read More
21.01.2019

Nice ink, Keats

by Gareth Evans   An ephemeral post seems to be a good place to talk about doodles. In their purest form, you may have little idea when you start how either will finish. The youthful Keats’s marginal sketches in his 1815/1816 medical notebook are more purposeful than this but were nevertheless created to fill some […]

Read More
01.01.2019

Bringing Frankenstein back to life

by Andrew Weltch   Think of the ‘original’ cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, and the image that comes to mind is probably Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. But you actually have to go back a further two decades for the genuine original and the creature’s first appearance on film […]

Read More
15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More

Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

Page 1

by Suzie Grogan

 

For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that has been done is a challenge, even for the most dedicated. Forming an independent and well-informed personal opinion is even more difficult.

Entering the world of the conference or research paper can offer an additional test of stamina. For the student, it is a vital step along the road to a successful academic career, but for the lay reader, that step can seem one too far. An examination of the references, citations, notes or however the lengthy lists of works referred to in an article of just ten pages is described can be daunting. The reader might be justified in wondering whether they have the intellect to read the piece, or whether it was even meant for them in the first place. Feeling excluded from the discussion is not an uncommon experience and one that academic authors perhaps do not always appreciate. On occasion, those authors appear to be writing only for themselves, not for an audience at all, so obscure is their point.

But, you remind me after 200 words; this is a book review, not a general assessment of the Keats literary sourcebook. It is to be hoped that Nicholas Roe, editor and contributor to John Keats and the Medical Imagination (part of the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine series) will not be offended by a review that starts by pointing out the potential difficulties experienced by the reader of comparable books. This book is a collection of new essays by eminent scholars first presented at the Keats Foundation Bicentenary Conference at Guy’s Hospital in London in May 2015. The conference had as its theme ‘John Keats: Poet-Physician, Physician-Poet’ and it sought to challenge any notion still held that John Keats’s poetry was not, to any significant degree, influenced by his experience as a student of medicine. As Roe points out in his Introduction (illustrated by two wonderful old photos of Thomas Hammond’s Edmonton surgery, taken more than a century after Keats served his apothecary’s apprenticeship there) it was not until the second half of the 20th century that the idea of Keats as other-worldly, of limited experience and interested in nothing but beauty, was replaced by a more accurate, robust assessment of a robust young man. Keats’s life was enriched by the inspiration of science and art and interwoven with love and loss of a most down-to-earth, human kind.

The essays in this book take us into the world of Keats the botanist, the dissector, the melancholic and the terminally ill. It expands our knowledge of the details of Keats’s life as a medical student and practising doctor and offers a focus on the ways in which his studies of the human body and the mind of man infuse his poetry and letters. We take an intellectual journey with R.S. White through poetry that exhibits Keats’s fascination with mourning and melancholia, focusing on ‘Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil’, and look at how he wove tuberculosis, the ‘family disease’ into his work.

For those interested in a Keats chronology, Hrileena Ghosh considers the difficulties of dating many of the poems Keats wrote whilst a medical student. The analysis of the letters and poetry written by him during this period – between October 1815 and March 1817 – is fascinating and adds much to the context within which he was writing, noting that he became more prolific whilst living with his brothers, in Cheapside. They were likely to have been considerably more supportive than his student contemporary (and later inventor of ink) Henry Stephens, with whom he shared lodgings earlier in his training, and who was notoriously cutting about Keats the medical student/poet. It is analysis like this undertaken by Ghosh that reinforces a picture of familial harmony that Keats so treasured, and the loss of which – following the death of youngest brother Tom and the emigration of George to America – that affects and infuses later work.

 

Nicholas Roe’s recent biography, and his marvellous essay in this volume, ‘Mr Keats’, offer rich detail of the life of Keats the medical student and surgeon. Roe himself discovered a newspaper article describing the treatment of a female patient shot in the head by her husband, whose surgeon is referred to as the eponymous ‘Mr Keats’ (undoubtedly John). Mr Keats gave evidence of the wound, and of the treatment required to extract it. Such incidental detail can offer much to a rounded view of Keats the man behind the poetry. He was a real man, in the real world, part of events totally unconnected with his poetic life.

‘The Beauty of Bodysnatching’, an essay by Druin Burch, author of the wonderful Digging up the Dead, a biography of surgeon Astley Cooper, takes us into darker places and the world of the body snatcher. Gruesome but irresistible, the work of the anatomist, and the men who supplied the bodies they cut up to further medical knowledge are used to highlight the thirst poets such as Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth had for a greater knowledge of nature. The respect for scientists and those embarking on a career with their hands literally in the bowels of the human condition is clear in their writing, Burch maintains, once again challenging the notion of Keats as a fragile sensitivity snuffed out by the critics. He engaged in required practices of the medicine of the time and his discoveries and observations stayed with him on into his most famous work.

Richard Marggraaf Turley, in Chapter 10, moves us away from the dissecting room and into the mind of Romantic psychiatry by examining the role of surveillance in Keats’s work. Initially, this essay seems slightly out of place in this volume, but by examining Ode to Autumn specifically, Margraaf Turley takes us into the politics of the mind, a subject that fascinated an era riven with suspicion and fear of the mob, the spy or the rebel. He brings Keats into the 21st-century world (where he can most certainly hold his own) of social media and our own concerns about how quickly private thoughts and actions can become public property. The mind is, after all, central to this delve into the medical imagination.

 

‘John Keats, Medicine, and Young Men on the Make’ by Jeffrey N. Cox suggests a way to view Keats’s choice to leave medicine for poetry not so much as an event in his life story, but as a decision made during a creative period when other men of similar age, Keats’s friends and acquaintances, faced the same dilemma. Should I work at immortality through my writing, or enjoy a comfortable but perhaps more mundane existence pursuing a trade or profession that enables me to support a wife and family? Keats’s decision became one that caused particular torment when his love for Fanny Brawne could hardly be declared openly because of his lack of prospects. Cox also looks at the ways in which ‘money-getting’ and the necessary compromises that would have to be made to ‘Mammon’’ as Shelley referred to the eternal problems of financial security, are represented in Romantic poetry and writing of this period.

Other chapters are to me as a non-academic, less accessible and require extended periods of concentration that might, as mentioned earlier in this review, exclude the lay reader or Keats obsessive. They are no less interesting, however, and if you are particularly interested in plants and the study of botany, Chapter 6 by Nikki Hessell, awakens the reader to the in-depth knowledge of botany that was necessary to the work of an apothecary and how Keats took his studies into his poetic vocabulary.

This is not a book many will buy new, outright. At over £70 it has a niche market. However, if you want an elaboration of the connections between Keats and medicine, as student and poet, this book has much to offer the patient, selective reader. It is certainly well worth requesting from a university or specialist library.

 

Suzie Grogan is a professional writer, editor and researcher, working in the fields of social and family history and mental health. Her first book was published in 2012 and since then she has written two further books, published by Pen & Sword History, including Death, Disease & Dissection examining the life of an apprentice surgeon-apothecary in the early 19th century, to give her an excuse to write about John Keats. She has now been commissioned to write an ‘In the footsteps of…’ John Keats for publication in 2021, the bicentenary year.  Suzie has a popular blog at No wriggling out of writing and had her own radio show ‘Talking Books’, for many years. She is married with two children and has just made the move to Huelgoat in France, although she still intends to spend time in London and her beloved Lake District. Find out more at www.suziegrogan.co.uk.

