200 years ago (30 December 1816) Keats and Leigh Hunt held a sonnet-writing contest

This was Keats’s offering in a sonnet-writing competition with Leigh Hunt. Normally they allowed themselves 15 minutes by the church clock.

The poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead
In summer luxury,—he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.

Charles Cowden Clarke wrote:
The occasion that recurs with the liveliest interest was one evening when — some observations having been made upon the character, habits, and pleasant associations with that reverend denizen of the hearth, the cheerful little grasshopper of the fireside — Hunt proposed to Keats the challenge of writing then, there, and to time, a sonnet On the Grasshopper and Cricket. No one was present but myself, and they accordingly set to. I, apart, with a book at the end of the sofa, could not avoid furtive glances every now and then at the emulants. I cannot say how long the trial lasted. I was not proposed umpire; and had no stop-watch for the occasion. The time, however, was short for such a performance, and Keats won as to time. But the event of the after-scrutiny was one of many such occurrences which have riveted the memory of Leigh Hunt in my affectionate regard and admiration for unaffected generosity and perfectly unpretentious encouragement. His sincere look of pleasure at the first line — “The poetry of earth is never dead.” “Such a prosperous opening!” he said; and when he came to the tenth and eleventh lines:—
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence—
“Ah! that’s perfect! Bravo Keats!” And then he went on in a dilatation upon the dumbness of Nature during the season’s suspension and torpidity. With all the kind and gratifying things that were said to him, Keats protested to me, as we were afterwards walking home, that he preferred Hunt’s treatment of the subject to his own. As neighbour Dogberry would have rejoined, “‘Fore God, they are both in a tale!” It has occurred to me, upon so remarkable an occasion as the one here recorded, that a reunion of the two sonnets will be gladly hailed by the reader.

Hunt’s sonnet follows:

Green little vaulter in the sunny grass,
Catching your heart up at the feel of June,
Sole voice that’s heard amidst the lazy noon,
When ev’n the bees lag at the summoning brass;─
And you, warm little housekeeper, who class
With those who think the candles come too soon,
Loving the fire, and with your tricksome tune
Nick the glad silent moments as they pass;─
Oh sweet and tiny cousins, that belong,
One to the fields, the other to the hearth,
Both have your sunshine; both, though small, are strong
At your clear hearts; and both were sent on earth
To sing in thoughtful ears this natural song─
In doors and out,─ summer and winter,─ Mirth.

Source <of context>

Source <of Hunt’s sonnet>

Source <of poem>

On the Grasshopper and Cricket

200 years ago (22 December 1816) Keats wrote this sonnet

Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition

The church bells toll a melancholy round,
Calling the people to some other prayers,
Some other gloominess, more dreadful cares,
More harkening to the sermon’s horrid sound.
Surely the mind of man is closely bound
In some black spell; seeing that each one tears
Himself from fireside joys, and Lydian airs,
And converse high of those with glory crown’d
Still, still they too, and I should feel a damp,—
A chill as from a tomb, did I not know
That they are dying like an outburnt lamp;
That ’tis their sighing, wailing ere they go
Into oblivion; —  that fresh flowers will grow,
And many glories of immortal stamp.

Charles Cowden Clarke (son of Keats’s former Headmaster) described how Keats wrote this “one Sunday morning as I stood by his side”. This unseasonal sonnet shows that Christmas meant rather less to Keats than it does to many of us today.

Source of quotation:
Letter from Charles Cowden Clarke to Richard Monckton Milnes (Keats’s first biographer) 17 March 1846. In H. E. Rollins (editor) Letters and Papers of the Keats Circle (Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press 1948) II, 154

200 years ago Keats announced that he’s giving up medicine

Around this time 200 years ago (mid December 1816) Keats visited his Guardian Richard Abbey to announce his decision to give up medicine in favour of poetry. It was a shock to Mr Abbey, who had put his troublesome ward through an apprenticeship and the first year of Medical School. This is how he remembered the event ten or so years later:
‘Not intend to be a Surgeon! why what do you mean to be?’
‘I mean to rely on my Abilities as a Poet.’
‘John, you are either Mad or a Fool, to talk in so absurd a Manner.’
‘My Mind is made up,’ said the youngster very quietly, ‘I know that I possess Abilities greater than most Men, and therefore I am determined to gain my Living by exercising them.’
Seeing nothing could be done Abby called him a Silly Boy, & prophesied a speedy Termination to his inconsiderate Enterprise.

His insensitive Guardian wasn’t the only who was advising caution. A couple of days earlier he had met Shelley at Leigh Hunt’s cottage in the Vale of Health. This was probably when Shelley advised Keats against publishing his ‘first-blights’.

