News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Posts filed under On This Day

The Meeting: Reading and Writing through John Clare

As part of an Arts Council England- & John Clare Society-funded outreach and inclusion project, Simon Kövesi has edited a short collection of readings of John Clare poems and prose by celebrated actor Toby Jones, now online at Oxford Brookes University. The readings are available via standard browsers, and via Spotify and iTunes as free podcast-style subscriptions. Reading texts are also provided on the project website. The hope is that Toby’s readings will support the study and enjoyment of Clare, at any level of interest.

Toby will perform as Clare, in the project’s final musical stage show, in Oxford in February, and in London in April, by way of celebrating 200 years since the publication of Clare’s first collection, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. More details soon.

Project website:

Toby Jones readings:

Keats’s Bees in the Ode ‘To Autumn’ – Written On This Day in 1819

Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton

In this series, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period. Today, on 19th September 2019, we celebrate the bicentenary of Keats’s ode ‘To Autumn’ with an article by Ellen Nicholls discussing the depiction of bees in the poem.

The 19th September 2019 marks the 200-year anniversary of Keats’s composition of the ode ‘To Autumn’. As this date approaches, I am struck by how the ode continues to capture the imaginations of modern readers, transcending its sociohistorical boundaries to resonate with the attitudes and concerns of the present day. In particular, I am drawn to the presence of bees in the ode’s opening stanza. Buzzing with insect and animal life, Keats’s ode is often celebrated for the ease with which it balances the sensuous plenitude of seasonal growth against the anticipation of natural loss and decay. Bees are essential figures in this balancing act. Keats positions bees as vital pollinators who conspire with nature ‘how to load and bless’ (‘To Autumn’, 3) flowers and fruit ‘with a sweet kernel’ (8), as well as creatures that participate in the ‘wailful choir’ (27) of the ode’s ‘soft-dying’ (25) music, implicitly capturing current anxieties around the decline in bee populations across the earth. While bee pollination is responsible for 70% of the earth’s food production, in recent years, bees have undergone a drastic population decline of 90% due to factors such as colony collapse disorder, pesticides, deforestation, parasites, viruses, and a lack of biodiversity. Such a catastrophic threat to bee populations has most recently animated protests across the UK from groups such as Extinction Rebellion who, amongst other things, have staged a ‘Critical Swarm “Die-In”’ outside of the Tate Modern gallery and a protest at the gates of Buckingham Palace to advocate for bee rehabilitation. As with the ode ‘To Autumn’, bees are located in the public imagination as figures of growth and loss; creatures who are under serious threat of extinction despite their crucial ability ‘to set budding more, / And still more’ (9-10).

In ‘To Autumn’, the image of the ‘o’er-brimmed […] clammy cells’ (11) of the beehive creates an ambivalence that weighs the pleasure of fecundity against the anxiety of waste. Amidst the ode’s luxurious growth, the presence of the bee gestures towards a fullness that might lead to loss. Images of loading, swelling, and plumping dominate the opening of the poem. Like the ‘clammy cells’ (11) of the beehive, this stanza is heavy and overflowing with nature’s bounty. Keats’s use of the noun ‘cell’ is itself packed with multiple associations. Amongst other definitions, ‘cell’ is at once evoked as: an entomologically specific term for the ‘hexagonal wax compartments in a honeycomb’; a small room; the suffocatingly enclosed space of the prison cell; a ‘storeroom’; and, the ‘cavities […] of the brain’.[1] More importantly still, the word ‘cell’ contains a crucial metapoetic echo with the etymological roots of the Italian word ‘stanza’, which translates as ‘stopping place’ and ‘dwelling room’.[2] The ‘clammy cells’ of the hive become closely associated with the ‘teeming brain’ (‘When I have Fears that I May Cease to Be’, 2) of the poet, whose creative imagination is so full that it overflows its confines, spilling out into the rich produce of the stanza:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells
(‘To Autumn’, 1-11).

Illustration for “To Autumn” by William James Neatby, from A Day with Keats, 1899

The Apollonian sun is evoked here as a subtle presence that not only ‘load[s] and bless[es]’ (3) the natural world with fruit, but also nurtures both the poet and reader towards ‘a ripeness of intellect’ (Letters: John Keats I, 231).[3] Keats describes the bounty of nature in rich sensual imagery, pushing the poetic language to breaking point to demonstrate the plenitude of the poet’s creative imagination and the potential meanings to be garnered by the reader. The stanza is formed as one long poetic sentence, containing enjambed lines and false stopping points that make the reader believe they have arrived at a concluding thought, before continuing with a related idea. We see this most clearly in lines 7, 8, and 9: ‘To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells / With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, / And still more’ (7-9). Keats’s use of enjambment here dramatizes the expanding of the engorged hazel shells by making the syntax of lines 7 and 8 explode outside of the parameters of the rhyme scheme. The semi-colon in line 8 seems to offer a brief pause for breath, ostensibly marking the end-point of nature’s swelling and the ceasing of its ‘fruitfulness’ (1). And yet ‘to set budding’ (8) continues the forward momentum of the poetic line, reinforced by Keats’s undermining of the punctuation point at the close of line 8 through the added clause ‘And still more’ (9). Keats appears to subvert any sense that growth has ceased, pushing the stanza towards the image of the bee filling the ‘clammy cells’ (11) of the hive until its stores have ‘o’er-brimmed’ (11) with honey. Helen Vendler characterises the bee’s summer activities in ‘To Autumn’ as an ‘Edenic harvest’.[4] The bee does not pluck and destroy the flower, but delicately extracts its nectar to store in the granaries of the hive. But Keats does not straightforwardly present bees as the ideal harvesters of creative fruit in this stanza in the way Vendler proposes. By rhyming the word ‘trees’ (5) with ‘bees’ (9) and ‘cease’ (10), Keats shadows Autumn’s fecundity with the prospect of death, decay, and the potential for loss. Just as Autumn is pictured watching the ‘last oozings’ (22) of the apple spill from the cider-press in the second stanza, the reader is made aware that we may never taste the ‘o’er-brimm[ing]’ (11) plenitude of the poet’s imaginings, instead allowing the possible meanings of the poem to be laid to waste. Bees become shifting figures in ‘To Autumn’ that weigh the pleasure of endless poetic possibility against the fear of failure and loss.

‘To Autumn’ Manuscript

And yet, ‘To Autumn’ demands that the reader is at ease with our inability to capture and digest the totality of the poem’s available meanings. Instead, Keats encourages the reader to remain content with our fear of missing out on luxuriating in the poem’s rich imaginings, encouraging us to be receptive to the experience of loss itself. If the words ‘bees’, ‘trees’, and ‘cease’ chime together in ‘To Autumn’ to portend a winter in which creativity and the budding of flowers will be no more, then the prospect of such waste paradoxically becomes a source of poetic inspiration, wherein Keats’s rhymes draw attention to the music created by loss, decay, and death. Amidst the songs of Autumn — the ‘wailful choir [of] the small gnats’ (27) and the ‘full grown lambs[’] loud bleat’ (30) — bees take on an ambivalence in which the defiant celebration of life is held in equipoise with the grief of imminent decay and departure. Bees help to situate Autumn in its rightful place between the generative force of ‘o’er-brimm[ing]’ (11) summer and the apparent lifelessness of winter’s ‘crystal fretting’ (‘In Drear-Nighted December’, 14). The bees of ‘To Autumn’ reveal how abundance transmutes into loss, and in turn how loss becomes the source of creative possibility.

Works Cited:

[1] ‘Cell n. 1’ in Oxford English Dictionary <> [accessed 05/07/2019].

[2] See Etymology of ‘Stanza, n.’ in Oxford English Dictionary <> [accessed 05/07/2019].

[3] John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1818, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958).

[4] Vendler, ‘Peaceful Sway Above Man’s Harvesting’ in The Odes of John Keats (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 227-288 , p. 247.


