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

1811-1815: Medical Apprenticeship & Charles Cowden Clarke

7 Church Street, Edmonton 1811-1815

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

From 1811 until 1815, and after leaving Clarke’s Academy in Enfield, Keats apprentices (is indentured) as a surgeon/apothecary to the experienced and well-connected Thomas Hammond, who lives at 7 Church Street, Lower Edmonton. Hammond is actually a family friend, and so the fit with Keats seems good. The apprenticeship is quite expensive, and family money (likely from the sale of stocks) is called upon. A medical practice continued at this address into the 20th century; the building was destroyed and replaced by shops in the 1930s.

7 Church Street, Edmonton c.1930
7 Church Street, Edmonton c.1930
7 Church Street, Edmonton c.1930
7 Church Street, Edmonton c.1930
Inside Hammond’s Surgery, c.1930
Inside Hammond’s Surgery, c.1930

As an apprentice, there is a certain amount of unpleasant work, though Keats has spare time for other pursuits. Keats and Hammond at moments may have had a clash of personalities. Keats later recalls clenching his fist at Hammond (letters, 21 Sept 1819), which, in recollection, may be a more symbolic gesture than an actual one. In any case, the apprenticeship seems not to have gone perfectly, but it was a time of relative stability for the at-times emotionally unsteady Keats, who comes to experience short periods of anxiety and moderate bouts of depression.

Keats continues his medical training by registering as a surgical student at Guy’s Hospital (London) on 1 October 1815, and he is soon in line for a dressership—which, in fact, is something of a distinction. He latter passes the apothecary exam in July 1816, giving him the certification of Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries. In short, it appears Keats is (or became) genuinely interested in the medical profession, learned a great deal, and even excelled, but, as his friend Charles Brown reports, Keats had fears that (at least in performing surgery) he might do harm.

Charles Cowden Clarke, c.1850, National Portrait Gallery (NPG 4506)
Charles Cowden Clarke, c.1850, National Portrait Gallery (NPG 4506)

By about mid-1814, Keats, aged 18, shows signs of taking poetry reasonably seriously, though (as far as we know) his output does not expand greatly until the second half of 1816. Perhaps justifiably, many of these early poems, either implicitly or explicitly, are about fame and his desire to be an inspired and enduring poet. Just as often, and equally justifiably, Keats betrays doubts about his poetic worthiness, and so poets ranging from Homer, Tasso, and Spencer to Chatterton and Byron are invoked as inspirational models; these are the stars upon which the novice gazes. (With the war with France winding down, Keats also attempts some lines of political and historical relevance, but these are passing concerns.) Rather than his early medical training, then, this young poet writing about becoming a poet constitutes the other half of his apprenticeship. Keats’s extraordinary mastering of poetry will take about four years, though the subject of his own poetic worthiness and enduring fame takes more than half of that time to fade away.

While a medical apprentice, Keats’s poetic progress is significantly, perhaps even decidedly, influenced and encouraged by Charles Cowden Clarke, the son of his old headmaster at Enfield school, and eight years Keats’s senior. Books and literature bond the two, and Keats in fact begins to assume some of Clarke’s tastes. Via Clarke, the poetry of Spenser seems to become especially influential, with Milton also being studied, though at this time Keats does not quite get Milton; a few years later he does, and he will declare Paradise Lost a wonder; but he also comes to see that Milton’s style, though grand and artistic (perhaps overly so), is not his style. Even after Keats is finished with the school at Enfield, for a short period he meets with Clarke at least once a week, mainly to read and discuss literature. Clarke was also seriously interested in theatre and music (and possessed a decent tenor voice).

Keats celebrates Clarke’s guidance in the epistolary To C. C. Clarke (Sept 1816). While the poem thoughtfully thanks Clarke for showing him the sweets of song (53), Keats openly reveals insecurities about his own ventures into rhymes and measures (98). Characteristic of this phase in his poetic development, Keats sprinkles classical references over the poem, as if to give it some classical cache—credibility, that is. The poem is published in Keats’s first collection, the 1817 Poems.

But it is really in October 1816, when Clarke introduces Keats to poet, critic, and celebrity journalist Leigh Hunt, that Keats’s world hugely changes. Keats’s idea to become a full-time poet becomes set. Earlier, in May 1816, Hunt is also the first to put Keats in print by publishing O Solitude, in Hunt’s journal The Examiner. Meeting Hunt immediately places Keats into a particular network (generally what we might call the liberal-left) of artists, writers, publishers, and other poets revolving around London, most of whom very quickly believe in and support Keats’s poetic aspirations.

Eventually, Clarke goes on to business in book-selling and music publishing. He later gives lectures on literature (which earn him a very good reputation); and, most significantly, he produces important scholarly work on Shakespeare. Clarke’s remembrances of early Keats are probably the prime source of direct information we have. Without Clarke, Keats’s path might have quite different. (His Recollections of Keats (1861/1878) is the primary source of his work on Keats.)

