200 years ago: Keats’s jaded view of his popularity as a writer

On Monday 23 August 1819, Keats and Brown finished writing the tragedy ‘Otho the Great’. Money problems forced Keats to approach his publisher—again. After explaining about the threatened chancery suit, and the efforts which he and Brown have been making with their Tragedy, he continued:

My dear Taylor…
I feel every confidence that, if I choose, I may be a popular writer. That I will never be; but for all that I will get a livelihood. I equally dislike the favour of the public with the love of a woman. They are both a cloying treacle to the wings of Independence.
I shall ever consider them (People) as debtors to me for verses, not myself to them for admiration—which I can do without. I have of late been indulging my spleen by composing a preface AT them: after all resolving never to write a preface at all. “There are so many verses,” would I have said to them, “give so much means for me to buy pleasure with, as a relief to my hours of labour.”— You will observe at the end of this, if you put down the letter “How a solitary life engenders pride and egotism!” True—I know it does, but this pride and egotism will enable me to write finer things than anything else could—so I will indulge it. Just so much as I am humbled by the genius above my grasp am I exalted and look with hate and contempt upon the literary world.


Keats’s sixth letter to Miss Brawne

On Monday 16 August 1819 Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne from Winchester:

My dear Girl—what shall I say for myself? I have been here four days and not yet written to you—’tis true I have had many teasing letters of business to dismiss—and I have been in the Claws, like a serpent in an Eagle’s, of the last act of our Tragedy. This is no excuse; I know it; I do not presume to offer it. I have no right either to ask a speedy answer to let me know how lenient you are—I must remain some days in a Mist—I see you through a Mist: as I daresay you do me by this time. Believe in the first Letters I wrote you: I assure you I felt as I wrote—I could not write so now. The thousand images I have had pass through my brain—my uneasy spirits—my unguess’d fate—all spread as a veil between me and you. Remember I have had no idle leisure to brood over you—’tis well perhaps I have not. I could not have endured the throng of jealousies that used to haunt me before I had plunged so deeply into imaginary interests.

I would fain, as my sails are set, sail on without an interruption for a Brace of Months longer—I am in complete cue—in the fever; and shall in these four Months do an immense deal.

This Page as my eye skims over it I see is excessively unloverlike and ungallant—I cannot help it—I am no officer in yawning quarters; no Parson-romeo. My Mind is heap’d to the full; stuff’d like a cricket ball—if I strive to fill it more it would burst. I know the generallity of women would hate me for this; that I should have so unsoften’d, so hard a Mind as to forget them; forget the brightest realities for the dull imaginations of my own Brain. But I conjure you to give it a fair thinking; and ask yourself whether ’tis not better to explain my feelings to you, than write artificial Passion—Besides, you would see through it. It would be vain to strive to deceive you. ’Tis harsh, harsh, I know it. My heart seems now made of iron—I could not write a proper answer to an invitation to Idalia. You are my Judge: my forehead is on the ground.

You seem offended at a little simple innocent childish playfulness in my last. I did not seriously mean to say that you were endeavouring to make me keep my promise. I beg your pardon for it. ’Tis but just your Pride should take the alarm—seriously. You say I may do as I please—I do not think with any conscience I can; my cash resourses are for the present stopp’d; I fear for some time. I spend no money, but it increases my debts. I have all my life thought very little of these matters—they seem not to belong to me. It may be a proud sentence; but by Heaven I am as entirely above all matters of interest as the Sun is above the Earth—and though of my own money I should be careless; of my Friends’ I must be spare.

You see how I go on—like so many strokes of a hammer. I cannot help it—I am impell’d, driven to it. I am not happy enough for silken Phrases, and silver sentences. I can no more use soothing words to you than if I were at this moment engaged in a charge of Cavalry. Then you will say I should not write at all.—Should I not?

This Winchester is a fine place: a beautiful Cathedral and many other ancient buildings in the Environs. The little coffin of a room at Shanklin is changed for a large room, where I can promenade at my pleasure—looks out onto a beautiful—blank side of a house. It is strange I should like it better than the view of the sea from our window at Shanklin. I began to hate the very posts there—the voice of the old Lady over the way was getting a great Plague. The Fisherman’s face never altered any more than our black teapot—the nob however was knock’d off to my little relief.

I am getting a great dislike of the picturesque; and can only relish it over again by seeing you enjoy it. One of the pleasantest things I have seen lately was at Cowes. The Regent in his Yatch (I think they spell it) was anchored oppoisite a beautiful vessel—and all the Yatchs and boats on the coast, were passing and repassing it; and curcuiting and tacking about it in every direction. I never beheld anything so silent, light, and graceful.

