200 years ago Keats wrote one of the best-loved poems in the English language

On Sunday 19 September 1819, Keats took his afternoon stroll in Winchester, as he wrote to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds:
“How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air—a temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never liked stubble-fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the Spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it. ”

This is what he composed:

“To Autumn

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.


“Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
“Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too
While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue:
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.”
Watch the video of Matthew Coulton reading ‘To Autumn’

200 years ago Keats wrote about the fire of his latest poem ‘Lamia’

On Saturday 18 September 1819, Keats wrote to his brother George:
“I have been reading over a part of a short poem I have composed lately, called Lamia and I am certain there is that sort of fire in it that must take hold of people some way. Give them either pleasant or unpleasant sensation—what they want is a sensation of some sort.”

By her glad Lycius sitting, in chief place,
Scarce saw in all the room another face,
Till, checking his love trance, a cup he took
Full brimm’d, and opposite sent forth a look
’Cross the broad table, to beseech a glance
From his old teacher’s wrinkled countenance,
And pledge him. The bald-head philosopher
Had fix’d his eye, without a twinkle or stir
Full on the alarmed beauty of the bride,
Brow-beating her fair form, and troubling her sweet pride.
Lycius then press’d her hand, with devout touch,
As pale it lay upon the rosy couch :
’Twas icy, and the cold ran through his veins;
Then sudden it grew hot, and all the pains
Of an unnatural heat shot to his heart.
‘Lamia, what means this? Wherefore dost thou start?
Know’st thou that man?’ Poor Lamia answer’d not.
He gaz’d into her eyes, and not a jot
Own’d they the lovelorn piteous appeal:
More, more he gaz’d: his human senses reel:
Some hungry spell that loveliness absorbs;
There was no recognition in those orbs.
‘Lamia!’ he cried — and no soft-toned reply.
The many heard, and the loud revelry
Grew hush; the stately music no more breathes
The myrtle sicken’d in a thousand wreaths.
By faint degrees, voice, lute, and pleasure ceased;
A deadly silence step by step increased,
Until it seem’d a horrid presence there,
And not a man but felt the terror in his hair.
‘Lamia!’ he shriek’d; and nothing but the shriek
With its sad echo did the silence break.
‘Begone, foul dream!’ he cried, gazing again
In the bride’s face, where now no azure vein
Wander’d on fair-spaced temples; no soft bloom
Misted the cheek; no passion to illume
The deep-recessed vision:— all was blight;
Lamia, no longer fair, there sat a deadly white.
‘Shut, shut those juggling eyes, thou ruthless man!
Turn them aside, wretch! or the righteous ban
Of all the Gods, whose dreadful images
Here represent their shadowy presences,
May pierce them on the sudden with the thorn
Of painful blindness; leaving thee forlorn,
In trembling dotage to the feeblest fright
Of conscience, for their long offended might,
For all thine impious proud-heart sophistries,
Unlawful magic, and enticing lies.
Corinthians! look upon that gray-beard wretch!
Mark how, possess’d, his lashless eyelids stretch
Around his demon eyes! Corinthians, see!
My sweet bride withers at their potency.’
‘Fool !’ said the sophist, in an under-tone
Gruff with contempt; which a death-nighing moan
From Lycius answer’d, as heart-struck and lost,
He sank supine beside the aching ghost.
‘Fool! Fool!’ repeated he, while his eyes still
Relented not, nor mov’d; ‘from every ill
Of life have I preserv’d thee to this day,
And shall I see thee made a serpent’s prey?’
Then Lamia breath’d death breath; the sophist’s eye,
Like a sharp spear, went through her utterly,
Keen, cruel, perceant, stinging: she, as well
As her weak hand could any meaning tell,
Motion’d him to be silent; vainly so,
He look’d and look’d again a level — No!
‘A Serpent!’ echoed he; no sooner said,
Than with a frightful scream she vanished
And Lycius’ arms were empty of delight,
As were his limbs of life, from that same night.
On the high couch he lay! — his friends came round—
Supported him — no pulse, or breath they found,
And, in its marriage robe, the heavy body wound.

