This post continues the ‘On This Day’ series: Francesca Blanch Serrat writes for us on John Keats and Leigh Hunt. Francesca is a pre-doctoral student. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you to all those who have sent in posts so far – please have a look through the back catalogue of posts for blogs celebrating the bicentenaries of events from 1815-16.
On This Day: John Keats meets Leigh Hunt
1816 was a decisive year in John Keats‘s life. In March, after bringing his apprenticeship to a close, he began working as a surgical dresser at Guy’s Hospital in London, planning to complete the twelve months of training required for Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons. In July, he successfully sat for his examinations and became an apothecary. By December, however, he had decided to abandon his career as a surgeon to focus on his poetic endeavours. Although Keats had already demonstrated an affinity for poetry, (he had written “Imitation of Spencer”, his earliest extant poem, two years before), he had not chosen between his medical career and his literary one up until that moment. The reasons behind that timing might be attributed to a very exciting and stimulating episode in the poet’s life, one that can be argued to have marked a turning point not only in his life but also in the history of literature: Keats began an acquaintance with Leigh Hunt, and was hence introduced into a politically involved and artistically devoted circle of artists and thinkers.
On this day two hundred years ago, Keats wrote to C.C. Clarke:
To C.C. Clarke, 9 October 1816
Wednesday October 9th-
“The busy time has now gone by, and I can now devote any time you may mention to the pleasure of seeing Mr Hunt-‘t will be an Era in my existence– I am anxious to see the Author of the Sonnet to the Sun, for it is no mean gratification to become acquainted with Men who in their admiration of Poetry do not jumble together Shakespeare and Darwin- I have coppied out a sheet or two of Verses which I composed some time ago, and find much to blame worst in them that the best part will go into the fire […]”
It was Keats’s good friend and former schoolmate, Charles Cowden Clarke, to whom this letter is addressed, who introduced him to Leigh Hunt. The Clarkes had been supporters of Hunt since the foundation of his newspaper The Examiner, and he and C.C.Clarke met during Hunt’s stay in gaol, in 1813. C. C. Clarke was the son of the schoolmaster of Clarke’s Academy, Enfield, which Keats attended. From an early age, Keats and Clarke, separated by only eight years, became close friends, and the latter always encouraged the former’s literary endeavours. Clarke was a culturally involved scholar who cultivated friendships with some of the most well-known names of the period: Charles and Mary Lamb, Shelley, Hunt, Coleridge, the Novellos, Godwin and Dickens, among others. Thus, he acted as the link between the young student with poetical aspirations and the literary circle that revolved around Hunt, known as the Cockney School, a derogatory and classist term coined by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in a series of articles criticising the non-aristocratic members of the coterie.
Keats had been an admirer of Hunt since his senior year at school, when he regularly borrowed The Examiner from Clarke. The Examiner was a politically independent weekly newspaper, running from 1808 to 1886, edited by Leigh Hunt and printed by his brother John. The publication included theatre and literary reviews, original poetry, reports on parliamentary proceedings, columns on manners, fashion and even international politics. It was in this newspaper that Hunt established himself as a radical political voice. The Examiner published some of the leading radical voices of the time, such as the poets Charles Lamb, Lord Byron or Percy Shelley, the painter Benjamin Haydon, or the essayist William Hazlitt. In Hunt’s political dissent, Keats found an ideology from which he could draw poetic inspiration. In the words of C.C.Clarke, Hunt’s paper “no doubt laid the foundation of his love of civil and religious liberty” (Recollections of Keats, 123). Although in scholarship Keats’s politics tend to be relegated to a second plane, compared to other writers of the Hunt circle, politics played a significant part in his literary productions and should not be overlooked. Evidence of these political interests are present in his early poems: “On Peace” (a sonnet calling on the European monarchs to support reform after Napoleon’s defeat, 1814) and “Lines written on 29 May The Anniversary of the Restoration of Charles the 2nd” (1814). Both works were very much in line with the style and ideology professed by Hunt. In his biography of the young poet, Robert Gittings argues that, previous to their acquaintance, Hunt was an inspiration to Keats, a model for him to follow: “In search for reassurance, he turned to his intellectual touchstone, The Examiner, and its poet-editor. Here was poetic success which had endured persecution and prison without compromise. Leigh Hunt had done what Keats felt himself failing to do, and kept poetry alive in a workaday world” (Gittings 105:1979). The young poet found in Hunt “not only [a] political exemplar, but [a] model for his poetry” (Gittings 116:1979).
Previous to their meeting, however, Hunt and Keats’s relationship began in April 1816, when Keats sent a poem to The Examiner under the initials J.K. and was published two weeks later. Later that year, Clarke gathered some of Keats’s writing and brought it with him to Hampstead, with the intention of showing it to Hunt. Hunt read the manuscripts and reacted with great enthusiasm, asking Clarke to bring Keats along on his next visit. In Clarke’s own words, their first meeting “stretched into three morning calls”, and Keats was “suddenly made a familiar of the household”. Thus began a close relationship that biographers have recorded in the form of domestic anecdotes that shed light on both authors’ personalities. In Young Romantics, Daisy Hay portrays the Romantics writers as active members of a series of artistic circles, from which they drew both encouragement and insight. Hay emphasises Hunt’s role as the central figure of his circle of artists and friends. He was not only constantly encouraging and supporting young writers, and introducing them to his other artistic connections, but also turned his home into the nucleus of the circle. Hunt’s household, already crammed, would always have a seat to spare for another artist, and Keats is said to have spent evenings that turned into mornings discussing poetry in Hunt’s living room. Hay references a particular evening of literature and music in which Hunt sang and Keats played an unnamed instrument: “leaning against the instrument, one foot raised on his knee and the smoothed back between his hands” (113). Another evening, Hunt made Keats a flower crown and put it on his head, and the young poet did the same for him. Later, when some visitors called on Hunt, he hastily removed the crown, but Keats proudly refused to be decrowned. These reminiscences attest to the level of intimacy established between the two writers, a relationship that would continue flourishing up until the very last and critical moments of Keats’s illness, when the Hunts hosted and took care of a very sick Keats previous to his departure to Rome, where he was to draw his last breath.
In December 1816, Leigh Hunt published his essay Young Poets, in praise of Byron, Shelley, and Keats. What we now consider the second generation of Romantic Poets, their genius and their essential contribution to Romanticism, had already been recognised by one who knew, encouraged and published each one of them. What Keats described as “an Era in my existence” was prophetic. His relationship with Hunt and the Cockney school contributed to his growth as a poet, and, consequently, may be considered a turning point in his literary production.
Gittings, Robert. John Keats. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985.
Keats, John. Selected Letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Hay, Daisy. Young Romantics. London: Bloomsbury, 2010.