200 years ago Keats received another desperate letter from his brother George

On Monday 27 September 1819 Keats wrote to George in America:
“it is in consequence of Mrs Jennings threatening a Chancery suit that you have been kept from the receipt of monies and myself deprived of any help from Abbey — I am glad you say you keep up your spirits — I hope you make a true statement on that score — Still keep them up — for we are all young — I can only repeat here that you shall hear from me again immediately. Notwithstanding this bad intelligence I have experienced some pleasure in receiving so correctly two Letters from you, as it gives me if I may so say a distant idea of Proximity. This last improves upon my little niece — Kiss her for me. Do not fret yourself about the delay of money on account of any immediate opportunity being lost: for in a new country whoever has money must have an opportunity of employing it in many ways.”

[Mrs Jennings = long-lost aunt of John, George and Fanny Keats who was threatening to sue them for a share of Tom Keats’s estate]
[Abbey = Richard Abbey, the Keats’s Guardian]

200 years ago Keats wrote about political duty

On Friday 24 September 1819 Keats wrote to his brother George:
“the first political duty a Man ought to have a Mind to is the happiness of his friends. I wrote Brown a comment on the subject, wherein I explained what I thought of Dilke’s Character, which resolved itself into this conclusion. That Dilke was a Man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his Mind about everything. The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing — to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. Not a select party. The genus is not scarce in population. All the stubborn arguers you meet with are of the same brood — They never begin upon a subject they have not preresolved on. They want to hammer their nail into you and if you turn the point, still they think you wrong.”

[Brown = Charles Armitage Brown, Keats’s friend and landlord]
[Dilke = Charles Wentworth Dilke, friend of the Keats family]

200 years ago Keats explained his decision to give up writing poetry

On Wednesday 22 September 1819 Keats wrote to Charles Brown (the co-author of the tragedy ‘Otho the Great’):
“It is quite time I should set myself doing something, and live no longer upon hopes. I have never yet exerted myself. I am getting into an idle-minded, vicious way of life, almost content to live upon others. In no period of my life have I acted with any self-will, but in throwing up the apothecary profession. That I do not repent of…
“I will write, on the liberal side of the question, for whoever will pay me. I have not known yet what it is to be diligent. I purpose living in town in a cheap lodging, and endeavouring, for a beginning, to get the theatricals of some paper. When I can afford to compose deliberate poems, I will…
“Suppose the tragedy should succeed,—there will be no harm done. And here I will take an opportunity of making a remark or two on our friendship, and all your good offices to me…”

The following day Thursday 23 September, he wrote to him again:
“It is quite time I should set myself doing something, and live no longer upon hopes. I have never yet exerted myself. I am getting into an idle-minded, vicious way of life, almost content to live upon others. In no period of my life have I acted with any self-will, but in throwing up the apothecary profession. That I do not repent of.”

200 years ago Keats enjoyed a nectarine

On Wednesday 22 September 1819, Keats wrote to his friend Charles Wentworth Dilke:

Talking of Pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, and with the other holding to my Mouth a Nectarine—good God how fine. It went down soft pulpy, slushy, oozy—all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry. I shall certainly breed.

In the same letter he told Dilke:

[I will] endeavour to acquire something by temporary writing in periodical works. You must agree with me how unwise it is to keep feeding upon hopes, which depending so much on the temper and imagination, appear gloomy or bright, near or afar off, just as it happens…

Even if I am swept away like a spider from a drawing room, I am determined to spin—homespun any thing for sale. Yea, I will traffic. Any thing but Mortgage my Brain to Blackwood. I am determined not to lie like a dead lump… [I] am confident I shall be able to… shine up an article on any thing without much knowledge of the subject, aye like an orange. I would willingly have recourse to other means. I cannot; I am fit for nothing but literature. Wait for the issue of this Tragedy? No—there cannot be greater uncertainties east, west, north, and south than concerning dramatic composition. How many months must I wait! Had I not better begin to look about me now? If better events supersede this necessity what harm will be done? I have no trust whatever on Poetry. I don’t wonder at it—the marvel is to me how people read so much of it. I think you will see the reasonableness of my plan.
To forward it I purpose living in cheap Lodging in Town, that I may be in the reach of books and information, of which there is here a plentiful lack. If I can find any place tolerably comfortable I will settle myself and fag till I can afford to buy Pleasure—which if I never can afford I must go without…

Now I come to my request. Should you like me for a neighbour again? Come, plump it out, I won’t blush. I should also be in the neighbourhood of Mrs. Wylie, which I should be glad of, though that of course does not influence me. Therefore will you look about Marsham or Romney street for a couple of rooms for me… I have written to-day to Reynolds, and to Woodhouse. Do you know him? He is a Friend of Taylor’s at whom Brown has taken one of his funny odd dislikes. I’m sure he’s wrong, because Woodhouse likes my Poetry—conclusive. I ask your opinion and yet I must say to you as to him, Brown, that if you have any thing to say against it I shall be as obstinate and heady as a Radical.

200 years ago marked the end of Keats’s ‘Living Year’

On Tuesday 21 September 1819 Keats wrote to fellow-poet 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.
I hope you are better employed than in gaping after weather. I have been at different times so happy as not to know what weather it was—No, I will not copy a parcel of verses. I always somehow associate Chatterton with autumn. He is the purest writer in the English Language. He has no French idiom or particles, like Chaucer— ’tis genuine English Idiom in English words. I have given up Hyperion —there were too many Miltonic inversions in it—Miltonic verse cannot be written but in an artful, or rather artist’s humour. I wish to give myself up to other sensations. English ought to be kept up. It may be interesting to you to pick out some lines from Hyperion and put a mark × to the false beauty proceeding from art, and one ||  to the true voice of feeling. Upon my soul, ’twas imagination —I cannot make the distinction—Every now and then there is a Miltonic intonation—But I cannot make the division properly. The fact is, I must take a walk; for I am writing a long letter to George, and have been employed at it all the morning.”
Keats had begun ‘Hyperion’ exactly one year earlier. During those twelve months he wrote practically everything for which he is remembered.

200 years ago Keats described serene Winchester

On Monday 20 September 1819 Keats wrote to his brother:
“This day is a grand day for Winchester. They elect the Mayor. It was indeed high time the place should have some sort of excitement. There was nothing going on—all asleep. Not an old maid’s sedan returning from a card party; and if any old women have got tipsy at christenings, they have not exposed themselves in the street…
“The side streets here are excessively maiden-lady-like, the door steps always fresh from the flannel. The knockers have a very staid, serious, nay almost awful quietness about them. I never saw so quiet a collection of lions’ and rams’ heads. The doors most part black, with a little brass handle just above the key hole, so that you may easily shut yourself out of your own house. He! he! There is none of your Lady Bellaston ringing and rapping here; no thundering Jupiter-footmen, no opera-treble-tattoos, but a modest lifting up of the knocker by a set of little wee old fingers that peep through the grey mittens, and a dying fall thereof. The great beauty of poetry is that it makes every thing, every place, interesting. The palatine Venice and the abbotine Winchester are equally interesting.”

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”