Ellen Nicholls completed her doctoral research on the experience of ‘aching Pleasure’ (‘Ode on Melancholy’, 23) in the works of John Keats at the University of Sheffield in 2019. Her research focused on how Keats explores the interdependency between pleasure and pain. She has recently assumed a new post in higher education at Derby College and will be pursuing research into Romantic conceptualisations of numbness.

On this Day in 1819: Mary Shelley writes of her son’s illness

In the summer of 1814, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin embarked upon a whirlwind romance that would shape her life forever. Her relationship with Percy Shelley spanned approximately 9 years until his untimely death in the Gulf of Spezia, where he tragically drowned. During this time, Mary was almost always either pregnant or breastfeeding. Motherhood preoccupied her and her journals reveal both the overwhelming love she felt towards her children and the crushing despair she felt when they passed away.

Her first child, Clara, was born prematurely and lived only a few days. Mary recounts a recurring dream in which she was able to resuscitate her baby: “Dreamt that my little baby came to life again – that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it by the fire & it lived – I awake & find no baby – I think about the little thing all day”. Mary’s second child, William, affectionately known as ‘Willmouse’, was born in January 1816 and was a few months old when Mary, Percy, and her half-sister Claire Clairmont travelled to Geneva, where she began writing Frankenstein. According to the novel’s 1831 preface, Frankenstein also came to Mary Shelley in a dream, and the story’s interest in resurrection can arguably be attributed to not only contemporary Georgian concerns such as galvanism, but also Mary’s personal desire to revive her deceased daughter.

In the following year, after the group’s return to England, Clara Everina was born. Despite securing a 21 year lease, the family stayed in Albion House in Buckinghamshire for only a year before departing for Europe once again, this time to Italy. Sadly, the journey proved to be too much for Clara Everina, who tragically died in Venice.

Nine months after Clara’s death, on this day 200 years ago, Mary sat down to write in her journal: “William is very ill”, she wrote, immediately seeming to dismiss her concern by commenting that he got “better towards the evening”. Claire Clairmont elaborated upon this in a letter, identifying his illness as a “complaint of the Stomach”. Two days later, Mary added a postscript to this letter saying that William had a high fever and there was now little hope of him surviving.

Oil portrait of William Shelley by Amelia Curran

William died on 7th June aged three and a half years old, four days after Mary’s journal entry. Consumed as she was with the loss of another child, Mary didn’t write another journal entry for two months, although her letters reveal her despair over her loss. Percy, watching as she slipped further into depression, felt isolated from her. In his notebook, he penned a poem imploring her to return to him:

My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,
And left me in this dreary world alone?
Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one—
But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road
That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode.
For thine own sake I cannot follow thee
Do thou return for mine.

For Mary Shelley, motherhood was a gamble that defined and ravaged this period of her life. Five months after William’s death, when she was 21 years old, and part way through writing Matilda, Mary gave birth to her 4th child – Percy Florence Shelley. Her elation and love for her new baby boy was always shadowed by her fear that he too could someday be taken from her. She wrote to Marianne Hunt that “it is a bitter thought that all should be risked on one yet how much sweeter than to be childless as I was for 5 hateful months – Do not let us talk of those 5 months; when I think of all I suffered … I shudder with horror yet even now a sickening feeling steps in the way of every enjoyment when I think – of what I will not write about”.

In spite of her reluctance to write about her loss, Mary’s writings were influenced as much by motherhood and the deaths of her children as they were by her relationship with Shelley and the legacies of her parents. As a motherless child and, repeatedly, a childless mother, parental relationships remained a key theme throughout much of her work and continued to cloud her mind with worry as Percy Florence grew up. In Matilda, she stressed the dangers posed to her protagonist if she were to grow up without a mother; in Frankenstein the monster is rejected by his creator and embarks upon a rampage of destruction as a result. It is therefore unsurprising that, following her husband’s death, when the Shelley family offered to take care of Percy Florence, Mary chose to keep her child. Percy Florence remained close to his mother and lived and travelled with her for much of her life. He inherited the Shelley baronetcy upon the death of his grandfather and he married Jane Gibson. They had no children. While Mary’s maternal legacy ended with her 4th child, her narrative legacy, which she called her “hideous progeny”, has multiplied prolifically and continues to evoke a response in readers and audiences 200 years later.

Works Consulted

  • Betty T. Bennett (ed.), Selected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).
  • Amelia Curran, Oil portrait of William Shelley, 1819, oil on canvas, 50 x 43 cm, Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, New York Public Library, <>.
  • Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott Kilvert (eds), The Journals of Mary Shelley 1814-1844: Volume 1: 1814-1822 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
  • Neil Fraistat, Elizabeth Denlinger and Raffaele Viglianti (gen. eds), The Shelley Godwin Archive, <>.
  • Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley (London: Hutchinson, 2015).

On This Day in 1818: Percy Bysshe Shelley writes to Thomas Love Peacock

In this series, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period. Today, on 25 July 2018, we present a discussion of Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey by Rebekah Owens. Her post was inspired by a letter written by Percy Bysshe Shelley to Peacock on this day in 1818, an extract of which is shown below.

Contact Anna Mercer ( if you want to suggest a future post for this series.


Bagni di Lucca, July 25th, 1818.

My dear Peacock,


You tell me that you have finished Nightmare Abbey. I hope that you have given the enemy no quarter. Remember, it is a sacred war. We have found an excellent quotation in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour. I will transcribe it, as I do not think you have these plays at Marlow.

MATTHEW. Oh, it’s your only fine humour, sir. Your true melancholy breeds your perfect fine wit, sir. I am melancholy myself divers times, sir; and then do I no more but take pen and paper presently, and overflow you half a score or a dozen of sonnets at a sitting.

ED KNOWELL. Sure, he utters them by the gross.

STEPHEN. Truly, sir; and I love such things out of measure.

ED KNOWELL. I’ faith, better than in measure, I’ll undertake.

MATTHEW. Why, I pray you, sir, make use of my study; it’s at your service.

STEPHEN. I thank you, sir; I shall be bold, I warrant you. Have you a stool there to be melancholy upon? — Every Man in his Humour, Act III, scene i.

The last expression would not make a bad motto.


Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey: a Gothic City Comedy?

by Rebekah Owens

In the letter marked 25 July 1818, Percy Bysshe Shelley suggested an ‘excellent quotation’ from Ben Jonson’s Every Man In His Humour (1598) that Thomas Love Peacock might like to use in his forthcoming novel Nightmare Abbey: ‘I am melancholy myself divers times sir; and then do I no more but take pen and paper presently, and overflow you half a score or a dozen of sonnets at a sitting’. He rightly guessed from Peacock’s remarks to him about his work what its content would be, and so supplied him with a useful motto illustrating Jonson’s own preoccupation with the theme of ‘morbidity’ in modern literature.

Peacock had much in common with that particular early modern dramatist. Both were classicists; and both were satirists who used the medical theory of the humours to expose human foibles in their work. Peacock also pays homage to his distinguished predecessor in one other important way. Although Nightmare Abbey is a novella, it is also a drama. Felix Felton considered that the book resembled an opera with ‘libretto’ and music and even that it would make a good stage play (1973, pp. 155-6). He was right. The structure of the book, and the story it tells, use many conventions of both forms; but I think the homage to stagecraft goes much further than this. In the novella, theatre appears in all its permutations, sometimes indirectly.

