200 years ago a threatened lawsuit meant Keats’s assets were frozen

On Wednesday 16 June 1819 Keats wrote to his sister:
“My dear Fanny,
“Still I cannot afford to spend money by Coach-hire and still my throat is not well enough to warrant my walking. I went yesterday to ask Mr. Abbey for some money; but I could not on account of a Letter he showed me from my Aunt’s solicitor. You do not understand the business. I trust it will not in the end be detrimental to you. I am going to try the Press once more, and to that end shall retire to live cheaply in the country and compose myself and verses as well as I can. I have very good friends ready to help me—and I am the more bound to be careful of the money they lend me. It will all be well in the course of a year I hope. I am confident of it, so do not let it trouble you at all. Mr. Abbey showed me a Letter he had received from George containing the news of the birth of a Niece for us—and all doing well—he said he would take it to you—so I suppose to day you will see it. I was preparing to enquire for a situation with an apothecary, but Mr. Brown persuades me to try the press once more; so I will with all my industry and ability…
“I have not run quite aground yet I hope, having written this morning to several people to whom I have lent money requesting repayment. I shall henceforth shake off my indolent fits, and among other reformation be more diligent in writing to you, and mind you always answer me…
“Your affectionate Brother, John”

[Their aunt Margaret Jennings was threatening to sue the Keats family for a share of Tom’s estate. As a result their Guardian Richard Abbey froze all their funds.]

200 years ago Keats on why the English produce such good writers

[On Wednesday 9 June 1819 Keats wrote to Sarah Jeffrey (whom he had met in Teignmouth the previous year) about his plan to work as a ship’s doctor]:

‘My Dear young Lady…
‘To be thrown among people who care not for you, with whom you have no sympathies forces the Mind upon its own resources, and leaves it free to make its own speculations of the differences of human character and to class them with the calmness of a Botanist. An Indiaman is a little world. One of the great reasons that the English have produced the finest writers in the world is, that the English world has ill-treated them during their lives, and foster’d them after their deaths. They have in general been trampled aside into the bye paths of life and seen the festerings of Society. They have not been treated like the Raphaels of Italy…
‘I have been very idle lately, very averse to writing; both from the overpowering idea of our dead poets and from abatement of my love of fame. I hope I am a little more of a Philosopher than I was, consequently a little less of a versifying Pet-lamb. I have put no more in Print or you should have had it. You will judge of my 1819 temper when I tell you that the thing I have most enjoyed this year has been writing an ode to Indolence.’

[An interesting summary of the first part of his most creative year – he had already written ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ and the odes to a Nightingael, Grecian Urn, Melancholy. and Psyche.]

200 years ago Keats went to his sister’s birthday tea

On Thursday 3 June 1819, Keats was allowed to join his sister Fanny to celebrate her 16th birthday, which (as usual) she spent with her Guardian Richard Abbey. Writing to her on 8 June he first told her of his plans for the summer:

‘A Friend of Mine [James Rice] who has an ill state of health called on me … and proposed to spend a little time with him at the back of the Isle of Wight where he said we might live very cheaply. I agreed to his proposal.’

He then wrote about the reception he had from Mr and Mrs Abbey]:

‘They really surprised me with super civility—how did Mrs. A. manage it?…
‘How came miledi to give one Lisbon wine—had she drained the Gooseberry? Truly I cannot delay making another visit—asked to take Lunch, whether I will have ale, wine, take sugar,— objection to green—like cream—thin bread and butter—another cup—agreeable—enough sugar— little more cream—too weak—12 shillin &c &c &c—Lord I must come again.’

200 years ago Keats had to choose between two Poisons

On Monday 31 May 1819 Keats wrote more about being a ship’s doctor—to Sarah Jeffrey, whom he hadn’t seen for over a year:

“I was making a day or two ago a general conflagration of all old Letters and Memorandums, which had become of no interest to me…
“I have the choice as it were of two Poisons (yet I ought not to call this a Poison) the one is voyaging to and from India for a few years; the other is leading a fevrous life alone with Poetry—This latter will suit me best; for I cannot resolve to give up my Studies…
“My Brother George always stood between me and any dealings with the world. Now I find I must buffet it—I must take my stand upon some vantage ground and begin to fight—I must choose between despair and Energy—I choose the latter—though the world has taken on a quakerish look with me, which I once thought was impossible.”

200 years ago Keats started packing up to leave Wentworth Place for the summer

On Wednesday 26 May 1819, Keats started to pack his belongings, as Brown would be letting his part of Wentworth Place for the summer (as the always did). Keats wrote to his sister about his (short-lived) plans to work as a ship’s doctor.

“My dear Fanny,
I have been looking for a fine day to pass at Walthamstow… You would have heard from me before this but that I was in continual expectation of a fine Morning—I want also to speak to you concerning myself. Mind you I do not purpose to quit England, as George has done; but I am afraid I shall be forced to take a voyage or two. However we will not think of that for some Months. Should it be a fine morning tomorrow you will see me.
Your affectionate Brother

200 years ago Keats wrote of the joy of May

On Tuesday 4 May 1819, Keats wrote to his brother George in America: ‘This is the 3d of May [he had the date wrong] & every thing is in delightful forwardness; the violets are not withered before the peeping of the first rose.’