 

 

24.04.2019

John Keats and his Publishers

by Colin Silver   There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. […]

Read More
30.03.2019

A wander through Wordsworth’s ‘Christabel’ notebook

by Rachael Tarrant   A jade-coloured rectangular box is laid delicately and ceremoniously on the table; hidden inside lies another treasure of the Wordsworth Trust. Our little group – enthused students of Romanticism – have already been shown a first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads – ‘shown’ because the book is considered so valuable as […]

Read More
05.03.2019

Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the […]

Read More
23.02.2019

When did John Keats die?

by Ian Reynolds   The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how […]

Read More
09.02.2019

Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, […]

Read More
21.01.2019

Nice ink, Keats

by Gareth Evans   An ephemeral post seems to be a good place to talk about doodles. In their purest form, you may have little idea when you start how either will finish. The youthful Keats’s marginal sketches in his 1815/1816 medical notebook are more purposeful than this but were nevertheless created to fill some […]

Read More
01.01.2019

Bringing Frankenstein back to life

by Andrew Weltch   Think of the ‘original’ cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, and the image that comes to mind is probably Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. But you actually have to go back a further two decades for the genuine original and the creature’s first appearance on film […]

Read More
15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

Page 1

by Ian Reynolds

 

From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s last great ode – ‘To Autumn’.

 

 

The changing of the seasons, visions of mists of mellow fruitfulness, fruit on the vine, ripe, plump; the dividend of summer coming literally to fruition in its last days – the words paint an evocative picture delighting the senses – warm lusciousness, wellbeing, poetic symmetry, with a feeling of tranquillity and transcendence. This is why I have always loved this poem. It is also considered by many to be Keats most untroubled work. Ancient mythology and the Hellenic world are put to one side in this most perfect pastoral poem. Many scholars of Keats are much better qualified than this writer to do a critical analysis of the poem. Therefore, I will not go further, but to quote Professor Stanley Plumly from his book ‘Posthumous Keats: a personal biography’– he captures the sublime vision of the poem so eloquently:

 

It is this specific Sunday’s view of a last–summers–day’s–beginning–of–autumn–day’s transition, season to season, and at once this vision of eternal autumn, its mists, its fullness, its gatherings, its drowsiness, and its warmth that sets it apart. It is the full cup emptied, filled then unfilled. The tone, therefore, is residually spiritual, elevated beyond the autumnal emotion.

 

This discussion will endeavour to set out how the poem came into almost full being in just a few days in September 1819. It will also explore the change of poetical style from the Miltonic (John Milton – Paradise Lost) to the purest English, greatly influenced, in my view, by Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770). Chatterton was a prodigious talent from a very young age writing his first meaningful poems at eleven. However, despite this, he was considered by many to be a literary forger/impostor-poet. Most famously, the creation of a medieval identity for himself in the name of a fifteen-century priest/poet called Thomas Rowley. He even invented Rowley’s medieval language. Nonetheless, he was a creative genius publishing poems, sketches, essays, songs…before his young life was cut short aged seventeen after a drug overdose – some say accidental, others not. At the time of his premature death he had published fifty-three pieces and secured a book contract.

The Death of Chatterton, by Henry Wallis, Tate Gallery, London

 

 

The ode ‘To Autumn’ was created by John Keats on Sunday 19th September, 1819. We know this exact date because on Tuesday 21st September Keats wrote from Winchester to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds “How beautiful the season is now. How fine the air – a temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking – Dian skies. I never liked stubble-fields so much as now – aye, better than the chilly green of the Spring. Somehow, a stubble plain looks warm, in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”

 

Keats had been in Winchester since mid August, save for a trip up to London on 10th to 15th September, writing to finish off a number of his works which would later be included in Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems published in June 1820 by Taylor and Hessey. Good progress had been made, with the exception of the troublesome Hyperion, which he had commenced in the autumn of the preceding year. He writes to Benjamin Bailey on 14th August confirming that he has been “…writing parts of my Hyperion…” however five weeks later, he tells John Hamilton Reynolds that he has given up with writing Hyperion, citing that it had too many Miltonic inversions in it, and he wanted to give his self up to other sensations. In this same letter to Reynolds he also mentions that he always somehow associated Thomas Chatterton with autumn. “He is the purest writer in the English language. He has no French idiom, or particles like Chaucer – ‘tis genuine English idiom in English words”.

 

Keats later in the same week again revisits Chatterton in a long journal letter to his brother George and wife Georgina, written over the period Friday 17th to Monday 27th September. The journal entry for Saturday 18th September he reverts to the subject of Thomas Chatterton – it must have been in the forefront of his mind – “The purest English I think – or what ought to be the purest – is Chatterton’s”. He also advises that as part of his daily routine he takes a walk everyday for “an hour before dinner”; he goes on to share some detail about the first mile of his walk; passing the cathedral, through the college-like squares, onwards to College Street, crossing some meadows…You can virtually imagine him on the later part of his walk, standing on the chalk hills of the Twyford Downs, looking down towards the stubble-fields, and the visual warmth that they exude. In almost exactly one year to the day, John Keats would be embarking of the last chapter of his life, onboard the Maria Crowther bound for Italy. In a little more than 500 days he would be dead.

 

It is well known that Keats greatly appreciated the work of Thomas Chatterton. Indeed he dedicated ‘Endymion – A Poetic Romance’ published in 1818 to the memory of Chatterton:

INSCRIBED,
WITH EVERY FEELING OF PRIDE AND REGRET
AND WITH ‘A BOWED MIND,’
TO THE MEMORY OF
THE MOST ENGLISH OF ENGLISH POETS EXCEPT SHAKSPEARE,
THOMAS CHATTERTON.

 

Many scholars have looked at Keats’s published poetry to see influences of Chatterton. The acclaimed biographer of Keats Robert Gittings notes certain ad-hoc similar aspects of style in his earlier work, especially in the more tranquil and simple poems, but nothing that substantive. However, the turning point falls on that September weekend on 1819 when ‘To Autumn’ was written. Gittings writes: “To Autumn’ is the only later, major poem of Keats profoundly influenced by Chatterton, with greater debts that critics have realised. Besides the third minstrel’s song from Aella, other relaxed, spontaneous melodies of Chatterton’s perhaps also flooded Keat’s mind as he gave up the ‘artful or rather artist’s humour’ associated in his mind than with Milton and enjoyed temporary relief from tension.”

 

George Keats ended up with the only surviving fair copy of ‘To Autumn’ and in 1839 he gave it to a Miss Barker (late Mrs Ward) of Louisville, Kentucky. She gave it to her grand-daughter in 1896 who bequeathed it to the poet, Keats biographer and avid collector Amy Lowell, and henceforth to the Houghton Library at Harvard where it remains. Written on two pages, it is said that due to age, rather appropriately, the paper has taken on an oak-brown autumnal hue.

 

 

Ian Reynolds is a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Oxfordshire. He has a personal interest in those associated with the Keats-Shelley Circle, and poets of the Romantic period, especially John Keats. He is unaffiliated. Ian’s other interests include reading, listening to music, particularly rock and jazz, road cycling and wine.

 

References/Further reading

Groom, Nick. 2004″Chatterton, Thomas (1752–1770), poet.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography .

Plumly, Stanley, Posthumous Keats: a personal biography, (2008), New York: W.W. Norton

Gittings, Robert. “Keats and Chatterton” Keats-Shelley Journal 4 (1955): 47-54.

 

24.04.2019

John Keats and his Publishers

by Colin Silver   There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. […]

Read More
30.03.2019

A wander through Wordsworth’s ‘Christabel’ notebook

by Rachael Tarrant   A jade-coloured rectangular box is laid delicately and ceremoniously on the table; hidden inside lies another treasure of the Wordsworth Trust. Our little group – enthused students of Romanticism – have already been shown a first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads – ‘shown’ because the book is considered so valuable as […]

Read More
05.03.2019

Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the […]

Read More
23.02.2019

When did John Keats die?

by Ian Reynolds   The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how […]

Read More
09.02.2019

Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, […]

Read More
21.01.2019

Nice ink, Keats

by Gareth Evans   An ephemeral post seems to be a good place to talk about doodles. In their purest form, you may have little idea when you start how either will finish. The youthful Keats’s marginal sketches in his 1815/1816 medical notebook are more purposeful than this but were nevertheless created to fill some […]

Read More
01.01.2019

Bringing Frankenstein back to life

by Andrew Weltch   Think of the ‘original’ cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, and the image that comes to mind is probably Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. But you actually have to go back a further two decades for the genuine original and the creature’s first appearance on film […]

Read More
15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

Page 1

by Wendy Shreve

 

Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus:

As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or feeling of classical poetry or classical history, could have stooped to profane and vulgarise every association in the manner which has been adopted by this son of promise’.

Among Keats’s contemporaries, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron recognized Keats’s potential as a poet but not his execution. Years later, his mechanics in ‘Endymion’, or lack thereof, continue to be the subject of debate. What’s more, in the context of the early 19th century, education, class and/or political affiliation (Keats’s Tory sympathies had been well-known) often affected reviewers’ judgment. For example, Lockhart’s vitriol continued: “Mr Keats has adopted the loose, nerveless versification, and Cockney rhyme of the poet of Rimini”. Nor did it help that Keats undermined his own credibility by publicly acknowledging ‘Endymion’ should not have been published. In essence, the odds were stacked against him.

Given the period, when ‘Mad’ King George III’s reign had begun to wane and the upstart colonies had emerged victorious, the negative criticism could also have come from the strenuous objection to the racial overtones in ‘Endymion’ Book IV. Endymion, the shepherd king and poem’s hero has spent the previous three books lamenting his love and loss of the moon goddess and poetic muse, Cynthia. His long journey toward reclaiming her has left Endymion without hope: “What is there in thee, Moon! that shouldst move/My heart so potently?” (Book III). In Book IV however, he meets a mortal woman with whom he falls in love: “My sweetest Indian, here, /Here, will I kneel, for thou redeemest hast/My life from too thin breathing…”.

There are several references to this woman’s cultural heritage, which must have rattled those who considered interracial love taboo. How must the gentry, including the nouveau noble, Lord Byron, have responded to such an overt description? (By contrast, Lord Byron’s lyrical work, Hebrew Melodies of 1815, later set to Isaac Nathan’s songs, was well-received by conservative pundits, though the Jewish connection would be suppressed by future publishers.) Keats extricates himself from these treacherous waters when, during the dénouement at the end of the poem, the Indian woman is revealed to be Cynthia in disguise. Yet, even the suggestion of such a relationship would have sparked controversy, given the fact that mythological figures were conventionally depicted as white-skinned:

The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis
Jacques-Louis David, 1818

 

Is this a revisionist viewpoint? I think not; the British colonies were a means to an end—trade, commerce, wealth, imperial dominance—but to accept actual intermingling with the indigenous people would be tantamount to treason, and would continue to be so into the 20th century. For example, during the waning days of Queen Victoria’s reign, her friendship with an Indian-Muslim attendant, Abdul Karim, would evoke outrage.

The greatness of ‘Endymion’ lies in Keats’s willingness to experiment, and make a radical departure from poetic convention by his choice of heroine. Some contemporary critics lambasted the poetical mechanics and the verbiage, but others – including Byron – realized that the poem was challenging both the subjective and technical boundaries of verse. How sublime, then, that in ‘Endymion’ John Keats’s Shepherd King exemplified Romantic ideals—a reverence for love, the individual, as well as beauty in all its colours.

 

My Indian Bliss!
My river-lily bud! one human kiss! (Book IV)
‘Golpa Ma’ watercolor – Rare Books of India

 

 

Writer Wendy Shreve graduated from Smith College and received her Master’s Degree in English at the University of Montana. Her poetry, short stories, novels and articles have been published on-line as well as in print. Wendy’s film blog, www.featuringfilm.com, has a local, national and international following.

24.04.2019

John Keats and his Publishers

by Colin Silver   There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. […]

Read More
30.03.2019

A wander through Wordsworth’s ‘Christabel’ notebook

by Rachael Tarrant   A jade-coloured rectangular box is laid delicately and ceremoniously on the table; hidden inside lies another treasure of the Wordsworth Trust. Our little group – enthused students of Romanticism – have already been shown a first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads – ‘shown’ because the book is considered so valuable as […]

Read More
05.03.2019

Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the […]

Read More
23.02.2019

When did John Keats die?

by Ian Reynolds   The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how […]

Read More
09.02.2019

Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, […]

Read More
21.01.2019

Nice ink, Keats

by Gareth Evans   An ephemeral post seems to be a good place to talk about doodles. In their purest form, you may have little idea when you start how either will finish. The youthful Keats’s marginal sketches in his 1815/1816 medical notebook are more purposeful than this but were nevertheless created to fill some […]

Read More
01.01.2019

Bringing Frankenstein back to life

by Andrew Weltch   Think of the ‘original’ cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, and the image that comes to mind is probably Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. But you actually have to go back a further two decades for the genuine original and the creature’s first appearance on film […]

Read More
15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

Page 1

by Don Oldham
In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an improvement in her health. They took tenancy of Albion Cottage in what was to be the first of their summer migrations.

John Constable by Ramsay Richard Reinagle, c1799. NPG London

John Constable
by Ramsay Richard Reinagle, c1799. NPG London


 
A year or two earlier, a young recently qualified medical practitioner and his younger brother moved into lodgings nearby. Qualifying in medicine by first serving an apprenticeship as an apothecary and then completing a couple of years of hospital training had not been easy, especially with the added distraction of being a published poet with a developing reputation. His younger brother, as it turned out was suffering from tuberculosis and, even though he was a doctor, he was unable to do anything other than nurse him and comfort him in the face of the inevitable. Following his bereavement a friend asked him to share lodgings, also in Hampstead, and they moved into Wentworth House together.
Keats House, Hampstead

Wentworth Place, Hampstead


 
This cast of characters brought together by infirmity and loss in the summer of 1819 proved to be a productive period for the two principals. The painter was John Constable—then around 43 years—and the doctor/poet, John Keats, 23. This was the summer Constable walked Hampstead Heath sketching many of his cloud studies and completing a number of works, notably Hampstead Heath with the house called The Salt Box. This large painting is a view of the Heath from a vantage point close to Albion Cottage, their summer home. Perhaps on one of Constable’s walks on the Heath with his sketchbook and bag of materials he encountered a young poet with his notebook, musing and listening to the song of a nightingale as dusk approached on a warm evening. Constable might also have seen Keats and his friend Charles Dilke engaged in the more prosaic pastime of ‘shooting tom-tits’ (John Keats, Robert Gittings, Pelican Biographies, 1971, p325).
 
