|Particulars of early life
When Keats moved from Dean Street to St. Thomas's Street in the summer of 1815, he at first occupied a joint sitting-room with two senior students, to the care of one of whom he had been recommended by Astley Cooper. When they left he arranged to live in the same house with two other students, of his own age, named George Wilson Mackereth and Hery Stephens. [...] On the whole, it seems, 'little Keats' was popular among his fellow-students, although subject to occasional teasing on account of his pride, his poetry, and even his birth as the son of a stable-keeper. Mr Stephens goes on to tell how he himself and a student of St Bartholomew's, a merry fellow called Newmarch, having some tincture of poetry, were singled out as companions by Keats, with whom they used to discuss and compare verses, Keats taking always the tone of authority, and generally disagreeing with their tastes. He despised Pope, and admired Byron, but delighted especially in Spenser, caring more in poetry for the beauty of imagery, description, and simile, than for the interest of action or passion. Newmarch used sometimes to laugh at Keats and his flights, - to the indignation of his brothers, who came often to see him, and treated him as a person to be exalted, and destined to exalt the family name. Questions of poetry apart, continues Mr Stephens, he was habitually gentle and pleasant, and in his life steady and well-behaved - "his absolute devotion to poetry prevented his having any other taste or indulging in any vice." Another companion of Keats's early London days, who sympathized with his literary tastes, was a certain George Felton Mathew, the son of a tradesman whose family showed the young medical student some hospitality. [Mathew wrote about Keats:]
"He enjoyed good health - a fine flow of animal spirits - was fond of company - could amuse himself admirably with the frivolities of life - and had great confidence in himself. [...] He was of the sceptical and republican school - an advocate for the innovations which were making progress in his time - a faultfinder with everything established."
As to his poetical predilections, the impression left on Mr Mathew quite corresponds with that recorded by Mr Stephens: -
"he admired more the external decorations than felt the deep emotions of the Muse. He delighted in leading you through the mazes of elaborate description, but was less conscious of the sublime and the pathetic. He used to spend many evenings in reading to me, but I never observed the tears nor the broken voice which are indicative of extreme sensibility."
|Friendships and first poems
The exact order and chronology of Keats's own first efforts in poetry it is difficult to trace. They were certainly meither precocious nor particularly promising. The circumstantial account of Brown above quoted compels us to regard the lines In Imitation of Spenser as the earliest of all, and as written at Edmonton about the end of 1813 or beginning of 1814. They are correct and melodious, and contain few of those archaic or experimental eccentricities of diction which we shall find abounding a little later in Keats's work. Although, indeed, the poets whom Keats loved the best both first and last were those of the Elizabethan age, it is clear that his own earliest verses were modelled timidly on the work of writers nearer to his own time. His professedly Spenserian lines resemble not so much Spenser as later writers who had written in his measure, and of these not the latest, Byron, but rather such milder minstrels as Shenstone, Thomson, and Beattie, or most of all perhaps the sentimental Irish poetess Mrs Tighe.[...] His two elegiac stanzas On Death, assigned by George Keats to the year 1814, are quite in an eighteenth-century style and vein of moralizing. Equally so is the address To Hope of February 1815, with its 'relentless fair' and its personified abstractions, 'fair Cheerfulness,' Disappointment, parent of Despair,' 'that fiend Despondence,' and the rest. And once more, in the ode To Apollo of the same date, the voice with which this young singer celebrates his Elizabethan masters is an echo not of their own voice but rather of Gray's.[...]
