by Eleanor Fitzsimons
In July 1877, subscribers to the Irish Monthly, a publication subtitled ‘A Magazine of General Literature’, were treated to an entertaining and scholarly article headed ‘The Tomb of John Keats’. The author, a 22-year-old Dubliner, was an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was reading Literae Humaniores, the university’s undergraduate course in Classics. This was his first published prose article and his name was Oscar Wilde.
In this moving tribute to the young poet, which can be read here, Wilde, an avid fan, introduced Keats as ‘one who walks with Spenser, and Shakespeare, and Byron, and Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the great procession of the sweet singers of England’. While allowing that the resting place of ‘this divine boy’, which he had visited earlier that year, was surrounded by beauty, Wilde insisted that Keats’ brief but extraordinary life was not honoured fittingly by the ‘mean grave’ that held his remains.
Describing the emotions that came over him as he stood by Keats’ graveside, Wilde paid florid homage to his hero: ‘I thought of him as of a Priest of Beauty slain before his time; and the vision of Guido’s St. Sebastian came before my eyes as I saw him at Genoa’. He was moved to compose a poem:
HEU MISERANDE PUER (Later renamed THE GRAVE OF KEATS and included in Poems, 1881)
Rid of the world’s injustice and its pain,
He rests at last beneath God’s veil of blue;
Taken from life while life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
Fair as Sebastian and as foully slain.
No cypress shades his grave, nor funeral yew,
But red-lipped daisies, violets drenched with dew,
And sleepy poppies, catch the evening rain.
O proudest heart that broke for misery!
O saddest poet that the world hath seen!
O sweetest singer of the English land!
Thy name was writ in water on the sand,
But our tears shall keep thy memory green,
And make it flourish like a Basil-tree.
Ever the self publicist, Wilde sent his poem to the eminent poet, patron and politician Lord Haughton, editor of Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848). Inviting Haughton to comment on his tribute, Wilde also petitioned his support for a campaign to replace an ‘extremely ugly’ bas relief of Keats’ head, which had been erected close to his grave, with something befitting ‘a lovely Sebastian killed by the arrows of a lying and unjust tongue’.
Wilde could be fiercely proprietorial in his devotion; he chose ‘Keats House’ as the name for the Chelsea home he shared with artist Frank Miles and suggested that only those who shared Keats’ genius were worthy of copying his distinctive style. Certainly, his own early work resonates with echoes of his predecessor, a similarity that was apparent to his critics. One anonymous and damning review of Poems, published in The Athenaeum, asserted that Wilde’s derivative style grew ‘out of a misunderstanding worship of Keats’, and concluded ‘in spite of some element of grace and beauty’, his poems had ‘no element of endurance’. This proved to be the case.
Keats was a pioneer of aestheticism: ‘What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth’, he declared in a letter to his great friend Benjamin Bailey, written in November 1817. Little wonder Wilde insisted: ‘It is in Keats that one discerns the beginning of the artistic renaissance of England’. Again and again, he invoked his hero as a touchstone for the admirable or the unworthy.
Wilde was scathing in ‘Two Biographies of Keats’, a review piece he wrote for the Pall Mall Gazette in September 1887. While he favoured Sidney Colvin’s evaluation over William Rossetti’s ‘great failure’, he chastised the former for drawing attention to Bailey’s toned-down characterisation of Keats as a man of ‘commonsense and gentleness’, insisting ‘we prefer the real Keats, with his passionate wilfulness, his fantastic moods and his fine inconsistence’.
Although The Athenaeum derided it, the depth of Wilde’s devotion was recognised by Keats’ niece Emma Speed, daughter of his brother George who had moved to America in 1818 and settled in Louisville in 1819. Mrs. Speed, described by Wilde as ‘a lady of middle age, with a sweet gentle manner and a most musical voice’, sought him out after he cited her uncle’s poem ‘Answer to a sonnet by J.H. Reynolds’ during a lecture he delivered at the Masonic Temple in Louisville on Tuesday, 21 February 1882. Wilde accepted her invitation to call on her the following day in order to examine the Keats manuscripts in her possession; he recalled this experience in ‘Keats’ Sonnet on Blue’, an erudite article he wrote for the July 1886 issue of The Century Guild Hobby Horse:
I spent most of the next day with her, reading the letters of Keats to her father, some of which were at that time unpublished, poring over torn yellow leaves and faded scraps of paper, and wondering at the little Dante in which Keats had written those marvellous notes on Milton.
Shortly afterwards, in an act of overwhelming generosity, Emma Speed sent him the original manuscript of ‘Answer to a sonnet by J.H. Reynolds’, prompting him to write in response:
What you have given me is more golden than gold, more precious than any treasure this great country could yield me, though the land be a network of railways, and each city a harbour for the galleys of the world.
It is a sonnet I have loved always, and indeed who but the supreme and perfect artist could have got from a mere colour a motive so full of marvel: and now I am half enamoured of the paper that touched his hand, and the ink that did his bidding, grown fond of the sweet comeliness of his character, for since my boyhood I have loved none better than your marvellous kinsman, that godlike boy, the real Adonis of our age…. In my heaven he walks eternally with Shakespeare and the Greeks…
Three years later, on 2 March 1885, Wilde attended a contentious auction in London at which thirty-five of Keats’s love letters to Fanny Brawne were being sold by her son Herbert Lindon. He expressed his disquiet in ‘On the sale by auction of Keats’s love letters’.
These are the letters which Endymion wrote
To one he loved in secret, and apart.
And now the brawlers of the auction mart
Bargain and bid for each poor blotted note,
Ay! for each separate pulse of passion quote
The merchant’s price. I think they love not art
Who break the crystal of a poet’s heart
That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.
Is it not said that many years ago,
In a far Eastern town, some soldiers ran
With torches through the midnight, and began
To wrangle for mean raiment, and to throw
Dice for the garments of a wretched man,
Not knowing the God’s wonder, or His woe?
Yet, despite his apparent distaste, Wilde reportedly spent eighteen pounds on one of these letters. Perhaps he regarded himself as a worthy keeper of the flame. In truth, he was.
Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher, writer, journalist and occasional
broadcaster specialising in historical and current feminist issues. She has an MA in Women, Gender and Society from University College Dublin.
Her work has been published in a range of newspapers and journals including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, History Today and The Irish Times, and she is a regular radio and television contributor. Her book Wilde’s Women was published by Duckworth Overlook on 16 October 2015.