Of Indian origin, Sultana Raza is an independent scholar, and has presented papers on Romanticism (Keats) and Fantasy (Tolkien) in international conferences in Europe and the US. Her non-fiction features, entitled, ‘Keats and the Coronavirus’ was published in The Society of Classical Poetry, ‘Social Isolation – What’s the Alternative?’ was published on The Beautiful Space – A Journal of Mind, Art, and Poetry, and ‘Making Silence Sing’ was published in LitroNY.
Keatsian Mosaics – 1817:2017
John Keats: Bicentenary Diary is appealing not only to Keats researchers, but to anyone who appreciates the young poet’s verses. A limited edition was published in 2016 by Peter Philips.
In addition to being a diary, it has many features, and can be read at various levels.
Not only is it a celebration of the young Romantic poet and his work, but also a chronological compilation of the wordsmith’s works. This would be very useful to researchers in terms of visually laying out his words in the context of the historicity of his life events, and the inter-relationship, if any, between his writings and major or minor incidents in 1817. One can almost follow the week to week activities of the versifier. It also provides an insight into how active the young man really was, and how much he was able to accomplish in such a short time. Not only had he finished his medical studies, but had found time to educate himself, by reading profusely, and writing prolifically, whilst struggling with a lot of personal problems.
The Diary can be read or used in multiple ways. The progress Keats made in his writings can be traced page by page, by those interested in doing so. It also gives an idea as to how prolific the young word-spinner was, and in the later years, how mature his writing became, despite his youth.
Co-incidentally, in Week 8 of the Diary, one can read the last four lines of a little-known sonnet by Keats written in February 1817, which almost presage his mental state at the time of his death on the 23rd of February 1821:
‘I, that do ever feel a thirst for glory,
Could at this moment be content to lie
Meekly upon the grass, as those whose sobbings
Were heard of none beside the mournful robins.’
The words become more poignant, if the third line of this excerpt were to be changed to:
‘Meekly (under) the grass…’
It also has a wealth of information not only about Keats’s circle, but also his later biographers and critics. For example, when one reaches Week 25, one can glean an unusual tidbit of information that on the 24th of June, 1941, an obituary was published of Fed Edgecumbe, Curator of Keats House, and editor of Fanny Brawn’s letters to Fanny Keats.
Keats in 1817 and Conferences in 2017
Chaired by Prof. Nicholas Roe, the Keats Foundation Conference (KFC) took place from 19-21 May 2017. In Week 20, ‘Hymn to Pan’ from ‘Endymion’ has been published. Quite a few presenters alluded to ‘Endymion’ in their talks, including Key-note Speaker, Prof. Theresa M. Kelly, Guest of Honour, Prof. Greg Kucich, Peter Phillips, Rico Brown, and Eva Jenke. Though some attendees criticized the weak happy ending of the poem, it may not be remiss to remember that poor Endymion had no real choice. Whether he’d chosen the Indian Maid, or Cynthia, the moon goddess, he’d have ended up with the divinity in one of her forms anyway. Perhaps one of the subtler messages of the poems is the lack of free will of those under the spell of more powerful forces, such a ruthless deity. Could the ending of ‘Endymion’ still be considered to be a ‘happy’ one?
Perhaps Gareth Evans, another presenter might have found deeper symbolic meanings in the foliage and vegetation alluded to in this poem. ‘Hymn to Pan’ was discussed, during the Q&A sessions.
During his visually striking presentation at the Keats Foundation Conference, Peter Phillips may have unwittingly made a counter-point to the following quotation:
‘…Who, thus far, discontent, has dared to tread,
Without one muse’s smile, or kind behest,
The path of love and poesy…’
Interestingly enough, he speculated that given Keats’s prodigious talent, he could have met a Muse, perhaps Erato, who could have given him the gift of poetry.
Romanticism in the Mediterranean World was organized by the International Conference on Romanticism in Athens, Greece June 14-18, 2017. In Week 24 of 1817, Keats wrote about Endymion being bedazzled by the moon:
‘Again I look’d, and, O ye deities,
Who from Olympus watch our destinies!
Whence that completed form of all completeness?
Whence came that high perfection of all sweetness?’
-Endymion Book 1 (lines 604-607)
In my paper, ‘Trojan Trinity, Phidian Lore, and Illusion in Ode on Indolence.’ I touched upon Keats looking again, and being baffled by the three Grecian figures in Ode on Indolence, and being struck by the perfection of ‘Phidian lore’ or the great sculptor’s creations. Participants were given the opportunity to marvel at Grecian splendours during field trips to Phidias’s Parthenon and the Temple of Poseidon in Sounion.
