john keats

A DRAUGHT OF VINTAGE

Keats 1Fanny Brawne.

Towards John Keats’s Third Collection of Poetry by Byron Beynon

Two hundred years ago in July 1820, John Keats’s third book of poems “Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems” was published by Taylor and Hessey, of Fleet Street, London.

His two previous collections “Poems” (1817), and “Endymion” (1818), had either been ignored or reviewed with savage scorn. This third collection contained most of the major work and is rightly considered his greatest collection.

The eighteen months or so leading up to the book’s publication had been for Keats a rollercoaster of different emotions, with the death of his brother Tom from TB, anxiety over money, personal illness, interspersed with periods of calm, inspiration, and fresh landscapes. However, he managed to create in a relatively short time (between January and September 1819) a body of work which challenged comparison with those of John Milton in his maturity.

This outpouring of major poetry in 1819 produced “The Eve of St Agnes”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, “Ode on Melancholy”, “Ode to Psyche”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “La Belle Dans sans Merci”, “Lamia”, and “To Autumn”. Poetry full of atmosphere, with wonderful delicacy and reserve. It was also a time when his older brother George had already left England and emigrated to America, he’d also met the love of his life Fanny Brawne, not forgetting he had to catch up on and digest several scathing reviews of his previous collections.

These reviews, as John Barnard points out in his book on Keats, were the product of “snobbery and class-consciousness….”. He also noted that “Keats’s aspirations had touched a nerve. Keats represented a threat.” Undaunted Keats would have the strength of mind to continue with his writing.

In his journal letter to his brother George and his sister-in-law Georgina written during December/January 1818/1819 Keats recalled:

“The last days of poor Tom were of the most distressing nature; but his last moments were not so painful, and his very last was without a pang – I will not enter into any parsonic comments on death – yet the common observations of the commonest people on death are as true as their proverbs. I have scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature o (r) other- neither had Tom….. Sometimes I fancy an immense separation, and sometimes, as at present, a direct communication of spirit with you.”

George had sailed in June 1818 from Liverpool to Philadelphia, onto Pittsburgh, then to Illinois territory, and the frontier settlement of Henderson in western Kentucky. After several years he eventually moved to Louisville. By the early 1830s, with a successful lumber mill and flour mill, he prospered, and built a large house in Louisville in 1835.

Keats, after the death of his brother Tom on 1st December 1818, moved into Wentworth Place, (now called Keats House), Hampstead with his friend Charles Brown. He had been writing and working on the poem “Hyperion” but put it to one side as the year drew to a close due the stress of his brother’s illness and death.

It was also in his journal letter to George on the 16th December 1818 that Keats first mentions Fanny Brawne:

“Mrs Brawne who took Brown’s house for the summer, still resides in Hampstead – she is a very nice woman – and her daughter senior is I think beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange – we have a little tiff now and then- and she behaves a little better, or I must have sheered off.”

Two days later, on the 18th he wrote “shall I give you Miss Brawne? She is about my height- with a fine style of countenance of the lenghthen’d sort – she wants sentiment in every feature-she manages to make her hair look well- her nostrils are fine- ……her full-face which indeed not full but pale and thin without showing any bone – Her shape is very graceful and so are her movements….”

Through the encouragement of friends like Charles and Maria Dilke, Keats decided that  a change of scene might do him good, and by mid January 1819 he travelled and stayed in Chichester, and then onto Bedhampton, to the old Mill House, where he wrote “The Eve of St Agnes” (January/early February 1819). It was another friend, Isabella Jones, who probably suggested to Keats that he should write this poem, a short romance, based on a legend. He had also been working again on the poem “Hyperion”, but the going was slow, and he finally abandoned it before or during April 1819. In mid February he began something new, the unfinished “The Eve of St Mark” where he pictures a cathedral town on a Sunday evening. At the time he worked on this poem he was suffering from a sore throat and was confined to his rooms.

He was now heading towards a golden period when the great odes of late April and early May would come. Back in London, on 11th April Keats took a walk across Hampstead Heath and met Mr Green an acquaintance from Guy’s Hospital in conversation with Coleridge, he joined them on their walk and as Keats said “In those two miles he (C) broached a thousand things……Nightingales, Poetry, – on Practical Sensation- Metaphysics- Different genera and species of Dreams….”

