A Blupete Biography Page

From Medicine To Poetry, Part 2 to the Life & Works of
John Keats

Leigh Hunt ran a newspaper in London, the Examiner. It had been established in 1808. Hunt, as the editor, together with his brother, as the printer, in a case that was to be a cause célèbre was convicted in 1813 of having libeled the Prince Regent. Their sentence -- considered harsh even in those days -- in addition to paying a large fine was that each brother was to spend two years in prison. Upon him coming out of prison in 1815 Leigh Hunt was less inclined to political commentary and turned more to literary composition. In 1816, Hunt had his long narrative poem, "The Story of Rimini" published. While this work had a mixed reception, it was to bring two young poets to his door step.7 The young poets, of course were Percy Bysshe Shelley8 and John Keats. Hunt dispensed enthusiasm and encouragement to both Keats and Shelley; and, most importantly, gave them access to the columns of the Examiner. That December (1816) there appeared in the Examiner an article written by Hunt entitled "Young Poets"; two of the young poets to whom he made reference was Shelley and Keats.

Keats' interest in poetry did not suddenly come upon him; Charles Cowden Clarke, his school days mentor, had obviously sparked that interest. In spite of his full time devotion and industry to the writing of it, his poetry might never have come into vogue if he did not have the combined assistance of Hunt and Shelley. Hunt was to be his avenue to getting his work published. Shelley was a charming personality, who, notwithstanding that he was in 1816 only twenty-four years old (Keats, twenty-one) had had experience in the writing and publication of poetry.9 In March of 1817 John Keats published his first book of poetry. His next project was to be somewhat different, for he had in his brain the germ of his first large work, a poetic fantasy.

The most talked about and renowned poetic fantasy of these times was Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and while it had been first published in 1798 it was yet, eighteen years later, sending up a wash along the banks of literature. For an epic poem which gave an accounting of a poet's travels, Keats would have had freshly before him Byron's Childe Harold. Childe Harold was published in 1812 and it had established Byron's reputation. Childe Harold was written while Byron traveled east through Europe and then on to Greece. In 1816, when the young Keats determined to write poetry, Byron was in Geneva writing the third canto of Childe Harold and also writing the first two cantos of Don Juan, his masterpiece, an epic-satire. It happened that in the months of May through to August of 1816 Shelley had traveled to Geneva and was to meet and then to spend time, with his two female traveling companions, cavorting on the banks of Lake Geneva with Lord Byron. Back in England, that autumn of 1816, Shelley, as we have seen, was to meet John Keats and the two of them were to spent time together. I think it safe to conclude that Shelley10 was enthusiastically telling of his first meeting with Lord Byron and of his continuing work on Childe Harold and how he was beginning a new work, Don Juan. What I think became plain to Keats is that it would be necessary, following the examples of both Byron and Shelley, to get out on the road.11 Thus Keats strapped on his knapsack and set out to the southeast of England; so to soak up the essential qualities and properties of the places he was to visit; so to gain the needed material and inspiration; so to write poetry.

On April 15th, 1817, then at Southampton, Keats wrote his brothers: "I did not know the Names of any of the Towns I passed through all I can tell you is that sometimes I saw dusty Hedges sometimes Ponds ..."12 On April 17th, he was on the Isle of Wight. ("On the Sea -- It keeps eternal Whisperings around ...") From there he traveled up to Margate. At Margate, on May 10th, he wrote Hunt and Shelley: "Does Shelley go on telling strange Stories of the Death of Kings?" Then, still at Margate, he writes his artist friend, Haydon,13 "I read and write about eight hours a day." It was during these travels along the south coast of England between the Isle of Wight and Margate that Keats was writing his first major work and did indeed complete Books I and II of Endymion. Still at Margate, on May 17th, he writes his publishers, Taylor and Hessey: "I found my brain so overwrought that I had neither Rhyme nor reason in it -- so was obliged to give up for a few days ... This evening I go to Canterbury -- having got tired of Margate."14

At some point in his travels during the springtime of 1817 Keats met for the first time Benjamin Bailey (b.1791). We don't know much about Bailey, except that he seems to have been from the upper class.15 By September, Keats is at Oxford staying with Bailey where he completes Book III of Endymion.16 By October 8th, Keats had returned to Hampstead.17

It was in the fall of 1817, it would appear, that Keats was invited by his friend, Charles Armitage Brown18 to move in with him into a house located at Hampstead not far from where he was born. The house, Wentworth Place19, was a pair of semi-detached residences which shared a garden. Keats paid Brown £5 a month for board and lodging and had his own small sitting room at the back of the house with a bedroom above.

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Peter Landry

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2011