Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology

Mapping Keats’s Progress
A Critical Chronology

Pictures/Picturing, Images/Imagining: Representing & Reproducing Junkets

Keats, by Charles Brown, 1819 (National Portrait Gallery,
      NPG 1963)true
Keats, by Charles Brown, 1819 (National Portrait Gallery, NPG 1963)

As an image, idea, and icon, “John Keats” appears just about everywhere beyond, and generally sprung from, the depictions by Joseph Severn, Benjamin Robert Haydon, and William Hilton—though I tend to favor the 1819 sketch by his very close and generous friend Charles Armitage Brown, since (for me) it captures the look and facial demeanor of a young, intelligent, and handsome young man, one at ease and natural, despite the bare-bone nature of the sketch. (Brown’s sketch is from the National Portrait Gallery, London.)

Evolving from these canonical depictions are most of the variations in collections and selections of Keats’s work, as well as in magazines, newspapers, and book covers; and of course there are busts, statues, engravings, woodcuts, and medallions. But there are also playing cards, posters, and even cigar labels—and for a while now you can have Keats placed on just about anything. There are companies out there that hope that you might, for example, need Keats on a t-shirt, tote bag, apron, plate, mouse pad, memory stick, water bottle, or greeting card. Or how about a trucker cap? Consider it done:

Make Keats great again
Make Keats great again

The selection in the Gallery offers versions of John Keats—or, as he sometimes called himself, Junkets—to look at, including two pretty good tattoos. We could talk endlessly about commodity fetishism, image culture, mimetic desire, blah blah blah—but we all get how thi$ work$. In the age of mass production, the classical can be instantly flipped into kitsch if a buck is to be made, or if some new version of cute or cool can be mustered.

When Keats writes that he thinks he shall be among English Poets after my death, he has no idea he’d also end up on ties, tiles, and tattoos. The most remarkable thing about his quietly brash statement is not that it becomes true, but that, at this point, in October 1818, he has not written anything that deserved such status—but he seems to know he will, and, within a matter of months, he writes poetry that does, rightfully, place him into the greater anthology of poetic history. That is, in October 1818, Keats knows exactly what kind of poetic character he needs to make manifest in his poetry (see his 27 October letter to Richard Woodhouse); he just has to write it.

A few words on Keats’s appearance: Some of the more canonical depictions and descriptions attempt to romanticize our Romantic poet, emphasizing large and vulnerable eyes, and an expression that moves between innocence, desire, and dreamy, visionary capabilities. Other portrayals render a handsome, healthy, and determined young man (with really good hair—medium to light auburn, it seems, with perhaps some reddish highlights and natural curls), though his very modest height (just a bit over five feet) does not feature. (The average height of an English adult male in Keats’s time is closer to 5’7”.) Keats was self-conscious of his height, and at one point he half jokes that he is “somewhat stunted” (to Marian and Sarah Jeffrey, 25 May 1818), and he refers to himself through the eyes of some others as “Mister John Keats five feet high” (to Benjamin Bailey, 22 July 1818). His attitude and bearing of course makes him taller. And a few paintings perhaps tend to thin him out a bit.

In truth, Keats was no wimp, and, despite some developing health issues in his early adult life (first appearing as a chronic sore throat), his activities and interests clearly point to a robust physical nature powered by sturdy legs and solid, broad shoulders. Stocky would be pushing it, but he seemed to exude a certain physical vibrancy, if that doesn’t sound too vague. Our idea of Keats as the waning, wispy aesthete comes about in part with the strange Victorian fetish for a consumptive, evanescent look, a vulnerable and victimized Keats, and by picturing him in the last year of his life only, as he slowly, agonizingly falls to the white plague, tuberculosis. We should rather imagine the wining, dining, dancing, card-playing, theatre-going, street-strolling, path-wandering, hill-climbing Keats, who seemed up for just about anything his various friends and circumstances threw his way.

But it is that face and expression that seemed to captivate. His look seems have been delicate and challenging at the same time—almost all who actually knew or met him suggest he possessed a manly and determined countenance. His lips and eyes seem most striking: his mouth is full and his hazel eyes lustrous, with his friends unable to conclude if the sum of his look reflected spirit or acuity—though in truth, probably both. A strong chin also contributed to an appearance that many found notable. At least one friend (Leigh Hunt) thought his head was on the small size.

Perhaps some word from Brown about Keats’s appearance beyond that wonderful sketch might carry some credibility, since Brown probably spent more time with Keats than any of Keats’s other friends, many of whom were, after Keats’s death, clamoring and infighting about who might be best fit to write the first biography of Keats. According to Brown:

He was small in stature, well proportioned, compact in form, and, though thin, rather muscular;–one of the many who prove that manliness is distinct from height and bulk. There is no magic equal to that of an ingenuous countenance, and I never beheld any human being’s so ingenuous as his. His full fine eyes were lustrously intellectual, and beaming (at that time!) with hope and joy. It has been remarked that the most faulty feature was his mouth; and, at intervals, it was so. But, whenever he spoke, or was, in any way, excited, the expression of the lips was so varied and delicate, that they might be called handsome.From Brown’s lecture, Life and Poems of John Keats, delivered 29 December 1836, at the Plymouth Institution

The other feature that seemed to capture the attention of those he met and those closest to him is more metaphysical than physical: yes, he was brilliant, quietly funny, and always engaged; but he made it clear that his calling—indeed, his higher calling—was poetry, and this struck his dozen or so closest friends as not just remarkable and admirable, but also believable. That the network of friends he fell easily into and who were attracted to him (many of whom he connects with after meeting Leigh Hunt in October 1816) were generally older and often vastly more experienced in the ways of arts, letters, politics, and business, while Keats was not even on the cultural map, points to something about Keats’s drawing qualities—and perceived potential.