As late I rambled in the happy fields—
What time the skylark shakes the tremulous dew
From his lush covert, when anew
Adventurous knights take up their dinted shields—
I saw the sweetest flower wild nature yields,
A fresh-blown musk-rose; ’twas the first that threw
Its sweets upon the summer: graceful it grew
As is the wand that queen Titania wields.
And, as I feasted on its fragrancy,
I thought the garden-rose it far excelled:
But when, O Wells! thy roses came to me
My sense with their deliciousness was spelled:
Soft voices had they, that with tender plea
Whispered of peace, and truth, and friendliness unquelled.
A sonnet to Charles Wells (1800-1879), a school-friend of Keats’s younger brother Tom. The roses were a peace-offering after some disagreement between Keats and Wells. Two years later, there would be far worse disagreements between them.
The sonnet appeared in Poems, by John Keats (1817).
Photograph by Anne Stringfellow.
Around 21 June 1816 John Keats begins gathering ideas for his longest poem to date, ‘I stood tip-toe upon a little hill’:
A bush of May flowers with the bees about them;
Ah, sure no tasteful nook would be without them;
And let a lush laburnum oversweep them,
And let long grass grow round the roots to keep them
Moist, cool and green; and shade the violets,
That they may bind the moss in leafy nets.
A filbert hedge with wild briar overtwined,
And clumps of woodbine taking the soft wind
Upon their summer thrones; there too should be
The frequent chequer of a youngling tree,
That with a score of light green brethren shoots
From the quaint mossiness of agèd roots:
Round which is heard a spring-head of clear waters
Babbling so wildly of its lovely daughters
The spreading blue-bells—it may haply mourn
That such fair clusters should be rudely torn
From their fresh beds, and scattered thoughtlessly
By infant hands, left on the path to die.
At the time he began this, Keats was living two lives; medical student by day, and poetic groupie by night. His first poem had been published in The Examiner (see 5 May 1816), although he had yet to meet the magazine’s editor James Leigh Hunt. Twelve years later, Hunt recalled that the poem had been suggested ‘by a delightful summer-day, as he [Keats] stood beside the gate that leads from the Battery on Hampstead Heath into a field by Caen Wood.'. Keats chose ‘I stood tip-toe upon a little hill’ to open his first collection Poems, by John Keats in 1817.
 James Leigh Hunt (1828) Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries (1976 reprint: New York, Georg Olms Verlag) p. 413. Caen Wood is now known as ‘Kenwood’.
O! how I love, on a fair summer’s eve,
When streams of light pour down the golden west,
And on the balmy zephyrs tranquil rest
The silver clouds, far—far away to leave
All meaner thoughts, and take a sweet reprieve
From little cares; to find, with an easy quest,
A fragrant wild, with Nature’s beauty dressed,
And there into delight my soul deceive.
There warm my breast with patriotic lore,
Musing on Milton’s fate— on Sidney’s bier—
Till their stern forms before my mind arise:
Perhaps on the wing of Poesy upsoar,
Full often dropping a delicious tear,
When some melodious sorrow spells mine eyes.
Charles Cowden Clarke, the son of Keats’s former school-teacher, recalled:
‘In one of our conversations, about this period, I alluded to his position at St. Thomas’s Hospital, coasting and reconnoitring, as it were, for the purpose of discovering what progress he was making in his profession… and with that transparent candour which formed the mainspring of his rule of conduct, he at once made no secret of his inability to sympathize with the science of anatomy, as a main pursuit in life… He said, in illustration of his argument, “The other day, for instance, during the lecture, there came a sunbeam into the room, and with it a whole troop of creatures floating in the ray; and I was off with them to Oberon and fairyland.”’
Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke Recollections of Writers (1878; Fontwell: Centaur Press 1969) 131-2
The first of John Keats’s poems to be published appeared in The Examiner 200 years ago today.
O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep —
Nature’s observatory — whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mong boughs pavilioned, where the deer’s swift leap,
Startles the wild bee from the foxglove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refined,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Among the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.
Keats had written this sonnet in the autumn of 1815, when he was a medical student, living in digs at 28 St Thomas’s Street, where the ‘murky buildings’ make him yearn for the countryside around Enfield where he went to school. It was at this school (Clarke’s Academy) that he was encouraged to read The Examiner which he admired for its poetry and its radical politics. He had sent the sonnet to the magazine’s editor James Leigh Hunt on spec. It would be five months before Keats would meet him — or any professional writers.
