200 years ago Keats wrote of the joy of May

On Tuesday 4 May 1819, Keats wrote to his brother George in America: ‘This is the 3d of May [he had the date wrong] & every thing is in delightful forwardness; the violets are not withered before the peeping of the first rose.’

And in the midst of this wide-quietness
A rosy Sanctuary will I dress
With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain;
With buds and bells and stars without a name;
With all the gardener, fancy e’er could feign
Who breeding flowers will never breed the same—
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought can win;
A bright torch and a casement ope at night
To let the warm Love in.
[Ode to Psyche lines 58-67]


200 years ago Keats wrote about hatching dove eggs into sonnets

On Saturday 1 May 1819, Keats wrote to his sister:
Mr. and Mrs. Dilke are coming to dine with us to-day. They will enjoy the country after Westminster. O there is nothing like fine weather, and health, and Books, and a fine country, and a contented Mind, and diligent habit of reading and thinking, and an amulet against the ennui—and, please heaven, a little claret wine cool out of a cellar a mile deep—with a few or a good many ratafia cakes—a rocky basin to bathe in, a strawberry bed to say your prayers to Flora in, a pad nag to go you ten miles or so; two or three sensible people to chat with; two or three spiteful folkes to spar with; two or three odd fishes to laugh at and two or three mumskulls to argue with—instead of using dumb bells on a rainy day—

Two or three Posies
With two or three simples—
Two or three Noses
With two or three pimples—
Two or three wise men
And two or three ninny’s—
Two or three purses
And two or three guineas—
Two or three raps
At two or three doors—
Two or three naps
Of two or three hours—
Two or three Cats
And two or three mice—
Two or three sprats
At a very great price—
Two or three sandies
And two or three tabbies—
Two or three dandies
And two Mrs—— mum!
Two or three Smiles
And two or three frowns—
Two or three Miles
To two or three towns—
Two or three pegs
For two or three bonnets—
Two or three dove eggs
To hatch into sonnets—
Good-bye I’ve an appointment—can’t
stop pon word—good-bye—now
dont get up—open the door my-
self—good-bye—see ye Monday.
J. K.

[‘Mrs ——’ refers to the dreaded Mrs. Abbey.]
[In 1819, Hampsted was ‘the country’ in contrast to the city of London.]

200 years ago Keats wrote ‘La belle dame sans merci’

On Wednesday 21 April 1819 Keats wrote:

La belle dame sans merci—

O what can ail thee Knight at arms
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is withered from the Lake
And no birds sing!

O what can ail thee Knight at arms
So haggard, and so woe begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheek a fading rose
Fast Withereth too—

I met a Lady in the Meads
Full beautiful, a faery’s child
Her hair was long, her foot was light
And her eyes were wild—

I made a Garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant Zone
She look’d at me as she did love
And made sweet moan—

I set her on my pacing steed
And nothing else saw all day long
For sidelong would she bend and sing
A faery’s song—

She found me roots of relish sweet
And honey wild and manna dew
And sure in language strange she said
I love thee true—

She took me to her elfin grot
And there she wept and sigh’d full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four—

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d Ah Woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale Kings, and Princes too
Pale warriors death pale were they all
Who cried La belle dame sans merci
Thee hath in thrall.

I saw their starv’d lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering;
Though the sedge is withered from the Lake
And no birds sing—………

Why four kisses—you will say—why four because I wish to restrain the headlong impetuosity of my Muse—she would have fain said “score” without hurting the rhyme—but we must temper the Imagination as the Critics say with Judgment. I was obliged to choose an even number that both eyes might have fair play, and to speak truly I think two a piece quite sufficient. Suppose I had said seven there would have been three and a half a piece—a very awkward affair, and well got out of on my side—

200 years ago Keats wrote about the Vale of Soul-making

On Wednesday 21 April 1819 Keats wrote to his brother George:

Suppose a rose to have sensation, it blooms on a beautiful morning, it enjoys itself, but then comes a cold wind, a hot sun—it cannot escape it, it cannot destroy its annoyances—they are as native to the world as itself —no more can man be happy in spite, the worldly elements will prey upon his nature.

The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is “a vale of tears” from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven. What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you please “The vale of Soul-making.” Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say “Soul-making”—Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence. There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions—but they are not Souls till they acquire iden-tities, till each one is personally itself. Intelligences are atoms of perception—they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God.—How then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them—so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? How but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because I think it a grander system of salvation than the christian religion—or rather it is a system of Spirit creation…

Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways. Not merely is the Heart a Horn-book, It is the Mind’s Bible, it is the Mind’s experience, it is the text from which the Mind or Intelligence sucks its identity. As various as the Lives of Men are—so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, Identical Souls of the sparks of his own essence. This appears to me a faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not offend our reason and humanity—I am convinced that many difficulties which christians labour under would vanish before it—there is one which even now strikes me—the salvation of Children. In them the spark or intelligence returns to God without any identity—it having had no time to learn of and be altered by the heart—or seat of the human Passions.