The pieces above cited are all among the earliest of Keats's work, written either at Edmonton or during the first year of his life in London. To the same class no doubt belongs the inexpert and boyish, almost girlish, sentimental sonnet To Byron, and probably that also, which is but a degree better, To Chatterton (both only posthumously printed). The more firmly handled but still mediocre sonnet on Leigh Hunt's release from prison brings us again to a fixed date and a recorded occasion in the young poets's life. It was on either the 2nd or the 3rd of February, 1815, that the brothers Hunt were discharged after serving out the term of imprisonment to which they had been condemned on the charge of libelling the Prince Regent two years before. Young Cowden Clarke, like so many other young friends of letters and of liberty, had gone to offer his respects to Leigh Hunt in Surrey jail; and the acquaintance thus begun had warmed quickly into friendship. Within a few days of Hunt's release, Clarke walked in from Enfield to call on him (presumably at the lodging he occupied at this time in the Edgware Road). On his return Clarke met Keats, who walked part of the way home with him, and as they parted, says Clarke, "he turned and gave me the sonnet entitled Written on the day that Mr Leigh Hunt left prisons. This I feel to be the first proof I had received of his having committed himself in verse; and how clearly do I recollect the conscious look and hesitation with which he offered it! There are some momentary glances by beloved friends that fade only with life."
Not long afterwards Cowden Clarke left Enflield, and came to settle in London. Keats found him out in his lodgings at Clerkenwell, and the two were soon meeting as often and reading together as eagerly as ever. One of the first books they attacked was a borrowed folio copy of Chapman's Homer. After a night's enthusiastic study, Clarke found when he came down to breakfast the next morning, that Keats, who had only left him in the small hours, had already had time to compose and send him from the Borough the sonnet, now so famous as to be almost hackneyed, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer.[...]
The date of this incident cannot be precisely fixed; but it was when nights were short in the summer of 1815. The seventh line of the sonnet is an afterthought: in the original copy sent to Cowden Clarke it stood more baldly, 'Yet could I never tell what men might mean.' Keats here for the first time approves himself a poet indeed. The concluding sestet is almost unsurpassed, nor can the image of the explorer, wherein a stary reminiscence of schoolboy reading (with a mistake, it seems, as to the name, which should be Balboa and not Cortez, but what does it matter?) (Remark)
Of of the next services which the ever zealous and affectionate Cowden Clarke did his young friend was to make him personally known to Leigh Hunt. The acquaintance carried with it in the sequel some disadvantages and even penalties, but at first was a source of unmixed encouragement and pleasure. It is impossible rightly to understand the career of Keats if we fail to realise the various modes in which it was affected by his intercourse with Hunt.[...]
Cowden Clarke began by carrying up to Hunt, who had now moved from the Edgware Road to a cottage in the Vale of Health at Hampsted. Horace Smith was with Hunt when the young poet's work was shown him. Both were eager in its praises, and in questions concerning the person and character of the author. Cowden Clarke at Hunt's request brought Keats to call on him soon afterwards, and has left a vivid account of their pleasant welcome and conversation. The introduction seems to have taken place early in the spring of 1816. Keats immediately afterwards became intimate in the Hamstead household; and for the next year or two Hunt's was the strongest intellectual influence to which he was subject. So far as opinions were concerned, those of Keats had alread [...] been partly formed in boyhood by Leigh Hunt's writings in the Examiner. Hunt was a confirmed sceptic as to established creeds, and supplied their place with a private gospel of cheerfulness, or system of sentimental optimism, inspired partly by his own sunny temperament, and partly by the hopeful doctrines of eighteenth-century philosophy in France. Keats shared the natural sympathy of generous youth for Hunt's liberal and optimistic view of things, and he had a mind naturally unapt for dogma: - ready to entertain and appreciate any set of ideas according as his imagination recognised their beauty or power, he could never wed himself to any as representing ultimate truth. In matters of poetic feeling and fancy Keats and Hunt had not a little in common. Both alike were given to 'luxuriating' somewhat effusively and fondly over the 'deliciousness' of whatever they liked in art, books, or nature.[...]
In the summer of 1816 [Keats] seems to have spent a good deal of his time at the Vale of Health, where a bed was made up for him in the library. In one poem he dilates at length on the associations suggested by the busts and knick-knacks in the room; and the sonnet beginning, 'Keen, fitful gusts are whispering here and there,' records pleasantly his musings as he walked home from his friend's house one night in winter. We find him presenting Hunt with a crown of ivy, and receiving a set of sonnets from him in return. Or they would challenge each other to the composition of rival pieces on a chosen theme. Cowden Clarke, in describing one such occasion in December 1816, when they each wrote to time a sonnet On the Grasshopper and Cricket, has left us a pleasant picture of their relations: -
"The event of the after scrutiny was one of many such occurrences which have riveted the memory of Leigh Hunt in my afectionate regard and admiration for unaffected generosity and perfectly unpretentious encouragement. His sincere look of pleasure at the first line:-
'The poetry of earth is never dead.'