Source of quotation
Letter from John Taylor to Richard Woodhouse 23 April 1827. in Rollins, H. R. (ed.) Letters and papers of the Keats Circle (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 1948) I, 307-8

200 years ago (17 December 1816) Keats wrote to his mentor

Keats writes to Charles Cowden Clarke

My dear Charles…
I met Reynolds at Haydon’s a few mornings since — he promised to be with me this Evening and Yesterday I had the same promise from Severn and I must put you in mind that on last All hallowmas’ day you gave your word that you would spend this Evening with me — so no putting off. I have done little to Endymion lately — I hope to finish it in one more attack — I believe you <know> I went to Richards’s — it was so whoreson a Night that I stopped there all the next day — His Remembrances to you…
I will ever consider you my sincere and affectionate friend — you will not doubt that I am yours.
God bless you,
John Keats.

Letter to Keats’s early mentor (the son of his former teacher). Keats had written to Joseph Severn on 1st November postponing their meeting, apparently until this one.
At this time, when Keats refers to ‘Endymion’ he means the poem now called ‘I stood tip-toe upon a little hill’ (published as the first item in of his 1817 book Poems by John Keats) rather than Endymion: a poetic romance (which was published the following year).
This evening meeting was probably when Keats announced to this circle of friends that he was going to publish his first collection. Richards was the printer who would type-set and print the book the following year.


To Charles Cowden Clarke (London, December 17th, 1816)

200 years ago (14 December 1816) Keats had his Life Mask made

life-mask-webImage: National Portrait Gallery Shop A replica of Keats’s life mask.

On Saturday 14 December 1816, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon made a life mask of Keats (so he could include him as one of the onlookers in his massive painting Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem). Fellow-poet John Hamilton Reynolds watched the procedure: Keats’s face was greased with fat, straws were put up his nose so he could breathe, and his hair was bandaged. Then he lay on his back and Haydon daubed his face with plaster of Paris, which was left to set for ten minutes or so. Before the invention of photography, this was the only way to get an exact likeness of someone’s face.

It was a busy time for Keats. Three days earlier, he had met Shelley at Leigh Hunt’s. In his autobiography. Hunt wrote:
“I had not known the young poet long, when Shelley and he became acquainted under my roof. Keats did not take to Shelley as kindly as Shelley did to him. Shelley’s only thoughts of his new acquaintance were such as regarded his bad health, with which he sympathized, and his poetry, of which he has left such a monument of his admiration in Adonais. 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.”

Source of quotation
https://archive.org/stream/leighhuntautobio00hunt/leighhuntautobio00hunt_djvu.txt    (Chapter xvi)


200 years ago (early December 1816), Keats wrote about a late-night winter walk

leafless-night200 years ago Keats composed this sonnet after one of his evening visits to Leigh Hunt (when he’d finished work at St Thomas’s Hospital he would often walk the six miles from Cheapside to Hampstead, for evenings of poetical talk).

Keen, fitful gusts are whispering here and there
Among the bushes half leafless, and dry;
The stars look very cold about the sky,
And I have many miles on foot to fare.
Yet feel I little of the cool bleak air,
Or of the dead leaves rustling drearily,
Or of those silver lamps that burn on high,
Or of the distance from home’s pleasant lair:
For I am brimful of the friendliness
That in a little cottage I have found;
Of fair-haired Milton’s eloquent distress,
And all his love for gentle Lycid drowned;
Of lovely Laura in her light green dress,
And faithful Petrarch gloriously crowned.


Keen, fitful gusts are whisp’ring here and there

200 years ago (1 December 1816) Leigh Hunt launched Keats’s career as a poet

keatsLeigh Hunt launches Keats’s poetic career with this article in The Examiner:

No. 466. SUNDAY, DEC. 1, 1816.

The object of the present article is merely to notice three young writers, who appear to us to promise a considerable addition of strength in the new school…

The last of these young aspirants whom we have met with, and who promise to help the new school to revive Nature and
“To put a spirit of youth in every thing,”—
is, we believe, the youngest of them all, and just of age. His name is John Keats. he has not yet published any thing except in a newspaper; but a set of his manuscripts was handed us the other day, and fairly surprised us with the truth of their ambition, and ardent grappling with Nature. In the following Sonnet there is one incorrect rhyme, which might be easily altered, but which shall serve in the mean time as a peace-offering to the rhyming critics. The rest of the composition, with the exception of a little vagueness in calling the regions of poetry “the realms of gold,” we do not hesitate to pronounce excellent, especially the last six lines. The word swims is complete; and the whole conclusion is equally powerful and quiet:,—

Much have I travel’d in the realms of Gold,
And many goodly States and Kingdoms seen;
Round many western Islands have I been,
Which Bards in fealty to Apollo hold;
But of one wide expanse had I been told,
That deep-brow’d Homer rul’d as his demesne;
Yet could I never judge what men could mean,
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies,
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like a stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific,—and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise,—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Oct. 1816. John Keats.