Hampstead Heath, with the House Called 'The Salt Box' c.1819-20 John Constable, Tate Gallery, London

Hampstead Heath, with the House Called ‘The Salt Box’ c.1819-20 John Constable, Tate Gallery, London


 
There must have been many occasions when the two could have met. Keats had been introduced to Benjamin Haydon, a painter, at an explosive sounding dinner party together with Leigh Hunt, Shelley and another of Keats’ friends John Severn. (It was Severn who accompanied Keats to Rome in 1820, nursed him through his final few weeks and held him as he succumbed to tuberculosis. Severn was buried—at his own request—next to Keats in the Cimitero Acattolico, Rome.) Haydon, much older than Keats, was renowned as a loud, bombastic and opinionated man but there was something about the young poet that intrigued him such that he developed ‘a special proprietorial interest in Keats’ and indeed sketched him. Haydon was certainly drawn to the much younger, highly gifted, quiet and not at all argumentative poet.
 
Benjamin Haydon, by Georgiana Margaretta Zornlin, 1825, NPG London

Benjamin Haydon, by Georgiana Margaretta Zornlin, 1825, NPG London


 
It is also likely that Haydon knew Constable—how well we don’t know—as their time at the Royal Academy overlapped, Haydon being some ten years younger that Constable, who was a late starter. Constable was exhibiting at the RA at the end of his time as a student so Haydon, still a student, would have seen his paintings and met him. Haydon, for all his perceived faults, was an extraordinary man who, among his other achievements, was partly responsible for the purchase of the Elgin Marbles but whose legacy as a painter is overshadowed by his more famous Autobiography and Memoirs. Such as his accomplishments were, they were insufficient to prevent his imprisonment for debt and subsequent suicide. Haydon, a gregarious figure around in Hampstead at this time who collected around him other famous writers, poets and artists, may well have included his more famous contemporary at the RA in one of his gatherings. Sadly, there is no record of any contact between them at this time. But we do now that in the summer of 1819 both Constable and Keats will have spent a lot of time walking, looking, sketching and writing. This is the year in which Constable produced The Salt Box, the year he exhibited The White Horse, the first ‘six-footer’ canal scene, and the year he was elected Associate of the Royal Academy.
 
It was also the year of an extraordinary burst of creativity for John Keats. He wrote the ‘six great odes’, including the Ode to a Nightingale. We don’t know in what order Keats composed the Odes, and it probably doesn’t matter, but I want to believe that he and Constable heard the same nightingale; that they saw the same rainbow, the same cloud formations; that they bumped into each other several times on the Heath and perhaps nodded good morning or good evening as they passed each other and passed into greatness. Two of England’s geniuses spent that summer in the same place and we’ll never know if they met.
 
This post originally appeared on http://www.donald-oldham.co.uk/2018/04/16/keats-and-constable-in-hampstead/
Don has worked in and around education and learning for some years. He finished up spending most of his time writing and editing learning materials. He has now decided the time is here to concentrate on  Don Odifferent kinds of writing. Don’s interests include reading, art history and cricket. He lives in Budleigh Salterton and time not engaging in the above pursuits is often spent looking at the sea. 
 
 

24.04.2019

John Keats and his Publishers

by Colin Silver   There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. […]

Read More
30.03.2019

A wander through Wordsworth’s ‘Christabel’ notebook

by Rachael Tarrant   A jade-coloured rectangular box is laid delicately and ceremoniously on the table; hidden inside lies another treasure of the Wordsworth Trust. Our little group – enthused students of Romanticism – have already been shown a first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads – ‘shown’ because the book is considered so valuable as […]

Read More
05.03.2019

Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the […]

Read More
23.02.2019

When did John Keats die?

by Ian Reynolds   The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how […]

Read More
09.02.2019

Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, […]

Read More
21.01.2019

Nice ink, Keats

by Gareth Evans   An ephemeral post seems to be a good place to talk about doodles. In their purest form, you may have little idea when you start how either will finish. The youthful Keats’s marginal sketches in his 1815/1816 medical notebook are more purposeful than this but were nevertheless created to fill some […]

Read More
01.01.2019

Bringing Frankenstein back to life

by Andrew Weltch   Think of the ‘original’ cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, and the image that comes to mind is probably Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. But you actually have to go back a further two decades for the genuine original and the creature’s first appearance on film […]

Read More
15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More

The Gravestone of John Keats: Romancing the Stone

Page 1

by Ian Reynolds

John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five on February 23rd, 1821 and is buried at the Cemitero Acattolico—the so-called Protestant Cemetery in Rome (1). Two years later, in the early spring of 1823 his gravestone with epitaph was finally laid at his burial site. (2) Much has been documented about Keats’s final days in Rome. The romantic view is that on his death bed, he declared to his friend and carer Joseph Severn, his dying wishes. These were then recorded in letters sent from Rome by Severn.

This discussion seeks to explore the evidence to determine what Keats’s declared dying wishes actually were in relation to the epitaph on his gravestone. The commonly accepted view is that he wanted the following; his name not to appear on the gravestone; and the sole inscription to read: “HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER”

The actual gravestone text reads:

This grave contains all that was mortal, of a young English poet, who, on his death bed, in the bitterness of his heart, at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraven on his tomb stone
“HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.”’

JK grave 2

Friends of Keats who were responsible for the epitaph, are principally Charles Armitage Brown (3) and Joseph Severn (4). Years later both were to admit regret for the epitaph. Severn wrote on July 13th, 1836 “…the present gravestone with its inscription is an eyesore to me and more…” (5), while Brown referred to it as “…a sort of profanation…” (6) . These belated pangs of regret help to establish the view that the epitaph was not what Keats wanted.

For the purpose of this discussion, dying wishes are defined as what is stated by the deceased and what is recorded before death. It logically follows that it is not possible to have a dying wish post-mortem (after death)—it must be made by the deceased whilst they are still living—ante-mortem (before death).

We have to look to correspondence from the period to support the common perception of what Keats’s dying wishes were. The most influential source material that many biographers and historians cite from is William Sharp, Life and Letters of Joseph Severn (7) first published in 1892 (hereafter referred to as “Sharp,1892”). Sharp wrote the biography based on “a great mass of letters, journals, reminiscences, and fragmentary records” (8) which Severn’s son Walter had provided. The biography of Severn’s long and varied life was initially planned to be in two volumes, such was the amount of information. But the publisher baulked at this and insisted that Sharp produce it in one volume only—so the book was somewhat squeezed, with voids of missing years, and a narrow focus on the Keats years either side of 1821.

The result is a sanitised version of Severn’s life—the negative played down, or airbrushed out completely, and rough non-complimentary edges smoothed. Whilst it is still an important record (in the absence of anything else) it cannot be entirely relied upon. Sharp had a habit of ‘stitching in’ to sections of the book snippets and paragraphs initially written by Severn, but edited and substantively revised by Sharp. Even for the careful reader, it is very easy to misinterpret—on one page you may have an apparently contemporaneous letter, interlaced with a much later “Recollection” or “Reminiscence” which has been extracted from a Severn memoir, edited or reassembled by Sharp to present a relevant and highly readable anecdote within the narrative. Additionally, Severn habitually added many postscripts to his letters, and it is very easy for the reader to confuse an actual postscript to a letter, with a Sharp “recollection”, based on a Severn “Reminiscence” written many years later.(9) It can become very confusing.