"Such a prosperous opening!" he said; and when he came to the tenth and eleventh lines:-
'On a lone winter morning, when the frost
Hath wrought a silence'-
"Ah that's perfect! Bravo Keats!" And then he went on in a dilatation of the dumbness of Nature during the season's suspension and torpidity."
Through Leigh Hunt Keats was before long introduced to a number of congenial spirits. Among them he attached himself especially to one John Hamilton Reynolds, a poetic asprirant who, though a year younger than himself, had preceeded him with his first literary venture.[...] Reynolds was born at Shrewsbury, and his father settled afterwards in London, as writing-master at the Blue Coat School. He lacked health and enery, but has left the reputation of a brillinat playful wit, and the evidence of a charming character and no slight literary talent. He held a clerkship in an Insureance office, and lived in Little Britain with his family, including three sisters with whom Keats was also intimate [...]. His earliest poems show him inspired feelingly enough with the new romance and nature sentiment of the time. [...] Much better work appears in a volume published in the year of Keats's death, and partly prompted by the writer's relations with him. [...] But Reynolds had early given up the hope of living by literature, and accepted the offer of an opening in business as a solicitor. In 1818 he inscribed a farewell sonnet to the Muses in a copy of Shakspeare which he gave to Keats, and in 1821 he writes again,
"As time increases
Not only was he one of the warmest friends Keats had, entertaining from the first an enthusiastic admiration for his powers, [...] but also one of the wisest, and by judicious advice more than once saved him from a mistake.
I give up drawling verse for drawing leases."
An acquaintance more interesting to posterity which Keats made a few months later, at Leigh Hunt's, was that of Shelley, his senior by only three years. During the harrowing period of Shelley's life which followed the suicide of his first wife - when his principle of love a law to itself had in action entailed so dire a consequence and his obedience to his own morality had brought him into such harsh collision with the world's - the kindness and affection of Leigh Hunt were among his chief consolations. After his marriage with Mary Godwin, he flitted often, alone or with his wife, between Great Marlow and Hampstead, where Keats met him early in the spring of 1817. "Keats," says Hunt, did not take to Shelley as kindly as Shelley did to him, and adds the comment: "Keats, being a little too sensitive on the score of his origin, felt inclined to see in every man of birth a sort of natural enemy."[...] Where his pride had not been aroused by anticipation, Keats had a genius for friendship, but towards Shelley we find him in fact maintaining a tone of reserve, and even of something like moral and intellectual patronage: at first, no doubt, by way of defence against the possibility of social or material patronage on the other's part: but he should soon have learnt better than to apprehend anything of the kind from one whose delicacy, according to all evidence, was as perfect and unmistakeable as his kindness. Of Shelley's kindness Keats had in the sequel sufficient proof: in the meantime, until Shelley went abroad the following year, the two met often at Hunt's without becoming really intimate. Pride and social sensitiveness apart, we can imagine that a full understanding was not easy between them, and that Keats, with his strong vein on every-day humanity, sense, and humour, and his innate opennes of mind, may well have been as much repelled as attracted by the unearthly ways and accents of Shelley, his passionate negation of the world's creeds and the world's law, and his intense proselytizing ardour.
It was also at Hunt's house that Keats for the first time met by pre-arrangement, in the beginning of November 1816, the painter Haydon, whose influence soon became hardly second to that of Hunt himself. Haydon was now thirty. He had lately been victorious in one of the two great objects of his ambition, and had achieved a temporary semblance of victory in the other. He had been mainly instumental in getting the pre-eminence of the Elgin marbles among the works of the scuptor's art acknowledged in the teeth of hostile cliques, and their acquisition for the nation secured. This is Haydon's chief real title to the regard of posterity. His other and life-long, half insane endeavour was to persuade the world to take him at his own estimate, as the man chosen by Providence to add the crown of heroic painting to the other glories of his country. His indomitable high-flaming energy and industry, his social gifts, the clamour of his self-assertion and of his fierce oppugnancy against the academic powers, even his unabashed claims for support on friends, patrons, and society at large, had won for him much convinced or half-convinced attention and encouragement, both in the world of art and letters and in that of dilettantism and fashion.
