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

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



Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

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 great last 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:



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.


Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

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,, has a local, national and international following.

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

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.
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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. 

The Gravestone of John Keats: Romancing the Stone

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

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.
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).
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…’
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
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;
4. Joseph Severn. Born Hoxton, London 1793, died London 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
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

What the Victorians made of Romanticism

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.
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.
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.
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.

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

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.
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.
‘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. 

The editions of the Romantics: That which connects

by Ellen O’Neill
“It has been estimated that at the time of Keats’ death, the combined sales of the three books published during his lifetime amounted to 200 copies.” 

Andrew Motion, The Guardian, 23 January 2010

Yet here we are, two hundred years later, and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association is running an international prize for essay and poetry celebrating the publication of the first volume.
How does a life that ended at 25 wield such power?
This year’s Keats-Shelley theme is ‘To a Friend’ and the idea of Keats’s own relationships. It stirred in me enormous emotions about my own relationship to John Keats– through the editions of his poems that brought him into my life. Like great choral music, if no one picks up the actual books and reads (or sings), the genius is silent.
First stirrings
In junior high school, just starting to be conscious of the names Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, I noticed books that had long been on the family  bookshelf: The Literature of England: An Anthology & A History, Vol. 1 & 2, Wood, Wyatt, Anderson, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1947; and Seven Centuries of Verse: English & American, A.J.M Smith, Michigan State College, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947. They are my parents’ college anthologies from the early 1950s! Each filled with representations of the Romantics.
As I sit up late many nights and page through the big books over and over I feel an enormous connection to the pages of the Romantics. I dive in so easily, read so easily, understand on an as-yet untutored level. And I develop a deep connection to these editions because they belong to my parents and bring me in communion with en entire world I long to know more about.
I only realized years later that I grew up with some casual peppering of some of the great quotes in casual conversation: my Mom, “It winter comes, can spring be far behind” whenever the snows came forceful; my Dad pronouncing “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” in the most sardonic tone when something wasn’t going right.
For myself I felt particularly drawn to

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; 

That wonderful cadence and what I visualized as an Emerald City of books gleaming in gold: I did not know who Chapman was then. My love of this poem would lead me to getting a fairly significant and needed college scholarship because of an essay I wrote based on it. Hmm. So, those late night cogitations had meaning outside of my own heart. . . .
College brought the heady days of being an English major and spending hours with the poets I had met in the family’s anthologies. I had the privilege of studying with William Keach for Romantics, and so was ushered into some of the finest thinking about the era and work and enjoyed expert tutelage about my own ideas.
On the larger canvas love came and went, was requited and unrequited in a strange venn diagram that included Paul Fussell and a shy student I’ll call “Keats” who was courting me and whom I did not appreciate, blinded by my love for a “Byron” who would never be right for me.
For my birthday one year “Keats” bought me a handful of various Romantics tomes from our college town’s wonderful used book store. He inscribed the Byron volume with “Happy Birthday–The years ahead, however thin the strands, however frayed , this one will still be strong, our love for these books, especially Byron.”
Sadly, as I had not appreciated the gift bearer, I barely even looked at the Keats volume at the time. Turns out is it

The Poetical Works of John Keats . Given From His Own Editions and Other Authentic Sources and Collated With Many Manuscripts. Edited with notes by H. Buxton Forman and Mrs. Keats and a Biographical Sketch by Wm. M. Rossetti. Complete Edition. A. L. Burt Company, New York

And now
Looking into this realm of gold now unexpectedly renews my relationship with Keats as I discover the deep riches of this edition decades after I first owned it. (Its one glaring flaw is on the spine, which regrettably heralds Keat’s Poems.)
Keat's Poems
The great Victorian biographer/forger H. Buxton Forman became friends with Dante Gabriel Rossetti around 1871, which probably led to brother William’s biographical sketch being included in the full poetical works volume.
Rossetti’s sketch feels like a portal that daisy chains back to a direct connection to Keats and Shelley as in ‘shaking the hand of the hand that shook Abraham Lincoln’s hand.’ Keats died in 1821, Rossetti was born in 1829, but twenty-five years on the outer circle was still very much alive to pass along knowledge to the literary Rossettis.  The New York edition is from 1906, although the Rossetti sketch is from some years earlier, as he refers to Frances Mary Llanos Gutierrez as “this lady still living in Spain and has a son known as a painter,” and she died in 1889.
I love the cadence of Rossetti’s prose and how he limns the overall sketch. He touches on many points that have since been much retold, including that Keats did not die from negative criticism:

