On 25 July Keats took, and passed, the examinations that allowed him to practice surgery, and left London for the fashionable seaside resort of Margate. It had been a trying year and a difficult exam: Stephens flunked , and Keats needed to escape the hot, dirty streets of the Borough to collect his thoughts. Here, for the first time really, he confronted, in a long poem of generally self-assured verse, his own struggle to become a poet, in the Epistle to My Brother George , inspired by verse epistles Hunt published in The Examiner but interesting in its own right.
Keats, confronting his indebtedness to other poets and his hopes for himself, had found a theme that would launch his career. Dreary as this beginning must have seemed, the month would be fateful for the young poet. Cowden Clarke had been living in London, and this warmhearted schoolmaster was excited to receive the long epistle from Keats. One night in early October, Clarke invited Keats to his rooms in Clerkenwell. Surely Keats felt, as critics today would agree, that this was the most perfect poem, the most beautifully written and sustained verse, he had yet written.
In this sonnet, the energy and excitement of literary discovery—Keats, in reading Homer, feels not bookish pleasure but the awe of a conquistador reaching the edge of an uncharted sea—is presented as direct emotion, not, as it had been in the epistles, a disabling and self-conscious pose. Hunt, of course, had published a Keats sonnet, but now was anxious to meet the man himself.
Some time that month he met not only Hunt, but also men who were to be close friends and supporters all his life: John Hamilton Reynolds and Benjamin Haydon.
Keats himself had moved, in November, to lodgings at 76 Cheapside, with his brothers, George and Tom. It lays out a poetic project and manifesto for the young poet. Although these thoughts began with the verse epistles, this poem is his most earnest attempt yet to find a purpose for literature within modern life, and he boldly asserts that a new poetry has begun, a modern humanism with roots in nature and myth.
At about this time Keats was determined to give up medicine and devote himself to poetry. Charles Brown remembers Keats becoming disillusioned with his career as a surgeon and becoming fearful that he might not be a good enough surgeon to avoid inflicting needless suffering.
The truth was undoubtedly a complex mixture of these, but certainly the excitement of these months, and the promise of a published volume, gave him confidence and determination. The two poets walked together across the Heath frequently that winter, and at least once Shelley cautioned Keats to wait for publication until he had a more mature body of work from which to compile a volume.
It was perhaps good advice, but Keats never warmed to Shelley as Shelley did to him, and he seems to have been annoyed at Hunt for moving to Marlow for an extended visit with Shelley that spring. The volume was no success, and few copies were sold. After dinner Hunt wove a laurel crown for Keats; Keats wove an ivy one for Hunt; and Hunt then suggested a fifteen-minute sonnet-writing contest to commemorate this event.
He determined to begin a large poem, on the great theme that he so cannily saw had produced his most serious thought, the striving of man to be one with his ideals, his gods. He resolved to get away, to return to the seaside. Before he left on 14 April for the Isle of Wight, he and his brothers moved to Hampstead, to a home in Well Walk, hoping the country air might be good for young Tom, who was becoming ill. He also arranged for John Taylor, of Taylor and Hessey, to become his new publisher, and this association was, both emotionally and financially, to be a source of real support for years to come.
On the Isle of Wight he sat alone for some weeks, writing to Haydon of his new passion for Shakespeare, whom Haydon had read to him with inspiring gusto, whose works he had brought along, and whose portrait he hung up over his desk he took this portrait with him everywhere all his life. His goal was to write a four-thousand-line poem, Endymion , by autumn. It was an unrealistic, though bold, project, and he sat for weeks anxious and depressed, though moved by the beauty and power of the sea.
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He fled the Isle of Wight for Margate, where he had been so productive the previous summer. By June he was back at Well Walk, Hampstead, spending many days with the quiet, shy, by no means intellectual painter Joseph Severn, who would be with Keats to his last moments in Rome; and also with Reynolds, with whom he read Shakespeare. By August his first extended narrative poem was half finished, a total of two thousand lines. He worked on the poem throughout the late summer and fall of , writing on a strict plan of at least forty lines a day, a remarkable project for a beginning poet that ultimately, of course, did not produce consistently good poetry.
But as an exercise it was both stimulating and courageous, and he emerged a mature, thoughtful, self-critical poet for this effort. During these months, his friendship with Benjamin Bailey deepened, and he saw little of Hunt. He returned from Oxford in October with a new seriousness of thought and purpose; he was weary of Endymion , and though he plodded along with it, he was already planning another long poem. In late November he left London for the pleasant suburb of Burford Bridge, and there he completed Endymion.
After a series of adventures, he abandons his restless quest, which by book 4 has come to seem illusory, in favor of an earthly Indian maid, who is eventually revealed to have been Cynthia all along. Although the actual narrative will hardly bear much scrutiny, the themes evoked here would haunt Keats all his life. The poetry of Endymion varies widely from some thoughtful speeches and lovely description to some of the most awful and self-indulgent verse ever written by a mature major English poet.