One of Keats’s fellow students at Guys, Henry Stephens, recalled:
I remember his showing me the Examiner in which was an article under the title `the Rising Poets’ or `the Young Poets’ or some such title, in which the names of several were inserted with a brief sketch of them and a specimen of their poetry, and the name of John Keats appeared among them, with that of Shelley.
This sealed his fate, and he gave himself up more completely than before to Poetry.

Source <of context>
Letter from Henry Stephens to George Felton Mathew, March (?) 1847, in Rollins, H. R. (ed.) Letters and papers of the Keats Circle (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 1948) II, 208-211

Source <of Examiner article>

200 years ago this month, Keats began his first long poem


Around this time in November 1816, Keats began writing ‘Sleep and Poetry’.

O Poesy! for thee I grasp my pen
That am not yet a glorious denizen
Of thy wide heaven; yet, to my ardent prayer,
Yield from thy sanctuary some clear air,
Smoothed for intoxication by the breath
Of flowering bays, that I may die a death
Of luxury, and my young spirit follow
The morning sunbeams to the great Apollo
Like a fresh sacrifice…

O for ten years, that I may overwhelm
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
That my own soul has to itself decreed…

And they shall be accounted poet-kings
Who simply tell the most heart-easing things.
O may these joys be ripe before I die…

Will not some say that I presumptuously
Have spoken? that from the hastening disgrace
Twere better far to hide my foolish face?
That whining boyhood should with reverence bow
Ere the dread thunderbolt could reach?  How!
If I do hide myself, it sure shall be
In the very fane, the light of Poesy:
If I do fall, at least I will be laid
Beneath the silence of a poplar shade;
And over me the grass shall be smooth-shaven;
And there shall be a kind memorial graven…

Charles Cowden Clarke recalled:
It was in the library at Hunt’s cottage, where an extemporary bed had been made up for him on the sofa, that he composed the frame-work and many lines of the poem on Sleep and Poetry — the last sixty or seventy being an inventory of the art garniture of the room, commencing,—
It was a poet’s house who keeps the keys
Of Pleasure’s temple.

Source <of context>

Source <of poem>
‘Sleep and Poetry’ lines 47-61, 96-98, 267-280

Sleep and Poetry

200 years ago, Keats wrote to the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon

On 20 November 1816, Keats wrote to Benjamin Robert Haydon, with the first draft of a sonnet:

My dear Sir—
Last evening wrought me up, and I cannot forbear sending you the following —
Your’s unfeignedly John Keats.

Great spirits now on earth are sojourning;
He of the cloud, the cataract, the lake,
Who on Helvellyn’s summit, wide awake
Catches his freshness from Archangel’s wing:
He of the rose, the violet, the spring,
The social smile, the chain for Freedom’s sake:
And lo! — whose stedfastness would never take
A meaner sound than Raphael’s whispering.
And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forehead of the age to come;
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings in the human mart?
Listen awhile ye nations, and be dumb.

Removed to 76 Cheapside.

After an evening of intense and manic discussion and encouragement at Haydon’s studio in Great Marlborough Street, Keats was inspired to write this sonnet praising three Great Spirits of the age (Wordsworth, Leigh Hunt and Haydon). Haydon replied the same day, promising to send the sonnet to Wordsworth, and suggesting that the last four words of line 13 be cut. Keats replied straight away.

Thursday Afternoon, November 20, 1816.
My dear Sir
Your letter has filled me with a proud pleasure, and shall be kept by me as a stimulus to exertion — I begin to fix my eye upon one horizon. My feelings entirely fall in with yours in regard to the Ellipsis, and I glory in it. The Idea of your sending it to Wordsworth put me out of breath — you know with what Reverence I would send my Well-wishes to him.
Yours sincerely
John Keats.


To Benjamin Robert Haydon (London, November 20, 1816)

200 years ago, Keats writes a poem on his brother’s birthday

Flames courtesy of Jon and Clare Penny
Flames courtesy of Jon and Clare Penny

Keats celebrates his brother Tom’s 17th birthday on 18 November 1816. The three brothers (John, George and Tom) are now sharing a second-floor apartment at 76 Cheapside.

To my Brothers

Small, busy flames play through the fresh laid coals,
And their faint cracklings o’er our silence creep
Like whispers of the household gods that keep
A gentle empire o’er fraternal souls.
And while, for rhymes, I search around the poles,
Your eyes are fix’d, as in poetic sleep,
Upon the lore so voluble and deep,
That aye at fall of night our care condoles.
This is your birth-day Tom, and I rejoice
That thus it passes smoothly, quietly.
Many such eves of gently whisp’ring noise
May we together pass, and calmly try
What are this world’s true joys,—ere the great voice,
From its fair face, shall bid our spirits fly.


To My Brothers