It is more to the purpose to say that the once very prevalent story that Keats had been extremely pained and dejected by the adverse reviews, even to the extend of losing in consequences of them  his health and ultimately his life, was a romance of literature. Shelley by a noble poem, and Byron by a jeer, are greatly responsible for the diffusion and acceptance of this fable: Lord Houghton has, to the deep satisfaction of all who value manliness as a portion of the poetic character, dispelled it once and forever. [page xi-xii]

Rossetti also captures the power of desire to be close to our bright star, remarking on the burial instruction to inscribe “Here lies one whose name was write in water”:

That is an age-long and shoreless water, which will continue flowing while generation after generation of men, his brothers and lovers, come to contemplate the sacred tomb in Rome, dominated by the pyramid of Caius Cestius. They have but to move some paces aside, and stand by a still more sacred tomb which opened in the ensuing year, 1822–that of the world-loving, world-hated Shelley, divinest of the demigods. [xvi to xvii] 

Rossetti ends his sketch with thoughts of the poet’s character

“As of Keats’s character, so of his poetry, enjoyment is the primary element, the perpetual undertone: his very melancholy is the luxury of sadness.” [xviii]

“Keats, youthful and prodigal, the magician of unnumbered beauties which neither author nor reader can think of counting or assessing, is the Keats of our affections.” [xix] 

Of all the magical ideas that Keats left us, the poem that suggests that poetry itself can replace drinking for mind/body altering experience is in some ways the most ambitious. Benjamin Robert Haydon (and others, and the timeline) tell us that Keats was suffering from the untimely death of his brother Tom when he wrote these lines:

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies

Forman note: “Haydon, in a letter to Miss Mitford (Correspondence &c, Volume II, page 72) says of Keats–‘The death of his brother wounded him deeply, and it appeared to me from that hour he began to droop. He wrote his exquisite ‘Ode to the Nightingale’ at this time, and as we were one evening walking in the Kilburn meadows he repeated it to me, before he put it to paper, in a low, tremulous undertone which affected me extremely.”
We know that it was Haydon who gave a copy of the poem to Annals of the Fine Arts editor James Elmes, who purchased it and published it in the July issue, before it was published in the 1820 collection with “Lamia.” I wonder if Keats really recited it to Haydon during the act of creation.
But of no import.
The poem has been explicated, close-read, metrically analyzed from every possible angle; I sometimes feel the weight of all of the thought, much of it profound, clever, nuanced.

Thou  wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that ofttimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forman note:
“In the last line of the stanza the word ‘fairy’ instead of ‘faery’ stands in the manuscript and in the Annals: but the Lamia volume reads ‘faery’, which enhances the poetic value of the line in the subtlest manner–eliminating all possible connection of fairy-land with Christmas trees, tinsel, and Santa Claus, and carrying the imagination safely back to the middle ages—to Amadis of Gaul, to Palmerin of England, and above all to the East, to the Thousand and One Nights. ”
And in my own happy dream state, the fleeting music can only be:

What can I give Keats,
Poor as I am?
If I were a poet
I would bring iambs;
If I were a scholar
Endymion’s where I’d start.
Yet what I can, I give Keats –
Give my heart
Give . . . my heart. 

This post first appeared on Ellen’s blog
Ellen O’Neill blogs cultural, literary, and travel pieces as M.A.Peel. She is the Creative Director at The Paley Center for Media in NYC, a judge for the Webby Awards, and a thwarter of diabolical masterminds. Ellen O'Neill

Keats – Strength in beauty: an interview with Nicholas Roe

An interview with Wordsworth Trust trustee, Nicholas Roe,  adapted from material by Helen Tope

Few writers have a more enduring legacy than the English Romantic poet John Keats. Born in October 1795, Keats set out as a medical student studying at Guy’s Hospital and was eventually recognized as a central figure of English Romanticism.

We think that we know Keats – the young poet who died tragically of tuberculosis, aged just 25; but identifying Keats in this way not only limits our understanding of his genius, we risk misreading him entirely. In his recent biography John Keats. A New Life Nicholas Roe presents a Keats who is more robustly attuned to life and actuality. He vividly evokes the poet’s day-to-day life in London, at theatres and booksellers, dining with friends, and hiking in the Lake District and Scotland.

This new biography portrays Keats as a poet whose work was influenced by the places he visited; his poem Endymion, for instance, was written at the Isle of Wight, Hampstead, Oxford and Box Hill and each section of the poem responds to the location in which it was composed. Far from languishing on a chaise, Keats as a man and poet was vitally engaged with and responsive to his world.

