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.

200 years ago an all-night game of cards took its toll on Keats

On Tuesday 20 April 1819, Keats was exhausted after an all-night card game. After visiting Mrs Wylie the previous day (Monday), Keats got back to Hampstead in time to dine with Taylor, Woodhouse and Reynolds: ‘we began cards at about 9 o’Clock, and the night coming on and continuing dark and rainy they could not think of returning to town. So we played at Cards till very daylight.’
On the Tuesday: ‘I could not write a line I was so fatigued… I was not worth a sixpence.’

200 years ago Keats visited his publishers

On Sunday 18 April 1819 Keats ‘stopt at Taylor’s on Sunday with Woodhouse—and passed a quiet sort of pleasant day.’
This is probably when Keats wrote ‘The House of Mourning written by Mr Scott’.
Robert Gittings makes a convincing case for this sonnet being a joint effort with Richard Woodhouse (whose pet hates as publisher’s reader include those listed in lines 1-7). Keats, meanwhile, is tormented by the challenges described in lines 8-14 (shown in italics).

The House of Mourning written by Mr. Scott,
A sermon at the Magdalen, a tear
Dropped on a greasy novel, want of cheer
After a walk uphill to a friend’s cot,
Tea with a maiden lady, a cursed lot
Of worthy poems with the author near,
A patron lord, a drunknness from beer,
Haydon’s great picture, a cold coffee pot
At midnight when the muse is ripe for labour,
The voice of Mr. Coleridge, a French bonnet
Before you in the pit, a pipe and tabour,
A damned inseparable flute and neighbour—
All these are vile. But viler Wordsworth’s sonnet
On Dover. Dover!—who could write upon it?

On Friday 16 April 1819, Keats wrote to his brother George:
“Brown this morning is writing some Spenserian stanzas against Mrs., Miss Brawne and me; so I shall amuse myself with him a little: in the manner of Spenser.”
Keats Spenserian stanzas are an ironic portrait of everything which Brown was not. He never again mentioned Miss Brawne to George & Georgiana.

“He is to weet a melancholy carle
Thin in the waist, with bushy head of hair,
As hath the seeded thistle when in parle
It holds the Zephyr, ere it sendeth fair
Its light balloons into the summer air;
Therto his beard had not begun to bloom,
No brush had touch’d his chin or razor sheer;
No care had touch’d his cheek with mortal doom,
But new he was, and bright, as scarf from Persian loom.

“Ne cared he for wine, or half-and-half;
Ne cared he for fish or flesh, or fowl;
And sauces held he worthless as the chaff;
He ‘sdeigned the swine-head at the wassail-bowl;
Ne with lewd ribbalds sat he cheek by jowl;
Ne with sly Lemans in the scorner’s chair;
But after water-brooks this Pilgrim’s soul
Panted, and all his food was woodland air;
Though he would oft-times feast on gilliflowers rare.

“The slang of cities in no wise he knew,
Tipping the wink to him was heathen Greek;
He sipp’d no ‘olden Tom,’ or ‘ruin blue,’
Or Nantz, or cherry-brandy, drank full meek
By many a damsel brave, and rouge of cheek;
Nor did he know each aged watchman’s beat,
Nor in obscured purlieus would he seek
For curled Jewesses, with ankles neat,
Who as they walk abroad, make tinkling with their feet.”


200 years ago Keats was furious about fake love-letters

On Thursday 15 April 1819, Keats collected letters which he had left with his former landlady Mrs. Bentley the previous December after the death of his younger brother Tom. Writing to his surviving brother George:

“I found some of the correspondence between [Tom] and that degraded Wells [Charles Wells, a school-friend of Tom’s] and Amena. It is a wretched business…
I now see the whole cruel deception. I think Wells must have had an accomplice in it—Amena’s Letters are in a Man’s language and in a Man’s hand imitating a woman’s. The instigations to this diabolical scheme were vanity, and the love of intrigue. It was no thoughtless hoax—but a cruel deception on a sanguine Temperament, with every show of friendship. I do not think death too bad for the villain. The world would look upon it in a different light should I expose it—they would call it a frolic—so I must be wary—but I consider it my duty to be prudently revengeful. I will hang over his head like a sword by a hair. I will be opium to his vanity—if I cannot injure his interests. He is a rat and he shall have ratsbane to his vanity—I will harm him all I possibly can—I have no doubt I shall be able to do so. Let us leave him to his misery alone except when we can throw in a little more.”