To one who has been long in city pent,
’Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of heaven — to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
Who is more happy, when, with heart’s content,
Fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair
Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair
And gentle tale of love and languishment?
Returning home at evening, with an ear
Catching the notes of Philomel — an eye
Watching the sailing cloudlet’s bright career,
He mourns that day so soon has glided by:
E’en like the passage of an angel’s tear
That falls through the clear ether silently.
In the transcript which his sister-in-law Georgiana Keats (née Wylie) made, she noted that this was `Written in the fields, June 1816′. This would have been during a day off from his medical studies at Guy’s Hospital. He had spent the previous ten months living in Southwark, sharing lodgings with other medical students at 28 St Thomas’s Street.
This website celebrates what John Keats was doing and writing 200 years ago. For many days we know exactly where he was, who he was seeing and (crucially) what he was writing. Be prepared for busy times in 2018-2020.
To see the most recent anniversary post, click on June 1816.
This website has been compiled and curated by Peter Phillips, a writer and film-maker who has given readings of Keats’s poems and letters at Keats House in Hampstead. Much of the introductory material [John Keats the first 20 years] is based on the paper which I presented at the first conference of the Keats Foundation “Johnny Keats and Johnny Rotten: scandalising the Establishment through subversive expression”.
John Keats was born on 31st October 1795, the eldest of four children of Thomas and Frances Keats, who ran the Swan and Hoop, an inn on London Wall. Two years later George Keats was born; in 1799 another brother (Tom) and in 1803 a sister (Fanny). That year Keats started at Clarke’s School in Edmonton, where he remained a pupil until he was 14.
In 1804, when Keats was 8, his father died after falling off his horse. Within two months Frances Keats had remarried and moved away to start a new life as Mrs William Rawlings. The Keats children were sent to live with their grandmother in Edmonton. Their father had left no will, and their mother conducted a long, expensive and bitter law-suit against Keats’s uncle and grandmother, as a result of which the Keats children found themselves with only one ally in the whole family. John in particular was left with a morbid fear of financial matters. In 1810, his mother returned to her family — but was terminally ill with consumption (tuberculosis). Despite Keats’s nursing, she died the same year. His grandmother Alice Jennings, now 74, made a will in which the care of the Keats children, as well as her fortune, were put into the hands of a tea-merchant Richard Abbey. Keats’s brothers and sister (now aged 13, 11 and seven) went to live with Mr and Mrs Abbey, spending some of the year in Walthamstow, some in the City of London.
In 1811 Keats became apprenticed to Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary who practised in Edmonton. In his spare time, Keats often revisited his old school, where Charles Cowden Clarke (the son of his former headmaster — and the first of several influential father-substitutes) continued his education in literature, encouraging his early love of poetry, and his interest in left-wing politics. Clarke Senior subscribed to the radical weekly magazine The Examiner, and encouraged his pupils to read it. In today’s terms it was a mixture of Private Eye, the New Statesman and the London Review of Books. This was a time of considerable unrest; the upheaval of the French Revolution was a vivid memory and a real threat to the aristocracy; as King George III was insane, his unpopular son had been made Prince Regent; democracy was the preserve of a tiny minority (fewer than 3% of adults had the vote); Luddites were destroying industrial machines in the north of England.
The March 1812 issue of The Examiner suggested that the Prince Regent was ‘a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties’. This was a brave thing to do, since the Treasonable Practices Act of 1795 had introduced heavy penalties for anyone who wrote, printed, published, uttered or declared ‘any words or sentences to excite or stir up the people to hatred or contempt of the person of H.M., his heirs or successors, of the Government and Constitution of this realm’. The Examiner’s editors, the Leigh Hunt brothers, were imprisoned for two years. To the fury of the Establishment James Leigh Hunt continued editing The Examiner from the Surrey Gaol, where he also composed the Story of Rimini (published in 1816), which incensed Tory critics with its sympathetic depiction of adultery, and its literary style.
In 1814 Alice Jennings died. On 1st October 1815, Keats enrolled at Guy’s Hospital as a medical student.