Much of the source material (the Severn papers) included in Sharp,1892 were presumed lost after Sharp completed his book.(10) The Sharp biography thus became the primary reference text in lieu of the original material. Amy Lowell (1925), Sheila Birkenhead (1944 & 1965), Aileen Ward (1963), Walter Jackson Bate (1963), Robert Gittings, et al, all rely heavily on Sharp,1892. The Severn papers eventually surfaced in March 1972 when they were donated to the Houghton Library at Harvard. (11)

Scholars who had access to the Severn papers began to notice discrepancies in Sharp’s interpretation of the material. As far as facts go, we have Severn’s almost contemporaneous letters—particularly those written before Keats’s death—these are relevant, as they are the only record of what Keats’s declared dying wishes were, if any. The significance of this is that Sharp developed the narrative about Keats’s last final days, by interlacing from the “great mass of letters, journals, reminiscences, and fragmentary records” provided to him in the late 1880s.

According to Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs (Ed. Grant F Scott, hereafter referred to as Scott, 2005), Severn’s memoir My Tedious Life was the main source for Sharp from which he developed the narrative for Keats final months in Rome. It was written in 1873—six years before Severn’s death and fifty-two years after Keats’s death. (12)

Consider a fact recorded about Keats’s dying wishes. In Sharp, Severn writes a long letter to Mrs Brawne (the mother of Keats’s fiancée Fanny Brawne) dated February 12th, 1821. This letter records that:

…Among the many things he has requested to me to-night this is the principal, that on his grave shall be this “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”’ (13)

According to the Life of John Keats by Charles Armitage Brown, this letter is actually dated February 8th, 1821 and is addressed to Brown himself. Sharp confused both the date, and Brawne with Brown, but the substance of it does remain relevant, as primary source evidence—in that before death John Keats had declared that he wanted these words on his grave: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.

Keats on his deathbed, Joseph Severn, 1821

Keats on his deathbed, Joseph Severn, 1821

There is another source of potential confusion in a letter written by Severn to William Haslam on February 22nd, 1821.(14) This is the day before Keats died. Sharp records this letter as does Scott. However, Sharp continues on from the letter and quotes “a memorable passage” from Severn’s unpublished memoirs, included a commentary presented as if contemporaneous to the Haslam letter:

“…From time to time he gave me all his directions as to what he wanted done after his death. It was in the same sad hour when he told me with greater agitation than he had shown on any other subject, to put the letter which had just come from Miss Brawne (which he was unable to bring himself to read, or even to open), with any other that should arrive too late to reach him in life, inside his winding-sheet on his heart–it was then, also, that he asked that I should see cut upon his gravestone as sole inscription, not his name,(15) but simply, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’” (16)

Here in Sharp, we have a much later recollection by Severn, edited and enhanced by Sharp for readability, almost seamlessly stitched into the narrative.

As Keats makes no reference to “sole inscription” and “not his name” in any correspondence, the question remains as to where these ‘wishes’ emanate from. The root source can be traced to six months after Keats’s death. In August 1821, his friend and publisher John Taylor, writes to Severn: (17)

“…I find by your letter to Mr. Haslam that you have designed a tomb in the form of a Grecian altar, with a lyre, &c. This is said to be executing, I think, by some English sculptor, but you want an inscription. I can conceive none better than our poor friend’s melancholy sentiment, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ It is very simple and affecting, and tells so much of the story that none need be told. Neither name nor date is requisite. These will be given in his life by his biographer. So, unless something else is determined on, let this line stand alone. (18) I foresee that it will be as clear an indication to posterity as the plainest, every-day inscription that one may find in Westminster Abbey…”

The aforementioned was proposed perhaps for reasons of dramatic gravitas. In Taylor’s opinion, Keats’s name was not necessary, and that “Here lies one whose name was writ on water” should be the sole inscription. Severn and Brown both picked up on this. The Taylor suggestion was to be later transmuted into a ‘dying wish’ of Keats, although it originated some six months after he had died.

To conclude, before Keats’s death we have confirmation in the Severn letter to Brown dated February 8th, 1821 that Keats wanted: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. This was the single declared dying wish of John Keats in relation to his epitaph. The idea of the “sole inscription” and “not his name” was instigated posthumously by John Taylor in his August 1821 letter to Severn, and later executed by Joseph Severn. The evidence would strongly suggest that Keats’s dying wishes (such as they were) were duly fulfilled. Keats wanted “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. He got this, and more. Everything else that appears on the gravestone epitaph was created posthumously by others—and not by John Keats.

Acknowledgments
I am indebted to Grant F Scott, Professor of English at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for taking the time out of his busy schedule to point me in the right direction on some dates to letters and events cited in this paper. For me the most important reference source was his Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs (2005)  which was a huge help and inspiration.
I am also grateful for access to Romantic Circles electronic edition. This is a scholarly resource which features New Letters from Charles Brown to Joseph Severn, Editors: Grant F Scott & Sue Brown ( 2007: Revised 2010).
https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/brownsevern/index.html
I will be following this post with another on John Keats’ gravestone itself, looking particularly at the text ‘Who, on his death bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart, at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired…’

References
1. John Keats is located in Tomb no. 159, Gravestone S31, (Zone A, Plot 51) of the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio, Rome. For further information see http://www.cemeteryrome.it
2. No exact date. Joseph Severn to William Haslam, June 1st 1823 “I have just put up the Tomb to poor Keats—it has cost me £16” p242 ed. Scott, Grant F, Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs (2005), Aldershot/Burlington VT: Ashgate.
3. Charles Armitage Brown. Born Lambeth, London 1787, died New Zealand 1842. Met Keats 1817. Walking tour of Lake District of England, Northern part of Ireland, & Scotland with Keats in early summer 1818. Keats lodged with Brown at Wentworth Place, Hampstead from December 1818. For further information on Brown see Richardson, Joanna, Keats and his Circle, (1980), London:Cassell pp 25-27. See also Grant F Scott & Sue Brown, New Letters from Charles Brown to Joseph Severn: Character of Charles Brown 15-18; https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/brownsevern/intro.html
4. Joseph Severn. Born Hoxton, London 1793, died Rome 1879. Buried Rome Tomb no. 173, Gravestone S32, (Zone A, Plot 65) of the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners. Painter and diplomat. Met Keats 1816. Travelled with Keats to Rome September 1820. See Richardson pp104-107. For character see also Scott, 2005 ‘The Eternal I’ pp 8-15 & letter 19, p149-151 & letter 48, p246 (underlined text).
5. November 26th, 1836. Sharp, William The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn, (1892), London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co: p165.
6.  New letters of CAB,Letter 42 https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/brownsevern/letters/26nov1836.html
7. Sharp, 1892
8. Sharp, 1892 preface p v (opening sentence)
9. For further information with illuminating commentary on Wm Sharp’s process of writing the book see Scott, Grant F, ‘Writing Keats’s Last Days: Severn, Sharp and Romantic Biography’, Studies in Romanticism, Vol 42, No1 (Spring, 2003), pp 3-26
10. Scott, 2005 p563
11. See Harvard Library Bulletin 21 (October 1973): 449
12. Scott, 2005 p567. Note: My Tedious Life included in its entirety in Scott, 2005 pp 625-664
13. Sharp, 1892 pp 89-90 & Life of John Keats by Charles Armitage Brown (1937) Oxford: OUP pp83-88 [letter dated February 8th, 1821], and Rollins (1965, no 166, 2:91 (essentially same as Sharp, 1892 pp 89-90)
14. Sharp, 1892 pp 92-93 – see also Scott, 2005 pp 135-136
15. Bold added to “as sole inscription” & “not his name” by this author
16. Sharp, 1892 p93
17. Sharp, 1892 p107
18. Bold added by this author