For example, Peacock presents character archetypes of the sort used by Jonson himself. He creates representative characters who engage in conversational set-pieces in which the fashionable concerns of the literary minded are discussed. As with Jonson’s characters, such affectations mean that Peacock’s creations have an inflated sense of their own self-worth. This is shown in his story by the characters performing in dramas of their own making, although they insist that they are merely players on the stage of life, directed toward some higher purpose. Mr Flosky is convinced that events like the French Revolution and its outcome are a cosmic sign of the futility of action, and a directive that one can only profitably spend one’s life in philosophical contemplation. Celinda Toobad imagines herself the put-upon heroine of a Gothic romance, a sort of female Byronic hero, persecuted and forced into exile. Her father, Mr Toobad thinks that the devil has a hand in everything, including the farcical moment when he tumbles downstairs after colliding with Scythrop. The son of Christopher Glowry, who believes that all are ‘slaves and puppets’ to ‘necessity’ (p. 55), Scythrop is himself convinced that a grand directive lies before him. So intense is his ‘passion for reforming the world’ (p. 47) that he feels obliged to rehearse the moment of its realisation by donning a nightcap and dressing gown and practising his speeches from an improvised throne.

That particular moment in the novella reflects Peacock’s propensity for detailed scenic description, some of which recalls the illustrated backdrops that provided the setting for works acted in the early nineteenth-century theatre. Peacock’s word painting creates a vividly realised background to the action which unfolds before the reader as it would upon a stage, providing the setting for more direct homages to the theatre. The narrative structure of the story, though it has the expected story arc of a novella, is punctuated with small episodes, each a scene enacted before the reader. This is even emphasised by those moments when Peacock resorts to presenting the action in the form of a play – with dialogue and character notes. Two of these exchanges feature Marionetta, the one character who is perfectly adept at stage-managing scenes, especially where the matter of Scythrop’s devotion is concerned; and so, appropriately enough on these occasions, she is the instigator of the dialogue. On one of these occasions, she is even responsible for directing the action. While she plays the piano before an enchanted Mr Listless, the two of them have a conversation about the preoccupations of contemporary life. In the midst of the dialogue is a stage direction, alerting us to Scythrop seated with a copy of Dante. We learn that he is reading it in a manner which has just been described by Marionetta to be the perfect representation of a melancholy man hopelessly in love.

Given all these indirect and direct homages to dramatic form, then, while we (rightly) think of Nightmare Abbey as a parody of the Gothic novel, it is also worth considering Peacock’s novella as a Romantic reinvention of the Jonsonian city comedy. Peacock’s book has all the hallmarks of the city comedies of the seventeenth century but given a characteristically Romantic twist in its deployment of the taste for the Gothic. Nightmare Abbey in its ‘picturesque’ setting might not be a city, but it is still a place where the follies indigenous to urban life are exposed and mocked. The gloomy, mist-shrouded fens, the crenelated turrets, the crumbling, ivy-covered edifice is a monument to the contemporary Romantic fashionable taste for the Gothic, a propensity in literature mocked by Peacock as surely as Jonson mocked the literary pretensions of his own time. When a parcel arrives for Mr Listless, its contents are a representation of all the Regency foibles of the urban reading public which Mr Flosky delineates as he unpacks the parcel. There is the new type of novel centred on ‘misanthropy’, a new poem with a fashionably disaffected hero and a popular Review magazine in which authors are permitted to comment favourably on their own work. This summary of the work of William Godwin, Lord Byron and Robert Southey is as pertinent to Peacock’s audiences as were Jonson’s diatribes against his contemporaries’ literary pretension. Just like Jonson, Peacock saw in his colleagues’ work a disconcerting trend for ‘morbidity’ in literature, a too-intense focus on melancholy.

And, as everyone knows, an imbalance of the humours is invariably injurious to the health, a surfeit of melancholy leading to an unhealthy self-centredness. It results in a disengagement from life that can harm the wider society by displacing all virtue. In this novella, exploring the effect of such excesses of ‘black bile’ in contemporary literature, Peacock creates a cast of characters who feel that that they have no great part to play in the drama of life, no role to play in the betterment of the human condition. That there is, as Mr Cypress puts it ‘no hope for myself or for others’ (p. 99). And so they only feel that, as Scythrop himself says, gloomily paraphrasing another well-known early modern author: ‘the world is a stage and my direction is exit’.


Works Cited:

All quotations from Peacock’s Novel are from the Penguin edition, edited by Raymond Wright (Harmondsworth, 1969, reprinted 1981).

Roger Ingpen. 1914. Ed. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London: G. Bell & Sons. 2 Vols. Vol 2, p. 607.

Felix Felton. 1973. Thomas Love Peacock. George Allen & Unwin.

Rebekah Owens is currently studying for her PhD at Anglia Ruskin University, focusing on the reception of early modern dramatists in the 19th-century, and especially on how those responses still inform critical works today. She has published widely on early modern literature, from matters relating to the dramatist Thomas Kyd to Shakespeare on Film.

On This Day in 1818: 17 July, Percy Bysshe Shelley translates Plato’s Symposium

We continue to celebrate the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events in the Romantic period with the BARS ‘On This Day’ blog series. Following a post by Alan Weinberg in March on Shelley’s arrival in Italy in 1818, we now present this commentary by Amanda Blake Davis on the poet’s translation of the Symposium, a task that he undertook during his stay in Bagni di Lucca, Tuscany.

On This Day in 1818: 17 July, Percy Bysshe Shelley translates Plato’s Symposium

By Amanda Blake Davis (University of Sheffield)

This summer marks the bicentenary of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Symposium into English, an exercise of remarkable speed that was conducted over ten days in the summer of 1818.  For James A. Notopoulos, ‘[t]he translation of the Symposium was one of the most important things in Shelley’s poetic life.  It is valuable not only in itself but also for its influence on Shelley’s subsequent poetry’.[1]  In light of this comment, I would like to briefly consider the history of the translation’s composition and its impact upon Shelley’s poetic thought.

‘The Symposium’, Pietro Testa (1648)

Shelley began translating the Symposium on the 7th of July and continued on a daily basis until its completion on the 17th.  Shelley then made corrections from the 19th and finished these on the 20th when Mary Shelley took up the task of transcribing that lasted until the 6th of August.

The act of translation enabled Shelley to deeply consider the moral and imaginative properties of love and allowed him to bring the poeticisms of Plato’s language to life in the English language.  Stephanie Nelson observes that both the speed of the translation and Shelley’s intentional refusal to consult a Greek lexicon ‘preserve the flow of the dialogue’, and Michael O’Neill states that Shelley’s work is ‘closer in spirit to Plato than virtually any other translation’.[2]  Shelley’s assertion in A Defence of Poetry that ‘Plato was essentially a poet’ is anticipated by his prefatory fragment to his translation, wherein he describes how the philosopher expresses ‘the Pythian enthusiasm of poetry, melted by the splendour and harmony of his periods into one irresistible stream of musical impressions’.[3]  In her preface to Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, Mary Shelley describes her late husband’s translation as a ‘noble piece of writing…which for the first time introduces the Athenian to the English reader in a style worthy of him’.[4]

Prior to Shelley’s translation, the existing English translation by Floyer Sydenham was a ‘sanitized’ and bowdlerised rendition, described by Mary Shelley as being ‘so harsh and un-English in its style’, and Nelson notes that ‘[t]he only translations of Plato available to Shelley, aside from Ficino’s Latin version, were Andre Dacier’s French translation of a number of dialogues, an English translation of Dacier’s selection, a French translation of the Republic, and Thomas Taylor’s Neoplatonic completion of Floyer Sydenham’s Collected Dialogues, first published in 1804’.[5]  However, this period of translation was not the poet’s first encounter with the Symposium.  In her journal, Mary records that Shelley read the Symposium one year prior to his translation, in the summer of 1817.[6]  Even earlier, Thomas Jefferson Hogg recalls that the two studied French and Latin translations of Plato’s works, including passages from the Symposium, while at Oxford in 1810.[7]  These studies were purely recreational, as the works of Plato were not added to the curriculum at Oxford until 1847.[8]  While it was the Phaedo that captivated the young Shelley at Oxford,[9] the Symposium seems to have had the most lasting effect on the poet’s mind, as it was this text that he returned to repeatedly throughout his career.