*My thanks to Annette Sparrowhawk of the Enfield Local Studies Library & Archive for these images of 7 Church Street and further information about Hammond’s surgery.*

🗙

To Charles Cowden Clarke

  • Oft have you seen a swan superbly frowning,
  • He slants his neck beneath the waters bright
  • So silently, it seems a beam of light
  • Come from the Galaxy anon he sports, —
  • With outspread wings the Naiad Zephyr courts,
  • Or ruffles all the surface of the lake
  • In striving from its crystal face to take
  • Some diamond water drops, and them to treasure
  • In milky nest, and sip them off at leisure.
  • But not a moment can he there insure them,
  • Nor to such downy rest can he allure them;
  • For down they rush as though they would be free,
  • And drop like hours into eternity.
  • Just like that bird am I in loss of time,
  • Whene’er I venture on the stream of rhyme;
  • With shatter’d boat, oar snapt, and canvass rent,
  • I slowly sail, scarce knowing my intent;
  • Still scooping up the water with my fingers,
  • In which a trembling diamond never lingers.
  • By this, friend Charles, you may full plainly see
  • Why I have never penn’d a line to thee
  • Because my thoughts were never free, and clear,
  • And little fit to please a classic ear;
  • Because my wine was of too poor a savour
  • For one whose palate gladdens in the flavour
  • Of sparkling Helicon — small good it were
  • To take him to a desert rude, and bare,
  • Who had on Baiae’s shore reclin’d at ease,
  • While Tasso’s page was floating in a breeze
  • That gave soft music from Armida’s bowers,
  • Mingled with fragrance from her rarest flowers
  • Small good to one who had by Mulla’s stream
  • Fondled the maidens with the breasts of cream;
  • Who had beheld Belphoebe in a brook,
  • And lovely Una in a leafy nook,
  • And Archimago leaning o’er his book
  • Who had of all that’s sweet tasted, and seen,
  • From silv’ry ripple, up to beauty’s queen;
  • From the sequester’d haunts of gay Titania,
  • To the blue dwelling of divine Urania
  • One, who, of late, had ta’en sweet forest walks
  • With him who elegantly chats, and talks —
  • The wrong’d Libertas, — who has told you stories
  • Of troops chivalrous prancing through a city,
  • And tearful ladies made for love, and pity
  • With many else which I have never known.
  • Thus have I thought; and days on days have flown
  • Slowly, or rapidly — unwilling still
  • For you to try my dull, unlearned quill.
  • Nor should I now, but that I’ve known you long;
  • That you first taught me all the sweets of song
  • The grand, the sweet, the terse, the free, the fine;
  • What swell’d with pathos, and what right divine
  • Spenserian vowels that elope with ease,
  • And float along like birds o’er summer seas;
  • Miltonian storms, and more, Miltonian tenderness;
  • Michael in arms, and more, meek Eve’s fair slenderness.
  • Who read for me the sonnet swelling loudly
  • Up to its climax and then dying proudly?
  • Who found for me the grandeur of the ode,
  • Growing, like Atlas, stronger from its load?
  • Who let me taste that more than cordial dram,
  • The sharp, the rapier-pointed epigram?
  • Shew’d me that epic was of all the king,
  • Round, vast, and spanning all like Saturn’s ring?
  • You too upheld the veil from Clio’s beauty,
  • And pointed out the patriot’s stern duty;
  • The might of Alfred, and the shaft of Tell;
  • The hand of Brutus, that so grandly fell
  • Upon a tyrant’s head. Ah! had I never seen,
  • Or known your kindness, what might I have been?
  • What my enjoyments in my youthful years,
  • Bereft of all that now my life endears?
  • And can I e’er these benefits forget?
  • And can I e’er repay the friendly debt?
  • No, doubly no; — yet should these rhymings please,
  • I shall roll on the grass with two-fold ease
  • For I have long time been my fancy feeding
  • With hopes that you would one day think the reading
  • Of my rough verses not an hour misspent;
  • Should it e’er be so, what a rich content!
  • Some weeks have pass’d since last I saw the spires
  • In lucent Thames reflected — warm desires
  • And morning shadows streaking into slimness
  • Across the lawny fields, and pebbly water;
  • To mark the time as they grow broad, and shorter;
  • To feel the air that plays about the hills,
  • And sips its freshness from the little rills;
  • To see high, golden corn wave in the light
  • When Cynthia smiles upon a summer’s night,
  • And peers among the cloudlet’s jet and white,
  • As though she were reclining in a bed
  • Of bean blossoms, in heaven freshly shed —
  • No sooner had I stepp’d into these pleasures
  • Than I began to think of rhymes and measures
  • The air that floated by me seem’d to say
  • Write! thou wilt never have a better day.
  • And so I did. When many lines I’d written,
  • Though with their grace I was not oversmitten,
  • Yet, as my hand was warm, I thought I’d better
  • Trust to my feelings, and write you a letter.
  • Such an attempt required an inspiration
  • Of peculiar sort, — a consummation; —
  • Which, had I felt, these scribblings might have been
  • Verses from which the soul would never wean
  • But many days have past since last my heart
  • Was warm’d luxuriously by divine Mozart;
  • By Arne delighted, or by Handel madden’d;
  • Or by the song of Erin pierc’d and sadden’d
  • What time you were before the music sitting,
  • And the rich notes to each sensation fitting;
  • Since I have walk’d with you through shady lanes
  • That freshly terminate in open plains,
  • And revel’d in a chat that ceased not
  • When at night-fall among your books we got
  • No, nor when supper came, nor after that, —
  • Nor when reluctantly I took my hat;
  • No, nor till cordially you shook my hand
  • Mid-way between our homes — your accents bland
  • Still sounded in my ears, when I no more
  • Could hear your footsteps touch the grav’ly floor.
  • Sometimes I lost them, and then found again;
  • You chang’d the footpath for the grassy plain.
  • That well you know to honour — “ Life’s very toys
  • With him, ” said I, “ will take a pleasant charm;
  • It cannot be that ought will work him harm.
  • These thoughts now come o’er me with all their might —
  • Again I shake your hand, — friend Charles, good night.
🗙

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.