John Keats and the Culture of Dissent
by Nicholas Roe
Oxford University Press, 315 pp., $60.00
Keats: A Biography
by Andrew Motion
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 636 pp., $35.00
We were taught to recite this jingle in primary school. It went:
Royal Oak Day—
The twenty-ninth of May—
If you don’t give us a holiday
We all will run away.
Where shall we run to?
Down the back lane.
Here comes Miss Moorhouse
With her cane.
Keats would have been disgusted with this. His own poem, “Lines Written on 29 May, The Anniversary of the Restoration of Charles the 2nd,” reads in full:
Infatuate Britons, will you still proclaim
His memory, your direst, foulest shame?
Nor patriots revere?
Ah! when I hear each traitorous lying bell,
‘Tis gallant Sidney’s, Russell’s, Vane’s sad knell,
That pains my wounded ear.
The word “patriot” means in this context not some flag-waving jingoist, not someone who wishes to assert the rights of his own country over the interests of some other country, but someone who loves his country enough to wish to defend it against tyranny. Patriots are lovers of liberty. Kings tend to be its enemies (the great exception being King Alfred). John Hampden, who refused to pay ship money (an illegal tax levied by Charles I), is a perfect example of a patriot. Lord William Russell and Algernon Sidney, in Keats’s poem, were considered innocent victims after the discovery of the Rye House Plot of 1683. They made good ends: Macaulay tells us that “Russell died with the fortitude of a Christian, Sidney with the fortitude of a Stoic.”
Sir Henry Vane, Keats’s third patriot, was the leader of the Republicans under Charles I, but not one of the regicides. Nevertheless he was prestigious enough to have to be silenced after the Restoration. He was tried for high treason against Charles II. Pepys, who had in the course of his Admiralty duties handed over papers which were used in evidence against Vane, hired a room in the Tower from which to watch his execution. He couldn’t see the beheading, because of the large crowd on the scaffold. Nor did he hear Vane’s long speech of self-justification, which was deliberately drowned out by trumpets. Nevertheless he found an eyewitness, and recorded Vane’s last moments:
He changed not his colour or speech to the last, but died justifying himself and the cause he had stood for; and spoke very confidently of his being presently at the right hand of Christ; and in all things appeared the most resolved man that ever died in that manner, and showed more of heat than cowardice, but yet with all humility and gravity. One asked him why he did not pray for the King. He answered, “Nay,” says he, “you shall see I can pray for the King: I pray God bless him!”
Keats seems to have written his poem on May 29, 1815, but it was not published until over a century later (by Amy Lowell). John Barnard, in his edition of Keats, points out that it was composed during the Hundred Days following Napoleon’s escape …