[‘Lamia’ ii, 239-311]

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

On Friday 17 September 1819, Keats wrote to his brother George (in America) after returning to Winchester from his hurried visit to London (trying to persuade their Guardian Richard Abbey to release some of George’s inheritance):

“On receiving your last, I immediately took a place in the same night’s coach for London. Mr. Abbey behaved extremely well to me, appointed Monday evening at seven to meet me, and observed that he should drink tea at that hour. I gave him the inclosed note, and showed him the last leaf of yours to me. He really appeared anxious about it, and promised he would forward your money as quickly as possible…
“We are certainly in a very low estate—I say we, for I am in such a situation, that were it not for the assistance of Brown and Taylor, I must be as badly off as a man can be. I could not raise any sum by the promise of any poem, no, not by the mortgage of my intellect. We must wait a little while. I really have hopes of success. I have finished a tragedy which, if it succeeds, will enable me to sell what I may have in manuscript to a good advantage…
“Your wants will be a fresh spur to me. I assure you you shall more than share what I can get whilst I am still young. The time may come when age will make me more selfish. I have not been well treated by the world, and yet I have, capitally well. I do not know a person to whom so many purse-strings would fly open as to me, if I could possibly take advantage of them, which I cannot do, for none of the owners of these purses are rich. Your present situation I will not suffer myself to dwell upon. When misfortunes are so real, we are glad enough to escape them and the thought of them. I cannot help thinking Mr. Audubon a dishonest man. Why did he make you believe that he was a man of property? How is it his circumstances have altered so suddenly? In truth, I do not believe you fit to deal with the world, or at least the American world. But, good God! who can avoid these chances? You have done your best. Take matters as coolly as you can; and confidently expecting help from England, act as if no help was nigh.
Mine, I am sure, is a tolerable tragedy; it would have been a bank to me if, just as I had finished it, I had not heard of Kean’s resolution to go to America. That was the worst news I could have had. There is no actor can do the principal character besides Kean. At Covent Garden, there is a great chance of its being damn’d. Were it to succeed even there it would lift me out of the mire; I mean the mire of a bad reputation which is continually rising against me.
My name with the literary fashionables is vulgar. I am a weaver-boy to them. A tragedy would lift me out of this mess, and mess it is as far as it regards our pockets. But be not cast down any more than I am; I feel that I can bear real ills better than imaginary ones. Whenever I find myself growing vapourish, I rouse myself, wash, and put on a clean shirt, brush my hair and clothes, tie my shoestrings neatly, and in fact adonize as if I were going out. Then, all clean and comfortable, I sit down to write. This I find the greatest relief. Besides I am becoming accustomed to the privations of the pleasures of sense. In the midst of the world, I live like a hermit. I have forgot how to lay plans for enjoyment of any pleasure. I feel I can bear anything,—any misery, even imprisonment, so long as I have neither wife nor child. Perhaps you will say yours are your only comfort; they must be…”

[Brown = Charles Brown, Keats’s landlord and co-author of the tragedy ‘Otho the Great’;
Taylor = John Taylor, Keats’s publisher;
Kean = Edmund Kean, noted tragedian;
Audubon = John Audubon, businessman who had persuaded George Keats to invest in a paddle-steamer which was already at the bottom of the Mississippi, who later became famous for his paintings of American birds.]

200 years ago Keats witnessed Orator Hunt’s Procession into London

On Monday 13 September 1819, Keats was in London, where he visited his sister in Walthamstow, then saw Henry Hunt’s entry into London (post-Peterloo), which he described in shorthand terms for his brother George:
“You will hear by the papers of the proceedings at Manchester and Hunt’s triumphal entry into London. It would take me a whole day and a quire of paper to give you anything like detail. I will merely mention that it is calculated that 30,000 people were in the streets waiting for him. The whole distance from the Angel at Islington to the Crown and Anchor was lined with multitudes.”
Although on 5 August he had promised to visit Fanny Brawne (“I will flit to you and back”), instead he wrote her another challenging letter:
“Fleet Street, Monday Morn     [13 September 1819]
“My dear Girl
“I have been hurried to town by a Letter from my brother George; it is not of the brightest intelligence. Am I mad or not? I came by the Friday night coach and have not yet been to Hampstead. Upon my soul it is not my fault. I cannot resolve to mix any pleasure with my days: they go one like another, undistiguishable. If I were to see you to-day it would destroy the half comfortable sullenness I enjoy at present into downright perplexities. I love you too much to venture to Hampstead, I feel it is not paying a visit, but venturing into a fire. Que feraije? as the french novel writers say in fun, and I in earnest: really what can I do? Knowing well that my life must be passed in fatigue and trouble, I have been endeavouring to wean myself from you: for to myself alone what can be much of a misery? As far as they regard myself, I can despise all events: but I cannot cease to love you. This morning I scarcely know what I am doing. I am going to Walthamstow. I shall return to Winchester tomorrow; whence you shall hear from me in a few days. I am a Coward, I cannot bear the pain of being happy: ’tis out of the question: I must admit no thought of it.
Yours ever affectionately
John Keats”

200 years ago Keats was on a flying visit to London

On Sunday 12 September 1819, Keats had breakfast with Woodhouse, read him some of ‘Lamia’, and insisted on revisions to ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ which Woodhouse said would ‘render the poem unfit for ladies’.
He visited Mrs Wylie (mother of his sister-in-law).
He stayed the night with his publisher James Hessey in Fleet Street.

