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Keats’s indelicacy alarms his friends

Keats’s indelicacy alarms his friends

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reader, & fling him off at last—I shod have thought, he affected the Don Juan style

of mingling up sentiment & sneering: but that he had before asked Hessey if he

cod procure him a sight of that work, as he had not met with it, and if the “E. of St

A.” had not in all probability been altered before his Lordship had thus flown in

the face of the public. There was another alteration, which I abused for “a full

hour by the Temple clock.” You know if a thing has a decent side, I generally

look no further—As the Poem was origy written, we innocent ones (ladies &

myself) might very well have supposed that Porphyro, when acquainted with

Madeline’s love for him, & when “he arose, Etherial flushd” &c. &c. (turn to it)

set himself at once to persuade her to go off with him, & succeeded & went over

the “Dartmoor black” (now changed for some other place) to be married, in right

honest chaste & sober wise. But, as it is now altered, as soon as M. has confessed

her love, P. winds by degrees his arm round her, presses breast to breast, and acts

all the acts of a bonâ fide husband, while she fancies she is only playing the part

of a Wife in a dream. This alteration is of about 3 stanzas; and tho’ there are no

improper expressions but all is left to inference, and tho’ profanely speaking, the

Interest on the reader’s imagination is greatly heightened, yet I do apprehend it will

render the poem unfit for ladies, & indeed scarcely to be mentioned to them

among the “things that are.”—He says he does not want ladies to read his poetry:

that he writes for men, & that if in the former poem there was an opening for a

doubt what took place, it was his fault for not writing clearly & comprehensibly

— that he shd despise a man who would be such an eunuch in sentiment as to

leave a maid, with that Character about her, in such a situation: & shod despise

himself to write about it &c &c &c—and all this sort of Keats-like

rhodomontade.—But you will see the work I dare say.— He then read to me

“Lamia,” which he has half fair copied: the rest is rough. I was much pleased

with it. I can use no other terms for you know how badly he reads his own poetry:

& you know how slow I am in Catching, even the sense of poetry read by the

best reader for the 1st time. And his poetry really must be studied to be properly

appretiated. The Story is to this effect—Hermes is hunting for a Nymph, when

from a wood he hears his name & a song relating to his loss— Mercury finds out

that it comes from a serpent, who promises to shew him his Nymph if he will

turn the serpent into a Woman; This he agrees to: upon which the serpent

breathes on his eyes when he sees his Nymph who had been beside them

listening invisibly—The serpent had seen a young Man of Corinth with whom

she had fallen desperately in Love—She is metamorphosed into a beautiful

Woman, the Change is quite Ovidian, but better,—She then finds the Youth, &

they live together in a palace in the Middle of Corinth (described, or rather

pictured out in very good costume) the entrance of which no one can see (like the

Cavern Prince Ahmed found in the Arabian Nights, when searching for his lost

arrow)—Here they live & love, “the world forgetting; of the world forgot.” He

wishes to marry her & introduce her to his friends as his Wife. But this would be

a forfeiture of her immortality & she refuses but at length (for says K.—“Women

love to be forced to do a thing, by a fine fellow—such as this—I forget his name


—was”) she consents. The Palace door becomes visible—to the “astonishment

of the Natives”—the friends are invited to the wedding feast—& K. wipes the

Cits & the low lived ones: of some of whom he says “who make their mouth a

napkin to their thumb” in the midst of this Imperial splendour.—The lover had

seen his tutor Appollonius that morning, while in a car with his Lamia; he had a

scowl on his brow, which makes the hearts of the lovers sink: & she asks him,

who that frowning old fellow was, as soon as A. passed.—He appears at the

feast: damps the joy of the two by his presence—sits over against the Woman:

He is a Magician—He looks earnestly at the woman: so intently & to such effect,

that she reads in his eyes that she is discovered: & vanishes away, shrieking.—

The lover is told she was a “Lamia” & goes mad for the loss of her, & dies—You

may suppose all these Events have given K. scope for some beautiful poetry:

which even in this cursory hearing of it, came every now & then upon me, &

made me “start, as tho’ a Sea Nymph quired.” The metre is Drydenian heroic—

with many triplets, & many alexandrines. But this K. observed, & I agreed, was

required, or rather quite in character with the language & sentiment in those

particular parts.—K. has a fine feeling when & where he may use poetical

licences with effect—’ (The Keats Circle, ed. H.E.Rollins, 1948, i. 90–4.)

