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Keats the Radical

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 from Elba. The restoration of monarchies was an urgent topical theme. Louis XVIII had sought asylum in England and been met by huge crowds. The bells Keats mentions were rung out all over Britain to commemorate and celebrate the Restoration of Charles II. Keats listened to the bells—he hated church bells—and thought of the deaths of patriots. He was a patriot himself, through and through. He was, according to his friend of the time, George Felton Mathew, “of the sceptical and republican school. An advocate for the innovations which were making progress in his time. A faultfinder with everything established.”

But he has not always seemed such a politically engaged person. Nicholas Roe quotes an opinion of Stopford Brooke in 1907. Keats had, says Brooke, “in spite of a few passages and till quite at the end of his career, no vital interest in the present, none in man as a whole, none in the political movement of human thought, none in the future of mankind, none in liberty, equality and fraternity, no interest in anything but beauty.”

That such a judgment could have been made is an indication of the degree to which the evidence had faded. Keats’s first volume, the Poems of 1817, had an epigraph from Spenser (“What more felicity can fall to creature,/Than to enjoy delight with liberty.”) It bore a dedicatory poem to Leigh Hunt, and contained a sonnet, “Written on the Day that Mr. Leigh Hunt Left Prison,” roundly endorsing Hunt’s libel against the Prince Regent. Another sonnet addressed Kosciusko, comparing him to King Alfred. Spenser’s image on the title page, stirring references to Hunt’s reading Spenser and Milton in prison—the whole thing reeked of patriotism, of radicalism. None of this read as alarmingly in 1907 as it had ninety years before.

And then there had been, as Nicholas Roe shows, some gentle toning down of the evidence. Charles Cowden Clarke, Keats’s friend, the son of his headmaster at Enfield, wrote an important memoir, first published in America in the Atlantic Monthly, January 1861. Explaining why Keats’s first volume “might have emerged in Timbuctoo with stronger chance of fame and favor,” why it was ignored, Clarke wrote for his American public:

The word had been passed that its author was a Radical; and in those blessed days of “Bible-Crown-and-Constitution” supremacy, he might with better success have been a robber—and there were many prosperous public ones—if he had also been an Anti-Jacobin. Keats made no demonstration of political opinion; but he had dedicated his book to Leigh Hunt, a Radical news-writer, and a dubbed partisan of the French ruler, because he did not call him the “Corsican monster,” and other disgusting names. Verily, “the former times were not better than these.” Men can now write the word “Liberty” without being chalked on the back and hounded out.

This passage has already decided to overlook the vigorously expressed views of such poems as “To Hope”:

Let me not see the patriot’s high bequest,
Great liberty! how great in plain attire!
With the base purple of a court oppress’d,
Bowing her head, and ready to expire….

But Clarke went further when he revised these lines (with some difficulty, as Roe shows from the manuscript). Here is how the same denial that Keats had expressed any radical views came to look when presented to an English readership: “Keats had not made the slightest demonstration of political opinion; but with a conscious feeling of gratitude for kindly encouragement, he had dedicated his book to Leigh Hunt, editor of the Examiner, a Radical and a dubbed partisan of the first Napoleon….” In other words, as Roe points out, Clarke sentimentalized the relationship between Keats and Hunt, reducing to gratitude what had been explicit admiration of Hunt as a champion of liberty.

Another of Keats’s friends, Benjamin Bailey, encountered John Lockhart in the summer of 1818, at the house of Bishop Gleig, near Stirling. Lockhart was about to review the Poems of 1817 and Endymion, which was just out, for Blackwood’s Magazine, of which he was an assistant editor. He made it clear that he detested Keats. Bailey was on his best behavior (he was about to marry the bishop’s daughter) and had difficulty controlling his temper. He explained that Keats was of a respectable family, that he and his siblings were orphans, that Keats had been educated for the medical profession, which he had abandoned for literature. As Andrew Motion writes in his biography, it was this well-meaning defense of Keats which gave Lockhart the material for his notorious attack. Lockhart’s animus was entirely political, but the attack as written affects only to mention politics as an afterthought (“We had almost forgot to mention, that Keats belongs to the Cockney School of Politics, as well as the Cockney School of Poetry”). Lockhart concentrates instead on vilifying Keats on class grounds and for his supposed lack of education.

This latter tactic, Roe contends, has been abidingly successful. To this day, accounts of Keats’s schooling at Enfield have tended to patronize that establishment. Keats is held to have been ill-educated. Roe cites this from a study by Marjorie Levinson, published in 1988. Keats’s circumstances, Levinson is arguing, put him “at a severe remove from the canon.”

He knew some French and Latin, little Italian, no Greek. His Homer was Chapman, his Dante was Cary, his Provençal ballads translations in an edition of Chaucer, his Boccaccio Englished. Keats’s art education was largely by engravings and, occasionally, reproductions. His absorption of the accessible English writers was greatly constrained by his ignorance of the originals upon which they drew and by his non-systematic self-education.

