These are the living pleasures of the bard:
But richer far posterity’s award.
What does he murmur with his latest breath,
While his proud eye looks through the film of death?
‘What though I leave this dull, and earthly mould,
Yet shall my spirit lofty converse hold
With after times. The patriot shall feel
My stern alarum, and unsheathe his steel;
Or, in the senate thunder out my numbers
To startle princes from their easy slumbers…
‘To sweet rest
Shall the dear babe, upon its mother’s breast,
Be lulled with songs of mine. Fair world, adieu!
Thy dales and hills, are fading from my view:
Swiftly I mount, upon wide spreading pinions,
Far from the narrow bounds of thy dominions.
Full joy I feel, while thus I cleave the air,
That my soft verse will charm thy daughters fair,
And warm thy sons!’ Ah, my dear friend and brother,
Could I, at once, my mad ambition smother,
For tasting joys like these, sure I should be
Happier, and dearer to society.
At times, ’tis true, I’ve felt relief from pain
When some bright thought has darted through my brain:
Through all that day I’ve felt a greater pleasure
Than if I’d brought to light a hidden treasure.
As to my sonnets, though none else should heed them,
I feel delighted, still, that you should read them…
Continuation of the verse epistle ‘To my brother George’, lines 67-76; 101-118, written in Margate during August 1816 while Keats is on holiday after qualifying as an apothecary, trying to decide whether to devote his life to medicine or to poetry. Keats dreams of poetic fame.
To My Brother George
Around this time Keats writes two verse epistles. This is opening of the one to George Keats:
To my Brother George
Full many a dreary hour have I passed,
My brain bewildered, and my mind o’ercast
With heaviness; in seasons when I’ve thought
No sphery strains by me could e’er be caught
From the blue dome, though I to dimness gaze
On the far depth where sheeted lightning plays;
Or, on the wavy grass outstretched supinely,
Pry ’mong the stars, to strive to think divinely:
That I should never hear Apollo’s song,
Though feathery clouds were floating all along
The purple west, and, two bright streaks between,
The golden lyre itself were dimly seen:
That the still murmur of the honey bee
Would never teach a rural song to me:
That the bright glance from beauty’s eyelids slanting
Would never make a lay of mine enchanting,
Or warm my breast with ardour to unfold
Some tales of love and arms in time of old.
But there are times, when those that love the bay,
Fly from all sorrowing far, far away;
A sudden glow comes on them, naught they see
In water, earth, or air, but poesy…
‘To my brother George’ lines 1-22, written in Margate August 1816 while Keats is on holiday after qualifying as an apothecary, trying to decide whether to devote his life to medicine or to poetry. Another extract will appear for 19 August.
To My Brother George
Around Thursday 8 August 1816, Keats writes this sonnet to his brother:
To my Brother George
Many the wonders I this day have seen:
The sun, when first he kissed away the tears
That filled the eyes of morn—the laurelled peers
Who from the feathery gold of evening lean—
The ocean with its vastness, its blue green,
Its ships, its rocks, its caves, its hopes, its fears—
Its voice mysterious, which whoso hears
Must think on what will be, and what has been.
E’en now, dear George, while this for you I write,
Cynthia is from her silken curtains peeping
So scantly, that it seems her bridal night,
And she her half-discovered revels keeping.
But what, without the social thought of thee,
Would be the wonders of the sky and sea?
Keats celebrated passing his Apothecary’s Exam (25 July) by taking a holiday in Margate with his younger brother Tom. While he was there Keats wrote several poems in which he considered his future — as doctor or as poet. George Keats was living in London.
To My Brother George
On this day John Keats qualifies as an Apothecary:
” July 25th 1816.
Mr John Keats of full age─ Candidate for
a Certificate to practise as an Apothecary in the Country.
An Apprentice to Mr Thomas Hammond of Edmonton
Apothecary for 5 Years.
Testimonial from Mr Thos Hammond.
2 Courses on Anatomy and Physiology.
2 ——— Theory and Practice of Medicine.
2 ——— Chemistry.
1 ——— Material Medica.
6 Months at Guys’s & St Thomas’s
Examined by Mr Brande & approved.”
From the Register of Apothecaries’ Hall, pictured in Robert Woof & Stephen Hebron John Keats (Grasmere: The Wordsworth Trust, 1995) p 60
John Keats writes this sonnet:
To a Friend who Sent me some Roses
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’.
Around the 18th June 1816 Keats writes a sonnet:
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.
Around this time John Keats writes a sonnet:
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”.