Soon after he wrote “Fancy”, and then on 21st April the ballad “La Belle dame sans Merci” (not included in his third volume). Within another nine days he had completed “To Sleep”, two sonnets “On Fame” and then “Ode to Psyche” the first of the great odes which was written by 30th April. “Ode to Psyche” proved to be a valuable springboard, within two or three weeks all the five remaining odes except “To Autumn” were written. His mind open and restored again with a fluency of purpose after a period of uncertainty and anxiety.

His friend Charles Brown wrote that “Ode to a Nightingale” was written soon after “Ode to Psyche” and composed in a single morning, he described the time of composition as lasting “two or three hours”. Brown also wrote:

“In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continued joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of papers in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale.”

Richard Holmes in his essay on Keats reflects on the poet’s survival in popular imagination via the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and how in the twentieth century “Scott Fitzgerald revealed a lifelong obsession with Keats, which produced not only the theme and title of “Tender is the Night” (1934), but also inspired his late pedagogic attempt to become a literature professor, as movingly recounted in Sheilah Graham’s “College of One” (1967), which began when Fitzgerald started reciting Keats to her as they drove back from a Hollywood film premier in his ancient Ford.”

Between July and September 1819 Keats stayed in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, he would also move to Winchester, working on the play “Otho the Great”, and the poems “Lamia” and “The Fall of Hyperion”. That July, Keats who was by then engaged to Fanny Brawne, wrote to her from Shanklin:

“My Sweet Girl,

Your letter gave me more delight, than any thing in the world but yourself could do; indeed I am almost astonished that any absent one should have that luxurious power over my senses which I feel. Even when I am not thinking of you I receive your influence and a tenderer nature steeling upon me. All my thoughts, my unhappiest days and nights have I find not at all cured me of my love of Beauty, but made it so intense that I am miserable that you are not with me: or rather breathe in that dull sort of patience that cannot be called Life. I never knew before, what such a love as you have made me feel, was; I did not believe it it, …I love you the more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else – I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.”

At Winchester, in September he wrote the sensuous and richly powerful “To Autumn”, and on the 19th he wrote to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds and mentioned:

“How beautiful the season is now- How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it…I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now- Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm- this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”

During the winter of 1819/1820 and back in Hampstead, Keats became unwell. His increasing ill health would continue throughout 1820, and his doctor ordered him to go to Italy, hoping that a warmer climate would aid his recovery. In July his third book, after revisions, was published by Taylor and Hessey. With an intuition for sound Keats had produced a body of work unmatched by a poet who had not quite reached the age of twenty-four. As RS White stated in his “John Keats – A Literary Life” the poet did have the “satisfaction of seeing into print a new volume of his poems, containing mainly the fruit of his astonishing creative output in 1819, its title emphasising the romances:”. White further adds that “the 1820 volume is a sublime artistic success, comparable to Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge in its significance for literary history.”

By September, along with Joseph Severn, Keats set sail for Italy on the Maria Crowther. There in Rome, on the 23rd February 1821, the 25 year old poet died from TB. Joseph Severn later reflected “Nothing seemed to escape him, the song of a bird and the undernote of response from covert or hedge, the rustle of some animal, the changing of the green and brown lights and furtive shadows, the motions of the wind.”

When I lived in London I took advantage of visiting the restored house in Hampstead where Keats once lived and wrote several of his poems and letters. On display inside were first editions of his three books of poetry. These books were once owned by his good friend Charles Brown, and they bear his signature. They were originally issued in drab grey paper covers but Brown had them re-bound in leather to match other books in his library. All three volumes went out of print and they were not available again until 1840. However pirated editions appeared in Paris in 1829 and also in Philadelphia in 1837.