200 years ago an all-night game of cards took its toll on Keats

On Tuesday 20 April 1819, Keats was exhausted after an all-night card game. After visiting Mrs Wylie the previous day (Monday), Keats got back to Hampstead in time to dine with Taylor, Woodhouse and Reynolds: ‘we began cards at about 9 o’Clock, and the night coming on and continuing dark and rainy they could not think of returning to town. So we played at Cards till very daylight.’
On the Tuesday: ‘I could not write a line I was so fatigued… I was not worth a sixpence.’

200 years ago Keats visited his publishers

On Sunday 18 April 1819 Keats ‘stopt at Taylor’s on Sunday with Woodhouse—and passed a quiet sort of pleasant day.’
This is probably when Keats wrote ‘The House of Mourning written by Mr Scott’.
Robert Gittings makes a convincing case for this sonnet being a joint effort with Richard Woodhouse (whose pet hates as publisher’s reader include those listed in lines 1-7). Keats, meanwhile, is tormented by the challenges described in lines 8-14 (shown in italics).

The House of Mourning written by Mr. Scott,
A sermon at the Magdalen, a tear
Dropped on a greasy novel, want of cheer
After a walk uphill to a friend’s cot,
Tea with a maiden lady, a cursed lot
Of worthy poems with the author near,
A patron lord, a drunknness from beer,
Haydon’s great picture, a cold coffee pot
At midnight when the muse is ripe for labour,
The voice of Mr. Coleridge, a French bonnet
Before you in the pit, a pipe and tabour,
A damned inseparable flute and neighbour—
All these are vile. But viler Wordsworth’s sonnet
On Dover. Dover!—who could write upon it?

On Friday 16 April 1819, Keats wrote to his brother George:
“Brown this morning is writing some Spenserian stanzas against Mrs., Miss Brawne and me; so I shall amuse myself with him a little: in the manner of Spenser.”
Keats Spenserian stanzas are an ironic portrait of everything which Brown was not. He never again mentioned Miss Brawne to George & Georgiana.

“He is to weet a melancholy carle
Thin in the waist, with bushy head of hair,
As hath the seeded thistle when in parle
It holds the Zephyr, ere it sendeth fair
Its light balloons into the summer air;
Therto his beard had not begun to bloom,
No brush had touch’d his chin or razor sheer;
No care had touch’d his cheek with mortal doom,
But new he was, and bright, as scarf from Persian loom.

“Ne cared he for wine, or half-and-half;
Ne cared he for fish or flesh, or fowl;
And sauces held he worthless as the chaff;
He ‘sdeigned the swine-head at the wassail-bowl;
Ne with lewd ribbalds sat he cheek by jowl;
Ne with sly Lemans in the scorner’s chair;
But after water-brooks this Pilgrim’s soul
Panted, and all his food was woodland air;
Though he would oft-times feast on gilliflowers rare.

“The slang of cities in no wise he knew,
Tipping the wink to him was heathen Greek;
He sipp’d no ‘olden Tom,’ or ‘ruin blue,’
Or Nantz, or cherry-brandy, drank full meek
By many a damsel brave, and rouge of cheek;
Nor did he know each aged watchman’s beat,
Nor in obscured purlieus would he seek
For curled Jewesses, with ankles neat,
Who as they walk abroad, make tinkling with their feet.”


200 years ago Keats was furious about fake love-letters

On Thursday 15 April 1819, Keats collected letters which he had left with his former landlady Mrs. Bentley the previous December after the death of his younger brother Tom. Writing to his surviving brother George:

“I found some of the correspondence between [Tom] and that degraded Wells [Charles Wells, a school-friend of Tom’s] and Amena. It is a wretched business…
I now see the whole cruel deception. I think Wells must have had an accomplice in it—Amena’s Letters are in a Man’s language and in a Man’s hand imitating a woman’s. The instigations to this diabolical scheme were vanity, and the love of intrigue. It was no thoughtless hoax—but a cruel deception on a sanguine Temperament, with every show of friendship. I do not think death too bad for the villain. The world would look upon it in a different light should I expose it—they would call it a frolic—so I must be wary—but I consider it my duty to be prudently revengeful. I will hang over his head like a sword by a hair. I will be opium to his vanity—if I cannot injure his interests. He is a rat and he shall have ratsbane to his vanity—I will harm him all I possibly can—I have no doubt I shall be able to do so. Let us leave him to his misery alone except when we can throw in a little more.”

In none of this year’s letters was Keats as furious as when describing Charles Wells’s jape. From this distance it is hard to imagine Tom falling for Amena whose “Guitarr well strung by Cupid God of love would pull thy useless head into a melodious slumber”. It is easier to understand Keats’s embarrassment at the way Wells parodied the weakest lines from the 1817 volume Poems by John Keats (especially the one which reads ‘And wear’st thou the shield of the fam’d Britomartis.’)