The story is tedious and the point often obscure. The critical reaction to Endymion was infamous for its ferocity. Keats goes out of himself into a world of abstraction:—his passions, feelings, are all as much imaginative as his situations…when he writes of passion, it seems to have possessed him. This, however, is what Shakespeare did. He showed no signs of tuberculosis for another year, his constitution was by no means frail he was stocky and athletic , and he was not overly sensitive to criticism. His association with Bailey in the fall of , and his reading of Hazlitt, contributed to a new seriousness in his thinking about art; on 22 November he wrote to Bailey the first of his famous letters to his friends and brothers on aesthetics, the social role of poetry, and his own sense of poetic mission.
Rarely has a poet left such a remarkable record of his thoughts on his own career and its relation to the history of poetry. The struggle of the poet to create beauty had become itself paradigmatic of spiritual and imaginative quest to perceive the transcendent or the enduring in a world of suffering and death. Both the conscious soul and the world are transformed by a dynamic openness to each other.
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Does the artist not demand more answers from real life than the disinterestedness of Negative Capability can offer? And, most urgent, is not aesthetic distillation really a kind of a falsification, a dangerous and blind succumbing to enchantment? Certainly without the transforming power of art, at least, growing self-consciousness implies knowledge of loss and death; perhaps even art does no more than deflect our attention. Keats was not overly hurt, however, since he saw Wordsworth several times more in London, dining with his family on 5 January For the time being, he was perplexed, and his poetry proceeded slowly.
He continued to prepare Endymion for the press. The winter months were full of social activity, with visits to Haydon, dinner at the Hunts with the Shelleys and Peacock, and evenings at the theater. In early March, however, his brother George arrived in London to see Abbey, leaving Tom ill and unattended.
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Keats departed at once to stay with him in Teignmouth, Devonshire, where he remained until May. With Tom feverish and coughing, with the news that George had decided to immigrate to America, with his sense of being obliged to be far from the stimulation of London but fearful of losing both his brothers, these were sad months. Romance also implies a quest for closure, for a realized or at least clearly envisioned dream, and Keats questioned whether modern poetry can embody such belief.
The romance he wrote in March , Isabella , based on a tale of Boccaccio, is an uneven poem, and though some of his contemporaries including Lamb admired it, Keats came to dislike it. It is best thought of as an experiment in tone, teetering uneasily between poignant, romantic tragedy and a dry, uneasy, narrational pose. This poem is a first attempt—and an interesting one—at that extraordinary poise he would achieve between romance and disillusionment almost a year later in The Eve of St. The story from Boccaccio is simple, and Keats made few changes: Isabella, living with her two merchant brothers, loves Lorenzo, a clerk.
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The brothers, vile and materialistic, murder Lorenzo and bury him in the forest. Keats, of course, knew the Wordsworth of the reactionary Excursion , published in , but not of The Prelude , first published in Keats saw the working through of this challenge as his place in history as well. He seems to have discovered that the way to Negative Capability was an arduous one, a descent into pain rather than ascent into romance. On these matters he would meditate the better part of the summer, and though he wrote little throughout these months, these would now be his dominant concerns.
One can see them in his great poem Hyperion , begun in October. Keats hoped this would be the first of a series of travels in England and abroad to prepare him to write. The trip through the Lake country was invigorating; Keats and Brown energetically hiked in the mountains around Rydal and Ambleside.
This illness was not connected to his later tuberculosis, but for the next year he would have occasional recurrences of the sore throat. Though he was always aware of the consumption that seemed to curse his family, and his bouts with illness this year were often depressing, there is no reason to believe he thought at this time that these sore throats were dangerous or that his poetic career would be cut short. In early August, leaving Brown in Scotland, Keats returned home to Hampstead to find his brother Tom seriously ill with tuberculosis. In June, George, now married, had immigrated to America to try his luck as a farmer after several inevitable disasters he did prosper, in the s, as a miller in Louisville, Kentucky ; Keats was now alone with Tom, almost constantly, until his death on 1 December.
But throughout the autumn of he began composing his most brilliant work yet, a poem even his critics saw as a major achievement, Hyperion. This is the stuff of Hyperion , and its interest is its fresh engagement with these issues, as they cluster around a traditional Western icon: the fall into suffering of the mighty or good and the hope for compensatory redemption.
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Hyperion tells the story of the fall of the Titans and their replacement by the Gods, more beautiful than the Titans by virtue of their superior knowledge, and, so, by implication, their insight into the suffering of humanity. The epic begins not with the battle between Titans and Gods but with its aftermath. Like so many romantic epics, however, this one begins with an extraordinary sense of stasis, of emotional confusion, pain, and paralysis from which there is no apparent exit.
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