Shelley’s explained his reasoning for translating Plato’s dialogue on love in 1818: it was to allay ‘the despair of producing any thing original’.[10]  Rather than simply serving as a distraction from creative despondency, however, the translation in both content and purpose also reveals the significance of love to Shelley’s poetic thought.  In 1821, Shelley defines love as

…a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action or person, not our own.  A man to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.

(A Defence of Poetry, 682)

Shelley’s definition of love is deeply indebted to his translation of Plato’s Symposium and particularly to the speech of the prophetess Diotima who, echoing Shelley’s Hymn of 1816, discusses ‘intellectual beauty’ and asserts that ‘the beauty which is in souls [is] more excellent than that which is in form’,[11] thereby emphasising love as a mental act.  Michael O’Neill notes that ‘“intellectual” is not present in the Greek, nor in the Latin gloss of Ficino at the foot of Shelley’s Bipont edition of the Symposium and often used by him when he was gravelled by the Greek’, positing that ‘[t]he adjective’s insertion suggests that Shelley found in Plato a subject-rhyme with his own intuitions in his earlier Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’.[12]  Shelley’s insertion of the phrase into his translation reveals his own ‘identification…with the beautiful which exists in thought, action or person, not our own’.  Shelley seems to feel that Plato’s emphasis on the beauty of the soul reflects his own belief in love as a meeting of minds and not simply of bodies.  This is further emphasised in the fragment of the essay that was to accompany the translation, wherein

…the gratification of the senses is no longer all that is sought in sexual connexion.  It soon becomes a very small part of that profound and complicated sentiment, which we call love, which is rather the universal thirst for a communion not merely of the senses, but of our whole nature, intellectual, imaginative, and sensitive…

(‘Essay on the Literature, the Arts and the Manners of the Athenians’, p. 57)

On the 10th of July, while engaged in the act of translation, Shelley wrote to the Gisbornes and declared that he hoped ‘to give Mary some idea of the manners & feelings of the Athenians—so different on many subjects from that of any other community that ever existed’.[13]  The translation is a gift of love and an encouragement for Mary to ‘put [herself] in the place of another and of many others’ by means of her imaginative recognition of the ‘inmost state of manners & opinions among the antient Greeks’.[14]  Mary reciprocates this act of love in writing to Maria Gisborne that: ‘It is true that in many particulars [the Symposium] shocks our present manners, but no one can be a reader of the works of antiquity unless they can transport themselves from these to other times and judge not by our but by their morality’.[15]  Here, Mary’s defence of the ancient Greeks and her recommendation for mental and moral transportation clearly anticipate Shelley’s definition of love in the Defence.

Shelley’s translation, edited and published by Mary as The Banquet nearly twenty years after his death, anticipated the English revival of interest in Plato’s life and philosophy.  Shelley’s engagement with the Symposium extends far beyond the summer of 1818, possibly beginning during his time at Eton and certainly remaining at the forefront of his thought up until his accidental death in 1822.  Poignantly, the last words Shelley wrote to Mary are: ‘I have found the translation of the Symposium’.[16]

Shelley’s last letter to Mary.  Pisa, July 1822 Shelley c. 1, fol. 505v Bodleian Library, University of Oxford (via Shelley’s Ghost).


[1] James A. Notopoulos, The Platonism of Shelley: A Study of Platonism and the Poetic Mind (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1949), p. 57.

[2] Stephanie Nelson, ‘Shelley and Plato’s Symposium: The Poet’s Revenge’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 14.1/2 (2007), p. 104; Michael O’Neill, ‘Emulating Plato: Shelley as Translator and Prose Poet’ in The Unfamiliar Shelley ed. by Timothy Webb and Alan Weinberg (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), p. 243.

[3] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry in The Major Works, ed. by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 679; Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Preface to the Banquet of Plato’ in The Platonism of Shelley, p. 402.

[4] Mary Shelley, ed., Percy Bysshe Shelley, Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, vol. 1 (London: Edward Moxon, 1852), preface vii.

[5] Steven Bruhm, ‘Reforming Byron’s Narcissism’, Lessons of Romanticism: A Critical Companion, ed. by Thomas Pfau and Robert F. Gleckner (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1998), p. 432; Mary Shelley, Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, vol. 1, preface viii; Nelson, p. 102.

[6] Mary’s journal entry for 13 August 1817 reads: ‘Shelley writes—reads Plato’s Convivium’.  The Journals of Mary Shelley: 1814-1844.  2 vols., ed. by Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott Kilvert (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), vol. 1, p. 178.

[7] Thomas Jefferson Hogg, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: George Routledge & Sons Limited, 1906), p. 72.

[8] Notopoulos, p. 31.

[9] Thomas Jefferson Hogg, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: George Routledge & Sons Limited, 1906), p. 72.

[10] Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. by Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964), vol. 2, p. 22.

[11] Notopoulos, pp. 447 and 448.

[12] O’Neill, p. 242.

[13] PBS Letters II, p. 20.

[14] PBS Letters II, p. 22.

[15] Shelley, Mary, The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. by Betty T. Bennett, 3 vols (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980-1988), vol. I, p. 77.

[16] ‘Shelley’s first introduction to Plato was through James Lind…who befriended Shelley at Eton.  Thomas Medwin, who took an interest in Shelley’s Platonism, mentions Shelley’s statement that he read the Symposium with Dr. Lind’, Notopoulos, p. 30; PBS Letters II, p. 444.

On This Day in 1818: Shelley approaches Italy

Prof Alan Weinberg (University of South Africa) has produced this post to mark 200 years since P B Shelley’s journey to Italy – a crucial turning point in his life, and his writing. He and Mary Shelley had left England on 12 March 1818 accompanied by Claire Clairmont, three children, and two female servants. Percy Shelley, who was 25 years old at the time of the journey, was never to return and would drown off the coast of Tuscany four years later in 1822.

On this day in 1818, just before his arrival in Italy, he writes from Lyons, France, to Leigh Hunt, in an affectionate letter full of hope:


Lyons, March 22  1818.––

My dear friend,

Why did you not wake me the night before we left England, you & Marianne  I take this as rather an unkind piece of kindness in you, but which in consideration of the 600 miles between us I forgive. ––

We have journeyed towards the spring that has been hastening to meet us from the South–– & though our weather was at first abominable, we have now warm sunny days & soft winds & a sky of deep azure, the most serene I ever saw. The heat in this city to day, is like that of London in the middle of summer–  My spirits & health sympathise in the change. Indeed before I left London my spirits were as feeble as my health – and I had demands on them which I found  difficult to supply.

I have read Foliage–– With most of the poems I was already familiar. What a delightful poem the Nymphs is, & especially the second part. It is truly poetical in the intense & emphatic sense of the word. If 600 miles were not between us, I should say what pity that glib is not omitted & that the poem is not as faultless as it is beautiful! But for fear I should spoil your next poem I will not let slip a word upon the subject––––  Give my love to Marianne & her sister & tell Marianne she defrauded me of a kiss by not waking me when she went away, & that as I have no better mode of conveying it I must take the best, & ask you to pay the debt. When shall I see you all again ? O, that it might b<e> in Italy! I confess that the thought of how long we may be divided make<s> me very melancholy:– Adieu –my d<ear> friends––  write soon–  ever most affectionately Yours

[Shelley & his Circle VI: 523-4.]


