200 years ago, Keats started writing the ‘Ode to Pan’

On Saturday 26 April 1817, Keats began the ‘Hymn to Pan’

“O thou, whose mighty palace roof doth hang
From jagged trunks, and overshadoweth
Eternal whispers, glooms, the birth, life, death
Of unseen flowers in heavy peacefulness;
Who lov’st to see the hamadryads dress
Their ruffled locks where meeting hazels darken;
And through whole solemn hours dost sit, and hearken
The dreary melody of bedded reeds —
In desolate places, where dank moisture breeds
The pipy hemlock to strange overgrowth;
Bethinking thee, how melancholy loth
Thou wast to lose fair Syrinx — do thou now,
By thy love’s milky brow!
By all the trembling mazes that she ran,
Hear us, great Pan!”

John Keats: lines 232-246 of Book I of Endymion (the opening of the ‘Hymn to Pan’). Among the delights of Endymion are four lyrical interludes which include the ‘Song of the Indian Maid’, the ‘Song of the Constellations’ and this, ‘The Hymn to Pan’.

200 years ago Keats admitted “I cannot exist without poetry”

On 18 April 1817, Keats wrote to fellow-poet John Hamilton Reynolds:
“I cannot exist without poetry — without eternal poetry — half the day will not do — the whole of it — I began with a little, but habit has made me a Leviathan — I had become all in a Tremble from not having written any thing of late…
“I shall forthwith begin my Endymion, which I hope I shall have got some way into by the time you come, when we will read our verses in a delightful place I have set my heart upon near the Castle…”

Therefore, ’tis with full happiness that I
Will trace the story of Endymion.
The very music of the name has gone
Into my being, and each pleasant scene
Is growing fresh before me as the green
Of our own valleys: so I will begin
Now while I cannot hear the city’s din;
Now while the early budders are just new,
And run in mazes of the youngest hue
About old forests; while the willow trails
Its delicate amber; and the dairy pails
Bring home increase of milk. And, as the year
Grows lush in juicy stalks, I’ll smoothly steer
My little boat, for many quiet hours,
With streams that deepen freshly into bowers.
Many and many a verse I hope to write,
Before the daisies, vermeil-rimm’d and white,
Hide in deep herbage; and ere yet the bees
Hum about globes of clover and sweet peas,
I must be near the middle of my story.
O may no wintry season, bare and hoary,
See it half finished; but let Autumn bold,
With universal tinge of sober gold,
Be all about me when I make an end.

John Keats Endymion Book I lines 34-57. The extracts which appear over the coming weeks show how his youthful exuberance and optimism gradually turned sour. He actually finished his first draft of the poem on 28 November, when the ‘wintry season, bare and hoary’ had arrived.

200 years ago, Keats wrote a sonnet ‘On the Sea’

On 17 April 1817, Keats settled in a room at Carisbrooke, where he started a letter to Reynolds, and wrote a sonnet ‘On the Sea’

On the Sea

It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often ’tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.
Oh ye! who have your eye-balls vex’d and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinn’d with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody, —
Sit ye near some old cavern’s mouth and brood,
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quired!

John Keats: Sonnet written 17 April 1817.

200 years ago, Keats arrived in Southampton, and caught a ferry to the Isle of Wight

On Tuesday 15 April 1817, Keats arrived in Southampton, wrote a letter to his brothers, then caught the afternoon ferry to the Isle of Wight.

“Tuesday Morn—
“My dear Brothers,
“I am safe at Southampton — after having ridden three stages outside and the rest in for it began to be very cold. I did not know the Names of any of the Towns I passed through all I can tell you is that sometimes I saw dusty Hedges sometimes Ponds — then nothing — then a little Wood with trees… Cow ruminating — ditto Donkey — Man and Woman going gingerly along — William seeing his Sisters over the Heath — John waiting with a Lanthen for his Mistress — Barbers Pole — Docter’s Shop — However after having had my fill of these I popped my Head out just as it began to Dawn — NB. this tuesday Morn saw the Sun rise — of which I shall say nothing at present — I felt rather lonely this Morning at breakfast so I went and unbox’d a Shakspeare — “Here’s my Comfort” — I went immediately after Breakfast to the Southampton Water where I enquired for the Boat to the Isle of Wight as I intend seeing that place before I settle — it will go at 3 so shall I after having taken a Chop…
“I don’t feel inclined to write any more at present for I feel rather muzzy.”