For further reading and sources on John Keats:

John Keats: The Complete Poems edited by John Bernard Penguin Books 2006

Letters of John Keats: A selection edited by Robert Gittings Oxford UP 1986

John Keats by Walter Jackson Bate Harvard UP 1963

John Keats by Robert Gittings Penguin Books 1979

John Keats by Nicholas Roe Yale UP 2012

This Long Pursuit by Richard Holmes William Collins 2016

Keats and his Circle – An Album of Portraits compiled & presented by Joanna Richardson

published by Cassell London 1980

John Keats A Literary Life by RS White Palgrave/MacMillan 2012

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Byron Beynon lives in Swansea, Wales. His work has appeared in several publications including North of Oxford, Poetry Wales, The London Magazine, San Pedro River Review, Poetry Salzburg, Agenda and the anthology Moments of Vision (Seren).  Collections include Cuffs (Rack Press) and the Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions)

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The growth of a poet – John Keats (1795 – 1821): A brief introduction to his life and work

Keats life mask-large

From Keats House

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by Byron Beynon

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The imperial Tiber flowed through a city haunted by history. A fresh veil of Roman air covered the face of the river which continued to run its antique course. No birds sang in the darkness of the early hours of a February morning; daylight had yet to appear as a small group of silent figures stood outside a house to the right of the Spanish Steps. The only sound was that of the boat-shaped fountain as it bubbled, a cool witness in the eternal city to the final journey of a young man no longer a living citizen of the world.

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The young man who had died of tuberculosis (previously known as consumption) at the age of just twenty-five and whose body was taken to Rome’s protestant cemetery for burial was the poet John Keats, the youngest of the great Romantics and the first of them to die.

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Just three years earlier in 1818 Keats had published (with Taylor and Hessey) his second book of poems entitled Enydmion with its now famous opening ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever’.  Robert Gittings saw Enydmion as an exploration into self-knowledge for Keats and which represented an essential stage of his growth to maturity. Andrew Motion (in his biography of Keats) also argued that the poet was promoting beauty not as an escape but as a medicine.

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Keats’ first collection entitled POEMS (published by C. & J. Ollier) had appeared in March 1817. It contained thirty one poems, sonnets and epistles, including the skilful and subtle sonnet ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ and ‘On the Grasshopper and Cricket’ with its confident opening line “The poetry of earth is never dead” but the book made little impression, and was largely ignored by reviewers.

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At this time Keats made several valued friendships among painters, poets and editors such as B. R. Haydon, John Hamilton Reynolds, Shelley and Leigh Hunt. Keats’ first published poem ‘O Solitude!’ appeared in Hunt’s The Examiner in May 1816.

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The poet and novelist Thomas Hardy particularly enjoyed hearing an anecdote told to him by a Mrs Procter who when she was a young woman had been visited by Hunt. He had been accompanied by ‘a youth whom nobody noticed much’ and who remained in the background, Hunt casually introducing him as ‘Mr Keats’. Mrs Procter had during her long life met several writers including Wordsworth, Coleridge, De Quincey, Cooper, Longfellow, Thackeray, Dickens and Charlotte Bronte.

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With the publication of his first book Keats became a dedicated poet. He worked for several months (between April and November 1817) on his second book; the epic, 4,000 lines long, Endymion. It was an important stage in his development, an apprenticeship essential to his growth as a poet and although flawed in parts, the disciplined effort seems to have brought Keats to the verge of his early artistic maturity. During the months he worked on the long poem he stayed on the Isle of Wight and at Margate, Oxford and London. Six months after he began Endymion at Carisbrooke he completed it at Burford Bridge in Surrey on 28 November 1818. A month before completing the poem he had written to his friend Benjamin Bailey about the epic he had nearly completed – ‘it will be a test, a trial of my Powers of Imagination and chiefly of my invention which is a rare thing indeed – by which I must make 4,000 Lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry’.  Bailey had invited Keats to Oxford where the poet spent most of September at Magdalen Hall and where he wrote the third book of Endymion.

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POEMS largely had been ignored by the critics and the reviewers seemed provoked that Keats dared to publish another volume. They attacked both his personality and work with spite and venom, notably in Blackwood’s magazine and The Quarterly Review. Blackwood’s tore it apart by saying ‘Endymion is not a Greek shepherd, loved by a Grecian goddess; he is merely a young Cockney rhymester, dreaming a phantasic dream at the full of the moon’.  Nevertheless as R. S. White pointed out in his book John Keats – A Literary Life ‘it was clear that Keats had been fully accepted now in a network of writers and artists, consolidating a year in which he had published his first volume of poems and had written his second which already had a publisher’s agreement. As a professional poet, he was on his way, and he no longer considered medicine a serious option except in panicky moments of financial difficulty.’