And in the midst of this wide-quietness
A rosy Sanctuary will I dress
With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain;
With buds and bells and stars without a name;
With all the gardener, fancy e’er could feign
Who breeding flowers will never breed the same—
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought can win;
A bright torch and a casement ope at night
To let the warm Love in.
[Ode to Psyche lines 58-67]


200 years ago Keats wrote about hatching dove eggs into sonnets

On Saturday 1 May 1819, Keats wrote to his sister:
Mr. and Mrs. Dilke are coming to dine with us to-day. They will enjoy the country after Westminster. O there is nothing like fine weather, and health, and Books, and a fine country, and a contented Mind, and diligent habit of reading and thinking, and an amulet against the ennui—and, please heaven, a little claret wine cool out of a cellar a mile deep—with a few or a good many ratafia cakes—a rocky basin to bathe in, a strawberry bed to say your prayers to Flora in, a pad nag to go you ten miles or so; two or three sensible people to chat with; two or three spiteful folkes to spar with; two or three odd fishes to laugh at and two or three mumskulls to argue with—instead of using dumb bells on a rainy day—

Two or three Posies
With two or three simples—
Two or three Noses
With two or three pimples—
Two or three wise men
And two or three ninny’s—
Two or three purses
And two or three guineas—
Two or three raps
At two or three doors—
Two or three naps
Of two or three hours—
Two or three Cats
And two or three mice—
Two or three sprats
At a very great price—
Two or three sandies
And two or three tabbies—
Two or three dandies
And two Mrs—— mum!
Two or three Smiles
And two or three frowns—
Two or three Miles
To two or three towns—
Two or three pegs
For two or three bonnets—
Two or three dove eggs
To hatch into sonnets—
Good-bye I’ve an appointment—can’t
stop pon word—good-bye—now
dont get up—open the door my-
self—good-bye—see ye Monday.
J. K.

[‘Mrs ——’ refers to the dreaded Mrs. Abbey.]
[In 1819, Hampsted was ‘the country’ in contrast to the city of London.]

200 years ago Keats wrote ‘La belle dame sans merci’

On Wednesday 21 April 1819 Keats wrote:

La belle dame sans merci—

O what can ail thee Knight at arms
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is withered from the Lake
And no birds sing!

O what can ail thee Knight at arms
So haggard, and so woe begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheek a fading rose
Fast Withereth too—

I met a Lady in the Meads
Full beautiful, a faery’s child
Her hair was long, her foot was light
And her eyes were wild—

I made a Garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant Zone
She look’d at me as she did love
And made sweet moan—

I set her on my pacing steed
And nothing else saw all day long
For sidelong would she bend and sing
A faery’s song—

She found me roots of relish sweet
And honey wild and manna dew
And sure in language strange she said
I love thee true—

She took me to her elfin grot
And there she wept and sigh’d full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four—

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d Ah Woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale Kings, and Princes too
Pale warriors death pale were they all
Who cried La belle dame sans merci
Thee hath in thrall.

I saw their starv’d lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering;
Though the sedge is withered from the Lake
And no birds sing—………

Why four kisses—you will say—why four because I wish to restrain the headlong impetuosity of my Muse—she would have fain said “score” without hurting the rhyme—but we must temper the Imagination as the Critics say with Judgment. I was obliged to choose an even number that both eyes might have fair play, and to speak truly I think two a piece quite sufficient. Suppose I had said seven there would have been three and a half a piece—a very awkward affair, and well got out of on my side—

200 years ago Keats wrote about the Vale of Soul-making

On Wednesday 21 April 1819 Keats wrote to his brother George:

Suppose a rose to have sensation, it blooms on a beautiful morning, it enjoys itself, but then comes a cold wind, a hot sun—it cannot escape it, it cannot destroy its annoyances—they are as native to the world as itself —no more can man be happy in spite, the worldly elements will prey upon his nature.

The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is “a vale of tears” from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven. What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you please “The vale of Soul-making.” Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say “Soul-making”—Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence. There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions—but they are not Souls till they acquire iden-tities, till each one is personally itself. Intelligences are atoms of perception—they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God.—How then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them—so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? How but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because I think it a grander system of salvation than the christian religion—or rather it is a system of Spirit creation…

Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways. Not merely is the Heart a Horn-book, It is the Mind’s Bible, it is the Mind’s experience, it is the text from which the Mind or Intelligence sucks its identity. As various as the Lives of Men are—so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, Identical Souls of the sparks of his own essence. This appears to me a faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not offend our reason and humanity—I am convinced that many difficulties which christians labour under would vanish before it—there is one which even now strikes me—the salvation of Children. In them the spark or intelligence returns to God without any identity—it having had no time to learn of and be altered by the heart—or seat of the human Passions.