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.

200 years ago Keats wrote about the Pleasure Thermometer

On Friday 30 January 1818, Keats wrote to his publisher John Taylor suggesting a late Author’s Correction to the proofs of Book I of ‘Endymion’:

My dear Taylor — These lines as they now stand about ” happiness,” have rung in my ears like “a chime a mending” — See here,
“Behold
Wherein lies happiness, Peona ? fold, etc. “

It appears to me the very contrary of blessed. I hope this will appear to you more eligible.
“Wherein lies Happiness ? In that which becks
Our ready minds to fellowship divine,
A fellowship with Essence till we shine
Full alchemised, and free of space — Behold
The clear religion of Heaven — fold, etc.”

You must indulge me by putting this in, for setting aside the badness of the other, such a preface is necessary to the subject. The whole thing must, I think, have appeared to you, who are a consecutive man, as a thing almost of mere words, but I assure you that, when I wrote it, it was a regular stepping of the Imagination towards a truth. My having written that argument will perhaps be of the greatest service to me of anything I ever did. It set before me the gradations of happiness, even like a kind of pleasure thermometer, and is my first step towards the chief attempt in the drama. The playing of different natures with joy and Sorrow —
Do me this favour, and believe me
Your sincere friend J. Keats.

200 years ago Keats was told not to visit his sister

On Friday 23 January 1818, Keats wrote to his brothers:

“Fanny has returned to Walthamstow. — Mr. Abbey appeared very glum, the last time I went to see her, and said in an indirect way, that I had no business there.”

Fanny = Fanny Keats (aged 14½)
Mr Abbey = Richard Abbey, the legal Guardian of Keats and his siblings
Keats’s brothers (George and Tom) were staying in Teignmouth at the time, in the hope that the sea air would improve Tom’s health.

200 years ago Keats was supposed to be revising ‘Endymion’

On Friday 23 January 1818, Keats wrote to his brothers:

“I am in the habit of taking my papers [= ‘Endymion’] to Dilke’s and copying there; so I chat and proceed at the same time.”

How different his life would have been if he had just concentrated on one thing at a time and corrected the poem’s weaknesses! In the Preface to Endymion he would write:
“the reader … must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished. The first two books, and indeed the two last, I feel sensible are not of such completion as to warrant their passing the press.”

200 years ago, Keats wrote the sonnet ‘On Sitting down to read King Lear again’

On Thursday 22 January 1818, Keats sat down to read King Lear again. He wrote to his brothers the following day:

Nothing is finer for the purposes of great productions than a very gradual ripening of the intellectual powers. As an instance of this — observe — I sat down yesterday to read King Lear once again: the thing appeared to demand the prologue of a sonnet, I wrote it, and began to read — (I know you would like to see it):

On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Again

O golden-tongued Romance with serene lute !
Fair-plumèd Siren, Queen of far-away !
Leave melodising on this wintry day,
Shut up thine olden volume and be mute:
Adieu! for, once again, the fierce dispute
Betwixt Hell torment and impassioned Clay
Must I burn through, once more assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit:
Chief Poet! and ye clouds of Albion,
Begetters of our deep eternal theme!
When through the old oak forest I am gone,
Let me not wander in a barren dream,
But, when I am consumèd in the fire,
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.

In January 1818, King Lear was not performed in England (this was a time when the Prince Regent was on the throne because of the insanity of King George III). So reading the text was the only way Keats could appreciate Shakespeare’s play.

200 years ago, Keats wrote about seeing a lock of Milton’s hair

On Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair.
Ode

Chief of organic numbers!
Old scholar of the spheres!
Thy spirit never slumbers,
But rolls about our ears,
For ever, and for ever!
O what a mad endeavour
Worketh he,
Who to thy sacred and ennoblèd hearse
Would offer a burnt sacrifice of verse
And melody.

How heavenward thou soundest,
Live temple of sweet noise,
And discord unconfoundest,
Give delight new joys,
And pleasure nobler pinions!
O, where are thy dominions?
Lend thine ear
To a young Delian oath — ay, by thy soul,
By all that from thy mortal lips did roll,
And by the kernel of thy earthly love,
Beauty in things on earth and things above, I swear!

When every childish fashion
Has vanished from my rhyme,
Will I, grey-gone in passion,
Leave to an after-time
Hymning and harmony
Of thee, and of thy works, and of thy life;
But vain is now the burning and the strife,
Pangs are in vain, until I grow high-rife
With old Philosophy,
And mad with glimpses of futurity!

For many years my offering must be hushed;
When I do speak, I’ll think upon this hour,
Because I feel my forehead hot and flushed,
Even at the simplest vassal of thy power —
A lock of thy bright hair.
Sudden it came,
And I was startled, when I caught thy name
Coupled so unaware;
Yet, at the moment, temperate was my blood.
Methought I had beheld it from the Flood.

Poem written 21 January 1818, after Leigh Hunt had shown Keats “a real authenticated Lock of Milton’s hair”.

200 years ago, Keats wrote a sonnet to a cat

On 16 January 1818, Keats wrote this sonnet:

 

 

 

To Mrs Reynolds’s Cat

Cat! who hast passed thy grand climacteric,
How many mice and rats hast in thy days
Destroyed? How many tit-bits stolen? Gaze
With those bright languid segments green, and prick
Those velvet ears — but prithee do not stick
Thy latent talons in me, and up-raise
Thy gentle mew, and tell me all thy frays
Of fish and mice, and rats and tender chick.
Nay, look not down, nor lick thy dainty wrists —
For all thy wheezy asthma, and for all
Thy tail’s tip is nicked off, and though the fists
Of many a maid have given thee many a maul,
Still is that fur as soft as when the lists
In youth thou enteredst on glass-bottled wall.

The Reynolds family were close friends of John Keats. He had recently spent Christmas Eve with them when he wrote this sonnet. Their happy friendship would end later in the year (when he would turn down Mrs Reynolds next Christmas invitation in favour of a more enticing one from Mrs Brawne and her daughter Fanny).

[grand climacteric = 63rd year of (human) life]
[Image: Cómo Cuidar a un Gato Viejo, from notigatos.ed]