And Levinson goes on, although Roe chivalrously omits the sentence, “To say all this is to observe Keats’s literally corrupt relation to the languages of poetry: his means of production.”

It is astonishing how much wrongness and misleadingness can be packed into a few sentences. Keats learned French from a Frenchman and was fluent enough as a reader to form his own (low) opinion of writers such as Corneille and Boileau. He was a keen translator of French and Latin, and by his mid-teens had completed a prose version of the Aeneid. Quite how many Etonians or Harrovians formed a knowledge of Italian or Provençal before leaving school I do not know. If Keats’s Dante was Cary, that was handy because Cary printed, with his translation, the first Italian text of Dante to appear in England. (Keats read Dante in exactly the way Eliot did, with a crib.) Keats’s “art education,” in an era long before art history had hit any syllabus, is an interesting category because art affected Keats profoundly. It took place, this education, in the studio of Benjamin Robert Haydon, in the British Museum (the Elgin Marbles), in the contemplation of Piranesi’s etchings—in all the ways you would or could expect for the period. It began in the Gothic interior of the Enfield church and was only cut short in Rome.

No Greek” is, however, true, and Keats was mocked for this lack by Lockhart. Does this mockery matter? Pope translated Homer and he was mocked by Dennis for his lack of Greek. Once the intention to mock is firmly fixed, any material, true or false, may come in handy. Keats didn’t want to learn Greek. He wanted to improve his Latin and his Italian, and he wanted to improve his acquaintance with Homer. Homer was important to him, part of his personal pantheon. But that should not be taken to mean that Keats suffered a crippling disability in not knowing Greek. One should not assume that, throughout English history, there has always been the same attitude to a classical education, or indeed the same attitude to the reading of texts in translation.

Pope first became acquainted with Homer, as a child, through John Ogilby’s seventeenth-century translation. His own version was one of the great publishing successes of the eighteenth century. Somebody out there was reading translations of the classics. And it wasn’t only women (although when Cowper published his rival version of Homer, he was afraid that women might miss, in the simplicity of his rendition, the elaborate effects they would have found in Pope; he was conscious that an important part of his readership would be women ignorant of Greek). When Keats published his sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” in The Examiner, its seventh line was “Yet could I never judge what Men could mean.” (Motion makes a slip when he gives the line Keats later substituted, “Yet did I never breathe its pure serene,” as if it were written the morning after Keats and Clarke read Chapman.) What Keats was implying was that, of the versions available to him, none conveyed the qualities he would have expected to find in Homer. Later, as Clarke tells us in his memoir, Keats began to think that his line seven was “bald, and too simply wondering.” Of course the line, in either form, left him vulnerable to attack for his lack of Greek. But, more importantly, it was provocative: it implied that Pope’s version was no good. One of the things Byron held against Keats was his low opinion of Pope.

It is a pity that Motion, whose biography is welcome in so many other ways, does not give the reader more of Clarke’s account of the night spent reading Chapman’s Homer, since it is such a specific source for information on Keats’s developing taste. We know exactly the lines about the shipwrecked Odysseus that delighted Keats most:

Then forth he came, his both knees faltring, both
His strong hands hanging downe, and all with froth
His cheeks and nosthrils flowing, voice and breath
Spent all to use, and down he sunke to Death.
The sea had soakt his heart through; all his vaines
His toils had racked t’a laboring woman’s paines.
Dead weary was he.

The emphasis is Clarke’s. It points to a quality of vivid simplicity which, however much it may appeal to tastes formed by Eliot and Pound, might have seemed to other ages barbarous and shocking. Indeed there is a wild disproportion between those who have learned Keats’s sonnet by heart and those who have been moved by it to go off and read Chapman.

What Roe detests in Lockhart’s response to Keats is a sort of alarm, a dismay at the poet’s unlicensed use of classical literature and mythology. Keats’s poems

reflected the polemical myth-making current in the circles associated with Leigh Hunt, John Hamilton Reynolds, Horace Smith, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Thomas Love Peacock. To these writers ancient Greek mythology was the pattern for contemporary paganism, a radical ideological cult opposed to the patrician classicism (and Toryism) of Wordsworth’s Excursion and, especially, his Laodamia, which was perceived to reinforce the ascetic and exclusive hegemony of the orthodox Christian establishment.

The classicism of the public schools was aimed at the training of the elite. “Cockney classicism,” on the other hand, “sought to revive the liberal values associated with classical culture, thus presenting an articulate alternative to the establishment’s coding of the classics.”