Prof. Weinberg contextualises Shelley in Italy for us:

In the first 8 months of their residence in Italy (April to December 1818) the Shelleys crossed the length and breadth of Italy (excluding Sicily) and resided in or stopped by at a great number of places including (more importantly, and in something like chronological sequence), Turin, Milan, Como, Pisa, Livorno, Bagni di Lucca, Florence, Padua, Este, Venice, Ferrara, Bologna, Spoleto, Terni, Rome, Naples and its environs including Vesuvius. Visits were usually accompanied by sightseeing in regard to architecture and landscape or visits to palaces, prisons or picture galleries.  There were periods of calm and some of frenetic travelling by carriage in circumstances which would be a trial for the modern tourist. The Shelleys had few acquaintances and had two small children to look after, William and Clara, as well as assist with Claire and Byron’s daughter, Allegra, and in September, endured the severe illness and loss of their daughter Clara. It is not generally recognized that in these early months, Shelley wrote only one major poem, and it is one of his neglected Italianate pieces in iambic tetrameter and trimeter, Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills. It was largely inspired by Petrarch. Several other compositions, like Prometheus Unbound and ‘Julian and Maddalo’, were begun and only completed in 1819, or were eventually aborted, like ‘Prince Athanase’, a redaction of which appeared in press copy in 1819 as ‘Athanase: A Fragment’ (but was not published).  One prose essay,  ‘Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks’ was finished in draft, the translation from the Symposium nearly completed, and a few other prose works, such as a Preface to The Banquet (Symposium), ‘The Coliseum’ (begun December 1818) and ‘A Future State’, were left unfinished in manuscript.

Shelley’s residence in Italy is a turning point in his career: it follows a period of intense creativity which saw the composition of AlastorMont BlancHymn to Intellectual Beauty, Laon and Cythna (re-named The Revolt of Islam), Rosalind and Helen, as well as a History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, prefaces, reviews, political pamphlets, essays (like the sketch ‘On Christianity’ (more specifically Christ’s teachings), and brief, mostly unfinished political or philosophical sketches. Laon and Cythna was meant to be the crowning piece in which Shelley encompassed much of what he understood to be his task as poet and seer, and was written in the belief that he was suffering from consumption and thus had not long to live. He put his heart and soul into this composition but it didn’t win much favour. The early residence in Italy was clearly a period of settling in, of recuperation, of reconfiguration, and of adventure, but Shelley also felt the frustration of a loss of creativity. He began a play on ‘Tasso’ but soon abandoned it, turning to Greek translation as a means of compensation – but producing an outstandingly eloquent and fluent rendering of The Symposium which had a formative influence on subsequent works. While 1818 has little to show for itself in terms of finished products, it was effectively a period of conception and regeneration, and of great receptivity to the classical world as it suggested itself in the remains of antiquity and in the emulation of classical styles in modern architecture. In this regard Shelley was a classicist and not a romanticist, and was always aiming to reach beyond Christianity, much as he admired the ethics of Jesus, whom he regarded as a reformer and not a divine redeemer, and whose tortured representation in Italian painting, and that of his followers, filled him with anguish and disbelief. It was pagan and classical Italy that largely inspired Shelley, and this made an immediate impact in scenes which reminded him of Virgil’s eclogues or the famed scenes at Delphi and Mt Helicon.

Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Baths of Caracalla, Joseph Severn 1845


On This Day in 1817: 28 December, The Immortal Dinner

The ‘On This Day’ series continues with a post by Ana Stevenson to celebrate 200 years since a gathering of remarkable intellects…


Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, 1824 – 1820 by Benjamin Robert Haydon


The Immortal Dinner
by Ana Stevenson

Born in 1786, Benjamin Robert Haydon was a history painter who surrounded himself by men whose genius he judged equal to his own. Although Haydon is less well-known today, he was highly regarded as an artist in his own time. In 1804 he entered the Royal Academy Schools in London and exhibited there for the first time at the age of 21. Although this led to recognition and commissions, he did not have a steady income, meaning that he was in constant debt and struggled financially until the end of his life.

In 1817, however, Haydon moved to 22 Lisson Grove, where he was in possession of his own furniture and house-appliances for the first time. He wrote that he had used ‘my own tea cup and saucers. I took up my own knife. I sat on my own chair. It was a new sensation!’.


Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1825 portrait by Georgiana Zornlin


Fond of social gatherings, his new house also inspired the painter to invite some selected friends to dine at his home during the Christmas period. Haydon had an impact in the Literary world, with William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Leigh Hunt writing verses dedicated to the artist, therefore it is not surprising to find these poets amongst the guests who attended his dinner – except Leigh Hunt, who was excluded due to an argument between the host and Hunt’s wife.

The guestlist for this exceptional evening included Wordsworth, Keats, Charles Lamb, Tom Monkhouse, Joseph Ritchie, a few more of Haydon’s acquaintances, and a man named John Kingston, who invited himself as “a friend of Wordsworth”. Thanks to Haydon’s habit of documenting his life in journals, there is a detailed account of what took place that evening, and the event is known as ‘The Immortal Dinner’.

The party was welcomed by Haydon’s current project, ‘Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem’, which hung over the guests. Wordsworth and Keats are featured in this painting along with other notable figures of the era, a fact that stimulated conversation on the evening. The artist was delighted by the good humour the setting inspired and watched his friends partake in a gleeful discussion. Apart from Kingston, all were to some extent acquainted with one another. Haydon documented in his journal that once they retired for tea, Kingston, whom he forgot to introduce to the party, decided to take upon himself to engage with Wordsworth. He enquired ‘Don’t you think, sir, Milton was a great genius?’. Until this point, Keats was occupied examining Haydon’s books, and Lamb, who had a bit too much to drink and ‘got exceedingly merry and exquisitely witty’, was sat by the fire. When the question was asked, everyone turned their attention to Kingston’s remark.


John Keats, c.1822, portrait by William Hilton after Joseph Severn


Keats looked at Haydon, Wordsworth looked at Kingston, and Lamb said ‘Pray, sir, did you say Milton was a great genius?’ to which the man replied that he had asked Mr Wordsworth if he were not. Lamb then declared ‘Oh, then you are a silly fellow’. After a brief interruption by Wordsworth, everyone went quiet. Not content, Kingston decided for a second attempt: ‘Don’t you think Newton a great genius?’. At that point Keats hid his face in a book, Haydon could no longer stand it, Wordsworth did not know what was going on, and Lamb got up asking ‘Sir, will you allow me to look at your phrenological development?’. Kingston realised that Wordsworth did not seem to know who he was, therefore, in a third attempt to engage with the poet, he expressed that he had the honour of some correspondence with him, to which Wordsworth could not remember. Kingston seemed to finally give up, but at that point, Lamb was much amused. Haydon describes in his journal Lamb getting up and singing ‘Hey diddle diddle, The cat and the fiddle. Diddle diddle dumpling, my son John,’ while Wordsworth cried ‘My dear Charles!’ trying to stop Lamb, but to no avail.

‘Do let me have another look at that gentleman’s organs.’ Lamb shouted, as Keats and Haydon locked him in a different room while bursting into laughter. After this event, the party tried to console Kingston, who stayed for dinner but no longer attempted to further engage with the guests in the same manner. Peace was seemingly restored; the guests were occupied in their discussions and trying to move on from the incident, but Kingston had lost his dignity and the matter could not be forgotten as Lamb could still be heard calling from the other room: ‘Who is that fellow? Allow me to see his organs once more’.


William Wordsworth, 1818, portrait by Richard Carruthers


This event was not only immortalised by Haydon’s words, but the fun aspects of a casual event attended by a group of notorious figures from the time remains a topic of great interest until the present day. It is rare to be immersed into situations such as this, which appears to be of little importance to the attendees’ works, but incredibly relevant when it comes to understanding how they interacted with one another on a personal level. The Immortal Dinner truly proved itself to have a longer life than the ones who were present at that evening:

‘Keats made Ritchie promise he would carry his Endymion to the great desert of Sahara and fling it in the midst.

Poor Ritchie went to Africa, and died, as Lamb foresaw, in 1819. Keats died in 1821, at Rome. C. Lamb is gone, joking to the last. Monkhouse is dead, and Wordsworth and I are the only two now living (1841) of that glorious party.’

Two years after Haydon transcribed his account, Wordsworth became Poet Laureate and proceeded to survive the whole party as Haydon took his own life in 1846.

