200 years ago, Keats saw Edmund Kean playing Richard III

On Monday 15 December 1817, Keats saw Edmund Kean perform as Richard III at Drury Lane, which he reviewed for The Champion:


“Mr. Kean

“‘In our unimaginative days,’ — Habeas Corpus’d as we are, out of all wonder, uncertainty and fear; — in these fireside, delicate, gilded days, — these days of sickly safety and comfort, we feel very grateful to Mr Kean for giving us some excitement by his old passion in one of the old plays. He is a relict of romance; — a Posthumous ray of chivalry, and always seems just arrived from the camp of Charlemagne. In Richard he is his sword’s dear cousin; in Hamlet his footing is germain to the platform. In Macbeth his eye laughs siege to scorn; in Othello he is welcome to Cyprus. In Timon he is of the palace — of Athens — of the woods, and is worthy to sleep in a grave ‘which once a day with its embossed froth, the turbulent surge doth cover.’ For all these was he greeted with enthusiasm on his re-appearance in Richard; for all these, his sickness will ever be a public misfortune. His return was full of power. He is not the man to ‘bate a jot.’ On Thursday evening, he acted Luke in Riches, as far as the stage will admit, to perfection. In the hypocritical self-possession, in the caution, and afterwards the pride, cruelty and avarice, Luke appears to us a man incapable of imagining to the extreme heinousness of crimes. To him, they are mere magic-lantern horrors. He is at no trouble to deaden his conscience…

“Kean! Kean! Have a carefulness of thy health, an in-nursed respect for thy own genius, a pity for us in these cold and enfeebling times! Cheer us a little in the failure of our days! For romance lives but in books. The goblin is driven from the heath, and the rainbow is robbed of its mystery!”

John Keats: extracts from a review published in The Champion 21 December 1817 (he told his brothers ‘I undertook the “Champion” [review] for Reynolds, who is at Exeter’). Edmund Kean had been absent from the stage for several weeks because of illness. Habeas Corpus had been suspended since February 1817.

200 years ago, Keats wrote of a ‘drear-nighted December’


In a drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity:
The north cannot undo them,
With a sleety whistle through them
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.

In a drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne’er remember
Apollo’s summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.

Ah! would ’twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy!
But were there ever any
Writhed not of passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it,
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme.

John Keats: ‘In a drear-nighted December’, which he wrote in December 1817.

[de Sélincourt 265]

200 years ago, Keats completed the first draft of ‘Endymion’

On Friday 28 November 1817, Keats finished the first draft of ‘Endymion’, which he had begun in April.



[Endymion] beheld
Phoebe, his passion! joyous she upheld
Her lucid bow, continuing thus: “Drear, drear
Has our delaying been; but foolish fear
Withheld me first; and then decrees of fate:
And then ’twas fit that from this mortal state
Thou shouldst, my love, by some unlook’d for change
Be spiritualiz’d. Peona, we shall range
These forests, and to thee they safe shall be
As was thy cradle; hither thou shalt flee
To meet us many a time.” Next Cynthia bright
Peona kissed, and bless’d with fair good night:
Her brother kiss’d her too, and knelt adown
Before his goddess, in a blissful swoon.
She gave her fair hands to him, and behold,
Before three swiftest kisses he had told,
They vanish’d far away! — Peona went
Home through the gloomy wood in wonderment.

John Keats: ‘Endymion’ Book IV lines 986-1003 (the final part of his epic romance) which he completed at Burford Bridge 28 November 1817.

200 years ago Keats writes ‘O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!’

On 22 November 1817, Keats writes to his friend Benjamin Bailey

‘My dear Bailey…
‘I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections, and the truth of Imagination. What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth — whether it existed before or not,— for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty…
‘O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!…
‘I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness — I look not for it if it be not in the present hour,— nothing startles me beyond the moment. The Setting Sun will always set me to rights, or if a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.’

John Keats: Parts of a letter to Benjamin Bailey 22 November 1817,  in which he outlines three vital parts of his philosophy.
Photo of the stepping stones over the River Mole at Burford Bridge, where Keats was staying when he wrote this letter.

200 years ago Keats saw the moon at Burford Bridge

On Saturday 22 November 1817 Keats travelled by coach to Burford Bridge in Sussex to complete his poetic romance ‘Endymion’. When he arrived he wrote to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds:

‘I like this place very much — There is Hill & Dale and a little River [the River Mole] — I went up Box Hill this Evening after the Moon — you a’ seen the Moon — came down — and wrote some lines…
‘One of the three Books I have with me is Shakespear’s Poems: I neer found so many beauties in the Sonnets — they seem to be full of fine things said unintentionally — in the intensity of working out conceits.’


200 years ago, Keats met a future killer

On Friday 21 November 1817, Keats called on fellow-poet John Hamilton Reynolds where he met Jonathan Christie (the London agent for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Review). ‘I should have been here a day sooner but the Reynoldses persuaded me to stop in Town to meet your friend Christie.’*

The letter gives no hint of the trouble which Blackwood’s and Christie would cause to Keats and his circle.  The following summer, Blackwood’s would publish a scathing review of Endymion (the ‘poetic romance’ which Keats was about to complete on 28 November 1817).

John Scott, the editor of a rival publication The London Magazine would publish articles defending Keats and other writers. Insults flew, and in 1821 Scott challenged Christie to pistols at dawn on 16 February 1821. Christie’s shot wounded John Scott, who died 11 days later.

* Letter to Benjamin Bailey 22 November 1817.

200 years ago, in November 1817, Keats was writing Book IV of his romantic epic ‘Endymion’

“Beneath my palm trees, by the river side,
I sat a weeping: in the whole world wide
There was no one to ask me why I wept,—
And so I kept
Brimming the water-lily cups with tears
Cold as my fears.

“Beneath my palm trees, by the river side,
I sat a weeping: what enamour’d bride,
Cheated by shadowy wooer from the clouds,
But hides and shrouds
Beneath dark palms by a river side?

“And as I sat, over the light blue hills
There came a noise of revellers: the rills
Into the wide stream came of purple hue —
’Twas Bacchus and his crew!
The earnest trumpet spake, and the silver thrills
From kissing cymbals made a merry din —
’Twas Bacchus and his kin!
Like to a moving vintage down they came,
Crown’d with green leaves, and faces all on flame;
All madly dancing through the pleasant valley,
To scare thee, Melancholy!
O then, O then, thou wast a simple name!
And I forgot thee, as the berried holly
By shepherds is forgotten, when, in June,
Tall chestnuts keep away the sun and moon:—
I rush’d into the folly!”

John Keats: ‘Endymion’ Book IV lines 182-208 which he was writing in November 1817, and which seem to anticipate two of his great Odes of 1819.