Celebrating National Poetry Month: 200 years since ‘Poems’ by John Keats
Written by: Susan Wolfson
Let’s imagine, having read four sonnets published in the radical weekly, The Examiner, by young poet John Keats, seeing the announcement of John Keats’s first volume Poems (published 3 March 1817), and then, on the very next day, reeling when a reactionary ministry secured the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act. Lord Sidmouth gave the bill to Parliament in February, citing a homegrown, “traitorous conspiracy,” long dedicated to “overthrowing … the established government” and operating with increasing annoyance and threat “since the commencement of the French Revolution.” He wasn’t shy about tagging the “Reform” movement (for representation in Parliament), much advocated for in The Examiner, as a “specious pretext for revolution and rebellion.”
The publication of Poems in this near coincidence had real consequence, not least because this volume debuted under the wing of The Examiner’s editor Leigh Hunt. A manifesto essay that he wrote for the 1 December issue was titled “Young Poets,” featuring (in order) Shelley, J. H. Reynolds, and Keats, with a full text of what is still Keats’s best-known sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” Hunt could not forbear a happy glancing notice of now celebrity poet, Lord Byron, with his fame-accelerant, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto the Third, published on 18 November, to great éclat. Hunt was a hub of arts and letters in London, and while The Examiner printed poetry (Hunt was also a poet), it was a hot zone of oppositional journalism. He and his brother John (the publisher) were frequent lightning rods in the state’s retaliatory storms. After some acquittals on charges from 1808 on, the state nailed them for libel in December 1812 for their attack on the character the Prince Regent (George IV, after 1820) in the 22 March paper (“The Prince on St. Patrick’s Day”), calling him out as a “libertine over head and ears indebt and disgrace, a despiser of romantic ties.” England was at war with Napoleonic France, and since June 1812, with the U.S. Oppositional journalism could be branded as treason as well as libel. Each Hunt was hit with a fine of £500 and a two-year prison term. With this sentence, the court meant to destroy their health, their finances and viability of The Examiner. The brothers survived and re-emerged as cultural champions on the liberal side, but with no immunity from further state action.
With the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, war had ended in May 1815, and Britain emerged as the premier monarchal power in Europe. But its peacetime world was not all that peaceful, roiled by economic depression, legislation that preserved the artificially high cost of grains (the Corn Laws), with consequent food shortages and widespread starvation. The extreme inequality of wealth and poverty, the call for Parliamentary reform to give the laboring classes representation in Parliament, the extravagance of the royal family and its allies in the aristocracy were ongoing themes for readers of The Examiner. Keats’s first publications appeared in these pages. From May 1816 through February 1817, The Examiner published four sonnets by him–an accumulating advertisement, in effect, for the debut of Poems in March. The first one, in May 1817, is “To Solitude,” pretty much column filler at the bottom of the page, following a grim account of the death of a soldier from wounds sustained in battle. The other three, after many months, came in rapid succession: “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” in the “Young Poets” article in December; and two others in February. One, “To Kosciusko,” honored Polish patriot Tadeusz Kosciusko. Celebrated by British liberals, Koscuisko volunteered in the United States army in its War of Independence against Britain, and so in tune with The Examiner’s oppositional politics.
The other sonnet seems, eerily, to reflect Keats’s anxieties about the success of the vocation to which he had committed himself after completing his medical studies–not medicine but poetry. Titled simply “Sonnet,” it begins, “After dark vapours have oppress’d our plains,” and turns the chronology to the return of spring and springtime hopes. Yet its last item in the vernal catalogue is, suddenly, “a Poet’s death.” This may be a shadow of Keats’s forebodings about the fate of Poems. This volume didn’t retreat from politics or political broadcast, amid its various portfolio of genres: long meditative poems, romantic rambles, songs, verse epistles to brothers and friends, sonnets, subjects ranging from the modern world to imaginations far away and long ago–and always poets, poetry, the purposes and practices of imagination.
The politics emerge in Keats’s debts to Hunt’s generous patronage. At the front of Poems is a sonnet of “Dedication / To Leigh Hunt, Esq.” It is poetically rather than politically themed, lamenting a disenchanted modern world, with gratitude for the “leafy luxury” of Hunt’s poetry. But Hunt was a political journalist as well as a poet, and so the honor to this name would signify allegiance. The untitled poem that opens to volume proper, beginning “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill,” seems set to continue this leafy Huntian strain. In place of the title is an epigraph: “Places of nestling green for Poets made.” This looks like a signpost for a timeless, apolitical green world–but it’s quite politically loaded. The source is Hunt’s The Story of Rimini, first published in 1816, with a second edition in 1817, which Keats gives in a credit line. Rimini was notorious. One of the places of nestling green is the garden house to which Paulo of Rimini and Francesca of Ravenna (wife in a forced into unhappy marriage to Paulo’s brother Guido) retreat to read poetry. One day, with Lancelot and Guinevere at hand, they swoon in sympathy and (famously) “that day they read no more.” Rimini was political in Hunt’s lamenting the lovers’ oppression by fathers’ designs and in sympathizing with erotic liberty, in defiance of fathers, of Church, of court. He not only failed to condemn the adulterers but lavished sympathy on their impossible plight. This shameless counter-cultural advocacy flew in face of British law and earned charges of licentiousness in the Tory press.