Primary Sources:

Benjamin Robert Haydon’s Autobiography and Letters

On This Day in 1817: Keats and Negative Capability, 21-27 December

After a hiatus, ‘On This Day’ continues with a post by Ellen Nicholls (University of Sheffield). Ellen is a third year PhD candidate and Wolfson Scholar, studying under the supervision of Dr Madeleine Callaghan. Her thesis explores the interdependency of pleasure and pain in the poetry and letters of John Keats, thinking about how far Keats uses the poem as an experimental space in which to engage with, advance, and depart from a medical understanding of bodily experience. Alongside her studies, she is also working with the Keats-Shelley Association of America as a Communications Fellow, collaborating with and promoting the many bicentenary celebrations of the Romantics through online media.

We return to this series to celebrate an iconic moment from 1817 which will be familiar to many scholars of Romanticism and readers of Keats. Here Ellen explains the significance of this bicentenary and also discusses the short lyric ‘In Drear-nighted December’.

More ‘On This Day’ posts to follow. If you want to contribute to this series, please contact Anna Mercer (


‘Drear-Nighted December’ and the Bicentenary of Keats’s Negative Capability Letter


This Christmas marks the bicentenary of Keats’s ‘Negative Capability’ letter. Written roughly between 21-27 December 1817, this important anniversary leads many romantic scholars and enthusiasts to reflect on Keats’s considerable achievements. As this time approaches, I am not only reminded of the astonishing creative energies that Keats displays in his letter, but also drawn to Keats’s attentiveness to the season in which he is writing. Critics are often attuned to the role darkness and mist play in Keats’s conception of negative capability.[1] But very little has been said of how ‘Drear-nighted December’, the month and time of day in which Keats was writing to his brothers Tom and George, informs one of his most famous poetic speculations. December 21 1817 was the winter solstice, and the shorter, darker days of winter, alongside the many indoor festivities that accompanied them, were not far from Keats’s mind while he was writing to his brothers in Teignmouth.

The composition history of this significant letter remains somewhat shrouded in the ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’ (Letters: John Keats I, 193) that it so famously sets forth.[2] The letter survives from a transcript by John Jeffrey; second husband to George’s wife, Georgiana. Hyder Edward Rollins points out Jeffrey’s misdating of the correspondence, a fact that is unsurprising given Keats’s habit of composing letters over fragmented periods of time. But Rollins conjectures that the letter’s main passage on negative capability was ‘very likely’ (Letters: John Keats I, 194) written the night of 26th December, after Charles Brown and Charles Wentworth Dilke accompanied Keats to the Drury Lane Christmas pantomime: Harlequin’s Vision, Or, The Feast of the Statue.

It is Keats’s busy social life throughout the festive period that not only interrupts the letter’s composition, but that is also vital in informing its content. Keats wryly comments upon how he has ‘been out too much lately’ (Letters: John Keats I, 192), describing how he: watched one of his favourite actors, Edmund Kean, in Shakespeare’s Richard III; spent ‘two very pleasant evenings with Dilke’ (Letters: John Keats I, 191-192); viewed Benjamin West’s painting Death on the Pale Horse with Charles Jeremiah Wells— an artistic experience that was central in elaborating his thoughts on the ‘close relationship […] [between] Beauty & Truth’ (Letters: John Keats I, 192) ; ‘dined with Haydon’ (Letters: John Keats I, 192); dined also with Horace Smith, Smith’s two brothers, Thomas Hill, John Kingston, and Edward Du Bois; and, of course, attended the Christmas pantomime with Brown and Dilke.


‘Death on the Pale Horse’ by Benjamin West (1817)


It is the spirit of conviviality, converse, and merriment that accompanied Keats’s busy social calendar between 21 and 27 December that led him to set out his theory of negative capability. Reflecting upon his walk to and from the Christmas pantomime with his two friends, Keats writes:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously— I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason— Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge (Letters: John Keats I, 193-194).

Keats comically draws attention to the friendly spirit of disagreement, typical of the festive period, which characterised his conversation with Dilke by means of rejecting the term ‘dispute’ in favour of ‘disquisition’. The rigorous discussion and questioning that the verb ‘disquisition’ implies becomes important for understanding ‘what quality’ Keats is attempting to spell out. Keats writes in response to Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, published the same year that this letter was composed, and in which Coleridge suggests that the poet should aim to reconcile ‘opposite or discordant qualities’ through a synthetic imagination.[3] Entering into dialogue with Coleridge, Keats suggests that reaching after reconciliations and conclusions can lead to the ‘verisimilar’, or that which appears true, but is ultimately fallacious. Instead, negative capability proposes an ability to remain at ease with the ‘uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts’ of contradiction and disagreement, advancing the idea that the poet should have a disquisitional mind that is content with ‘half knowledge’ and in which meaning is neither fixed nor debate shut down. It is with such a dialogic openness of mind that Keats conceives of negative capability. With a characteristically contradictory turn of phrase, Keats highlights how holding ‘several things’ in equipoise within his imagination paradoxically leads his ideas to ‘dovetail’, uniting together to form his important poetic concept. Creativity, for Keats, is not inhibited but enabled by the inherent equivocality of tensions so much so that the ambiguities and indeterminacies of ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’ would become one of the defining features of Keats’s poetic style.

Considering the season in which Keats sat down to write this letter 200 years ago, brings into relief the receptivity of his creative imagination. A mind continually responsive to and informed by his surroundings, encounters, and conversations with friends, the negative capability letter demonstrates the inextricability between Keats’s life, letters, and poetry. It was on another day in December 1817 that Keats wrote and poetically reflected upon the season in the short lyric, ‘In Drear-nighted December’. This winter poem does not contain depictions of friendly converse and companionship that we see in Keats’s negative capability letter, instead presenting harsh and ‘sleety’ (6) images of dismal ‘frozen thawings’ (7). But Keats’s sense that nature might find contentment with its winter condition, with the darkness and dreariness of a season in which life clings on so tentatively, resonates with his thoughts on ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’. As John Barnard writes: ‘The poem reflects Keats’s ideas on “Negative Capability” and “intensity”, which he outlined in his important letter to Tom and George on 21-7 December 1817’.[4] The ‘crystal fretting’ (14) of Keats’s poem is centred on how we might share in nature’s contentment with ‘drear-nighted’ (1) uncertainty without writhing (20) at the ‘passed joy’ (20) of summer’s ‘budding’ (8) stability:



In a drear-nighted December,

Too happy, happy tree,

Thy branches ne’er remember

Their green felicity:

The north cannot undo them,

With a sleety whistle through them;

Nor frozen thawings glue them

From budding at the prime.



In a drear-nighted December,

Too happy, happy brook,

Thy bubblings ne’er remember

Apollo’s summer look;

But with a sweet forgetting,

They stay their crystal fretting,

Never, never petting

About the frozen time.



Ah! would ’t were so with many

A gentle girl and boy!

But were there ever any

Writhed not of passèd joy?