[At] first sight Haydon had much to attract the spirits of ardent youth about him as a leader, and he and Keats were mutually delighted when they met. Each struck fire from the other, and they quickly became close friends and comrades. After an evening of high talk at the beginning of their acquaintance, on the 19th of Novermber, 1816, the young poet wrote to Haydon as follows, joining his name with those of Wordsworth and Leight Hunt:-
"Last evening wrought me up, and I cannot forbear sending you the following:-
Haydon was not unused to compliments of this kind. The three well-known sonnets of Wordsworth had been addressed to him a year or two before; and about the same time as Keats, John Hamilton Reynolds also wrote him a sonnet of enthusiastic sympathy and admiration. In his reply to Keats he proposed to hand on the above piece to Wordsworth - a proposal which "puts me," answers Keats, "out of breath - you know with what reverence I would send my well-wishes to him." Haydon suggested moreover what I cannot but think the needless and regrettable mutilation of the sonnet by leaving out the words after 'workings' in the last line but one. The poet, however, accepted the suggestion, and his editors have respected his decision [Read the edited version.] [...] By the spring of the following year his intimacy with Haydon was at its height, and we find the painter giving his young friend a standing invitation to his studio in Great Malborough Street, declaring him dearer than a brother, and praying that their hearts may be buried together.
Great spirits now on earth are sojourning:
He of the cloud, the cataract, the lake,
Who on Helvellyn's summit, wide awake,
Catches his freshness from Archangel's wing:
He of the rose, the violet, the spring,
The social smile, the chain fro Freedom's sake,
And lo! whose steadfastness would never take
A meaner sound than Raphael's whispering.
And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forhead of the age to come;
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings in the human mart?
Listen awhile, ye nations, and be dumb."
[Read the lines in their context.]
To complete the group of Keats's friends in these days, we have to think of two or three others known to him otherwise than through Hunt, and not belonging to the Hunt circle. Among these were the family and friends of a Miss Georgiana Wylie, to whom George Keats was attached. She was the daughter of a navy officer, with wit, sentiment, and an attractive irregular cast of beauty, and Keats on his own account had a great liking for her. On Valentine's day, 1816, we find him writing, for George to send her, the first draft of the lines beginning, 'Hadst thou lived in days of old' afterwards amplified and published in his first volume. Through the Wylies Keats became acquaintad with a certain William Haslam, who was afterwards one of his own and his brothers' best friends, but whose character and person remain indistinct to us; and through Haslam with Joseph Severn, then a very young and struggling student of art. Severn was the son of an engraver, and to the despair of his father had determined to be himself a painter. He had a talent also for music, a strong love of literature, and doubtless something already of that social charm which Mr Ruskin describes in him when they first met five-and-twenty years later at Rome. From the moment of their introduction Severn found in Keats his very ideal of the poetical character realized, and attached himself to him with an admiring affection.
[...] Thus by his third winter in London our obscurely-born and half-schooled young medical student found himself fairly launched in a world of art, letters, and liberal aspirations, and living in familiar intimacy with some, and friendly acquaintance with others, of the brightest and most ardent spirits of the time. His youth, origin, and temperament alike saved him from anything but a healthy relation of equality with his younger, and deference towards his elder, companions. [...] A small, handsome, ardent-looking youth - the stature little over five feet: the figure compact and well-turned, with the neck thrust eagerly forward, carrying a strong and shapely head set off by thickly clustering gold-brown hair: the features powerful, finished, and mobile: the mouth rich and wide, with an expression at once combative and sensitive in the extreme: the forehead not high, but broad and strong: the eyebrows nobly arched, and eyes hazel-brown, liquid-flashing, visibly inspired- "an eye that had an inward look, perfectly divine, like a Delphian priestess who saw visions." "Keats was the only man I ever met who seemed and looked conscious of a high calling, except Wordsworth." These words are Haydon's and to the same effect Leigh Hunt: -
"the eyes mellow and glowing, large, dark, and sensitive. At the recital of a noble action or a beautiful thought, they would suffuse with tears, and his mouth trembled."
