200 years ago Keats set out his Axioms of Poetry

Leaves to a tree

On Friday 27 February 1818 Keats wrote to his publisher John Taylor:

In Poetry I have a few Axioms, and you will see how far I am from their Centre.
1st. I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity — it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance —
2nd. Its touches of Beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural natural too him — shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight — but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it —
and this leads me on to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.

200 years ago a letter changed Keats’s life

On Saturday 21 February 1818, Keats wrote to his brother George (who was in Teignmouth, looking after their younger brother Tom):

“The occasion of my writing to day is the enclosed Letter by the Post Mark from Miss Wylie—does she expect you in town George?”

Yes, Miss Georgiana Augusta Wylie did expect George in town. Not only that: she expected that they’d be getting married very soon (George’s 21st birthday was only a week away—when he would receive his inheritance, and could choose to marry without needing his Guardian’s consent).

Keats’s life was going to be turned upside down. The tight-knit team of orphan brothers—who between them acted as his support group, fan-club and business advisers—was about to be dismantled. 11 days after this letter, Keats travelled down to Teignmouth to relieve George in caring for Tom. George would marry Georgiana Wylie in May; the couple would emigrate to America in July, and young brother Tom would be dead before Christmas.

200 years ago Keats wrote about people with original minds

On Thursday 19 February 1818. Keats wrote to fellow-poet John Hamilton Reynolds:

‘I had an idea that a man might pass a very pleasant life in this manner — let him on a certain day read a certain page of full Poesy or distilled Prose, and let him wander with it, and prophesy upon it, and muse upon it, and reflect upon it, until it becomes stale — but when will it do so? Never. When man has arrived at a certain ripeness in intellect any one grand and spiritual passage serves him as a starting-post towards all “the two-and-thirty Palaces*”.

‘How happy is such a voyage of conception, what delicious diligent Indolence! A doze upon a sofa does not hinder it, and a nap upon Clover engenders ethereal finger-pointings. The prattle of a child gives it wings, and the converse of middle-age a strength to beat them…

‘Nor will this sparing touch of noble Books be any irreverence to their Writers — for perhaps the honours paid by Man to Man are trifles in comparison to the Benefit done by great Works to the Spirit and pulse of good by their mere passive existence. Memory should not be called knowledge. Many have original minds who do not think it — they are led away by Custom…

‘I was led into these thoughts, my dear Reynolds, by the beauty of the morning operating on a sense of Idleness — I have not read any Books — the Morning said I was right — I had no idea but of the morning, and the thrush said I was right — seeming to say,

O thou whose face hath felt the Winter’s wind,
Whose eye has seen the snow-clouds hung in mist,
And the black elm-tops, ’mong the freezing stars,
To thee the spring will be a harvest-time.
O thou, whose only book has been the light
Of supreme darkness which thou feddest on
Night after night when Phoebus was away,
To thee the Spring shall be a triple morn.
O fret not after knowledge — I have none,
And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
O fret not after knowledge — I have none,
And yet the Evening listens. He who saddens
At thought of idleness cannot be idle,
And he’s awake who thinks himself asleep.’


* [a reference to the 32 palaces of delight in Buddhist doctrine]

200 years ago Keats longed to be in Teignmouth

On Saturday 14 February 1818, Keats wrote to his brothers:
‘I have been writing at intervals many songs and Sonnets, and I long to be at Teignmouth, to read them over to you: however I think I had better wait until this Book is off my mind; it will not be long first.’

‘This Book’ was ‘Endymion’, which he was revising and preparing for publication. It would still not be totally finished when he went to Teignmouth on 4 March to take over caring for his brother Tom.

200 years ago, Keats wrote the sonnet ‘Blue! ’Tis the life of heaven’

On Sunday 8 February 1818, Keats wrote an “Answer to a sonnet ending thus:
               Dark eyes are dearer far
Than orbs that mock the hyacinthine bell”
(which had been written by his fellow-poet John Hamilton Reynolds).