The feel of not to feel it,

When there is none to heal it,

Nor numbèd sense to steal it,

Was never said in rhyme.[5]


Keats’s repeated use of the negations ‘Ne’er’ (3), ‘nor’ (7), ‘never’ (15), ‘not’ (20), sets forth the issue under interrogation: namely, how to articulate a feeling as ambiguous as absence and loss. The poem paradoxically draws attention to the sensation of senselessness, or ‘the feel of not to feel it’ (21), presenting the loss of joy not as a ‘numbèd sense’ (23) in which all feeling is annihilated, but an absent presence or painful void that causes one to writhe (20). The poem proposes an inability for ‘rhyme’ (24) or poetic language to contain such an experience, leading Michael O’Neill to argue that the poem is, ‘called into being by the “feel” it is said never to have found words for, “rhyme” stands apart from “feel” by virtue of its failure to rhyme with any lines in the stanza (it rhymes with the final lines of stanzas 1 and 2)’.[6] Poetic language ostensibly fails to meet the demands of negative capability by being unable to capture the uncertain, mysterious, and doubtful sensation of absence. And yet it is at the point where rhyme is said to fail that the potentiality of such uncertainty is evident. The word ‘rhyme’ may not harmonise with any other line ending in the third stanza, but it shares an important formal and semantic relation to the end words of the previous two stanzas: ‘prime’ (8) and ‘time’ (16). The final words of each stanza are aurally incongruous to the other rhyme sounds in each contained section, isolated within the bleak landscape that they both describe and reflect. But they also serve to link each of the stanzas together as a whole by drawing the eye and ear back to the only words that they share a formal relation with in the other stanzas. By linking these three words together through rhyme, the poem’s outlook of winter desolation is both undermined and belied by the suggestion that ‘drear-nighted December’ (1) is the ‘prime’ (8) ‘time’ (16) for engendering thought and sensation within poetic language. That which is dark, obscure, and uncertain becomes a site of frustration and ‘fretting’ (14) that resists the limitations of language, even as it is presented as a location of ‘budding’ (8) potentiality.

Keats may be a poet who is most frequently associated with autumn, but the importance of winter for his poetic thought should not be underestimated. December reminds us of the remarkable achievement of Keats’s letters as the month that both brought into being and embodies his thoughts on negative capability.

– Ellen Nicholls


[1] See Keats’s 3rd May 1818 letter to Reynolds in which Keats creates a simile for life as ‘a large Mansion of Many Apartments’ (Letters: John Keats I, 280-281). In his analysis of the letter, Alexander Patterson suggests that darkness and mist do not inhibit, but facilitate thought and imagination. Alexander Patterson, ‘A Greater Luxury’: Keats’s Depictions of Mistiness and Reading, Romanticism, 18 (2012), pp. 260-269 (p. 260).

[2] The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958). All subsequent references to the letters will be taken from this edition.

[3] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Biographia Literaria” (1817) in The Major Works, ed. H. J. Jackson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 155-482 (p. 319).

[4] See footnotes to ‘In Drear-Nighted December’, John Keats The Complete Poems, ed. John Barnard (London: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 217.

[5] John Keats, ‘In Drear-Nighted December’, John Keats The Complete Poems, ed. John Barnard (London: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 217.

[6] Michael O’Neill, “The Reading of an Ever-Changing Tale”: Keats (I)’ in Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 180-209 (p. 182).

On This Day in 1816: 10th December and the tragic death of Harriet Shelley

We welcome Francesca Blanch Serrat to the BARS blog for the second time; Francesca is a pre-doctoral student and has written the following post on Harriet Shelley. She recently graduated in English Studies with a minor in Gender Studies from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Her areas of research include minor women writers of the eighteenth century and British and French Romanticism. She is on Twitter.

We are always looking for new contributors. If you’d like to write something on literary/historical events in 1817, please contact We also welcome proposals from those who wish to write about 1817 more generally, and not about a specific date. We hope you are enjoying this series!

The Life and Death of Harriet Westbrook Shelley

On this day, December 10th, two hundred years ago, the body of Harriet Shelley, née Westbrook, was recovered from the Serpentine in Hyde Park. It was a pensioner of the Chelsea Hospital, John Levesley (Shepherd, 2013) who saw the corpse floating in the lake and alerted the authorities. After the inquest, it was discovered that the remains belonged to a Harriet Smith (she had taken lodgings under that surname), who had disappeared a month before. She was pregnant when she took her life. The following is an account of the circumstances that led Harriet, the first wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, to her suicide.

The Serpentine, Hyde Park section of "Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger"

The Serpentine, Hyde Park section of “Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger”

After a few weeks in Edinburgh, the newlyweds spent their first three years as husband and wife travelling: initially they moved to York, and then to Keswick, where Shelley began writing to William Godwin. After a while the Shelleys travelled to Ireland – Percy had noble revolutionary intentions that were not so well received by the Irish (Gilmour, 2002) – and on their return they established themselves in Wales before moving shortly to North Devon and back. In 1812, they went to London, where they finally met Godwin and his family, with the exception of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley), who was in Scotland.

After that, Percy and Harriet moved to Wales, and then returned to London, where Harriet gave birth to a girl, Ianthe. By 1814, Harriet, Ianthe and Eliza (Harriet’s sister) were finally established in Windsor while Percy wandered, visiting London and meeting with friends, including Godwin and, finally, Mary. Even though Percy and Harriet married again under English law around this period, his visits became less frequent, until he eventually stopped seeing his – now once more pregnant – wife.

Harriet's husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley

Harriet’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley

During these months of estrangement, Percy began a relationship with Mary Godwin, who was to become his wife and companion. Their relationship flourished in the following months, despite Godwin’s disapproval and Harriet’s desperation. Finally, Percy eloped with Mary and her stepsister Jane (later Claire Clairmont) to the continent. It attests to his lack of maturity and irresponsible idealism that Percy wrote to Harriet from Switzerland, inviting her to join him and his lover in Europe, and to bring money with her (Hay 2011:32). At this request, she was beside herself. Even if Harriet was not economically strained (she received £200 from her father, and £100 from Shelley), she must have been emotionally traumatised as an abandoned pregnant mother.

Harriet returned to her father’s house with Ianthe and Eliza, and gave birth her second child, Charles. The Westbrooks took care of the situation as best as they could: they sent Ianthe and Charles to the countryside, which one might think could have added to their mother’s torment. Eventually, Harriet left her father’s house and took lodgings in Hans Place, Knightsbridge. It is possible that this decision was motivated by her pregnancy, but we cannot know whether she was trying to conceal it from her family, or if it had been her family’s idea, to shield her from further gossip.

On December 12, 1816, this notice appeared in The London Times:

   “On Tuesday a respectable female, far advanced in pregnancy, was taken out of the Serpentine river and brought to her residence in Queen Street, Brompton, having been missed for nearly six weeks. She had a valuable ring on her finger. A want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe, her husband being abroad.”

Harriet's suicide letter. Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.

Harriet’s suicide letter. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Later, Harriet’s last letter, addressed to her sister, was found. It read as follows:

“To you my dear Sister I leave all my things as they more properly belong to you than any one & you will preserve them for Ianthe . Hog bless you both My dearest & much belod Sister

Sat. Eve.

When you read this letr. I shall be [no] more an inhabitant of this miserable world. do not regret the loss of one who could never be anything but a source of vexation & misery to you all belonging to me. Too wretched to exert myself lowered in the opinion of everyone why should I drag on a miserable existence embittered by past recollections & not one ray of hope to rest on for the future. […] God bless & watch over you all. You dear Bysshe [Percy, her husband]. & you dear Eliza. May all happiness attend ye both is the last wish of her who loved ye more than all others. My children I dare not trust myself there. They are too young to regret me & ye will be kind to them for their own sakes more than for mine. My parents do not regret me. I was unworthy your love & care. Be happy all of you. so shall my spirit find rest & forgiveness. God bless you all is the last prayer of the unfortunate   Harriet S–––” [i]

Harriet’s death, subject to a great deal of speculation ever since, is, if anything, an example of the situation in which married women found themselves in eighteenth-century England, tied to the decisions and whims of their husbands, for better or for worse. Percy’s irresponsibility lead Harriet to a situation of social vulnerability he seemed not to fully understand.



Harriet Shelley’s Suicide Letter. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Gilmour, Ian. The Making of the Poets: Byron and Shelley in Their Time. London: Pimlico, 2002.

Hay, Daisy. Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron an Other Tangled Lives. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Shepherd, Lynn. “‘This fatal catastrophe’: The sad life and strange death of Harriet Shelley”  [consulted 22/11/16].

On this day in 1816: 17 November, Marriage, Scandal and the Death of a Lover

The ‘On This Day’ series continues with a post by Brianna Robertson-Kirkland (University of Glasgow).