In none of this year’s letters was Keats as furious as when describing Charles Wells’s jape. From this distance it is hard to imagine Tom falling for Amena whose “Guitarr well strung by Cupid God of love would pull thy useless head into a melodious slumber”. It is easier to understand Keats’s embarrassment at the way Wells parodied the weakest lines from the 1817 volume Poems by John Keats (especially the one which reads ‘And wear’st thou the shield of the fam’d Britomartis.’)

200 years ago Keats had money worries … for himself and for a friend

On Tuesday 13 April 1819, Keats had a scolding letter from Benjamin Robert Haydon (who had been hoping since the previous December to benefit from Keats’s share of  Tom’s inheritance): “Why did you hold out such delusive hopes every letter on such slight foundations?—You have led me on step by step… if you could not have commanded it you should have told me so at once.”

Keats’s reply:
“My dear Haydon
“When I offered you assistance I thought I had it in my hand… The difficulties I met with arose from the alertness and suspicion of Abbey: and especially from the affairs still being in a Lawyer’s hand—who has been draining our Property for the last six years of every charge he could make. I cannot do two things at once, and thus this affair has stopped my pursuits in every way… I find myself possessed of much less than I thought for and now if I had all on the table all I could do would be to take from it a moderate two years subsistence and lend you the rest… It has not been my fault. I am doubly hurt at the slightly reproachful tone of your note and at the occasion of it.”

200 years ago Keats predicted his sister’s triple chins

On Monday 12 April 1819 Keats wrote to his sister:
“I ordered some bulbous roots for you at the Gardener’s, and they sent me some, but they were all in bud—and could not be sent—so I put them in our Garden. There are some beautiful heaths now in bloom in Pots—either heaths or some seasonable plants I will send you instead—perhaps some that are not yet in bloom that you may see them come out…
I have not been lately through Leicester Square—the first time I do I will remember your Seals.”
[These were the Tassie seals which she had expressed an interest in a month earlier].
“I have thought it best to live in Town this Summer, chiefly for the sake of books, which cannot be had with any comfort in the Country—besides my Scotch journey gave me a dose of the Picturesque with which I ought to be contented for some time. Westminster is the place I have pitched upon—the City or any place very confined would soon turn me pale and thin—which is to be avoided. You must make up your mind to get stout this summer—indeed I have an idea we shall both be corpulent old folks with triple chins and stumpy thumbs.”
[Keats spent most of the summer in Shanklin and Winchester, though he did get to Westminster for about a week in the autumn.
The image (from pinterest.com) shows Fanny Keats Llanos in later life. Count the chins.]

Keats House; (c) City of London Corporation; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

200 years ago Keats met Coleridge

On Sunday 11 April 1819 (Easter Day) Keats met Coleridge:
“I took a walk towards Highgate and in the lane that winds by the side of Lord Mansfield’s park I met Mr. Green our Demonstrator at Guy’s in conversation with Coleridge—I joined them, after enquiring by a look whether it would be agreeable—I walked with him at his alderman-after-dinner pace for near two miles I suppose. In those two Miles he broached a thousand things—let me see if I can give you a list—Nightingales, Poetry—on Poetical Sensation—Metaphysics—Different genera and species of Dreams—Nightmare—a dream accompanied with a sense of touch—single and double touch—a dream related—First and second consciousness—the difference explained between will and Volition—so many metaphysicians from a want of smoking the second consciousness— Monsters—the Kraken—Mermaids—Southey believes in them —Southey’s belief too much diluted—a Ghost story —Good morning—I heard his voice as he came towards me—I heard it as he moved away—I had heard it all the interval—if it may be called so. He was civil enough to ask me to call on him at Highgate.”

Matthew Coulton (as Keats) and Andrew Ashmore (as Coleridge) are re-creating the walk on Thursday 11 April 2019.