200 years ago, Keats wrote a troubled sonnet about the Elgin Marbles.

On Tuesday 4 March 1817, Keats wrote this sonnet. He sent it to Benjamin Robert Haydon along with the one he wrote on 2 March.
Keats felt ‘that he had betrayed the sacred trust of Apollo’ when he and Leigh Hunt crowned each other with laurel wreaths (see post for 1 March). Both Keats and Hunt wrote sonnets celebrating the incident. ‘Hunt published them next Spring, thus providing some of the heaviest artillery for the reviewers’ onslaught on himself and Keats.’ [Robert Gittings John Keats. London: Heinemann 1968. 116]

Haydon! forgive me that I cannot speak
Definitively on these mighty things;
Forgive me that I have not Eagle’s wings –
That what I want I know not where to seek;
And think that I would not be over-meek
In rolling out up-followed thunderings,
Even to the steep of Heliconian springs,
Were I of ample strength for such a freak –
Think too, that all those numbers should be thine;
Whose else?  In this who touch thy vesture’s hem?
For when men stared at what was most divine
With browless idiotism –  o’erwise phlegm –
Thou hadst beheld the Hesperian shine
Of their star in the East, and gone to worship them.

200 years ago Keats saw the Elgin Marbles

On Sunday 2 March 1817, Haydon took Keats and John Hamilton Reynolds to view the Elgin Marbles. Keats wrote the sonnet ‘On seeing the Elgin Marbles for the first time’.

On Seeing the Elgin Marbles for the first time

My spirit is too weak; mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old Time — with a billowy main,
A sun, a shadow of a magnitude.

The painter Benjamin Robert Haydon had spent years campaigning for the Elgin Marbles to be accepted as genuine Greek antiquities (rather than mere Roman copies, as was thought at the time) and purchased by the nation. Meanwhile they were housed in a temporary gallery. There was intense rivalry between him and Leigh Hunt, both trying to influence Keats’s development as a poet. While Hunt celebrated Keats’s poetic debut by crowning him with a twee laurel crown (see yesterday’s post), Haydon showed him robust classical sculptures.

200 years ago, Keats was crowned with a laurel wreath

To celebrate the forthcoming publication of Keats’s first book of Poems, Leigh Hunt crowned him with a laurel wreath. Keats wrote two sonnets about the event. Later, in his embarrassment, he would compose an apologetic ‘Ode to Apollo’.

On Receiving a Laurel Crown from Leigh Hunt

Minutes are flying swiftly, and as yet
Nothing unearthly has enticed my brain
Into a delphic labyrinth — I would fain
Catch an immortal thought to pay the debt
I owe to the kind poet who has set
Upon my ambitious head a glorious gain.
Two bending laurel sprigs — ’tis nearly pain
To be conscious of such a coronet.
Still time is fleeting, and no dream arises
Gorgeous as I would have it; only I see
A trampling down of what the world most prizes,
Turbans and crowns, and blank regality —
And then I run into most wild surmises
Of all the many glories that may be.

About 200 years ago Keats wrote this sonnet





Written on the Blank Space of a leaf at the end of
Chaucer’s tale of The Flowre and the Lefe

This pleasant tale is like a little copse:
The honeyed lines so freshly interlace,
To keep the reader in so sweet a place,
So that he here and there full-hearted stops;
And oftentimes he feels the dewy drops
Come cool and suddenly against his face,
And, by the wandering melody may trace
Which way the tender-legged linnet hops.
Oh! what a power has white simplicity!
What mighty power has this gentle story!
I, that do ever feel athirst for glory,
Could at this moment be content to lie
Meekly upon the grass, as those whose sobbings
Were heard of none beside the mournful robins.

John Keats: Sonnet written in February 1817.
Keats had called on Charles Cowden Clarke and found him asleep, with the volume of Chaucer on his lap. Clarke wrote that the sonnet was:
‘an extempore effusion, and without the alteration of a single word.’
[Clarke 139].

It is another example of Keats’s thirst for glory.

On 31 January 1817 Keats wrote a sonnet which celebrated a mild day that winter

After dark vapours have oppress’d our plains
For a long dreary season, comes a day
Born of the gentle South, and clears away
From the sick heavens all unseemly stains.
The anxious month, relieved of its pains,
Takes as a long-lost right the feel of May,
The eye-lids with the passing coolness play,
Like rose-leaves with the drip of summer rains.
And calmest thoughts come round us – as of leaves
Budding – fruit ripening in stillness – autumn suns
Smiling at eve upon the quiet sheaves,–
Sweet Sappho’s cheek, –a sleeping infant’s breath,–
The gradual sand that through an hour-glass runs,–
A woodland rivulet, — a Poet’s death.

John Keats: Sonnet written 31 January 1817. After the terrible weather of 1816 (the ‘year without a summer’) and the political upheaval of the month (the Prince Regent’s coach had been attacked with stones as he was on his way to open parliament a few days before), a sunny winter’s day made him anticipate the summer and autumn — as well as his own death, a topic which he would often dwell on.