Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology

Mapping Keats’s Progress
A Critical Chronology

Keats in (& Beyond) London

John Keats (1795-1821) is not normally strongly associated with London in a sense that significantly defines his identity—or, more importantly, his lasting poetical character. That is, you don’t often hear anyone saying, John Keats, the London poet . . . in the same way, for example, we might associate William Wordsworth with the Lake District; or, even as a more contemporary example, the rather odd way Phillip Larkin is associated with Hull. But Keats was very much a London lad. His greatness as a poet has not, it seems, been so much defined by place, despite reviewers who gleefully maligned Keats as a poet of the Cockney School of Poetry, sitting at the foot of poet, critic, and celebrity journalist Leigh Hunt. That is, his very best poetry does not necessarily proclaim that Keats is a London poet.

That Cockney place-naming of Keats was motivated more by partisan politics and class than by poetry and place. (The term Cockney in Keats’s day pejoratively points as much to Londoners in general than, as it does today, to east Londoners only.) Again, here Keats sits as a mere wannabe stripling—effeminate, misguided, and a mere Huntian sycophant; better that he stick to a medical career, where he at least might have some use to the world. But, truth be known, Keats’s earlier poetry (up to and including his 1818 Endymion) is indeed tempered by largely ineffectual suburban sentiments of sociability that we associate with Hunt and a certain cultured Regency London temper. But well before such nasty reviews appear in August 1818, Keats self-consciously attempts break away from association with Hunt, and he begins to do so fairly quickly after initial mutual infatuations in late 1816 (Keats and Hunt are introduced in October of that year). By May 1817, Keats can write to historical painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (a competitor for Keats’s allegiance) that Hunt’s delusions about his own poetic greatness are lamentable. Haydon is quite passionate that Keats move from Hunt’s sway in order that Keats might pursue his own path to poetic greatness, which Haydon fully believes is Keats’s fate. Sadly, Haydon has a few delusions about his own greatness. And Haydon is not the only one who pushes Keats toward finding his own poetic voice—other friends like John Hamilton Reynolds, Richard Woodhouse, John Taylor, Charles Brown, and Benjamin Bailey in their own way rouse Keats to follow his own path and a larger destiny.

When we physically map out Keats’s life, we find that he is equally a part of London’s margins and its inner city. He is born in Moorgate, schools in Enfield, lives with his grandmother in Edmonton, lives in Cheapside, does his medical training at Guy’s Hospital in central London, makes a remarkable number of his literary connections among liberal-radical London circles of his day, and is betrothed to Miss Fanny Brawne, who is born in Hampstead and lives mainly in Kentish Town. As an adult, he lives quite a while in Hampstead, which still allows him get to central London, where he can get to lectures, attend art exhibitions, take countless walks; where he shops, dines, banks, drinks, watches plays, goes to the opera, plays cards, and buys books; where he meets with and bumps into friends—and on one occasion, an old romance, hoping that the chance meeting might end with a little kiss or two (it doesn’t). In one very short letter written in December 1819, he says he has an appointment in the City of an undeferrable nature, that a friend has some business at Guildhall, and that he has a poem hung up for the Prize in the Lecture Room of the Surrey Institution. The three volumes of poetry he produces during his lifetime—in 1817, 1818, and 1820—are all published in London. And how vibrant, diverse, and evolving is London in Keats’s era? Over Keats’s lifetime, Greater London grew by almost half a million people, from about one million to 1.5 million, making it the largest city in Europe—and in just few years after Keats’s death, the largest city in the world.

And it is on a bitter night in February 1820, after a day in the city, that Keats returns home at eleven o’clock, having travelled in the open. Keats’s very close friend Charles Brown records a fevered Keats arriving and sending him to bed: On entering the cold sheets, and before his head was on the pillow, he [Keats] slightly coughed, and I heard him say, ‘That is blood from my mouth [. . .] I know the colour of that blood;—it is arterial blood; I cannot be deceived in that colour;—that drop of blood is my death-warrant;—I must die’. Though Brown’s rendition of Keats’s words is a little stagy, Keats no doubt recognized that the colour of the blood meant that its origins were his lungs—and not, for example, his throat.

The death-warrant was, sadly, right. Keats spends much of the last year of his life worrying about and then enduring the almost always unstoppable illness of consumption (tuberculosis)—the highly contagious wasting disease that slowly, agonizingly, consumes those infected with it. He had nursed both his mother and his youngest brother though consumption until their deaths by it, and, as someone with significant medical training, he had a good idea of what was coming. His two other worries during his last year are his passionate, brooding, and uneven love for Fanny Brawne, and his constant anxieties over money. Neither are resolved—the first ends sadly, the second badly. Almost until the end, Keats cannot shake away his overwrought feelings for Fanny. As for money anxieties, we have to remember: Keats never holds a job in his adult life, and, in order to pursue his poetic ambitions, he depends upon the trickle of inherited funds that are unpredictably doled out by the family trustee, Richard Abbey (Abbey and Keats share an unpleasant mistrust of each other). Keats lives his life as a poet almost exclusively on credit, which is sorely stretched by 1819. He doesn’t live long enough to discover that a separate and relatively significant inheritance established by his maternal grandfather is in fact waiting for him via the courts, accumulating interest.