Blue! ’Tis the life of heaven, the domain
Of Cynthia, the wide palace of the sun,
The tent of Hesperus, and all his train,
The blossomer of clouds, gold, grey and dun.
Blue! ’Tis the life of waters — Ocean
And all its vassal streams, pools numberless,
May rage, and foam, and fret, but never can
Subside, if not to dark blue nativeness.
Blue! Gentle cousin to the forest-green,
Married to green in all the sweetest flowers —
Forget-me-not, the blue-bell, and, that queen
Of secrecy, the violet. What strange powers
Hast thou, as a mere shadow! But how great,
When in an eye thou art, alive with fate!

200 years ago Keats wrote a sonnet in praise of Edmund Spenser

On Thursday 5 February 1818, Keats wrote to his publisher John Taylor ‘I have finish’d coppying my Second Book [of Endymion] but I want it for one day to overlook it.’

He also wrote a sonnet praising Edmund Spenser, who was one of his literary heroes at the time.

Spenser! a jealous honourer of thine,
A forester deep in thy midmost trees,
Did last eve ask my promise to refine
Some English that might strive thine ear to please.
But, Elfin Poet, ’tis impossible
For an inhabitant of wintry earth
To rise like Phoebus with a golden quell,
Fire-winged, and make a morning in his mirth.
It is impossible to escape from toil
O’ the sudden and receive thy spiriting:
The flower must drink the nature of the soil
Before it can put forth its blossoming.
Be with me in the summer days and I
Will for thine honour and his pleasure try.

200 years ago Keats wrote two sonnets

On Wednesday 4 February 1818, Keats wrote two sonnets. The first was inspired by the memory of a young lady he had fallen for at Vauxhall Gardens in 1813:

To —  [a lady whom he saw for some few moments at Vauxhall]

Time’s sea hath been five years at its slow ebb,
Long hours have to and fro let creep the sand,
Since I was tangled in thy beauty’s web,
And snared by the ungloving of thy hand.
And yet I never look on midnight sky,
But I behold thine eyes’ well memoried light;
I cannot look upon the rose’s dye,
But to thy cheek my soul doth take its flight;
I cannot look on any budding flower,
But my fond ear, in fancy at thy lips,
And hearkening for a love-sound, doth devour
Its sweets in the wrong sense: – Thou dost eclipse
Every delight with sweet remembering,
And grief unto my darling joys dost bring.

The second was the result of one of Leigh Hunt’s 15-minute sonnet-writing contests, as he told his brothers:
‘Shelley, Hunt and I wrote each a sonnet on the River Nile’, some day you shall read them all.’

To the Nile

Son of the old moon-mountains African!
Chief of the pyramid and crocodile!
We call thee fruitful, and, that very while,
A desert fills our seeing’s inward span.
Nurse of swart nations since the world began,
Art thou so fruitful? or dost thou beguile
Such men to honour thee, who, worn with toil,
Rest for a space ’twixt Cairo and Decan?
O may dark fancies err! They surely do.
’Tis ignorance that makes a barren waste
Of all beyond itself. Thou dost bedew
Green rushes like our rivers, and dost taste
The pleasant sun-rise. Green isles hast thou too,
And to the sea as happily thou dost haste.



200 years ago Keats pleaded for poetry to be ‘great and unobtrusive’

On Tuesday 3 February 1818, Keats wrote to John Hamilton Reynolds:
We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, and, if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself — but with its subject.
How beautiful are the retired flowers! — how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway, crying out, “Admire me, I am a violet! Dote upon me, I am a primrose!” Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this: each of the moderns like an Elector of Hanover governs his petty state and knows how many straws are swept daily from the Causeways in all his dominions, and has a continual itching that all the Housewives should have their coppers well scoured: The ancients were Emperors of vast Provinces, they had only heard of the remote ones and scarcely cared to visit them.
I will cut all this — I will have no more of Wordsworth or Hunt in particular — Why should we be of the tribe of Manasseh, when we can wander with Esau? Why should we kick against the Pricks, when we can walk on Roses? Why should we be owls, when we can be eagles? Why be teased with “nice-eyed wagtails”, when we have in sight “the Cherub Contemplation”…
I don’t mean to deny Wordsworth’s grandeur and Hunt’s merit, but I mean to say we need not be teazed with grandeur and merit when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive.

200 years ago, Keats sent this sonnet to his friend

On Saturday 31 January 1818, Keats included this sonnet in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled Books in charactery
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain —
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting Love; — then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.