Both Roe and Motion look to the historical insights of writers such as Marilyn Butler and Linda Colley. It was Butler who pointed out, in Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries, that there are two sides to the story Haydon tells about the meeting between Wordsworth and Keats in 1817. Keats was asked to recite his recently written Hymn to Pan, after which Wordsworth drily said, “A very pretty piece of Paganism.” Haydon found this unfeeling and unworthy of Wordsworth, but Butler suggests that “to proclaim the cult of Pan at that time to Wordsworth’s face was surely itself a kind of affront.” Although it is hard to detect them today, the Hymn to Pan, which comes in the first book of Endymion, is full of touches which would have identified its author’s sympathies as with the reformers. Among usages that have long since faded is the association of the word “white” with the reform movement. There was a short-lived periodical called the White Hat, from whose introductory editorial statement Roe quotes this:

The White Hat, worn by so many steady and decided patriots, battered by the bludgeons of special constables, slashed by the sabres of Yeomanry Cavalry, the horror of paid magistrates, and welcomed by the appealing shouts of hundreds of thousands of the people, is become a badge too explicit to be mistaken, too honourable to be neglected, and too formidable to be despised.

Green is another political color whose meaning changes with the context (Ireland, Germany), but within radical circles it had an association with Robin Hood, the life of the outlaw in the forest, the liberties of old England. Both white and green are deployed in a sonnet by John Hamilton Reynolds, beginning: “Thy thoughts, dear Keats, are like fresh gathered leaves,/Or white flowers pluck’s from some sweet lily bed….” The sestet urges: “Go on! and keep thee to thine own green way,/Singing in that same key which Chaucer sung….”

This cult of Sherwood Forest and leafy liberty may seem at first childish, until we remember that Robin Hood was, in Keats’s day, in no way associated with children. (Like William Tell, another great “patriot,” Robin Hood was killed off by children’s television in the 1950s.) One feels quite differently about greenery, however, when one reads how the large procession which accompanied the radical Henry Hunt on his return to London after the Peterloo massacre in September 1819 carried “large branches of oak, poplar, and various other trees,” together with green flags and laurels. The Times reported that “the approach of the procession seemed like that of a moving grove. The mixture of green boughs with the wands of the committees gave no faint idea of the approach of Birnam-wood to Dunsinane.”

Keats saw this procession, whose banners called for universal suffrage, a free press, trial by jury, “Liberty or Death.” Then he went back to his lodgings in Winchester and wrote “To Autumn.” Roe and Motion, who are both writing about the same Keats, even when their speculations and conclusions may differ, turn to this poem in the hope of finding some link with the political upheavals of the time. In the second stanza, addressing a god-like figure in an autumn setting, Keats writes:

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden hand across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Motion points out that the reference to a gleaner would have had resonances, since gleaning had been made illegal the year before. He also, like Roe, picks up on the word “conspiring.”

Roe (whose book was published too late for Motion to use, although he mentions it and is familiar with earlier versions of its research) discusses the association of autumn, through the figure of Ceres (surely the unnamed deity invoked), with justice. Ceres made laws to govern the just distribution of Earth’s plenty. Libra, the balance, the symbol of justice, also marks the onset of autumn. Leigh Hunt, in the Examiner for September 5, 1819, had written an essay on autumn which makes this connection explicit.

Neither author seems to me to force himself upon the poem. By the time Keats was writing “To Autumn,” he had already meditated at length on “negative capability” and on the lessons to be learned from Shakespeare about identifying with characters. He was less of a flag-waver in his poetry than he had been, but he still hoped, by his writings, to serve the liberal cause. It is right that a biographer should remain alert to this political dimension of Keats’s experience and thought. And it is at the very least worthwhile to consider Nicholas Roe’s argument that Keats’s “most impersonal, negatively capable lyric, ‘To Autumn,’ may be understood as the belated celebration of an ideal commonwealth of humankind and the natural world.”

Motion has read widely and conscientiously in such matters as the medical practices of the period. This makes him a good guide both to Keats’s training as a surgeon and to his unbearable decline. Keats’s recognition of his consumption and his clear knowledge that he was doomed, the brave face put on, the agony of parting from Fanny Brawne, the final weeks of torment—it is not that the story is unfamiliar, but that this particular account of it is convincing. Keats may have believed that consumption was brought on by self-abuse. Certainly he could expect that his “enemies” would know what to think when they found out how he died. He could have believed that the jealous passion he felt for Fanny was exacerbating his disease. If he survived his Roman trip, he was to marry her. If only he could marry her, he could slake his passion. But the passion was itself preventing the cure. “My dear Brown,” he writes on November 1, 1820,

I should have had her when I was in health, and Ishould have remained well. I can bear to die—I cannot bear to leave her. Oh, God! God! God! Every thing I have in my trunks that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear. The silk lining she put in my travelling cap scalds my head.

One has to turn away from such pages. They are too horrible. Motion quotes Foucault on a nineteenth-century pattern:

A man, in becoming tubercular, in the fever that hastens and betrays him, fulfils his incommunicable secrets. That is why chest diseases are of exactly the same nature as diseases of love:they are the Passion, a life to which death gives a face that cannot be exchanged.

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