As a remedy for his illness, Keats takes well-intentioned medical advice to head for warmer weather: The Doctor tells me there are no dangerous Symptoms about me and that quietness of mind and fine weather will restore me (to his sister, 19 Feb). Medical diagnosis he receives well into his illness suggest that his symptoms are related to depression and a nervous disposition—and even to poetic anxieties. Shortly after his February hemorrhage, he writes to sister again, I am recommended not even to read poetry much less write it; and some weeks later he writes to her, The Doctor assures me there is nothing the matter with me except nervous irritability and a general weakness of the whole system which has proceeded from my anxiety of mind of late years and the too great excitement of poetry (21 April). It is difficult to comment on such unsound medical opinion, but what is worth noting, and what is remarkable, is how Keats somehow communicated that poetry, more than anything else, occupied the very depths of feelings and thoughts, his body and his mind.

And so, leaving England in September 1820, he spends the final four or so months of his life in Italy. The climate has no effect, and after enduring a horrible decline, witnessed and recorded graphically by his companion, the young painter Joseph Severn, Keats is buried in Rome.

Keats wants to be buried with the simple and now famous and self-chosen epitaph, Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water. Keats’s friends, however, decide to add to the inscription, while also dramatizing Keats’s death and causes for it: ‘This Grave / contains all that was Mortal, / of a / YOUNG ENGLISH POET, / Who, / on his Death Bed, / in the Bitterness of his Heart, / at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, / Desired / these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone / Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water. / Feb 24th 1821.’ Keats is twenty-five years old. His name is not recorded on the tombstone, nor is London, his birthplace and home. And thus the image of Keats as the embittered, victimized, sensitive outsider begins, when in fact he was quite the opposite: an active, engaged, connected Londoner, supported and respected by numerous friends. Moreover, he was at moments confident in the survival of his poetic worth beyond being a mere Regency London poet: writing mid-October 1818 to brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana, and with the reviewers in mind, he makes a remarkable pronouncement of both confidence and defiance: I think I shall be among the English poets after my death.

With 156 self-contained yet overlapping micro-chapters, and using geo-spacial backdrops for every entry, Mapping Keats’s Progress chronologically marks selected moments, places, and addresses related to Keats’s life and poetry, most of which are in London. The aim is to critically assess what is often considered most remarkable about Keats: his growth as a poet over not much more than three to four years. In adjoining maps and entries beyond London, we also follow him on trips to other places in England as well as Scotland (on a walking tour), and, as mentioned, finally to Italy.

All these places, then, provide some material anchor to many of the significant and complex parts of Keats’s life and thought, and why we bother with Keats in the first place: that, in that final year of his writing, 1819, he began to compose remarkable poetry. Without what his final year of composition yields, Keats would be a minor figure, though part of an interesting London circle, rather than becoming the centre of a much larger one. The vast majority of Keats’s poetry up until that final year of writing is, as suggested, not very good, and significant only inasmuch as it is written by the John Keats of 1819. That nature of his poetry’s badness is important inasmuch as it tells us (and Keats, too) what he needs to get right—or more correctly, just leave behind, and part of what he has to leave behind is in fact tied to influences and a style that can be identified with London. In his own terms, his most significant poem before 1819, Endymion, represents, at best, a test or a trial. He could hardly wait to complete it and forget it—to leave behind, in his own terms, its mawkish immaturity.

But more intriguing questions lurks behind the reason for this site, and in this way the maps are an excuse in an attempt to variously answer the conflating questions that prop up Keats’s importance: How, so rapidly, did Keats become great poet—and what is the nature of that greatness? So, although MKP is in part interested in the where-and-when of Keats’s life—it is an attempt to connect, as it were, the scattered dots of that remarkable poetic development, particularly between 1816-1819, when he becomes that great poet against backdrop of his full, complex life in London.

A kind of paradox remains: Keats’s best poetry attempts to break out of and transcend that particular London world into which he can be so obviously placed, and in which he just as obviously places himself via his first collection, the 1817 volume. We could even, a little stridently (and nodding to current critical trends), say that his early work on one level acts out contemporary politics and Keats’s political sympathies—after all, he announces in that first volume the hyper-political Hunt is his model and mentor. But Keats develops into a Regency London poet whose greatness depends on him not being a Regency London poet, and he becomes ever-conscious of finding subjects—and a voice and forms—that de-limit his place, time, or message—or ideology. His greatness, his lasting power, then, depends upon his poetry’s ability to deliberately speak in and to contexts well beyond his own London world. Art can never, of course, escape its originating contexts—after all, it has to be created somewhere at some time by someone; but great art often has qualities that makes us forget those contexts and the power to imagine something bigger or, as Keats would say, some principle of beauty that we can bring into any context of our choosing. That Keats’s best work seems pointed toward or invokes the future now makes more sense: it is aimed toward future contexts.