Brianna completed her PhD in 2016 (funded by the College of Arts Internship Scholarship). Her research examines the 18th century castrato singer Venanzio Rauzzini and the education and career of his operatic students. She regularly performs in solo recitals and has taken part in masterclasses with Emma Kirkby, Robert Toft and Nicholas Clapton. She was part of a recording project for The Centre for Robert Burns Studies, which was also filmed as part of the BBC documentary Burns, My Dad and Me, that aired in 2016.

As always, if you’d like to contribute to this series with a post on literary/historical events in 1816/1817, please contact Anna Mercer.

On this day in 1816: 17 November, Marriage, Scandal and the Death of a Lover

Figure 1: John Braham as "Lord Aimworth", steel line engraving by Thomson/Foster, 1818, Wikicommons

Figure 1: John Braham as “Lord Aimworth”, steel line engraving by Thomson/Foster, 1818, Wikicommons

On 17 November 1816, the eminent British tenor John Braham (1774-1856) was married to the young and wealthy Frances Elizabeth Bolton of Ardwick (1799-1846). Though Braham was 25 years her senior (he was aged 42, while Miss Bolton was 17) the marriage appeared to be a happy one, producing six children (two daughters and four sons), all of whom survived into adulthood. However, Braham’s motivation to marry a young and virginal bride was perhaps not entirely altruistic. In fact, his choice was of particular significance, since the marriage was perhaps an attempt to wash away a summer of scandal that threatened both his reputation and his future musical career. At least this was strongly speculated by Joseph Norton Ireland in 1863:

Mr. Braham married in early middle life, and the rectitude of his latter years served to redeem his reputation from the gallantries and follies that marred the days of his youth (p. 343).

The ‘gallantries and follies’ to which Norton was referring, was perhaps not just the summer of 1816, but the fact that Braham had been in a long-term, unmarried relationship with the Anglo-Italian prima donna Nancy Storace (1765-1817).

Figure 2: Bettelini, Pietro (1763-1829) Portrait of Nancy Storace (1765-1817), English soprano. Printed in April 12, 1788 by Moltens Colnaghi & Co No. 32 Pall Mall, and in Paris by chez Tessari Zanna et Ce. Quay de Augustins No 42.

Figure 2: Bettelini, Pietro (1763-1829) Portrait of Nancy Storace (1765-1817), English soprano. Printed in April 12, 1788 by Moltens Colnaghi & Co No. 32 Pall Mall, and in Paris by chez Tessari Zanna et Ce. Quay de Augustins No 42.

The pair had been introduced by their shared vocal teacher, the Italian castrato Venanzio Rauzzini (1746-1810). Storace was first trained by Rauzzini in England, before developing an illustrious career on the continent, most notably singing the role of Susanna in the premier of Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro. In 1784, she was married to the English violinist John Abraham Fisher (1744-1806), though it was publically known that he was violent and abusive to Storace, resulting in Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor (1741-1790) forcing him to quit his continental tour and leave Storace behind. Though Storace returned to England in 1787, she never saw Fisher again, but they were still legally married until his death.

Braham was trained by Rauzzini from 1794-1796, where he developed his initial skills in an Italianate style of singing, something for which he would gain much celebrity throughout his career. Rauzzini frequently obtained professional engagements for his students but also showcased their talents through his popular Bath Concert Series. Storace came to perform in this series during the 1796-97 season alongside Braham. In the same year Braham as offered the leading role in Mahmoud, which was written and composed by Storace’s brother Stephen. This would begin a long professional and personal relationship between two of Rauzzini’s most successful students (Robertson-Kirkland, 2016).

Figure 3: Rauzzini Memorial, Bath Abbey, Photograph by Paul Turner, Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY2.0). Accessed 17 May 2015.

Figure 3: Rauzzini Memorial, Bath Abbey, Photograph by Paul Turner, Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY2.0). Accessed 17 May 2015.

However, Braham was at the beginning of his career and though he had been offered the leading role in the Drury Lane theatre, known as the home of English opera, his performance was not well received. It was not until he was offered a role at The King’s Theatre, aka the home of Italian opera, that he received favourable reviews:

As a singer [Braham] has infinite merit as his powers are much better calculated for the Italian opera than the English stage (1796, p. 2).

The following year, contemporary periodicals reported contradictory information about Storace and Braham’s intentions to travel to the continent. True Briton stated that Storace was ‘going to Italy to improve herself in singing’ with Braham accompanying her to ‘practice duets’ (1791, p. 1). The Oracle and Public Advertiser, on the other hand, stated that Braham went ‘to Italy for improvement’ and Storace accompanied him ‘for the purpose of managing his points’ (1791). Other reports did not attempt to spin a professional guise but crudely stated their relationship outright:

Braham has promised Storace to give her an animated description of Moses erecting his serpent in the wilderness (1797, p. 3).

The continental tour proved a success for both Braham and Storace, but there can be no doubt that it was through Storace’s former contacts that they were able to obtain illustrious engagements, improving Braham’s visability as a tenor of note. This exposure allowed his career to flourish, particularly upon their return to Britain, where Braham’s singing was in high demand.

Yet Storace’s career diminished somewhat, with reports frequently teasing that her lack of stage appearances was due to pregnancy. These reports were a continuous reminder that the pair were more than friendly, professional colleagues (1798, p. 4). For the most part, the reports were true; by 1802, Storace gave birth to Braham’s son, William Spencer Harris Braham.

Though Storace may still have been married to Fisher and William born out of wedlock, Braham and Storace were received in good company and it was generally accepted that they were unofficially man and wife. Even so, after Fisher’s death in 1806, one might expect that the pair would have made their relationship official, if for no other reason than to appease Georgian society. But this was not to be. Storace and Braham continued to live unwed until his betrayal in the summer of 1816.

On 23 July, The Times reported that Braham was being sued for damages by Mr Wright in the amount of 5000l. It transpired that Braham had run off with Mr Wright’s wife earlier in year resulting in a very public affair to the detriment of Braham, the Wrights’ and Storace’s reputation. While Storace and Braham’s relationship may have been initially accepted in polite company, the public immediately turned on them both, placing particular blame on Storace for leading Mrs Wright astray (1816, p. 3). Braham was forced to pay Mr Wright 1000l in damages and his career was threatened after he was hissed off the stage by the audience at Drury Lane theatre (1991, p. 302).

His hasty marriage to Miss Bolton just a few months after his public affair with Mrs Wright and break-up with Storace established that he was settling down to a socially acceptable life and for the most part, the public forgave his prior descretions. Unfortunately, Storace was not as lucky, as she suffered two strokes the following year, the second resulting in her death. Was Braham’s betrayal responsible or was this merely a coincidence? Though reports suggested the former, Braham’s singing career returned to its former glory and he became one of the most internationally sought after vocalists of the day (1817, p. 3). The marriage served its purpose, so in many ways 17 November 1816 was Braham’s rebirth as an honourable man.



Works Cited

Morning Post and Fashionable World, July 10, (London: William Griffin, 1797).

Observer, October 28, (London: W S Bourne, 1798).

Oracle and Public Advertiser, July 8, (London: P Stuart and James Boaden, 1797).

Sun, October 31, (London: B McMillan, 1796).

The Times, July 24, (London: James Lawson, 1816).

The Hull Packet and Original Weekly Commercial, Literary and General Advertiser September 30, (Hull: Robert Peck, 1817).

True Briton (1793), July 5, (London: A Wilson, 1797).

Ireland, Joseph Norton, Records of the New York stage, from 1750 to 1860, 2 volumes, (New York: T H Morell, 1863), vol. 2.

Ed. Highfill, Philip H; Burnim, Kalman A; Langhans, Edward A, A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800: S. Siddons to Thrnne, (Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), Vol. 14.        

Robertson-Kirkland, Brianna Elyse, Are we all castrati? Venanzio Rauzzini: ‘The father of a new style in English singing’. PhD thesis, (University of Glasgow, 2016).