Ian Reynolds is a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Oxfordshire. He has a personal interest in those associated with the Keats-Shelley Circle, and poets of the Romantic period, especially John Keats. He is unaffiliated. Ian’s other interests include reading, listening to music, particularly rock and jazz, road cycling and wine.Ian Reynolds

24.04.2019

John Keats and his Publishers

by Colin Silver   There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. […]

Read More
30.03.2019

A wander through Wordsworth’s ‘Christabel’ notebook

by Rachael Tarrant   A jade-coloured rectangular box is laid delicately and ceremoniously on the table; hidden inside lies another treasure of the Wordsworth Trust. Our little group – enthused students of Romanticism – have already been shown a first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads – ‘shown’ because the book is considered so valuable as […]

Read More
05.03.2019

Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the […]

Read More
23.02.2019

When did John Keats die?

by Ian Reynolds   The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how […]

Read More
09.02.2019

Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, […]

Read More
21.01.2019

Nice ink, Keats

by Gareth Evans   An ephemeral post seems to be a good place to talk about doodles. In their purest form, you may have little idea when you start how either will finish. The youthful Keats’s marginal sketches in his 1815/1816 medical notebook are more purposeful than this but were nevertheless created to fill some […]

Read More
01.01.2019

Bringing Frankenstein back to life

by Andrew Weltch   Think of the ‘original’ cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, and the image that comes to mind is probably Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. But you actually have to go back a further two decades for the genuine original and the creature’s first appearance on film […]

Read More
15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More

What the Victorians made of Romanticism

Page 1

by Tom Mole
 
My new book What the Victorians Made of Romanticism offers a new way of understanding the reception history of Romantic writers and their works in Victorian Britain. Other scholars have told this story before, of course. But they have mostly focussed on the ways in which Romantic writers influenced their Victorian successors. They tell us about how Alfred Tennyson responded to Byron, or how Matthew Arnold responded to Wordsworth. I’m interested in a different kind of story. The story I tell is about the material artefacts and cultural practices that remediated Romantic writers and their works amid shifting understandings of history, memory, and media. I pay attention to the things Victorians made – including illustrated books, anthologies, statues, postcards and memorial plaques – as well as to what they did with Romantic writers – citing and reciting them, including them in sermons, placing busts of them on their mantelpieces, and a host of other practices. These artefacts and practices made sure that the Romantics were renovated for new generations of readers – and non-readers – while recruiting them to address new cultural concerns in the process.
Mole 6
For a while, it seemed that the Romantics would not be remembered at all. Many early-Victorian commentators worried that the writing of the recent past no longer compelled readers’ interest, and that it would soon be forgotten. The predictions began polemically. Blackwood’s Magazine claimed in 1820 that John Keats had ruined his talent by imitating Leigh Hunt, and that ‘he must be content to share his fate, and be like him forgotten’, and Coleridge wrote in 1825 that he ‘dare[d] predict, that in less than a century’ Byron’s and Scott’s poems would ‘lie on the same Shelf of Oblivion’. But predictions soon became warnings. The Quarterly Review asserted that Scott was ‘in danger of passing – we cannot conceive why – out of the knowledge of the rising generation’, and Thomas Carlyle cautioned in 1829 that ‘Byron … with all his wild siren charming, already begins to be disregarded and forgotten’.
Byron Grasmere
 
Before long, the warnings became simple statements of fact. Orestes Brownson asserted in 1841 that Shelley was ‘seldom spoken of and much more seldom read’. The Graphic cattily remarked in 1873 that Hemans was ‘almost as much neglected now, as she was overrated formerly’. Stopford Brooke declared simply in 1893 that Byron was ‘not much read now’. If anyone read the Romantics, some claimed, it was only those people who scarcely counted, like adolescents or the uneducated. Selections of Wordsworth’s poetry ‘chiefly for the use of schools and young persons’ appeared from as early as 1831, while in 1848 Readings for the Young from the Works of Sir Walter Scott inaugurated a tradition of excerpting or retelling Scott’s works for children. Walter Bagehot wrote that ‘a stray schoolboy may still be detected in a wild admiration for The Giaour or The Corsair …, but the real posterity – the quiet students of past literature – never read them or think of them’. The fact that the Romantics were remembered – at least some of them – is not down to the enduring excellence of their poetry, or to its ability to transcend the historical moment in which it was written. Rather, I argue, Romantic writers and their works continued to attract attention because they were mediated to Victorian audiences in new ways. This was necessary because the Romantics were increasingly in danger of seeming outdated. Victorian commentators worried that the literature of even the recent past was no longer suited to address the present’s most pressing concerns.
 
readingsforyoung
 
When Matthew Arnold hailed his generation as ‘we, brought forth and reared in hours / Of change, alarm, surprise’, he signalled a self-conscious modernity. In this accelerated and uncertain time, the literature of even the recent past began to seem alien or obsolescent. ‘Too fast we live, too much are tried, / Too harrass’d, to attain / Wordsworth’s sweet calm’, Arnold wrote. Poetry of the recent past no longer seemed like it could speak to the anxieties of the present. Echoing Byron’s Manfred, who found that ‘the wisdom of the world… avail’d not’, Arnold turned Manfred’s conclusion into a question and made it a matter of generational difference: ‘what availed it, all the noise / And outcry of the former men?’
 
Introducing an edition of Byron’s poems in 1866, Algernon Charles Swinburne reiterated Arnold’s sense of a generational shift, and framed it ironically in the religious language that Arnold would use earnestly in ‘Dover Beach’ the following year. ‘Men born when this century was getting into its forties were baptised into another church than [Byron’s] with the rites of another creed. … No man under twenty’, he asserted, ‘can now be expected to appreciate’ Byron or Wordsworth. This fear that the Romantics were being forgotten, and that they could not find new readers unaided, produced a whole set of efforts to bring them to new audiences, and make them newly relevant. In the book, I look at how these efforts took shape in four different media: illustrations, sermons, statues and anthologies.
 
Retro-fitted illustrations – that is, newly-produced illustrations for works that didn’t appear with illustrations when they were first published – were produced for many Romantic works in Victorian Britain. They helped to make new editions of Romantic poetry look modern and up-to-date, because an increasing number of new books in the Victorian period appeared with illustrations from their first edition. Think of the close association between Dickens and Phiz or Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel. New illustrations helped to renovate Romantic poetry, allowing it to circulate once again in the market for new books. Illustrations therefore offered a way to come to terms with the sense that a generation gap was opening up between the Victorians and their Romantic precursors. I look at several examples of illustrated books that thematise this sense of the passage of time. In some cases, they update Romantic poetry by including recognisably Victorian people and scenes in illustrations. In others, they combine canonizing images that proclaimed the lasting value of Romantic poetry with images that invited Victorian readers to put aside their preconceptions and experience it afresh.
Victorian Keats
When Victorian people went to church, they heard Romantic poetry quoted in sermons surprisingly often. Some authors – such as Wordsworth – could be recruited in support of a generalised and often rather vague sense of spiritual uplift. Others – such as Byron – were more likely to serve as an awful warning, an example of misspent time and misapplied talent. But the way Victorian preachers and religious writers handled Romantic writers and their works could sometimes be surprising. Shelley, for example, was turned into an honorary Christian by a number of progressive figures in several Christian denominations. And Byron was quoted not only as an example of a sinner, but also approvingly, for example for his paraphrases of certain psalms and his descriptions of nature. I look at one preacher in particular – Charles Haddon Spurgeon – who quoted Byron regularly. Spurgeon’s library has survived almost intact, and so we can trace the ways in which he encountered Byron through anthologies, primers and books of quotations.
 
