Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology

Mapping Keats’s Progress
A Critical Chronology

  • 1794: Keats’s parents marry, Oct
  • 1795: Keats born, Finsbury, 31 Oct, Swan and Hoop Livery Stables, 24 Moorfields Pavement Row, London
  • 1797: brother George born, 28 Feb
  • 1799: brother Tom born, 18 Nov
  • 1801: brother Edward born, 28 April (dies Dec 1802)
  • 1802: maternal grandparents retire, Keats’s father takes over their business
  • 1803: sister Fanny born, 3 June; with George, boards at school in Enfield, run by Rev. John Clarke; does well at school, winning some prizes (he leaves Clarke’s academy 1811)
  • 1804: father (age 30) dies in midnight riding accident, 16 April; mother hastily remarries, 27 June; children live with maternal grandparents
  • 1805: maternal grandfather dies, leaving considerable funds; children move to Edmonton with maternal grandmother
  • 1809: mother ill, Keats devoted to her care
  • 1810: mother dies of tuberculosis, March; guardians Abbey and Sandall appointed for the Keats children, July (Sandall passes away 1816)
  • 1811: leaves Clarke’s Enfield school; works on prose translation of Virgil’s The Aeneid; takes up apothecary apprenticeship, Edmonton, with Thomas Hammond
  • 1813-1815: trains as surgeon at Guy’s and St. Thomas’
  • 1814: first evidence of Keats writing poetry, perhaps spurred by reading Spencer with Charles Cowden Clarke (son of Rev. John Clarke); notable poems: Imitation of Spenser and On Peace; poem: Keats writes poem expressing his feeling, As from the darkening gloom a silver dove; poem: To Lord Byron; death of maternal grandmother, December
  • 1815: begins to write more poetry; poem: Written on the Day That Mr. Hunt Left Prison.; February; poem: Ode to Apollo; buys Wordsworth’s 2-volume collection of poems; registers to become student at Guy’s Hospital, October; as medical student, lives St. Thomas’s Street, London, October; begins to write poetry about wanting to write enduring poetry

1803-1811: Enfield & Clarke’s Academy: Setting Keats’s Progress

Enfield, Clarke’s Academy

Click the map to see a larger version.true
Click the map to see a larger version.

With his younger brother George, Keats (aged 7) attends Reverend John Clarke’s excellent and progressive boarding school (sometimes called Enfield School or Academy), which has a strong dissenting tradition. No doubt at least some republican (and therefore radical) sympathies filter through to its students, which would have been a touchy standpoint given Britain’s ongoing war with France, which is more or less continuous, 1792-1815. Keats’s youngest brother, Tom, will later attend. The school greatly encourages students to pursue all forms of knowledge and, at times, to set their own consequences for negative behaviors or indifferent commitment. The idea is to produce freethinkers and free thinking. That some of Keats’s poetry comes to challenge accepted tastes (and in particular conservative or neoclassical tastes) and an independent voice is not surprising.

Keats, then, receives a very good, if not exceptional, education at the academy. Moreover, Keats is a prize-winning student and is known for his stamina as a reader and for after-hours study. According to the recollections of the headmaster’s son, Charles Cowden Clarke, it seems Keats reads most, if not all, of the books in the library, and he often read during meals. He is especially taken with Greek mythology. He is a top student in at least a few of his years at Enfield. So, too, on occasion, is Keats known to be feisty and not easily physically intimidated, despite his small stature (at adulthood Keats stands a bit over five feet, but otherwise he is physically sturdy).

In his final year at school, Keats is formally rewarded for his scholarship, some of which revolves around him translating Virgil’s epic, The Aeneid, from Latin, and he continues working on it when he is pulled out of school in 1811. With the project, Keats is introduced not just to the mechanics of translating of classical work, but in the process he evaluatively examines what he translates, thus developing his own critical tastes and ideas; Cowden Clarke recalls that Keats, barely a teenager, actually finds flaws in Virgil’s narrative structure! Importantly, Keats’s ability and desire to study is set at Enfield; more than once, years later, when Keats is utterly determined to become an enduring poet, he mentions that his progress will require deliberate study, what he will call the drinking in of Knowledge, which can only be gained through application study and thought (letters, 24 April 1818).

The school takes copies of Leigh Hunt’s Examiner, an independent, progressive, and controversial newspaper formative in Keats’s career in ways that Keats, as a schoolboy, could hardly have imagined: his first published poem—O Solitude—will be in The Examiner (May 1816); and Hunt, as its editor, is central to Keats’s working out of his initial poetic direction—for better and then for worse—but, more importantly, in connecting Keats with a wide network of artists, poets, writers, publishers, and critics. This network is a crucial component of Keats’s poetic progress.