This interview occurred just before a lecture given as part of the Plymouth Literature Festival. The lecture, ‘Charles Brown, John Keats and Plymouth’ reassessed the life of John Keats and the role Keats’s friend Charles Brown had in preserving the poet’s work and ensuring his reputation. During our interview, we also talked about how biography can shape our perceptions.
Can you remember what initially drew you to Keats?
Yes, I think the sound of his poetry—its sonic energy—long before I had any more reflective sense of what the poetry might ‘mean’. ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’: you only have to sound the line once and you’re drawn in.

What qualities (personal or poetic) do you think separate Keats from other key figures of the Romantic period?
Keats is unique in the remarkably rapid development of his genius. The poems that survive from 1814 to 1820 move from imitative verses, to complex, highly original lyrics that altered the course of English poetry. He discovered his own poetic domain very early. Keats’ extraordinary strength and self-belief when life, circumstances, health and critics all seemed allied against him are what impress most of all.

Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats gives us a panoramic view of the poet’s life, whereas your biography goes into much finer detail. Why did you adopt this approach?
My biography is interested in the locations of his writing and how these found their ways into his poetry, for instance in my account of the ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, written at the Old Mill House in Bedhampton in January 1819. This is very much a grounded Keats, a poet responsive to reality – not ‘poor Keats’, as the Victorians called him. Keats had walked the wards of Guy’s Hospital, and his poetry is braced by memories of that awful experience; probing a woman’s neck to extract a pistol-ball; dissecting muddy resurrected corpses. Keats’s experiences at Guy’s are central to understanding the kind of poet-physician he became.

What was Charles Brown’s significance to Keats?
Charles Armitage Brown met Keats in the summer of 1817; he may not be well-known today, but he swiftly became Keats’s collaborator and advisor and a guardian of his reputation as a poet. Brown gives us numerous insights into Keats’s life as a writer that we would not have had otherwise — indeed, without Charles Brown, Keats’s life would have taken a very different course, such that we would probably not have many of the poems. The ‘Nightingale Ode’ was written in Brown’s garden, and the ‘Eve of St Agnes’ was written in the house of Brown’s friends: had Keats not been in those places, the poems would in all likelihood not have been written. Keats would not have accompanied Brown on his summer Scottish tour in 1818, so we would not have his marvellous journal letters to his brothers and poems about Burns, Ailsa Rock, and Ben Nevis. There would be no Hyperion, at least as we know it, for Keats based the scenery of his poem on the Scottish Highlands; had Keats not gone to Winchester with Brown in August 1819, ‘To Autumn’ would not exist. It goes without saying, then, that we would not have Brown’s wonderful portrait of Keats, or his recollections of his poet-friend in his pioneering biography — a biography that is truly irreplaceable, in that it provides information about John Keats unavailable to anyone else.

Do you think we can ever reach a definitive account of a writer’s life, or will revision and reinterpretation always be the way forward?
Literary biography is never definitive, although publishers like to see the word in their blurbs. Half a century ago ‘To Autumn’ was regarded by an eminent Keats biographer as ‘one of the most perfect poems in English’, largely because the poet is ‘completely absent’. Surely Keats’s personality is heard in every word of that poem, in the sound and rhythm of every line, even though Keats doesn’t use the word ‘I’ in the lines?  So, yes, revision and reinterpretation always lead forward — reinventing the life anew. No biography is ever the last word.

Finally – what’s your favourite Keats poem?
This is a difficult question. I am intrigued by ‘Ode on Indolence’ because it has often been seen as a failure in comparison with the ‘Nightingale Ode’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. When Keats composed ‘Ode on Indolence’ is uncertain. We don’t even know the correct order of the stanzas, yet the poem has its own unique, mysterious magic:

One morn before me were three figures seen,
With bowed necks, and joined hands, side-faced;
And one behind the other stepp’d serene,
In placid sandals, and in white robes graced:
They pass’d, like figures on a marble urn …

 Sections of this interview appeared originally at

Meeting Keats on the Spanish Stairs

by Ellen O’Neill
October 21 is a fateful date for John Keats and myself: he landed in Italy in 1820 in a last-ditched effort to find relief in the warmth of the Italian sun to cure his diseased body, and I landed on the earth (as did Coleridge).