(b) Extract from letter, 25 September 1819, from John Taylor to Richard Woodhouse: ‘—

This Folly of Keats is the most stupid piece of Folly I can conceive.—He does not bear

the ill opinion of the World calmly, & yet he will not allow it to form a good Opinion of him

& his Writings. He repented of this Conduct when Endymion was published as much as a

Man can repent, who shews by the accidental Expression of Disappointment,

Mortification & Disgust that he has met with a Result different from that which he had

anticipated—Yet he will again challenge the same Neglect or Censure, & again (I pledge

my Discernment on it) be vexed at the Reception he has prepared for himself.—This

Vaporing is as far from sound Fortitude, as the Conduct itself in the Instances before us, is

devoid of good Feeling & good Sense.—I don’t know how the Meaning of the new

Stanzas is wrapped up, but I will not be accessary (I can answer also for H. I think)

towards publishing any thing which can only be read by Men, since even on their Minds a

bad Effect must follow the Encouragement of those Thoughts which cannot be rased

without Impropriety—If it was so natural a process in Keats’s Mind to carry on the Train

of his Story in the way he has done, that he could not write decently, if he had that

Disease of the Mind which renders the Perception too dull to discover Right from Wrong

in Matters of moral Taste, I should object equally then as now to the Sanctioning of the

Infirmity by an act of cool Encouragement on my part, but then he would be personally

perhaps excusable—As it is, the flying in the Face of all Decency & Discretion is doubly

offensive from its being accompanied with so preposterous a Conceit on his part of being

able to overcome the best founded Habits of our Nature.—Had he known truly what the

Society and what the Suffrages of Women are worth, he would never have thought of

depriving himself of them.—So far as he is unconsciously silly in this Proceeding I am

sorry for him, but for the rest I cannot but confess to you that it excites in me the

Strongest Sentiments of Disapprobation— Therefore my dear Richd if he will not so far

concede to my Wishes as to leave the passage as it originally stood, I must be content to

admire his Poems with some other Imprint, & in so doing I can reap as much Delight from

the Perusal of them as if they were our own property, without having the disquieting

Consideration attached to them of our approving, by the “Imprimatur,” those Parts which

are unfit for publication.—


You will think me too severe again. Well then,—I will suspend my Judgment

till I see or hear more, but if then my present Views are shewn to be no Illusion I

must act as I have described.—How strange too that he should have taken such a

Dislike to “Isabella”—I still think of it exactly as you do, & from what he copied

out of “Lamia” in a late Letter I fancy I shall prefer it to that poem also.—The

Extract he gave me was from the Feast. I did not enter so well into it as to be

qualified to criticise, but whether it be a want of Taste for such Subjects as Fairy

Tales, or that I do not perceive true Poetry except it is in Conjunction with good

Sentiment, I cannot tell, but it did not promise to please me.—’ (The Keats

Circle, i. 96–7.)


Clare on Keats

1820, 1821, 1825–37

Keats and the Northamptonshire peasant poet John Clare (1793–

1864) narrowly missed meeting, but their common publishers,

Taylor and Hessey, reported Keats’s criticisms to Clare and no doubt

passed on Clare’s comments to Keats. Through Hessey, Clare was

enabled to read some of Keats’s work before publication.

(a) Extract from letter, 4 July 1820, to James Hessey: ‘I began on our friend

Keats new Vol—find the same fine flowers spread if I can express myself in the

wilderness of poetry—for he launches on the sea without compass—& mounts

pegassus without saddle or bridle as usual & if those cursd critics coud be shood

out of the fashion with their rule & compass & cease from making readers

believe a Sonnet cannot be a Sonnet unless it be precisely 14 lines & a long poem

as such unless one first sits down to wiredraw out regular argument & then plod

after it in a regular manner the same as a Taylor cuts out a coat for the carcase—

I say then he may push off first rate—but he is a child of nature warm and wild….