200 years ago, Keats caught the night coach to Southampton, as he set off to write ‘Endymion’

On Monday 14 April 1817, at the Bell & Crown Inn at Holborn, Keats caught the night coach to Southampton enroute to the Isle of Wight to begin writing ‘Endymion’. This was the most important day of his poetic career to date: he was setting off (as he wrote to his brother George) to
‘make 4000 Lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry … this is a great task, and … when done it will take me but a dozen paces towards the Temple of Fame’.
‘Endymion’ — and the toxic critical response to it — would haunt him for the rest of his life. He would eventually finish his epic poem on 28 November.

200 years ago Keats helped Leigh Hunt prepare to move to Marlow

On Sunday 6 April 1817 (Easter Day) Leigh Hunt and his family moved out of their home in the Vale of Health (Hampstead) to stay with Shelley in Marlow. Keats had spent the previous day helping Hunt to pack up his belongings. He declined Shelley’s invitation to join them — as Hunt noted in his memoir ‘Keats did not take to Shelley as kindly as Shelley did to him. 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.’ ( Morpurgo, J. E. (ed.) 1949 The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt, p. 273-274)

200 years ago Keats moved to Hampstead

On Tuesday 25 March 1817 we know that Keats had moved to 1 Well Walk, Hampstead, as he wrote to Charles Cowden Clarke to let him know that he was invited to a musical evening at Novello’s the following evening.

Around this time Keats visited John Taylor to discuss the publication of his next poem ‘Endymion’. He also wrote this sonnet:

On a Picture of Leander

Come hither all sweet maidens soberly
Down-looking aye, and with a chasten’d light
Hid in the fringes of your eyelids white,
And meekly let your fair hands joinèd be,
As if so gentle that ye could not see,
Untouch’d, a victim of your beauty bright,
Sinking away to his young spirit’s night,
Sinking bewilder’d ’mid the dreary sea:
’Tis young Leander toiling to his death;
Nigh swooning, he doth purse his weary lips
For Hero’s cheek, and smiles against her smile.
O horrid dream! see how his body dips
Dead-heavy; arms and shoulders gleam awhile:
He’s gone; up bubbles all his amorous breath!

John Keats: Sonnet written to Jane Reynolds, probably in March 1817. At this time she was a favourite of Keats’s (they fell out the following year, when he became involved with Fanny Brawne). Miss Reynolds had given Keats a ‘Tassie gem’ (one of the paste reproductions of gems made by James Tassie) showing Leander swimming the Hellespont.

200 years ago, Keats announced his intention of writing ‘Endymion’

On Monday 17 March 1817, Keats wrote to John Hamilton Reynolds:

‘My Brothers are anxious that I should go by myself into the country — they have always been extremely fond of me; and now that Haydon has pointed out how necessary it is that I should be alone to improve myself, they give up the temporary pleasure of living with me continually for a great good which I hope will follow.’

The ‘great good’ would be writing his epic poem Endymion. Benjamin Robert Haydon was keen to extricate Keats from Leigh Hunt’s ‘showering’, ‘bowering’ and ‘nesting’ influence — as typified in the language of the sonnet Keats wrote around this time.

On Leigh Hunt’s Poem, The Story of Rimini

Who loves to peer up at the morning sun,
With half-shut eyes and comfortable cheek,
Let him, with this sweet tale, full often seek
For meadows where the little rivers run;
Who loves to linger with that brightest one
Of Heaven — Hesperus — let him lowly speak
These numbers to the night, and starlight meek,
Or moon, if that her hunting be begun.
He who knows these delights, and too is prone
To moralise upon a smile or tear,
Will find at once a region of his own,
A bower for his spirit, and will steer
To alleys, where the fir-tree drops its cone,
Where robins hop, and fallen leaves are sear.

John Keats: Sonnet written in March 1817 in praise of the controversial poem which Leigh Hunt had written while he was serving a two-year sentence in the Surrey Gaol, Southwark. Rimini’s cosy language (featuring such Huntian adjectives as ‘darksome’, ‘showering’, ‘bowering’ and ‘nesting’) offended the critics, while its sympathetic portrayal of incest offended the moral majority.