Imagined: Clarke’s Academy in better days
Imagined: Clarke’s Academy in better days

Charles Cowden Clarke, eight years Keats’s senior, encourages and directs Keats’s early poetic tastes (and seems to have encouraged and supervised Keats’s translation of The Aeneid), and they are close friends up until 1817. It is Clarke, in fact, who introduces Keats to Hunt in October 1816, thus, as mentioned, immediately connecting Keats with an important faction of London’s intellectual and artistic network. Clarke’s interest in Keats, along with meeting Hunt, are two early key moments in setting Keats’s direction as a poet. And so Keats’s poetic progress has its origin at Enfield School, and Clarke is the person responsible for making Keats’s first contact with and the introduction into an important faction of London’s literary society.

Clarke’s Academy, before demolition in 1872, after serving as a railway station,
        from a photo by E. E. Leggatt at the Victoria & Albert Museum
Clarke’s Academy, before demolition in 1872, after serving as a railway station, from a photo by E. E. Leggatt at the Victoria & Albert Museum (no.324-1907)*

Keats’s September 1816 epistle to Clarke expresses Keats’s somewhat immature desires to be an enduring poet, but it also thanks Clarke for first teaching him all the sweets of song (53). At this point, these aspirations are both insecure and a little pretentious, which, given Keats’s age and experience, is to be expected: that is, Keats is nowhere close to finding anything like a relatively mature poetic voice—one that is less concerned with fame and poetic affectation and more concerned with capturing something universally deep, clear, and original.

Clarke’s Academy is also significant inasmuch as it may be the one continuous, predictable part of Keats’s life between 1803 and 1811, the period during which his father dies (1804), his mother quickly remarries (1804), he has to live with maternal grandparents (1804), his maternal grandfather passes away (1805), and his mother dies (1810)—and his family finances (his inheritance money) become blurred.

*Something about the building: According to the Victoria & Albert Museum, the frontage of the school-house was based on designs by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723): The station was demolished in 1872; the façade however was saved, and originally purchased for the Structural Collection of the Science Museum, then part of the South Kensington Museum/ […] The acquisition of the façade is recorded in a contemporary publication about Enfield by Edward Ford. He noted: was taken down brick by brick, with the greatest care, all being numbered and packed in boxes of sawdust for carriage. Nothing could exceed the beauty of the workmanship, the bricks having been ground down to a perfect face, and joined with bee-wax and rosin, nor mortar or lime being used. In this manner the whole front has been first built in a solid block, the circular-headed niches, with their carved cherubs and festoons of fruit and foliage, being afterwards cut out with the chisel. The building also came to be known as THE OLD HOUSE.


O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell

  • O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
  • Let it not be among the jumbled heap
  • Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—
  • Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,
  • Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
  • May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
  • ’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
  • Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
  • But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
  • Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
  • Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
  • Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
  • Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
  • When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

Imitation of Spenser

  • Now Morning from her orient chamber came,
  • And her first footsteps touch’d a verdant hill;
  • Crowning its lawny crest with amber flame,
  • Silv’ring the untainted gushes of its rill;
  • Which, pure from mossy beds, did down distill,
  • And after parting beds of simple flowers,
  • By many streams a little lake did fill,
  • Which round its marge reflected woven bowers,
  • And, in its middle space, a sky that never lowers.
  • There the king-fisher saw his plumage bright
  • Vieing with fish of brilliant dye below;
  • Whose silken fins, and golden scales light
  • Cast upward, through the waves, a ruby glow:
  • There saw the swan his neck of arched snow,
  • And oar’d himself along with majesty;
  • Sparkled his jetty eyes; his feet did show
  • Beneath the waves like Afric’s ebony,
  • And on his back a fay reclined voluptuously.
  • Ah! could I tell the wonders of an isle
  • That in that fairest lake had placed been,
  • I could e’en Dido of her grief beguile;
  • Or rob from aged Lear his bitter teen:
  • For sure so fair a place was never seen,
  • Of all that ever charm’d romantic eye:
  • It seem’d an emerald in the silver sheen
  • Of the bright waters; or as when on high,
  • Through clouds of fleecy white, laughs the coerulean sky.
  • And all around it dipp’d luxuriously
  • Slopings of verdure through the glassy tide,
  • Which, as it were in gentle amity,
  • Rippled delighted up the flowery side;
  • As if to glean the ruddy tears, it tried,
  • Which fell profusely from the rose-tree stem!
  • Haply it was the workings of its pride,
  • In strife to throw upon the shore a gem
  • Outvieing all the buds in Flora’s diadem.