As we pass’d over to Southampton, there was nearly an accident. There came by a Boat, well mann’d; with two naval officers at the stern. Our Bow-lines took the top of their little mast and snapped it off close by the bord. Had the mast been a little stouter they would have been upset. In so trifling an event I could not help admiring our seamen—neither officer nor man in the whole Boat mov’d a muscle—they scarcely notic’d it even with words.

Forgive me for this flint-worded Letter, and believe and see that I cannot think of you without some sort of energy—though mal à propos. Even as I leave off it seems to me that a few more moments thought of you would uncrystallize and dissolve me. I must not give way to it—but turn to my writing again—if I fail I shall die hard. O my love, your lips are growing sweet again to my fancy—I must forget them. Ever your affectionate

[On this day a political demonstration was violently suppressed at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester: the Peterloo Massacre.]

Keats’s progress report dated 14 August 1819

Keats had last written to Benjamin Bailey in July 1818 (he had stayed with him for some of the time that he wrote ‘Endymion’). But on Saturday 14 August 1819 he felt the need to bring him up to date with his writing:

“Within these two months I have written 1500 lines, most of which, besides many more of prior composition, you will probably see by next winter.
I have written 2 tales, one from Boccaccio called the Pot of Basil; and another called St. Agnes’s Eve, on a popular superstition, and a 3rd called Lamia (half finished). I have also been writing parts of my “Hyperion,” and completed 4 acts of a tragedy. It was the opinion of most of my friends that I should never be able to write a scene. I will endeavour to wipe away the prejudice—I sincerely hope you will be pleased when my labours, since we last saw each other, shall reach you.

“One of my Ambitions is to make as great a revolution in modern dramatic writing as Kean has done in acting. Another, to upset the drawling of the blue-stocking literary world—if in the Course of a few years I do these two things, I ought to die content, and my friends should drink a dozen of claret on my tomb. I am convinced more and more every day that (excepting the human friend philosopher) a fine writer is the most genuine being in the world. Shakespeare and the Paradise lost every day become greater wonders to me. I look on fine phrases like a lover.”

200 years ago Keats arrived in Winchester

On Thursday 12 August 1819, Keats and Brown travelled from the Isle of Wight to Winchester. Describing their trip across the Solent:
“As we pass’d over to Southampton, there was nearly an accident. There came by a Boat, well mann’d; with two naval officers at the stern. Our Bow-lines took the top of their little mast and snapped it off close by the bord. Had the mast been a little stouter they would have been upset. In so trifling an event I could not help admiring our seamen—neither officer nor man in the whole Boat mov’d a muscle—they scarcely notic’d it even with words.”

200 years ago Keats began writing ‘The Fall of Hyperion’

The opening of ‘The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream’, which Keats began writing at Shanklin in the summer of 1819:

Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave
A paradise for a sect; the savage, too,
From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep
Guesses at heaven; pity these have not
Traced upon vellum or wild Indian leaf
The shadows of melodious utterance.
But bare of laurel they live, dream, and die;
For Poesy alone can tell her dreams,—
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable chain
And dumb enchantment. Who alive can say,
“Thou art no Poet—mayst not tell thy dreams?”
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions and would speak, if he had lov’d,
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue.
Whether the dream now purposed to rehearse
Be Poet’s or fanatic’s will be known
When this warm scribe, my hand, is in the grave.

200 years ago Keats wrote his fifth letter to Miss Brawne

On Thursday 5 August 1819, Keats wrote this to Fanny Brawne —quite a challenging letter for her to receive on her 19th birthday:

My dear Girl,                                                                 Shanklin, Thursday Night

You say you must not have any more such Letters as the last: I’ll try that you shall not by running obstinate the other way. Indeed I have not fair play—I am not idle enough for proper downright love-letters—I leave this minute a scene in our Tragedy and see you (think it not blasphemy) through the mist of Plots, speeches, counterplots and counterspeeches. The Lover is madder than I am—I am nothing to him—he has a figure like the Statue of Maleager and double distilled fire in his heart.

Thank God for my diligence! were it not for that I should be miserable. I encourage it, and strive not to think of you—but when I have succeeded in doing so all day and as far as midnight, you return, as soon as this artificial excitement goes off more severely from the fever I am left in. Upon my soul I cannot say what you could like me for. I do not think myself a fright any more than I do Mr. A., Mr. B., and Mr. C.—yet if I were a woman I should not like A. B. C.

But enough of this. So you intend to hold me to my promise of seeing you in a short time. I shall keep it with as much sorrow as gladness: for I am not one of the Paladins of old who liv’d upon water grass and smiles for years together. What though would I not give to-night for the gratification of my eyes alone?