I have skimd over Keats & noticed the following as striking

Often times

She askd her brothers with an eye all pale

Striving to be itself


Season of mists & mellow fruitfulness

Then in a wailful choir the small knats mourn


& joy whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu



No stir of air was there

Not so much life as on a summers day

Robs not one light seed from the featherd grass

But where the dead leaf fell there did it rest


A stream went voiceless by


Let the maid

Blush keenly as with some warm kiss surprised


& poplars & lawn shading palms & beach In which the zepher breaths its

loudest song


I think this volume not so warm as Endymion why did you not print some of his

Sonnets I like them much—I should like Endymion bound with his autograph

inserted if he pleases & shall send my copy up purposely the first opertunity

—’(The Letters of John Clare, ed. J.W. and Anne Tibbie, 1951, 56–7.)

(b) Extract from letter, July 1820, to James Hessey: ‘I like Keats last poem the best Hyp:

—’ (Letters, 59.)

(c) Extract from letter, June 1821, to John Taylor: ‘I have been reading his “Eve of St

Agnes” agen—were Madeline is describd undressing herself it is beautiful & luscious to

describe how much so—

—her vespers done

Of all its weatherd pearl her hair she frees

Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one

Loosens her fragrant boddice: by degrees

Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees

Half hidden like a mermaid in sea weed

Pensive awhile she dreams awake, & sees

In fancy fair St Agnes in her bed

But dares not look behind or all the charm is fled.

Look for such a description throughout Barry Cornwalls endless amusements—&

were will you find it—you may as well look for the graces of simplicity at a night

throughout the painted ranks & files of Drury Lane or Covent Garden & you will

meet with equal success—’ (Letters, 116–17.)


(d) From The Village Minstrel (1821):

‘To the Memory of John Keats

The world, its hopes, and fears, have pass’d away;

No more its trifling thou shalt feel or see;

Thy hopes are ripening in a brighter day,

While these left buds thy monument shall be.

When Rancour’s aims have past in naught away,

Enlarging specks discern’d in more than thee,

And beauties’ nminishing which few display—

When these are past, true child of Poesy,

Thou shalt survive. Ah, while a being dwells,

With soul, in nature’s joys, to warm like thine,

With eye to view her fascinating spells,

And dream entranced o’er each form divine,

Thy worth, Enthusiast, shall be cherish’d here,

Thy name with him shall linger, and be dear.’

(The Poems of John Clare, ed. J.W.Tibble, 1935, i. 283.)

(e) Extract from ‘Fragments 1825–37’: ‘He keeps up a constant alusion or

illusion to the grecian mythology & there I cannot follow—yet when he speaks of

woods Dryads & Fawns are sure to follow & the brook looks alone without her

naiads to his mind yet the frequency of such classical accompaniment make it

wearisome to the reader where behind every rose bush he looks for a Venus &

under every laurel a thrumming Apollo—In spite of all this his descriptions of

scenery are often very fine but as it is the case with other inhabitants of great

cities he often described nature as she appeared to his fancies & not as he would

have described her had he witnessed the things he describes— Thus it is he has

often undergone the stigma of Cockneyism & what appears as beautys in the

eyes of a pent-up citizen are looked upon as consciets by those who live in the

country—these are merely errors but even here they are merely the errors of

poetry—he is often mystical but such poetical liscences have been looked on as

beauties in Wordsworth & Shelley & in Keats they may be forgiven’ (The Prose

of John Clare, ed. J.W. and Anne Tibble, 1951, 223.)


Prodigal phrases


Unsigned review by Charles Lamb, New Times, (19 July 1820) No.


The essayist and poet Charles Lamb (1775–1834) was an

accountant in the East India Company. He shared Keats’s enthusiasm

for Elizabethan literature, and had taken a conspicuous, if somewhat

inebriated, part in the ‘immortal dinner’ of 28 December 1817 given

by Haydon, when Keats and Lamb agreed that ‘Newton had

destroyed all the Poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to a prism’.

Three days after this review, New Times reprinted ‘To Autumn’

(complete), part of the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, and an extract from

Hyperion, under the heading ‘Further extracts from poems, by John


The two non-Keatsian quotations are from Shakespeare’s sonnets

(CVI and XXX (misquoted)).

[Quotes ‘Eve of St. Agnes’, stanzas 24–7, ‘A casement high’ to ‘be a bud again’,

omitting lines 224–6, ‘Porphyro grew faint’ to ‘his heart revives’.]

