200 years ago Keats saw Benjamin West’s painting ‘Death on a Pale Horse’

On Saturday 20 December 1817 Keats saw Benjamin West’s painting ‘Death on a Pale Horse’ (‘It is a wonderful picture, when West’s age is considered; But there is nothing to be intense upon; no women one feels mad to kiss, no face swelling into reality’ — letter to George and Tom Keats 21 December 1817).

The radical pamphleteer William Hone (who had attacked the government in parodies of the Catechism, the Creed and the Litany) was acquitted in a blasphemy trial. To celebrate, Keats wrote the sonnet ‘Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream’.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream

Before he went to live with owls and bats
Nebuchadnezzar had an ugly dream,
Worse than a housewife’s when she thinks her cream
Made a naumachia for mice and rats.
So scared, he sent for that ‘Good King of Cats’,
Young Daniel, who straightway did pluck the beam
From out his eye, and said, ‘I do not deem
Your sceptre worth a straw—your cushion old door-mats.’
A horrid nightmare similar somewhat
Of late has haunted a most valiant crew
Of loggerheads and chapmen—we are told
That any Daniel though he be a sot
Can make their lying lips turn pale of hue
By drawling out, ‘Ye are that head of Gold.’

[Naumachia is a mock sea-fight.]

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