This day week we shall move to Winchester; for I feel the want of a Library. Brown will leave me there to pay a visit to Mr. Snook at Bedhampton: in his absence I will flit to you and back. I will stay very little while, for as I am in a train of writing now I fear to disturb it—let it have its course bad or good—in it I shall try my own strength and the public pulse. At Winchester I shall get your Letters more readily; and it being a cathedral City I shall have a pleasure always a great one to me when near a Cathedral, of reading them during the service up and down the Aisle.

Friday Morning—Just as I had written thus far last night, Brown came down in his morning coat and nightcap, saying he had been refresh’d by a good sleep and was very hungry. I left him eating and went to bed, being too tired to enter into any discussions.

You would delight very greatly in the walks about here; the Cliffs, woods, hills, sands, rocks, &c. about here. They are however not so fine but I shall give them a hearty good bye to exchange them for my Cathedral.—Yet again I am not so tired of Scenery as to hate Switzerland. We might spend a pleasant year at Berne or Zurich—if it should please Venus to hear my “Beseech thee to hear us O Goddess.” And if she should hear, God forbid we should what people call settle—turn into a pond, a stagnant Lethe—a vile crescent, row or buildings. Better be imprudent moveables than prudent fixtures. Open my Mouth at the Street door like the Lion’s head at Venice to receive hateful cards, letters, messages. Go out and wither at tea parties; freeze at dinners; bake at dances; simmer at routs. No my love, trust yourself to me and I will find you nobler amusements, fortune favouring.

I fear you will not receive this till Sunday or Monday… I long to be off for Winchester for I begin to dislike the very door posts here—the names, the pebbles.

You ask after my health, not telling me whether you are better. I am quite well. You going out is no proof that you are: how is it? Late hours will do you great harm. What fairing is it?

I was alone for a couple of days while Brown went gadding over the country with his ancient knapsack. Now I like his society as well as any Man’s, yet regretted his return—it broke in upon me like a Thunderbolt. I had got in a dream among my Books—really luxuriating in a solitude and silence you alone should have disturb’d.
Your ever affectionate
John Keats

[Miss Brawne’s 19th birthday was on 9 August.]

200 years ago Keats wrote his fourth letter to Miss Brawne

On Sunday 25 July 1819 Keats wrote:

My sweet Girl,

I hope you did not blame me much for not obeying your request of a Letter on Saturday: we have had four in our small room playing at cards night and morning leaving me no undisturb’d opportunity to write. Now Rice and Martin are gone, I am at liberty.

Brown to my sorrow confirms the account you give of your ill health. You cannot conceive how I ache to be with you: how I would die for one hour—for what is in the world? I say you cannot conceive; it is impossible you should look with such eyes upon me as I have upon you: it cannot be.

Forgive me if I wander a little this evening, for I have been all day employ’d in a very abstract Poem and I am in deep love with you—two things which must excuse me. I have, believe me, not been an age in letting you take possession of me; the very first week I knew you I wrote myself your vassal; but burnt the Letter as the very next time I saw you I thought you manifested some dislike to me. If you should ever feel for Man at the first sight what I did for you, I am lost. Yet I should not quarrel with you, but hate myself if such a thing were to happen—only I should burst if the thing were not as fine as a Man as you are as a Woman. Perhaps I am too vehement, then fancy me on my knees, especially when I mention a part of your Letter which hurt me; you say speaking of Mr. Severn “but you must be satisfied in knowing that I admired you much more than your friend.” My dear love, I cannot believe there ever was or ever could be any thing to admire in me especially as far as sight goes—I cannot be admired, I am not a thing to be admired. You are, I love you; all I can bring you is a swooning admiration of your Beauty. I hold that place among Men which snub-nos’d brunettes with meeting eyebrows do among women—they are trash to me—unless I should find one among them with a fire in her heart like the one that burns in mine.

You absorb me in spite of myself—you alone: for I look not forward with any pleasure to what is call’d being settled in the world; I tremble at domestic cares—yet for you I would meet them, though if it would leave you the happier I would rather die than do so.

I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the world: it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it. From no others would I take it. I am indeed astonish’d to find myself so careless of all charms but yours—remembring as I do the time when even a bit of ribband was a matter of interest with me. What softer words can I find for you after this—what it is I will not read. Nor will I say more here, but in a Postscript answer any thing else you may have mentioned in your Letter in so many words—for I am distracted with a thousand thoughts. I will imagine you Venus tonight and pray, pray, pray to your star like a Hethen.
Your’s ever, fair Star,
John Keats

My seal is mark’d like a family table cloth with my Mother’s initial F for Fanny: put between my Father’s initials. You will soon hear from me again. My respectful Compts to your Mother. Tell Margaret I’ll send her a reef of best rocks and tell Sam I will give him my light bay hunter if he will tie the Bishop hand and foot and pack him in a hamper and send him down for me to bathe him for his health with a Necklace of good snubby stones about his Neck.

