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
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)