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,
Ancient footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold dark night on the Spanish stairs…

When I Paint My Masterpiece, Bob Dylan

I first began visiting Rome in 1999 when I enjoyed the friendship of an American Benedictine monk studying at Sant’Anselmo. The graves of Keats and Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery were top priority for my very first days. And then the Keats-Shelley House at the Spanish Steps.  The house was closed when I went, and back in that day, it wasn’t easy to find out when it would be open.
I visited Rome throughout the first decade of the new century, and each time the house was closed. (When I finally did first enter, I met Catherine Payling, the museum’s curator. She told me that instituting regular open hours for the public was one of her big missions.) And so it was in August 2010 that I arrived when the building was open and the pilgrimage was achieved to finally enter the apartment where John Keats died on February 23, 1821, at the shockingly young age of 25.
What is it about those Stairs?
The Scalinata is one of the strangest of tourist phenomena, because we all have steps. These are the longest and widest in Europe, but that in itself wouldn’t attract so many visitors. They connect the Piazza di Spagna to the Trinita dei Monti church, which dominates the view of the stairs. It is one of the French churches of Rome, built in 1585. The stairs were built in 1723 to 25, bequeathed by a French diplomat to link the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to the Holy See. So yes, it was Spain and France vying for Roman cultural power that produced this magnetic spot. Oh good, glad something explains it.
Then came the Brits
It is hauntingly lyrical that two giants of English Romanticism—Keats and Shelley—died and are buried in Italy. Keats was in a very weakened state when his doctor and friends thought a last ditched effort to get him in the Italian sun would help his TB-shattered body.
Keats leaves London in September 1820 with his friend Joseph Severn, and lands in Naples on October 21— today—which happens to be my birth date (and Coleridge’s in 1772). It’s a small factoid of history that has given me a cosmic connection to him even beyond my English major’s love of his work. He arrives in Rome in November, settles into an apartment at 26 Piazza di Spagna, and three months later, on February 23, 1821, he dies at 25.
Capturing the Bright Star
I saw Jane Campion’s biopic Bright Star on the plane to China in April 2010, four months before my successful pilgrimage. Even the tiny size of a seat screen couldn’t diminish the sense of the poetic life she captured on film. From Roger Ebert’s review:
“What Campion does is seek visual beauty to match Keats’ verbal beauty. There is a shot here of Fanny in a meadow of blue flowers that is so enthralling it beggars description.”
What struck me is the shot of Fanny in her white room with the white muslin curtains softly blowing. It’s a visualization of the “bliss” that overfills Fanny after her first walk out with Keats. It also captures the soft, light feeling that reading Keats’s poetry can create.
Against all this ‘life’ is a story of almost unmitigated tragedy. A short summary from the Guardian:
“Keats’s life was not merely bookended by tragedy but invaded by it at every turn: when he was 8 his father was killed in a riding accident. His mother’s second marriage collapsed, but not before her husband took possession of most of her wealth. She returned to her children but died when Keats was 10. His brother Tom succumbed to tuberculosis and the poet diagnosed the same fatal disease in himself not long after: one night, having coughed up some blood he is recorded as saying: ‘I know the colour of this blood: it is arterial blood . . . that drop of blood is my death-warrant. I must die.’
In the House today
And that brings us to the foreigners’ quarter of the Piazza di Spagna. The house is very much as Keats found it. His and Severn’s rooms were on the second floor, divided from their landlady’s by a curtain.
I went straight to his bedroom. None of the furnishings are original, because Vatican law decreed that everything be burned after he died. But the structure hasn’t changed, and the most important piece to me is the window looking out onto the Scalinata (my picture from Keats’s window). Here Keats would spend hours watching the river of people meeting, strolling, selling up and down the steps, and the children splashing in Pietro Bernini’s boat-shaped fountain. It was mesmerizing, even in 2010, to see the beauty of the steps from the window: the gorgeous Italian light, the coloring of the surrounding buildings, the sparkling blue sky.
And the saddest part of the apartment is the ceiling: what Keats would have spent hours staring at when his body was too weak to drag to the window.
Keats was a nova for this world: a bright star that was burned out by disease. His story would make anyone think of mortality, especially on their own birthday.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

My father often quoted the first line of Endymion, usually in a sardonic way. He died in early middle age. Keats and my dad will never pass into nothingness. Wings have memory of wings. (And I’ve always loved that Yeats and Keats are separated by just one letter.)
This post first appeared on Ellen’s blog
Ellen O’Neill blogs cultural, literary, and travel pieces as M.A.Peel. She is the Creative Director at The Paley Center for Media in NYC, a judge for the Webby Awards, and a thwarter of diabolical masterminds. Ellen O'Neill

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