[The ‘abstract poem’ is ‘The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream’.
The ‘Bishop’ has been variously interpreted as being a dog, a flute, or a piece of music.]

200 years ago Keats wrote his third letter to Miss Brawne

Thursday 15 July 1819: Keats’s third letter to Fanny Brawne

My love,

I have been in so irritable a state of health these two or three last days, that I did not think I should be able to write this week. Not that I was so ill, but so much so as only to be capable of an unhealthy teasing letter. To night I am greatly recovered only to feel the languor I have felt after you touched with ardency. You say you perhaps might have made me better: you would then have made me worse: now you could quite effect a cure: What fee my sweet Physician would I not give you to do so.

Do not call it folly, when I tell you I took your letter last night to bed with me. In the morning I found your name on the sealing wax obliterated. I was startled at the bad omen till I recollected that it must have happened in my dreams, and they you know fall out by contraries. You must have found out by this time I am a little given to bode ill like the raven; it is my misfortune not my fault; it has proceeded from the general tenor of the circumstances of my life, and rendered every event suspicious. However I will not more trouble either you or myself with sad Prophecies; though so far I am pleased at it as it has given me opportunity to love your disinterestedness towards me. I can be a raven no more; you and pleasure take possession of me at the same moment. I am afraid you have been unwell. If through me illness have touched you (but it must be with a very gentle hand) I must be selfish enough to feel a little glad of it. Will you forgive me this?

I have been reading lately an oriental tale of a very beautiful color—It is of a city of melancholy men, all made so by this circumstance. Through a series of adventures each one of them by turns reach some gardens of Paradise where they meet with a most enchanting Lady; and just as they are going to embrace her, she bids them shut their eyes—they shut them—and on opening their eyes again find themselves descending to the earth in a magic basket. The remembrance of this Lady and their delights lost beyond all recovery render them melancholy ever after. How I applied this to you, my dear; how I palpitated at it; how the certainty that you were in the same world with myself, and though as beautiful, not so talismanic as that Lady; how I could not bear you should be so you must believe because I swear it by yourself.

I cannot say when I shall get a volume ready. I have three or four stories half done, but as I cannot write for the mere sake of the press, I am obliged to let them progress or lie still as my fancy chooses. By Christmas perhaps they may appear, but I am not yet sure they ever will. ’Twill be no matter, for Poems are as common as newspapers and I do not see why it is a greater crime in me than in another to let the verses of an half-fledged brain tumble into the reading-rooms and drawing room windows.

Rice has been better lately than usual: he is not suffering from any neglect of his parents who have for some years been able to appreciate him better than they did in his first youth, and are now devoted to his comfort. To-morrow I shall, if my health continues to improve during the night, take a look farther about the country, and spy at the parties about here who come hunting after the picturesque like beagles. It is astonishing how they raven down scenery like children do sweetmeats. The wondrous Chine here is a very great Lion: I wish I had as many guineas as there have been spy-glasses in it.

I have been, I cannot tell why, in capital spirits this last hour. What reason? When I have to take my candle and retire to a lonely room, without the thought as I fall asleep, of seeing you tomorrow morning? or the next day, or the next—it takes on the appearance of impossibility and eternity—I will say a month—I will say I will see you in a month at most, though no one but yourself should see me; if it be but for an hour. I should not like to be so near you as London without being continually with you: after having once more kissed you Sweet I would rather be here alone at my task than in the bustle and hateful literary chit-chat.

Meantime you must write to me—as I will every week—for your letters keep me alive. My sweet Girl I cannot speak my love for you. Good night! And
Ever yours
John Keats

200 years ago: Keats’s progress report

On Sunday 11 July 1819 Keats updated fellow-poet John Hamilton Reynolds on the first Act of the tragedy ‘Otho the Great’, as well as the narrative poem ‘Lamia’:
“You will be glad to hear, under my own hand … how diligent I have been, and am being. I have finished the Act, and in the interval of beginning the 2d have proceeded pretty well with Lamia, finishing the 1st part which consists of about 400 lines. I have great hopes of success, because I make use of my Judgment more deliberately than I have yet done; but in case of failure with the world, I shall find my content. And here (as I know you have my good at heart as much as a Brother), I can only repeat to you what I have said to George — that however I should like to enjoy what the competencies of life procure, I am in no wise dashed at a different prospect. I have spent too many thoughtful days and moralised through too many nights for that, and fruitless would they be indeed, if they did not by degrees make me look upon the affairs of the world with a healthy deliberation.”