200 years ago, on Sunday 11 May 1817, Keats wrote to Benjamin Robert Haydon:
‘I have a horrid Morbidity of Temperament which has shown itself at intervals – it is, I have no doubt the greatest Enemy and stumbling block I have to fear… There is no greater sin after the 7 deadly than to flatter oneself into an idea of being a great Poet.’
On Saturday 10 May 1817, Keats wrote to Leigh Hunt from Margate:
‘I went to the Isle of Wight, thought so much about poetry, so long together that I could not get to sleep at night; and, moreover, I know not how it was, I could not get wholesome food. By this means, in a Week or so, I became not over capable in my upper Stories, and set off pell-mell for Margate, at least 150 Miles, because, forsooth, I fancied that I should like my old Lodging here, and could contrive to do without Trees. Another thing, I was too much in Solitude, and consequently was obliged to be in continual burning of thought as an only resource…
‘I have asked myself so often why I should be a poet more than other men, seeing how great a thing it is.’
John Keats: Part of a letter to Leigh Hunt (who was staying with the Shelleys in Marlow) 10 May 1817.
Keats had stayed in Margate the previous summer. Each time he encountered a block while he was writing Endymion, he moved. So the poem which he began in Carisbrooke continued in Margate, Canterbury, Bo-Peep, Hampstead and Oxford, and was eventually completed (six months later) at Box Hill in Surrey.
Image: ‘Picture of Margate’ by W. C. Oulton | Margate History
On Thursday 8 May 1817, Benjamin Robert Haydon wrote to Keats ‘I think you did quite right to leave the Isle of white if you felt no relief in having been quite alone in your study… Do not give way to any forebodings they are nothing more than the over eager anxieties of a great Spirit stretched beyond its strength.’
Keats had set off ‘pell-mell for Margate’ about six days earlier, where he met up with his brother Tom.
On Saturday 26 April 1817, Keats began the ‘Hymn to Pan’
“O thou, whose mighty palace roof doth hang
From jagged trunks, and overshadoweth
Eternal whispers, glooms, the birth, life, death
Of unseen flowers in heavy peacefulness;
Who lov’st to see the hamadryads dress
Their ruffled locks where meeting hazels darken;
And through whole solemn hours dost sit, and hearken
The dreary melody of bedded reeds —
In desolate places, where dank moisture breeds
The pipy hemlock to strange overgrowth;
Bethinking thee, how melancholy loth
Thou wast to lose fair Syrinx — do thou now,
By thy love’s milky brow!
By all the trembling mazes that she ran,
Hear us, great Pan!”
John Keats: lines 232-246 of Book I of Endymion (the opening of the ‘Hymn to Pan’). Among the delights of Endymion are four lyrical interludes which include the ‘Song of the Indian Maid’, the ‘Song of the Constellations’ and this, ‘The Hymn to Pan’.
On 18 April 1817, Keats wrote to fellow-poet John Hamilton Reynolds:
“I cannot exist without poetry — without eternal poetry — half the day will not do — the whole of it — I began with a little, but habit has made me a Leviathan — I had become all in a Tremble from not having written any thing of late…
“I shall forthwith begin my Endymion, which I hope I shall have got some way into by the time you come, when we will read our verses in a delightful place I have set my heart upon near the Castle…”
Therefore, ’tis with full happiness that I
Will trace the story of Endymion.
The very music of the name has gone
Into my being, and each pleasant scene
Is growing fresh before me as the green
Of our own valleys: so I will begin
Now while I cannot hear the city’s din;
Now while the early budders are just new,
And run in mazes of the youngest hue
About old forests; while the willow trails
Its delicate amber; and the dairy pails
Bring home increase of milk. And, as the year
Grows lush in juicy stalks, I’ll smoothly steer
My little boat, for many quiet hours,
With streams that deepen freshly into bowers.
Many and many a verse I hope to write,
Before the daisies, vermeil-rimm’d and white,
Hide in deep herbage; and ere yet the bees
Hum about globes of clover and sweet peas,
I must be near the middle of my story.
O may no wintry season, bare and hoary,
See it half finished; but let Autumn bold,
With universal tinge of sober gold,
Be all about me when I make an end.
John Keats Endymion Book I lines 34-57. The extracts which appear over the coming weeks show how his youthful exuberance and optimism gradually turned sour. He actually finished his first draft of the poem on 28 November, when the ‘wintry season, bare and hoary’ had arrived.
On 17 April 1817, Keats settled in a room at Carisbrooke, where he started a letter to Reynolds, and wrote a sonnet ‘On the Sea’
On the Sea
It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often ’tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.
Oh ye! who have your eye-balls vex’d and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinn’d with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody, —
Sit ye near some old cavern’s mouth and brood,
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quired!
John Keats: Sonnet written 17 April 1817.
On Tuesday 15 April 1817, Keats arrived in Southampton, wrote a letter to his brothers, then caught the afternoon ferry to the Isle of Wight.
“My dear Brothers,
“I am safe at Southampton — after having ridden three stages outside and the rest in for it began to be very cold. I did not know the Names of any of the Towns I passed through all I can tell you is that sometimes I saw dusty Hedges sometimes Ponds — then nothing — then a little Wood with trees… Cow ruminating — ditto Donkey — Man and Woman going gingerly along — William seeing his Sisters over the Heath — John waiting with a Lanthen for his Mistress — Barbers Pole — Docter’s Shop — However after having had my fill of these I popped my Head out just as it began to Dawn — NB. this tuesday Morn saw the Sun rise — of which I shall say nothing at present — I felt rather lonely this Morning at breakfast so I went and unbox’d a Shakspeare — “Here’s my Comfort” — I went immediately after Breakfast to the Southampton Water where I enquired for the Boat to the Isle of Wight as I intend seeing that place before I settle — it will go at 3 so shall I after having taken a Chop…
“I don’t feel inclined to write any more at present for I feel rather muzzy.”
On Monday 14 April 1817, at the Bell & Crown Inn at Holborn, Keats caught the night coach to Southampton enroute to the Isle of Wight to begin writing ‘Endymion’. This was the most important day of his poetic career to date: he was setting off (as he wrote to his brother George) to
‘make 4000 Lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry … this is a great task, and … when done it will take me but a dozen paces towards the Temple of Fame’.
‘Endymion’ — and the toxic critical response to it — would haunt him for the rest of his life. He would eventually finish his epic poem on 28 November.
In his journal for Monday 7 April 1817, Benjamin Robert Haydon noted that Keats had told him “Byron, Scott, Southey & Shelley think they are to lead the age, but…” (the rest of what Keats said has been erased).
On Sunday 6 April 1817 (Easter Day) Leigh Hunt and his family moved out of their home in the Vale of Health (Hampstead) to stay with Shelley in Marlow. Keats had spent the previous day helping Hunt to pack up his belongings. He declined Shelley’s invitation to join them — as Hunt noted in his memoir ‘Keats did not take to Shelley as kindly as Shelley did to him. 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.’ ( Morpurgo, J. E. (ed.) 1949 The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt, p. 273-274)