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.

200 years ago (30 December 1816) Keats and Leigh Hunt held a sonnet-writing contest

This was Keats’s offering in a sonnet-writing competition with Leigh Hunt. Normally they allowed themselves 15 minutes by the church clock.

The poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead
In summer luxury,—he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.

Charles Cowden Clarke wrote:
The occasion that recurs with the liveliest interest was one evening when — some observations having been made upon the character, habits, and pleasant associations with that reverend denizen of the hearth, the cheerful little grasshopper of the fireside — Hunt proposed to Keats the challenge of writing then, there, and to time, a sonnet On the Grasshopper and Cricket. No one was present but myself, and they accordingly set to. I, apart, with a book at the end of the sofa, could not avoid furtive glances every now and then at the emulants. I cannot say how long the trial lasted. I was not proposed umpire; and had no stop-watch for the occasion. The time, however, was short for such a performance, and Keats won as to time. But the event of the after-scrutiny was one of many such occurrences which have riveted the memory of Leigh Hunt in my affectionate regard and admiration for unaffected generosity and perfectly unpretentious encouragement. His sincere look of pleasure at the first line — “The poetry of earth is never dead.” “Such a prosperous opening!” he said; and when he came to the tenth and eleventh lines:—
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence—
“Ah! that’s perfect! Bravo Keats!” And then he went on in a dilatation upon the dumbness of Nature during the season’s suspension and torpidity. With all the kind and gratifying things that were said to him, Keats protested to me, as we were afterwards walking home, that he preferred Hunt’s treatment of the subject to his own. As neighbour Dogberry would have rejoined, “‘Fore God, they are both in a tale!” It has occurred to me, upon so remarkable an occasion as the one here recorded, that a reunion of the two sonnets will be gladly hailed by the reader.

Hunt’s sonnet follows:

Green little vaulter in the sunny grass,
Catching your heart up at the feel of June,
Sole voice that’s heard amidst the lazy noon,
When ev’n the bees lag at the summoning brass;─
And you, warm little housekeeper, who class
With those who think the candles come too soon,
Loving the fire, and with your tricksome tune
Nick the glad silent moments as they pass;─
Oh sweet and tiny cousins, that belong,
One to the fields, the other to the hearth,
Both have your sunshine; both, though small, are strong
At your clear hearts; and both were sent on earth
To sing in thoughtful ears this natural song─
In doors and out,─ summer and winter,─ Mirth.

Source <of context>

Source <of Hunt’s sonnet>

Source <of poem>

On the Grasshopper and Cricket

200 years ago (22 December 1816) Keats wrote this sonnet

Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition

The church bells toll a melancholy round,
Calling the people to some other prayers,
Some other gloominess, more dreadful cares,
More harkening to the sermon’s horrid sound.
Surely the mind of man is closely bound
In some black spell; seeing that each one tears
Himself from fireside joys, and Lydian airs,
And converse high of those with glory crown’d
Still, still they too, and I should feel a damp,—
A chill as from a tomb, did I not know
That they are dying like an outburnt lamp;
That ’tis their sighing, wailing ere they go
Into oblivion; —  that fresh flowers will grow,
And many glories of immortal stamp.

Charles Cowden Clarke (son of Keats’s former Headmaster) described how Keats wrote this “one Sunday morning as I stood by his side”. This unseasonal sonnet shows that Christmas meant rather less to Keats than it does to many of us today.

Source of quotation:
Letter from Charles Cowden Clarke to Richard Monckton Milnes (Keats’s first biographer) 17 March 1846. In H. E. Rollins (editor) Letters and Papers of the Keats Circle (Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press 1948) II, 154

200 years ago Keats announced that he’s giving up medicine

Around this time 200 years ago (mid December 1816) Keats visited his Guardian Richard Abbey to announce his decision to give up medicine in favour of poetry. It was a shock to Mr Abbey, who had put his troublesome ward through an apprenticeship and the first year of Medical School. This is how he remembered the event ten or so years later:
‘Not intend to be a Surgeon! why what do you mean to be?’
‘I mean to rely on my Abilities as a Poet.’
‘John, you are either Mad or a Fool, to talk in so absurd a Manner.’
‘My Mind is made up,’ said the youngster very quietly, ‘I know that I possess Abilities greater than most Men, and therefore I am determined to gain my Living by exercising them.’
Seeing nothing could be done Abby called him a Silly Boy, & prophesied a speedy Termination to his inconsiderate Enterprise.

His insensitive Guardian wasn’t the only who was advising caution. A couple of days earlier he had met Shelley at Leigh Hunt’s cottage in the Vale of Health. This was probably when Shelley advised Keats against publishing his ‘first-blights’.

Source of quotation
Letter from John Taylor to Richard Woodhouse 23 April 1827. in Rollins, H. R. (ed.) Letters and papers of the Keats Circle (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 1948) I, 307-8

200 years ago (17 December 1816) Keats wrote to his mentor

Keats writes to Charles Cowden Clarke

My dear Charles…
I met Reynolds at Haydon’s a few mornings since — he promised to be with me this Evening and Yesterday I had the same promise from Severn and I must put you in mind that on last All hallowmas’ day you gave your word that you would spend this Evening with me — so no putting off. I have done little to Endymion lately — I hope to finish it in one more attack — I believe you <know> I went to Richards’s — it was so whoreson a Night that I stopped there all the next day — His Remembrances to you…
I will ever consider you my sincere and affectionate friend — you will not doubt that I am yours.
God bless you,
John Keats.

Letter to Keats’s early mentor (the son of his former teacher). Keats had written to Joseph Severn on 1st November postponing their meeting, apparently until this one.
At this time, when Keats refers to ‘Endymion’ he means the poem now called ‘I stood tip-toe upon a little hill’ (published as the first item in of his 1817 book Poems by John Keats) rather than Endymion: a poetic romance (which was published the following year).
This evening meeting was probably when Keats announced to this circle of friends that he was going to publish his first collection. Richards was the printer who would type-set and print the book the following year.


To Charles Cowden Clarke (London, December 17th, 1816)