Such is the description which Mr Keats has given us, with a delicacy worthy of

‘Christabel’, of a high-born damsel, in one of the apartments of a baronial castle,

laying herself down devoutly to dream, on the charmed Eve of St Agnes; and

like the radiance, which comes from those old windows upon the limbs and

garments of the damsel, is the almost Chaucer-like painting, with which this poet

illumes every subject he touches. We have scarcely any thing like it in modern

description. It brings us back to ancient days, and

Beauty making-beautiful old rhymes.

The finest thing in the volume is the paraphrase of Boccaccio’s story of the Pot of

Basil. Two Florentines, merchants, discovering that their sister Isabella has

placed her affections upon Lorenzo, a young factor in their employ, when they

had hopes of procuring for her a noble match, decoy Lorenzo, under pretence of


a ride, into a wood, where they suddenly stab and bury him. The anticipation of

the assassination is wonderfully conceived in one epithet, in the narration of the


So the two brothers, and their murder’d man,

Rode past fair Florence, to where Arno’s stream


Returning to their sister, they delude her with a story of their having sent

Lorenzo abroad to look after their merchandises; but the spirit of her lover

appears to Isabella in a dream, and discovers how and where he was stabbed, and

the spot where they have buried him. To ascertain the truth of the vision, she sets

out to the place, accompanied by her old nurse, ignorant as yet of her wild

purpose. Her arrival at it, and digging for the body, is described in the following

stanzas, than which there is nothing more awfully simple in diction, more

nakedly grand and moving in sentiment, in Dante, in Chaucer, or in Spenser:—

[Quotes ‘Isabella’, stanzas 46–8, ‘She gaz’d into the fresh-thrown mould’ to

‘stamp and rave.’]

To pursue the story in prose.—They find the body, and with their joint

strengths sever from it the head, which Isabella takes home, and wrapping it in a

silken scarf, entombs it in a garden-pot, covers it with mould, and over it she

plants sweet basil, which, watered with her tears, thrives so that no other basil

tufts in all Florence throve like her basil. How her brothers, suspecting

something mysterious in this herb, which she watched day and night, at length

discover the head, and secretly convey the basil from her; and how from the day

that she loses her basil she pines away, and at last dies, we must refer our readers

to the poem, or to the divine germ of it in Boccaccio. It is a great while ago since

we read the original; and in this affecting revival of it we do but

weep again a long-forgotten woe.

More exuberantly rich in Imagery and painting is the story of the Lamia. It is of

as gorgeous stuff as ever romance was composed of. Her first appearance in

serpentine form—

—a beauteous wreath with melancholy eyes—

her dialogue with Hermes, the Star of Lethe, as he is called by one of those

prodigal phrases which Mr Keats abounds in, which are each a poem in a word,

and which in this instance lays open to us at once, like a picture, all the dim

regions and their inhabitants, and the sudden coming of a celestial among them;

the charming of her into woman’s shape again by the God; her marriage with the

beautiful Lycius; her magic palace, which those who knew the street, and


remembered it complete from childhood, never remembered to have seen before;

the few Persian mutes, her attendants,

——who that same year

Were seen about the markets: none knew where

They could inhabit;—

the high-wrought splendours of the nuptial bower, with the fading of the whole

pageantry, Lamia, and all, away, before the glance of Apollonius,—are all that

fairy land can do for us. They are for younger impressibilities. To us an ounce of

feeling is worth a pound of fancy; and therefore we recur again, with a warmer

gratitude, to the story of Isabella and the pot of basil, and those never-cloying

stanzas which we have cited, and which we think should disarm criticism, if it be

not in its nature cruel; if it would not deny to honey its sweetness, nor to roses

redness, nor light to the stars in Heaven; if it would not bay the moon out of the

skies, rather than acknowledge she is fair.