In the summer of 1816 Keats began writing ‘I stood tiptoe on a little hill’. On July 25th he qualified as an Apothecary, then spent the summer in Margate, trying to choose between continuing with medicine and devoting himself to poetry. In October, while working at Guy’s Hospital as a ‘dresser’ (very junior doctor), Clarke presented him (and his best poems) to Leigh Hunt, who recalled:
‘I shall never forget the impression made upon me by the exuberant specimens of genuine (though young) poetry that were laid before me. We became intimate upon the spot, and I found the young poet’s heart as warm as his imagination. We read and walked together, and used to write verses of an evening upon a given subject. No imaginative pleasure was left unnoticed by us, or unenjoyed; from the recollection of the bards and patriots of old, to the luxury of a summer rain at our window, or the clicking of coal in winter-time.'
Keats started living two lives: after holding patients down so that surgeons could operate on them, he would sometimes walk six miles to Hampstead for literary evenings at Leigh Hunt’s house, where he took part in sonnet-writing contests with Hunt and Shelley. They were heady days for him — imagine being a junior doctor today and (if you had the time) popping over to Ian Hislop’s house of an evening to mingle with Elton John, Stephen Fry and Damien Hirst. Hunt’s circle included the manic artist Benjamin Robert Haydon, who was painting an enormous picture of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, which would eventually include Wordsworth, Voltaire and Keats as members of the crowd. The three years he worked on it spanned nearly all of Keats’s creative life. Keats immediately recognised that Haydon’s intense and single-minded dedication to art was quite different from Leigh Hunt’s cosy aestheticism.
Poets count for much less in our culture today than they did in the 1810s, when poetry was as important as pop music is today — if anything, it was more important (people don’t fight duels over reviews in New Musical Express). Another difference is that our sound-bite generation favours short poems, ones you can read between stations on the Underground.
Keats’s poetic heroes wrote Big Verse: Wordsworth (The Excursion, 8,800 lines), Milton (Paradise Lost, 10,500 lines) and Spenser (The Faerie Queene, over 27,000 lines). By December 1816 very few of Keats’s poems had exceeded 100 lines. He was convinced that poetry had to be long to be great. He composed ‘Sleep and Poetry’ as if desperate to prove himself:
O Poesy! for thee I hold my pen
That am not yet a glorious denizen
Of thy wide heaven.
He faced some serious disadvantages: in 1816 poetry was an occupation for gentlemen. With two exceptions, the poets of the day had all been educated at Public School and university; Keats had left school at 14, and his medical school was no university. The two exceptions, Robbie Burns and John Clare, wrote poems about country life; Keats planned to write works that would challenge the Greek epics. He was only too aware of the gap between his ambition and his abilities:
O for ten years, that I may overwhelm
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
That my own soul has to itself decreed.
Ten years can hardly have seemed a long time to pray for. Yet within three he had written all the verse for which he is remembered. Before five years had passed he was dead, almost as he predicted:
If I do fall, at least I will be laid
Beneath the silence of a poplar shade;
And over me the grass shall be smooth-shaven;
And there shall be a kind memorial graven.
The poem continued the theme of his obsession with fame:
But off, Despondence! miserable bane!
They should not know thee, who, athirst to gain
A noble end, are thirsty every hour.
On 1st December 1816, Leigh Hunt published an article in The Examiner on ‘Young Poets’, which introduced Shelley and Keats, with examples of their work. One of Keats’s fellow medics commented: ‘This sealed his fate and he gave himself up more completely than before to Poetry.’
Keats’s friends and supporters persuaded him to publish a volume of his verse, and put him in touch with Shelley’s publishers. Shelley seems to have been the only one who urged caution — at this stage of his career Keats had produced very little, and much of what he had written was embarrassingly juvenile.
 The Examiner, 221 (22 March 1812) p. 179
 Arthur Aspinall English Historical Documents 1783-1832 (London: Routledge 1996) Vol. 8 p. 319-320
 Leigh Hunt, J. (1828) Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries, p. 409-410
 ‘Sleep and Poetry’ lines 47-49
 ‘Sleep and Poetry’ lines 96-98
 ‘Sleep and Poetry’ lines 277-280
 ‘Sleep and Poetry’ lines 281-283
 Letter from Henry Stephens to G. F. Mathew, March (?) 1847, in Hyder E. Rollins (ed.) (1948) The Keats Circle Letters and Papers 1816-1878. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press II, 211