200 years ago Keats arrived in London

On Saturday 11 September 1819 after dashing up to London from Winchester on the overnight coach, Keats learns that Richard Abbey won’t see him till Monday. Keats tries to coax Hessey to publish a new volume of poems right away, but Hessey is not keen (the firm is still £100 down on Endymion). Keats arranges to meet Richard Woodhouse on Sunday. He stays the night with James Rice.

200 years ago Keats feared being locked up as a debtor

On Sunday 5 September 1819, Keats wrote to his publisher James Hessey:

“My dear Hessey
“I received this morning yours of yesterday enclosing a 30£ bank post bill. I have been in fear of the Winchester Jail for some time: neither Brown nor myself could get an answer from anyone…
“There has been such an embargo laid on our correspondence that I can scarcely believe your letter was only dated yesterday—It seems miraculous—
Ever yours sincerely
John Keats”

200 years ago Keats wrote to thank his publisher for £30

On Sunday 5th September 1819 Keats wrote a challenging letter to his publisher John Taylor to thank him for £30 (which Richard Woodhouse had donated) and which had been sent via James Hessey:

“My dear Taylor,
“This morning I received yours of the 2nd and with it a letter from Hessey enclosing a Bank post Bill of £30, an ample sum I assure you— more I had no thought of.—”

[So far, so good. But then came the strange hectoring:]

“You should not have delayed so long in Fleet Street—leading an inactive life as you did was breathing poison: you will find the country air do more for you than you expect. But it must be proper country air. You must choose a spot. What sort of a place is Retford? You should have a dry, gravelly, barren, elevated country, open to the currents of air, and such a place is generally furnished with the finest springs. The neighbourhood of a rich inclosed fulsome manured arable Land, especially in a valley and almost as bad on a flat, would be almost as bad as the smoke of Fleet Street.—Such a place as this was Shanklin, only open to the south-east and surrounded by hills in every other direction. From this south-east came the damps of the sea; which, having no egress, the air would for days together take on an unhealthy idiosyncrasy altogether enervating and weakening as a city smoke—I felt it very much. Since I have been here at Winchester I have been improving in health—it is not so confined—and there is on one side of the City a dry chalky down, where the air is worth Sixpence a pint. So if you do not get better at Retford, do not impute it to your own weakness before you have well considered the Nature of the air and soil—especially as Autumn is encroaching—for the Autumn fog over a rich land is like the steam from cabbage water…
And if this sort of atmosphere is a mitigation to the energies of a strong man, how much more must it injure a weak one unoccupied, unexercised. For what is the cause of so many men maintaining a good state in Cities, but occupation? An idle man, a man who is not sensitively alive to self-interest in a city cannot continue long in good health. This is easily explained. If you were to walk leisurely through an unwholesome path in the fens, with a little horror of them, you would be sure to have your ague. But let Macbeth cross the same path, with the dagger in the air leading him on, and he would never have an ague or any thing like it. You should give these things a serious consideration. Notts, I believe, is a flat county. You should be on the slope of one of the dry barren hills in Somersetshire. I am convinced there is as harmful Air to be breathed in the country as in town.
“I am greatly obliged to you for your letter. Perhaps, if you had had strength and spirits enough, you would have felt offended by my offering a note of hand, or rather expressed it. However, I am sure you will give me credit for not in anywise mistrusting you; or imagining that you would take advantage of any power I might give you over me. No— it proceeded from my serious resolve not to be a gratuitous borrower, from a great desire to be correct in money matters, to have in my desk the Chronicles of them to refer to, and know my wordly non-estate: besides in case of my death such documents would be but just, if merely as memorials of the friendly turns I had done to me.
“Had I known of your illness I should not have written in such fiery phrase as in my first letter. I hope that shortly you will be able to bear six times as much.
Brown likes the tragedy very much: but he is not a fit judge of it, as I have only acted as midwife to his plot; and of course he will be fond of his child. I do not think I can make you any extracts without spoiling the effect of the whole when you come to read it—I hope you will not consider my labour misspent.
Since I finished it, I have finished Lamia, and am now occupied in revising St. Agnes’s Eve, and studying Italian. Ariosto I find as diffuse, in parts, as Spenser—I understand completely the difference between them. I will cross the letter with some lines from Lamia. Brown’s kindest remembrances to you—and I am ever your most sincere friend, John Keats.