Unsigned review, Monthly Review

July 1820, n.s. xcii, 305–10

This little volume must and ought to attract attention, for it displays the ore of

true poetic genius, though mingled with a large portion of dross. Mr Keats is a

very bold author, bold perhaps because (as we learn) he has yet but little more

than touched the ‘years of discretion;’ and he has carried his peculiarities both of

thought and manner to an extreme which, at the first view, will to many persons

be very displeasing. Yet, whatever may be his faults, he is no Della Crusca poet;

for, though he is frequently involved in ambiguity, and dressed in the affectation

of quaint phrases, we are yet sure of finding in all that he writes the proof of deep

thought and energetic reflection. Poetry is now become so antient an art, and

antiquity has furnished such a store-house of expression and feeling, that we

daily meet with new worshippers of the Muse who are content to repeat for the

thousandth time her prescriptive language. If any one would deviate from this

beaten track, and from those great landmarks which have so long been the guides

of the world in all matters of taste and literary excellence, he will find that it

requires no timid foot to strike into new paths, and must deem himself fortunate

if he be not lost amid the intricacies of a region with which he is unacquainted. Yet,

even should this be partially the case, the wild and beautiful scenery, which such

an excursion is frequently the means of developing, is a fair remuneration for the

inequalities and obstructions which he may chance to experience on his ramble.

We must add that only by attempts like these can we discover the path of true

excellence; and that, in checking such efforts by illiberal and ill-timed

discouragement, we shut out the prospect of all improvement. Innovations of every

kind, more especially in matters of taste, are at first beheld with dislike and

jealousy, and it is only by time and usage that we can appreciate their claims to


Very few persons, probably, will admire Mr Keats on a short acquaintance;

and the light and the frivolous never will. If we would enjoy his poetry, we must

think over it ; and on this very account, which is perhaps the surest proof of its

merit, we are afraid that it will be slighted. Unfortunately, Mr Keats may blame

himself for much of this neglect; since he might have conceded something to

established taste, or (if he will) established prejudice, without derogating from

his own originality of thought and spirit. On the contrary, he seems to have

written directly in despite of our preconceived notions of the manner in which a


poet ought to write; and he is continually shocking our ideas of poetical decorum,

at the very time when we are acknowledging the hand of genius. In thus boldly

running counter to old opinions, however, we cannot conceive that Mr Keats

merits either contempt or ridicule; the weapons which are too frequently

employed when liberal discussion and argument would be unsuccessful. At all

events, let him not be pre-judged without a candid examination of his claims.—A

former work by this very young poet, (Endymion,) which escaped our notice,

cannot certainly be said to have had a fair trial before the public; and now that an

opportunity is afforded for correcting that injustice, we trust that the candour of

all readers will take advantage of it.

For ourselves, we think that Mr Keats is very faulty. He is often laboriously

obscure; and he sometimes indulges in such strange intricacies of thought, and

peculiarities of expression, that we find considerable difficulty in discovering his

meaning. Most unluckily for him, he is a disciple in a school in which these

peculiarities are virtues: but the praises of this small coterie will hardly

compensate for the disapprobation of the rest of the literary world. Holding, as we

do, a high opinion of his talents, especially considering his youth and few

advantages, we regret to see him sowing the seeds of disappointment where the

fruit should be honour and distinction. If his writings were the dull commonplaces of an every-day versifier, we should pass them by with indifference or

contempt: but, as they exhibit great force and feeling, we have only to regret that

such powers are misdirected.

The wild and high imaginations of antient mythology, the mysterious being

and awful histories of the deities of Greece and Rome, form subjects which Mr

Keats evidently conceives to be suited to his own powers: but, though boldly and

skilfully sketched, his delineations of the immortals give a faint idea of the

nature which the poets of Greece attributed to them. The only modern writer, by

whom this spirit has been completely preserved, is Lord Byron, in his poem

of’Prometheus.’ In this mould, too, the character of Milton’s Satan is cast.

The fragment of Hyperion, the last poem in the volume before us, we consider

as decidedly the best of Mr Keats’s productions; and the power of both heart and

hand which it displays is very great. We think, too, that it has less conceit than

other parts of the volume. It is the fable of the antient gods dethroned by the


[Quotes Hyperion, Book I, lines 1–14, ‘Deep in the shady sadness’ to ‘closer

to her lips’; and lines 22–36, ‘It seem’d no force’ to ‘more beautiful than

Beauty’s self.’]

The appearance of Saturn among the Titans is splendidly told:

[Quotes Book 11, lines 105–28, ‘So Saturn, as he walk’d’ to ‘vibrating


The description of Hyperion also is really fine:

[Quotes Book II, lines 371–91, ‘Golden his hair’ to ‘the name of “Saturn!”’]

The story of ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil,’ from Boccaccio, is the worst part of

the volume; and Mr Barry Cornwall’s versification of this fable in his Sicilian

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