Several Romantic writers were commemorated in statues and other kinds of memorials. These monuments were part of a wider effort to create a new British pantheon. The new pantheon was secular, and liberal enough to include people with drastically different political views. It helped to create a new kind of cultural consensus during a period of radical introspection about who constituted the nation and what they shared. And crucially, it was not housed in a particular structure or institution, but spread out across the cities of London and Edinburgh, and eventually across the country as a whole. I examine the statue of Byron in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, the Scott Monument in Edinburgh, and the statue of Byron in Hyde Park, London, as key monuments in the development of this new pantheon. I also show how these monuments were remediated in figurines, postcards, and cigarette cards.
 
Byron_Statue
Finally, I examine the ways in which anthologies mediated Romantic poetry to Victorian audiences. I’ve looked at over 200 Victorian anthologies, and for the first time I can explain in detail which poems by Byron, Hemans and Shelley they included, which sections of long poems appeared, and how they framed these poems with editorial material such as headnotes, footnotes and glosses. The results are fascinating. The anthologies produced their own version of Byron, Hemans and Shelley, which is different in several key ways from the version you get in a collected or selected edition, as well as the versions of those poets that English students today discover in modern classroom anthologies.
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Overall, the book aims to show how literature of the past can be appropriated and made newly relevant in ways that could not have been imagined by its authors. I think recent critics have often tended to connect literature so closely to the context in which it’s written that we tend to overlook its ability to function in other contexts. I hope What the Victorians Made of Romanticism will help people to see some of the ways in which literary works get redeployed in unexpected ways.
 
Dr Tom Mole received his PhD from the University of Bristol in 2003 and has worked at the University of Glasgow, the University of Bristol and McGill University. He is currently Reader in English Literature and Director of the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Tom Mole 2Edinburgh. With Michelle Levy, he wrote The Broadview Introduction to Book History (2017) and edited The Broadview Reader in Book History (2014). His other books include Byron’s Romantic Celebrity (Palgrave, 2007), Romanticism and Celebrity Culture (ed, Cambridge, 2009) and What the Victorians Made of Romanticism (Princeton, 2017). From 2008-2013 he was Principal Investigator of the Interacting with Print research group, whose collaboratively written ‘multigraph’ will be published by Chicago UP in 2017. He is a member of the PMLA Advisory Committee.
 

24.04.2019

John Keats and his Publishers

by Colin Silver   There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. […]

Read More
30.03.2019

A wander through Wordsworth’s ‘Christabel’ notebook

by Rachael Tarrant   A jade-coloured rectangular box is laid delicately and ceremoniously on the table; hidden inside lies another treasure of the Wordsworth Trust. Our little group – enthused students of Romanticism – have already been shown a first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads – ‘shown’ because the book is considered so valuable as […]

Read More
05.03.2019

Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the […]

Read More
23.02.2019

When did John Keats die?

by Ian Reynolds   The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how […]

Read More
09.02.2019

Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, […]

Read More
21.01.2019

Nice ink, Keats

by Gareth Evans   An ephemeral post seems to be a good place to talk about doodles. In their purest form, you may have little idea when you start how either will finish. The youthful Keats’s marginal sketches in his 1815/1816 medical notebook are more purposeful than this but were nevertheless created to fill some […]

Read More
01.01.2019

Bringing Frankenstein back to life

by Andrew Weltch   Think of the ‘original’ cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, and the image that comes to mind is probably Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. But you actually have to go back a further two decades for the genuine original and the creature’s first appearance on film […]

Read More
15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More

'Most musical, most melancholy' : Nightingales in Milton, Coleridge and Keats

Page 1

by Jeffrey Peters
 
In 1973, Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence described the struggle of the Romantic poets to find a voice in a world dominated by Paradise Lost, but he did little to discuss the legacy of John Milton’s lesser poems. Just as the sun overwhelms the twinkle of distant stars, so too did the mighty epic dominate its kindred. That masterpiece, rivalled by few others in the whole of literature, has instilled in our collective memory images well-known even to those who have never attempted to read it. Yet Milton’s influence goes far beyond our dramatic Fall.
Romanticism, especially British Romanticism, emphasizes the role of contemplating nature, and it is with no surprise that the Romantic Poets would seize upon Milton’s ‘Il Penseroso’. Written sometime after Milton left Cambridge, yet not published until the middle of his career, the poem is a melancholic reflection on poetry, art, and inspiration.

Il Penseroso, by Thomas Cole

Il Penseroso, by Thomas Cole


Central to Milton’s poem is the image of Philomela, one of Ovid’s many tragic females who was brutally raped by her sister’s husband, Tereus, and whose tongue was cut out to keep her silent.
Philomela
However, Philomela was able to notify her sister, which led to the sisters seeking revenge and Tereus, in return, trying to murder them. Subsequently, the sisters prayed to the gods for protection, and the gods answered by transforming them into birds. Although some sources disagree on who was transformed into what, Ovid’s Philomela became the nightingale, and her sorrowful tale has since been linked with evening’s approach.
 
But the nightingale is not just a simple image of melancholy. Like all of Ovid’s tales in the Metamorphoses, Philomela’s is a metaphor for art, and, as she is in the works of so many other Greco-Roman authors, including Virgil and Aristophanes, the nightingale inspires melancholic and self-reflecting poetry.
It is inevitable that the contemplative spirit of Milton would wander into the sorrowful strain of the nightingale. And so he describes how “the Cherub Contemplation” and “the mute Silence” come quietly as not to wake Philomela, the spirit of melancholy, who would then:

daign a Song,
In her sweetest, saddest plight,
Smoothing the rugged brow of night,
While Cynthia checks her Dragon yoke,
Gently o’re th’ accustom’d Oke;
Sweet Bird that shunn’st the noise of folly,
Most musicall, most melancholy!
Thee Chauntress oft the Woods among,
I woo to hear thy eeven-Song;
And missing thee, I walk unseen
On the dry smooth-shaven Green,
To behold the wandring Moon,
Riding neer her highest noon,
Like one that had bin led astray
Through the Heav’ns wide pathles way; (56-70)

He knows that he could easily become enraptured by the nightingale’s song, but he is also eager to avoid becoming lost in it. He is deeply conflicted and dwells on her beauty far longer than one who is immune to her temptation. It’s only by luck that he misses her song , but he is able to admire her counterpart, the moon.
Although Milton is torn at the possibility at becoming lost in nature, the Romantic Poets did not share his cautious nature. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s beautiful, yet overlooked, ‘The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem’, takes on Milton’s assessment:

