On Saturday 14 February 1818, Keats wrote to his brothers:
‘I have been writing at intervals many songs and Sonnets, and I long to be at Teignmouth, to read them over to you: however I think I had better wait until this Book is off my mind; it will not be long first.’
‘This Book’ was ‘Endymion’, which he was revising and preparing for publication. It would still not be totally finished when he went to Teignmouth on 4 March to take over caring for his brother Tom.
On Sunday 8 February 1818, Keats wrote an “Answer to a sonnet ending thus:
Dark eyes are dearer far
Than orbs that mock the hyacinthine bell”
(which had been written by his fellow-poet John Hamilton Reynolds).
Blue! ’Tis the life of heaven, the domain
Of Cynthia, the wide palace of the sun,
The tent of Hesperus, and all his train,
The blossomer of clouds, gold, grey and dun.
Blue! ’Tis the life of waters — Ocean
And all its vassal streams, pools numberless,
May rage, and foam, and fret, but never can
Subside, if not to dark blue nativeness.
Blue! Gentle cousin to the forest-green,
Married to green in all the sweetest flowers —
Forget-me-not, the blue-bell, and, that queen
Of secrecy, the violet. What strange powers
Hast thou, as a mere shadow! But how great,
When in an eye thou art, alive with fate!
On Thursday 5 February 1818, Keats wrote to his publisher John Taylor ‘I have finish’d coppying my Second Book [of Endymion] but I want it for one day to overlook it.’
He also wrote a sonnet praising Edmund Spenser, who was one of his literary heroes at the time.
Spenser! a jealous honourer of thine,
A forester deep in thy midmost trees,
Did last eve ask my promise to refine
Some English that might strive thine ear to please.
But, Elfin Poet, ’tis impossible
For an inhabitant of wintry earth
To rise like Phoebus with a golden quell,
Fire-winged, and make a morning in his mirth.
It is impossible to escape from toil
O’ the sudden and receive thy spiriting:
The flower must drink the nature of the soil
Before it can put forth its blossoming.
Be with me in the summer days and I
Will for thine honour and his pleasure try.
On Wednesday 4 February 1818, Keats wrote two sonnets. The first was inspired by the memory of a young lady he had fallen for at Vauxhall Gardens in 1813:
To — [a lady whom he saw for some few moments at Vauxhall]
Time’s sea hath been five years at its slow ebb,
Long hours have to and fro let creep the sand,
Since I was tangled in thy beauty’s web,
And snared by the ungloving of thy hand.
And yet I never look on midnight sky,
But I behold thine eyes’ well memoried light;
I cannot look upon the rose’s dye,
But to thy cheek my soul doth take its flight;
I cannot look on any budding flower,
But my fond ear, in fancy at thy lips,
And hearkening for a love-sound, doth devour
Its sweets in the wrong sense: – Thou dost eclipse
Every delight with sweet remembering,
And grief unto my darling joys dost bring.
The second was the result of one of Leigh Hunt’s 15-minute sonnet-writing contests, as he told his brothers:
‘Shelley, Hunt and I wrote each a sonnet on the River Nile’, some day you shall read them all.’
To the Nile
Son of the old moon-mountains African!
Chief of the pyramid and crocodile!
We call thee fruitful, and, that very while,
A desert fills our seeing’s inward span.
Nurse of swart nations since the world began,
Art thou so fruitful? or dost thou beguile
Such men to honour thee, who, worn with toil,
Rest for a space ’twixt Cairo and Decan?
O may dark fancies err! They surely do.
’Tis ignorance that makes a barren waste
Of all beyond itself. Thou dost bedew
Green rushes like our rivers, and dost taste
The pleasant sun-rise. Green isles hast thou too,
And to the sea as happily thou dost haste.
On Tuesday 3 February 1818, Keats wrote to John Hamilton Reynolds:
We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, and, if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself — but with its subject.
How beautiful are the retired flowers! — how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway, crying out, “Admire me, I am a violet! Dote upon me, I am a primrose!” Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this: each of the moderns like an Elector of Hanover governs his petty state and knows how many straws are swept daily from the Causeways in all his dominions, and has a continual itching that all the Housewives should have their coppers well scoured: The ancients were Emperors of vast Provinces, they had only heard of the remote ones and scarcely cared to visit them.
I will cut all this — I will have no more of Wordsworth or Hunt in particular — Why should we be of the tribe of Manasseh, when we can wander with Esau? Why should we kick against the Pricks, when we can walk on Roses? Why should we be owls, when we can be eagles? Why be teased with “nice-eyed wagtails”, when we have in sight “the Cherub Contemplation”…
I don’t mean to deny Wordsworth’s grandeur and Hunt’s merit, but I mean to say we need not be teazed with grandeur and merit when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive.
On Saturday 31 January 1818, Keats included this sonnet in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled Books in charactery
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain —
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting Love; — then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
On Friday 30 January 1818, Keats wrote to his publisher John Taylor suggesting a late Author’s Correction to the proofs of Book I of ‘Endymion’:
My dear Taylor — These lines as they now stand about ” happiness,” have rung in my ears like “a chime a mending” — See here,
Wherein lies happiness, Peona ? fold, etc. “
It appears to me the very contrary of blessed. I hope this will appear to you more eligible.
“Wherein lies Happiness ? In that which becks
Our ready minds to fellowship divine,
A fellowship with Essence till we shine
Full alchemised, and free of space — Behold
The clear religion of Heaven — fold, etc.”
You must indulge me by putting this in, for setting aside the badness of the other, such a preface is necessary to the subject. The whole thing must, I think, have appeared to you, who are a consecutive man, as a thing almost of mere words, but I assure you that, when I wrote it, it was a regular stepping of the Imagination towards a truth. My having written that argument will perhaps be of the greatest service to me of anything I ever did. It set before me the gradations of happiness, even like a kind of pleasure thermometer, and is my first step towards the chief attempt in the drama. The playing of different natures with joy and Sorrow —
Do me this favour, and believe me
Your sincere friend J. Keats.
On Tuesday 27 January 1818, Keats went to Hazlitt’s lecture On Shakespeare and Milton at the Surrey Institution.
On Friday 23 January 1818, Keats wrote to his brothers:
“Fanny has returned to Walthamstow. — Mr. Abbey appeared very glum, the last time I went to see her, and said in an indirect way, that I had no business there.”
Fanny = Fanny Keats (aged 14½)
Mr Abbey = Richard Abbey, the legal Guardian of Keats and his siblings
Keats’s brothers (George and Tom) were staying in Teignmouth at the time, in the hope that the sea air would improve Tom’s health.
On Friday 23 January 1818, Keats wrote to his brothers:
“I am in the habit of taking my papers [= ‘Endymion’] to Dilke’s and copying there; so I chat and proceed at the same time.”
How different his life would have been if he had just concentrated on one thing at a time and corrected the poem’s weaknesses! In the Preface to Endymion he would write:
“the reader … must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished. The first two books, and indeed the two last, I feel sensible are not of such completion as to warrant their passing the press.”