Keats took a direct political temperature on a later page in Poems, in the third sonnet of a section of seventeen, this with the longest title of any of them: Written on the day that Mr. Leigh Hunt left Prison. He wrote this (one of his earliest poems) before meeting Hunt, and had it ready to hand to C. C. Clarke when he accompanied him part of the way to greet Hunt on his release on 2 February 1815. Brimming with admiration for Hunt’s political courage and his forbearance “shut in prison,” the poem also sputtered contempt for his adversaries: tools of a “flatter’d state,” a “Minion of grandeur,” operating with a “wretched crew.” It was principled risk. Keats’s financial fortunes, let alone his poetic ones, were so uncertain a prospect that even after he decided against the apothecary career for which he licensed, he kept returning to Guy’s Hospital for work as a surgeon’s assistant. How poignant this note in Haydon’s diary for 17 March 1817: “He has gone to dress wounds, after spending an evening with me spouting Shakespeare.”
The first poem in Poems, “I stood tip-toe,” and its last, Sleep and Poetry, each unfolded in romance couplets–ones where the syntax may overflow from couplet to couplet, unbounded from the rhyme locks, some played across stanzas even, in rhythms of pleasure and passion, feminine rhymes (wandering/pondering). Both long poems also turned to serious purposes. “I stood tip-toe” meditates on the origin of classical myths in very human desires, and Sleep and Poetry wakes into a manifesto for modern poetry. There are playful, even self-amused moments. The poet who launches the volume with the line “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill” plays the survey won into a light self-parody: “Here are sweet peas, on tip-toe for a flight.” The long first verse paragraph ends, “So I straightway began to pluck a posey / Of luxuries bright, milky, soft and rosy.” Poesy-gathering plays on the etymology of anthology (Greek flower-gathering) and anagrams a pun on poesy. When Keats measures a flow of grass-blades across a stream this way–“Why, you might read two sonnets, ere they reach / To where the hurrying freshnesses aye preach / A natural sermon o’er their pebbly beds”–he glances at the opening stanza of this very poem, a 28-line (or two-sonnet) stretch.
This first poem ends with a “sweet tale” of the hard-won union of moon-goddess Cynthia and shepherd Endymion. Keats first titled this poem Endymion (then saved it for his next venture). His chapter here is about the nuptial night, which he concludes on a pause on possibility:
Was there a Poet born?—but now no more,
My wand’ring spirit must no further soar.—
Referring to the issue of this divine-mortal lovemaking, Keats hints at his own genesis from his muse. Was there a Poet born from writing this poem? One answer is implied by the rest of Poems, and its closer, Sleep and Poetry. Composed in Hunt’s library, it celebrates Hunt’s school of modern mythology, poetic luxury, and liberal politics. It also includes a poignant prospects of Keats’s own career: “O for ten years, that I may overwhelm / Myself in poesy.” He wrote this in fall 1816. Four years on, he wasn’t able to write any poetry. Early in 1817, even, Keats had a keen sense of his mortality, as that sonnet “After dark vapours” shows. Yet at the close of his debut volume, he embraces possibility. Sleep and Poetry comes to rest at its site of inspiration, a couch in Hunt’s library, where Keats did not sleep so much as dream the poem at hand. Sleep and Poetry, and Poems, conclude with this very genesis:
And up I rose refresh’d, and glad, and gay,
Resolving to begin that very day
These lines; and howsoever they be done,
I leave them as a father does his son.
In these last lines, Keats plays on the convention of envoi, “go little book,” leaving his debut volume as progeny and an unknown consequence. His friends cheered the arrival, and his champions helped get out some early notices of appreciation. And Keats, knowing through Haydon of Wordsworth’s interest in his prospects, inscribed a volume to him, and sent it to his home.
But Keats was also Hunted. On the insult of Rimini, Hunt was the star, seven months later, in October, of another debut in 1817. This came in politically sharpened abuse in a new magazine’s bid to call attention to itself: Z’s launch, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine of a promised series “On the Cockney School of Poetry,” the term “Cockney” freshly branded for a manifold of insults, about poetic style, sham learning, vulgar pretension, class presumptions and affectations, political views, and personal character, with innuendos of sexual deviance. The reiterated verse at the top of the first number signaled Keats as fair game:
Our talk shall be (a theme we never tire on)
Of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron
(Our England’s Dante)–Wordsworth–HUNT, and KEATS,
The Muses’ son of promise and of what feats
He yet may do.
Keats’s turn would come in “No. IV” (August 1818), by which time both the hopes for Poems and the epic trial Endymion (published in spring 1818) were in Z’s cross-hairs.
Title-page of John Keats’s first volume of poetry, published 1817.
The cover design bespeaks “poetry.” The title, Poems, is fancy black-letter. The epigram is from a poet Keats admired, second only to Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, best known from his late sixteenth-entury romance epic, The Faerie Queene. The laurel wreath crown designates his status as England first, though unofficial, poet laureate. The dress and barbered beard, however, also evoke Spenser’s great contemporary, William Shakespeare–and so both of Keats’s idols may be signified. The verse “What more felicity can fall to creature, / Than to enjoy delight with liberty?” is from Spenser’s Muiopotmos, or the Fate of the Butterfly (1590). These lines celebrate ideal poetry, delight and liberty, but the full poem may be shaded by Keats’s apprehensions about this debut. In Spenser’s poem, Fate matters: the delightful day of butterfly liberty ends with its being trapped and killed in a spider’s web–or in Keats’s fears, what venomous reviewers may wreak upon his debut.
Susan Wolfson is the author of the award-winning Reading John Keats (2016)