Most musical, most melancholy’ bird!
A melancholy bird! Oh! idle thought!
In nature there is nothing melancholy.
But some night-wandering man, whose heart was pierced
With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,
Or slow distemper, or neglected love,
(And so, poor wretch! filled all things with himself,
And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale
Of his own sorrow) he, and such as he,
First named these notes a melancholy strain. (13–22)

This is quite a different bird! She is the embodiment of the evening, of peace, and of contemplation most rich. She is the herald of nature that allows man to focus on the beauty around him. Yet man, in his ignorance or selfishness, attributes his own sorrow to nature.
Gone is the horror of Philomela, the rape and destruction. Instead, we are told of children who are lost in societal pleasures and who lament the coming of the evening, and it is they who tarnish the reputation of a sweet bird. She is made twice a victim by an ignorant culture, but Coleridge ensures that she and her admirers can find peace:

My Friend, and thou, our Sister! we have learnt
A different lore: we may not thus profane
Nature’s sweet voices, always full of love
And joyance! ‘Tis the merry Nightingale
That crowds, and hurries, and precipitates
With fast thick warble his delicious notes,
As he were fearful that an April night
Would be too short for him to utter forth
His love-chant, and disburthen his full soul
Of all its music! (39–48)

It soon becomes clear that Coleridge enjoys the tranquility of the evening and how this period allows him to connect with nature in a way that society hinders. As the poem concludes, he takes his young son Hartley out with him to look upon the moon, and he hopes:

It is a father’s tale: But if that Heaven
Should give me life, his childhood shall grow up
Familiar with these songs, that with the night
He may associate joy.—Once more, farewell,
Sweet Nightingale! once more, my friends! farewell. (106–110)

He has rewritten the tale to inspire his son to pursue nature. It is optimistic in its fullest.
Microcerculus_philomela_1902
‘The Nightingale’ also completes a rejection of Philomela and the “melancholic” nightingale started in Coleridge’s ‘To a Nightingale’. In the earlier poem, the narrator seeks comfort in his wife:

How many wretched Bards address thy name,
And hers, the full-orb’d Queen that shines above.
But I do hear thee, and the high bough mark,
Within whose mild moon-mellow’d foliage hid
Thou warblest sad thy pity-pleading strains.
O! I have listen’d, till my working soul,
Waked by those strains to thousand phantasies,
Absorb’d hath ceas’d to listen! Therefore oft,
I hymn thy name: and with a proud delight
Oft will I tell thee, Minstrel of the Moon!
‘Most musical, most melancholy’ Bird!
That all thy soft diversities of tone,
Tho’ sweeter far than the delicious airs
That vibrate from a white-arm’d Lady’s harp,
What time the languishment of lonely love
Melts in her eye, and heaves her breast of snow,
Are not so sweet as is the voice of her,
My Sara – best beloved of human kind! (7-24)

It seems from this earlier work that Coleridge was that “night-wandering man,” and he transforms the story of the nightingale completely to overcome his own deep seated feelings about nature. Yet the nightingale is still able to draw out the thoughts of the listener, which is a sweeter type of melancholy.
Although Coleridge’s nightingale poems were often over looked by modern audiences, they were known by his contemporaries. As Coleridge biographer Rosemary Ashton explains, the use of the nightingale to frame a meditation on nature inspired John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. This was not a coincidence; the pre-eminent scholar Walter Jackson Bate, in his biography of Coleridge, describes a meeting that took place between the two poets on 11th April 1819 in which the two briefly discussed nightingales and poetry, among other topics. It was only a few weeks later that Keats composed ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, a poem that both embraced and rejected aspects of Milton’s and Coleridge’s claims. Gone are all references to Philomela, and it seems that the nightingale’s tune is a source of pain, because the narrator longs to experience the tranquility expressed in its song:

Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease. (5–10)

That tune seems to obliterate his ability to think, producing the opposite effect of Milton’s inspirational song. Yet, the narrator is drawn into a meditation on nature itself, and it is through this emptying of the self that the narrator is soon filled with the poetry necessary to join the bird:

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! (31–35)

This new realm is a contradictory state that is akin to death yet full of life, similar to the vibrant paralysis described in Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. His senses transform as darkness overwhelms him and the imagination creates a new paradise. He yearns to join with nature, to unite with the bird, but he cannot because he is mortal.
Keats embraces Coleridge’s separation of Philomela and the nightingale, and he seems to denounce the Ovidian possibility of mankind ever becoming an immortal part of nature. It is that realization that draws him back to reality. The nightingale is like a siren, leading the sensitive to their doom in the realm of imagination, but the narrator is able to pull back before he has gone too far:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades (71–75)

Keats warns in Lamia, “Real are the dreams of Gods”, which implies that only the gods can experience the realm of dreams as if it were real. Mortals are bound by the needs of life, and we cannot dwell in a land of imagination forever. Yet there is a part of us that desires more.
The nightingale is nature’s temptress, the enrapturing beauty that can be experienced in this world. However, it is a melancholic bird because we know that we can never join it in its immortal song. The pain we feel is the pain of our own immortality. We see the magnificent beauty of nature surround us, yet we, humans, are forever kept apart from it. Milton, Coleridge, and Keats all speak in regard to poetry, imagination, nature, and melancholy, yet each reveals his own anxieties: to Milton, the nightingale represents the temptation to dwell too strongly on melancholy; to Coleridge, the nightingale is blamed for humanity’s failings and is superior to us; and to Keats, the nightingale represents the desire to abandon this life and embrace nature most fully.
These three great poets, along with many others, took up the subject of the nightingale to discuss the heart of their poetic practice. For all of their similarities, their individual rejection of the Philomela myth couldn’t be more different. They recognize that there is great beauty to be found in great suffering, but they also know the consuming destruction that must come as a result. Ironically, Milton, Coleridge, and Keats obtained a form of immortality, but it was through their mastery of poetry instead of a union with nature. In the end, their song is still heard by many, just like that sweet, sorrowful tune of the nightingale that once enraptured them.
 
Jeffrey Peters is a columnist, writer, and researcher based out of Jeff PetersAnnapolis, Maryland. He has a Master’s in Western Classics and is finishing his PhD in English Literature, specializing in the British Romantics, at Catholic University of America. 
 

24.04.2019

John Keats and his Publishers

by Colin Silver   There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. […]

Read More
30.03.2019

A wander through Wordsworth’s ‘Christabel’ notebook

by Rachael Tarrant   A jade-coloured rectangular box is laid delicately and ceremoniously on the table; hidden inside lies another treasure of the Wordsworth Trust. Our little group – enthused students of Romanticism – have already been shown a first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads – ‘shown’ because the book is considered so valuable as […]

Read More
05.03.2019

Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the […]

Read More
23.02.2019

When did John Keats die?

by Ian Reynolds   The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how […]

Read More
09.02.2019

Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, […]

Read More
21.01.2019

Nice ink, Keats

by Gareth Evans   An ephemeral post seems to be a good place to talk about doodles. In their purest form, you may have little idea when you start how either will finish. The youthful Keats’s marginal sketches in his 1815/1816 medical notebook are more purposeful than this but were nevertheless created to fill some […]

Read More
01.01.2019

Bringing Frankenstein back to life

by Andrew Weltch   Think of the ‘original’ cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, and the image that comes to mind is probably Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. But you actually have to go back a further two decades for the genuine original and the creature’s first appearance on film […]

Read More
15.11.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney     It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about […]

Read More
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