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Keats had been born in the parish of Moorfields, London on the 31October 1795, the son of Thomas Keats and Frances Jennings. Keats and his younger brothers George (who later emigrated to America) and Tom received a sound and enlightened education at John Clarke’s school at Enfield. His father was the manager of a livery stable who died as a result of an accident when Keats was only nine. His mother remarried and Keats, along with his brothers and sister Fanny, went to live with her parents in Enfield, later moving to Edmonton which were both rural areas at that time. A few years later, in 1810, his mother died of consumption. Her death affected him deeply, and ‘he gave way to such impassioned and prolonged grief … as awakened the liveliest pity and sympathy in all who saw him’.  He was then at the age of fifteen apprenticed to a surgeon, and he later studied medicine at Guy’s Hospital. He passed his medical exams in 1816, however he never practised his profession. He had already begun to write poetry and his public poetry life spanned barely five years but the legacy of those few years is an astonishingly rich one.

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Following publication of Endymion Keats went on a walking tour between June and August with his friend Charles Armitage Brown to the Lake District, Scotland and Ulster. It was during this tour that he wrote several new poems including ‘On Visiting the Tomb of Burns’, ‘To Ailsa Rock’, and ‘On Visiting Staffa’. He also climbed Ben Nevis but unfortunately was forced to break off his tour because of a severe chill and sore throat.  On his return to London he found that his younger brother Tom was seriously ill. He nursed Tom devotedly through the last stages of consumption until Tom’s death at the end of 1818. During these intense years Keats also wrote a series of wonderful letters on poetry, many to his brothers and to his sister, which contain his most influential ideas. After Tom’s death, Keats moved in December 1818 to his friend Charles Brown’s house, Wentworth Place, on the edge of Hampstead Heath.

His neighbour at Wentworth Place was eigtheen-year-old Fanny Brawne, five years younger than the poet. Keats became enthralled by her, expressing his passion in many poems and letters. During 1818 and 1819 Keats entered his ‘Great Years’ when he produced one masterpiece after another including ‘Hyperion’, ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, all his great odes (including ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘Ode on Melancholy’, ‘Ode to Psyche’, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’) and ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, ‘Lamia’ and ‘To Autumn’. All (except the ballad ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’) were published in his third and final book of poems in July 1820 under the title Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems.

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During the winter of 1819 and 1820 Keats was ‘rather unwell’ and in February 1820 began to cough arterial blood. As a medical student he recognised immediately that this was his ‘death warrant’. The blow could not have been crueller because he had recently produced several of his greatest works and had also become engaged to Fanny Brawne. It was among the Brawne family that he spent his last weeks in England. By September 1820 Keats’ condition was desperately serious, and his friends believed that only the southern climate of Europe might cure him. A friend, the young painter Joseph Severn, sailed with him to Italy, first to Naples and then overland to Rome, where the two men took rooms on the Piazza di Spagna, near the Spanish Steps. Keats wrote no more poetry and after terrible suffering he died on the 23 February 1821. Those who attended the funeral at the Protestant Cemetery on the early morning of Monday, 26 February were Joseph Severn, The Rev. Mr Wolff the English chaplain at Rome who also conducted the service, two young English architects Henry Parke and Ambrose Poynter. Also, the artists William Ewing and Richard Westmacott, Dr Clark and Dr Luby.  As the biographer Richard Holmes noted ‘Listening to the plashing Bernini fountain in the piazza below his window, Keats framed his own epitaph “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” His poetry has flowed out to generations of readers ever since’.

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For further reading and sources on John Keats:

John Keats: The Complete Poems edited by John Barnard, Penguin Books 2006

Letters of John Keats: A selection edited by Robert Gittings, Oxford U.P. 1986

John Keats by Robert Gittings, Penguin Books 1979

John Keats by Nicholas Roe Yale, University Press 2012

Keats by Andrew Motion, Faber & Faber 1997

John Keats: A Literary Life by R. S. White. Palgrave/MacMillan 2012

The Romantic Poets and Their Circle by Richard Holmes, NPG Publications 2005

Thomas Hardy: Half A Londoner by Mark Ford, Harvard University Press 2016

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Byron Beynon lives in Wales. His work has appeared in several publications including Poetry Ireland Review, Agenda, Plainsongs, North of Oxford, Poetry Pacific, London Magazine and the human rights anthology In Protest (University of London and Keats House Poets). Collections include Cuffs (Rack Press), Human Shores (Lapwing Publications) and The Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions)

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