‘A little thing I wrote off to some music as it was playing’

From around 200 years ago, Keats’s ‘little thing I wrote off to some music as it was playing’:

I had a dove and the sweeet dove died,
And I have thought it died of grieving.
Oh, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied
With a silken thread of my own hand’s weaving.
Sweet little red feet! Why should you die—
Why would you leave me, sweet dove! Why?
You lived alone on the forest-tree,
Why, pretty thing, could you not live with me?
I kissed you oft and gave you white peas;
Why not live sweetly, as in the green trees?

(From Keats’s journal letter to George and Georgiana Keats, section dated 3 January 1819.)

On Monday 14 January 2019 the Keats Foundation will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Keats’s poem ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ with a reading at The Art Gallery, Guildhall, Gresham Street, London, EC2V 7HH, starting at 6pm.


200 years ago Keats was ‘confined at Hampstead’ with a sore throat

On Wednesday 30 December 1818 Keats wrote to his sister Fanny:
“My dear Fanny — I am confined at Hampstead with a sore throat; but I do not expect it will keep me above two or three days. I intended to have been in Town yesterday but feel obliged to be careful a little while. I am in general so careless of these trifles, that they tease me for Months, when a few days’ care is all that is necessary. I shall not neglect any chance of an endeavour to let you return to School — nor to procure you a Visit to Mrs. Dilke’s which I have great fears about. Write me if you can find time — and also get a few lines ready for George as the Post sails next Wednesday.
Your affectionate Brother
John ——.”

200 years ago Keats was inspired by images which were ‘full of romance’

On Sunday 27 December 1818, Keats dined with the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon at Lisson Grove, and handed over £30 (which he had borrowed from his publisher for the purpose). Haydon was expecting rather more.
Keats wrote to his brother George: ‘I looked over a Book of Prints taken from the fresco of the Church at Milan, the name of which I forget — in it are comprised Specimens of the first and second age of art in Italy. I do not think I ever had a greater treat out of Shakspeare. Full of Romance and the most tender feeling — magnificence of draperies beyond any I ever saw, not excepting Raphael’s. But Grotesque to a curious pitch — yet still making up a fine whole — even finer to me than more accomplish’d works — as there was left so much room for Imagination.’

[The prints were actually of the fresco at the Camposanto at Pisa. Images from them would appear throughout the next poem he wrote: ‘The Eve of St Agnes’.]

200 years ago Keats found himself short of cash just before Christmas

On Thursday 24 December 1818, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon had taken Keats at his word about sacrificing ‘every thing I have,’ so Keats had to borrow from his publishers. Writing to John Taylor:
‘My dear Taylor
Can you lend me 30£ for a short time? — ten I want to for myself — and twenty for a friend — which will be repaid by the middle of next Month.’

200 years ago Keats enjoyed ‘a sunshiny morning’

On Saturday 19 December 1818 Keats wrote:
“I am at present alone at Wentworth Place — Brown being at Chichester and Mr. and Mrs. Dilke making a little stay in Town. I know not what I should do without a sunshiny morning now and then — it clear’s up one’s spirits.”

A month later Keats would join Brown in Chichester, where he would begin writing ‘The Eve of St Agnes’.

200 years ago Keats described Miss Brawne

On Friday 18 December 1818, continuing his letter to George and Georgiana, Keats wrote:

‘Shall I give you Miss Brawne? She is about my height — with a fine style of countenance of the lengthened sort — she wants sentiment in every feature — she manages to make her hair look well — her nostrils are fine — though a little painful — her mouth is bad and good — her Profile is better than her full-face which indeed is not full but pale and thin without showing any bone. Her shape is very graceful and so are her movements — her Arms are good her hands baddish — her feet tolerable. She is not seventeen — but she is ignorant — monstrous in her behaviour, flying out in all directions — calling people such names that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx— this is I think not from any innate vice, but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly — I am however tired of such style and shall decline any more of it.’

200 years ago Keats received the books he had left at his former lodgings

On Thursday 17 December 1818 Keats wrote:
‘This morning is very fine… Bentley [Keats’s former landlord] is very well — he has just brought me a clothes’-basket of Books. Brown has gone to town to-day to take his Nephews who are on a visit here to see the Lions. I am passing a Quiet day — which I have not done for a long while — and if I do continue so, I feel I must again begin with my poetry — for if I am not in action mind or Body I am in pain — and from that I suffer greatly by going into parties where from the rules of society and a natural pride I am obliged to smother my Spirit and look like an Idiot — because I feel my impulses given way to would too much amaze them. I live under an everlasting restraint — never relieved except when I am composing — so I will write away.’

The writing probably included this piece:

Bards of Passion and of Mirth,
Ye have left your souls on earth!
Have ye souls in heaven too,
Doubled-lived in regions new?
Yes, and those of heaven commune
With the spheres of sun and moon;
With the noise of fountains wondrous,
And the parle of voices thund’rous;
With the whisper of heaven’s trees
And one another, in soft ease
Seated on Elysian lawns
Browsed by none but Dian’s fawns;
Underneath large blue-bells tented,
Where the daisies are rose-scented,
And the rose herself has got
Perfume which on earth is not;
Where the nightingale doth sing
Not a senseless, trancèd thing,
But divine melodious truth;
Philosophic numbers smooth;
Tales and golden histories
Of heaven and its mysteries.

Thus ye live on high, and then
On the earth ye live again;
And the souls ye left behind you
Teach us, here, the way to find you,
Where your other souls are joying,
Never slumber’d, never cloying.
Here, your earth-born souls still speak
To mortals, of their little week;
Of their sorrows and delights;
Of their passions and their spites;
Of their glory and their shame;
What doth strengthen and what maim.
Thus ye teach us, every day,
Wisdom, though fled far away.

Bards of Passion and of Mirth,
Ye have left your souls on earth!
Ye have souls in heaven too,
Double-lived in regions new!

200 years ago Keats began a long letter to his brother George

On Wednesday 16 December 1818 Keats began his long letter to George and Georgiana, the first time he had been able to write about Tom’s death since it happened at the beginning of the month:
“My dear Brother and Sister — You will have been prepared before this reaches you for the worst news you could have, nay, if Haslam’s letter arrives in proper time, I have a consolation in thinking that the first shock will be past before you receive this. … During poor Tom’s illness I was not able to write and since his death the task of beginning has been a hindrance to me. Within this last Week I have been everywhere — and I will tell you as nearly as possible how all go on.”

[The Keats Bicentenary Diary for 2019 is available at Keats House, Hampstead, price £15.]