It is noticeable that his friends, whenever they begin to describe his looks, go off in this way to tell of the feelings and the soul that shone through them. To return to Haydon:-
"he was in sight of a flower, the glitter of the sun, seemed to make his nature tremble; then his eyes flashed, his cheek glowed, and his mouth quivered."
In like manner George Keats:-
"John's eyes moistened, and his lip quivered, at the relation of any tale of generosity or benevolence or noble daring, or at sights of loveliness or distress;".
In regard to his social qualities, Keats is said, and owns himself, to have been not always perfectly well-conditioned or at his ease in the company of women, but in that of men all accounts agree that he was pleasantness itself: quiet and abstracted or brilliant and voluble by turns, according to his mood and company, but thoroughly amiable and unaffected. If the conversation did not interest him he was apt to draw apart, and sit by himself in the window, peering into vacancy; so that the window-seat came to be recognized as his place. His voice was rich and low, and when he joined in discussion, it was usually with an eager but gentle animation, while his occasional bursts of fiery indignation at wrong or meanness bore no undue air of assumption, and failed not to command respect. His powers of mimicry and dramatic recital are said to have been great, and never used unkindly.
Thus stamped by nature, and moving in such a circle as we have described, Keats found among those with whom he lived nothing to check, but rather everything to foster, his hourly growing, still diffident and trembling, passion for the poetic life. His guardian, as we have said, of course was adverse: but his brothers, including George, the practical and sensible one of the family, were warmly with him, as his allusions and addresses to them both in prose and verse, and their own many transcripts from his compositions, show. In August 1816 we find him addressing from Margate a sonnet and a poetical Epistle in terms of the utmost affection and confidence to George. About the same time he gave up his lodgings in St Thomas's Street to go and live with his brothers in the Poultry; and in November he composes another sonnet on their fraternal fire-side occupations. Poetry and the love of poetry were at this period in the air. It was a time when even people of business and people of fashion read: a time of literary excitement, expectancy, and discussion, such as England has not known since. In such an atmosphere Keats soon found himself induced to try his fortune and his powers with the rest. The encouragement of his friends was indeed only too ready and enthusiastic. It was Leigh Hunt who first brought him before the world in print, publishing without comments, in the Examiner for the 5th of May, 1816, his sonnet beginning 'O Solitude! if I with thee must dwell,' and on the 1st of December in the same year the sonnet on Chapman's Homer. This Hunt accompanied by some prefactory remarks on the poetical promise of its author, associating with his name those of Shelley and Reynolds. It was by the praise of Hunt in this paper, says Mr Stephens, that Keats's fate was sealed. But already the still more ardent encouragement of Haydon, if more was wanted, had come to add fuel to the fire. In the Marlborough Street studio, in the Hampstead cottage, in the City lodgings of the three brothers, and in the convivial gatherings of their friends, it was determined that John Keats should put forth a volume of his poems. A sympathetic firm of publishers was found in the Olliers. The volume was printed, and the las proof-sheets were brought one evening to the author amid a jovial company, with the intimation that if a dedication was to be added the copy must be furnished at once. Keats going to one side quickly produced the sonnet To Leigh Hunt Esqr., with its excellent opening and its weak conclusion. [...] With this confession of a longing retrospect towards the beauty of the old pagan world, and of gratitude for present friendship, the young poet's first venture was sent forth in the month of March 1817.
Remark: Today Keats' mentioning of Cortez instead of Balboa is no more considered a mistake. Having read Robertson's History of America, the poet was well aware that Balboa had discovered the Pacific before Cortez came there. Identifying himself with the latter, Keats displayed his own situation: He was reading Chapman's translation instead of the greek original, thus metaphorically moving in Chapman's footsteps. (Thilo v. Pape)]