On Peace

  • O Peace! and dost thou with thy presence bless
  • The dwellings of this war-surrounded isle;
  • Soothing with placid brow our late distress,
  • Making the triple kingdom brightly smile?
  • Joyful I hail thy presence; and I hail
  • The sweet companions that await on thee;
  • Complete my joy — let not my first wish fail,
  • Let the sweet mountain nymph thy favourite be,
  • With England’s happiness proclaim Europa’s liberty.
  • O Europe! let not sceptred tyrants see
  • That thou must shelter in thy former state;
  • Keep thy chains burst, and boldly say thou art free;
  • Give thy kings law — leave not uncurbed the great;
  • So with the horrors past thou’lt win thy happier fate!

As from the darkening gloom a silver dove

  • As from the darkening gloom a silver dove
  • Upsoars, and darts into the eastern light,
  • On pinions that nought moves but pure delight;
  • So fled thy soul into the realms above,
  • Regions of peace and everlasting love;
  • Where happy spirits, crown’d with circlets bright
  • Of starry beam, and gloriously bedight,
  • Taste the high joy none but the blest can prove.
  • There thou or joinest the immortal quire
  • In melodies that even heaven fair
  • Fill with superior bliss, or, at desire
  • Of the omnipotent Father, cleavest the air,
  • On holy message sent. — What pleasures higher?
  • Wherefore does any grief our joy impair?

To Lord Byron

  • Byron, how sweetly sad thy melody!
  • Attuning still the soul to tenderness,
  • As if soft Pity, with unusual stress
  • Had touch’d her plaintive lute; and thou, being by,
  • Hadst caught the tones, nor suffer’d them to die.
  • O’ershading sorrow doth not make thee less
  • Delightful: thou thy griefs dost dress
  • With a bright halo, shining beamily;
  • As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil,
  • Its sides are ting’d with a resplendent glow,
  • Through the dark robe oft amber rays prevail,
  • And like fair veins in sable marble flow.
  • Still warble, dying swan, —still tell the tale,
  • The enchanting tale —the tale of pleasing woe.

Written on the Day That Mr. Leigh Hunt Left Prison

  • What though, for showing truth to flatter’d state,
  • Kind Hunt was shut in prison, yet has he,
  • In his immortal spirit, been as free
  • As the sky-searching lark, and as elate.
  • Minion of grandeur! think you he did wait?
  • Think you he nought but prison walls did see,
  • Till, so unwilling, thou unturn’dst the key?
  • Ah, no! far happier, nobler was his fate!
  • In Spenser’s halls he strayed, and bowers fair,
  • Culling enchanted flowers; and he flew
  • With daring Milton through the fields of air:
  • To regions of his own his genius true
  • Took happy flights. Who shall his fame impair
  • When thou art dead, and all thy wretched crew?

Ode to Apollo

  • 1
  • In thy western halls of gold
  • When thou sittest in thy state,
  • Bards, that erst sublimely told
  • Heroic deeds, and sang of fate,
  • With fervour seize their adamantine lyres,
  • Whose chords are solid rays, and twinkle radiant fires.
  • 2
  • There Homer with his nervous arms
  • Strikes the twanging harp of war,
  • And even the western splendour warms,
  • While the trumpets sound afar;
  • But, what creates the most intense surprise,
  • His soul looks out through renovated eyes.
  • 3
  • Then, through thy temple wide, melodious swells
  • The sweet majestic tone of Maro’s lyre;
  • The soul delighted on each accent dwells, —
  • Enraptured dwells, — not daring to respire,
  • The while he tells of grief around a funeral pyre.
  • 4
  • ’Tis awful silence then again:
  • Expectant stand the spheres;
  • Breathless the laurell’d peers,
  • Nor move, till ends the lofty strain,
  • Nor move till Milton’s tuneful thunders cease,
  • And leave once more the ravish’d heavens in peace.
  • 5
  • Thou biddest Shakspeare wave his hand,
  • And quickly forward spring
  • The Passions — a terrific band —
  • And each vibrates the string
  • That with its tyrant temper best accords,
  • While from their master’s lips pour forth the inspiring words.
  • 6
  • A silver trumpet Spenser blows,
  • And, as its martial notes to silence flee,
  • From a virgin chorus flows
  • A hymn in praise of spotless chastity.
  • ’Tis still! wild warblings from the Aeolian lyre
  • Enchantment softly breathe, and tremblingly expire.
  • 7
  • Next thy Tasso’s ardent numbers
  • Float along the pleased air,
  • Calling youth from idle slumbers,
  • Rousing them from pleasure’s lair: —
  • Then o’er the strings his fingers gently move,
  • And melt the soul to pity and to love.
  • 8
  • But when thou joinest with the Nine,
  • And all the powers of song combine,
  • We listen here on earth:
  • The dying tones that fill the air,
  • And charm the ear of evening fair,
  • From thee, great God of Bards, receive their heavenly birth.