Asko Nivala (University of Turku, Finland), mused upon “Friedrich Schlegel and Ancient Greece as the Golden Age” much like Keats seems to dwell on the golden myths of Greece in this excerpt.
Held in York from 27-30 July, the BARS Conference on Romantic Improvement had a panel on Keats. In Week 30, Keats and Reynolds met and read Shakespeare together, while in 2017, Andrea Timár (Eötvös Loránd University) presented ‘“Increasing store with loss, and loss with store”: Keats, Shakespeare, and the Elgin Marbles.’
In his paper, ‘Keats, the Hyperion Poems, and the Gendered Problem of Progress,’ presented on the last Sunday of July 2017, Greg Kucich (University of Notre Dame) went into the political climate of that time, and the influence Leigh Hunt had on the young Keats in his paper, ‘Keats, the Hyperion Poems, and the Gendered Problem of Progress’. Funnily enough, back in 1817, Keats visited his mentor Leigh Hunt on the last Sunday of July.
In Week 30, Keats wrote about Endymion being rescued by Jove in the form of an eagle, and being taken up high. In the same week in 2017, Alex Broadhead (University of Liverpool) spoke about ‘Improving on Biography? Keats as Liberal Humanist Messiah in Contemporary Fiction.’ Perhaps the writers who reinvented Keats’s public image acted somewhat like eagles, placing his reputation high on a pedestal.
A few papers were presented on Keats at the Supernatural Romanticism Conference hosted by The Romanticism Association held from 1-3 August 2017 in Strasbourg. In the diary, in Week 31, as Keats was lost in admiration of ‘languid arms in silver slumber lying,’ and ‘faery lids how sleek,’ in a poem, about ‘my little queen,’ Christopher Flynn (St. Edward’s University, Austin, Texas), touched upon the sleeping Madeleine in his paper, “Natural and Supernatural Coexistence in The Eve of St. Agnes.”
That same week, though Keats wrote,
‘How “Love doth know no fullness
Nor no bounds.”
Yet the protagonist didn’t choose to follow love in Keats’s more philosophical Ode on Indolence, as pointed out in my paper, “Mystical Threads in Ode on Indolence” given at the Romantic Association Conference in Strasbourg in 2017.
Little did Keats know his words would be printed millions of times in many different languages all over the globe. Or that an Indian woman would sit up through many nights, combing his words, to find surreal connections with other literary and cultural greats. Or that the this act of finding these links could be considered surreal in itself. Now when some Keatsians say, ‘much have I travelled in the realms of gold,’ they might mean the worlds of the young poet himself:
‘In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:’
As Keats’s bicentenary comes closer, his words ruffle through the minds of critics and poetry lovers alike.
Fantastical Interpretations of the 2017 Dairy
The surreal inter-connections that can be drawn between some of Keats’s writing and the birth and death dates of other literary and artistic figures add another layer to the diary. It can be almost like a game to figure out surreal inter-connections between the works or lives of other famous figures and those of Keats, printed on the pages of this Diary during a specific week.
For example, on the pages of Week 4, there is Keats’s sonnet on Kościuszko, a Polish freedom fighter. On the opposite page, one sees Byron’s name, as he was born on the 22nd of January, 1788. Despite having a colourful and quirky personality, towards the end of his life, George Gordon did try to fight for the freedom of Greece, and his death inspired other influential people to become involved in that struggle.
In Week 5, we learn that Jack Gittings, a major Keats biographer (and critic) was born on the 1st of February 1911 at Southsea. On the opposite leaf, it’s mentioned that on the 31st of January 1817 Keats wrote:
‘After dark vapours have oppress’d our plains
For a long dry season, comes a day
Born of the gentle South, and clears away
From the sick heavens all unseemly stains.’
One could conjecture by association that possibly, Gittings rescued some aspects of Keats’s work, thus helping to clear away ‘unseemly stains’ on Keats’s reputation. As is well-known, Keats died thinking his name and works would be ‘writ in water.’ Gittings went a long way in putting Keats’s works at the forefront of literature.
In Week 15 of the diary, it’s mentioned that in April 1817, Keats started Endymion with the now famous quote about ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever:’ Perhaps these lines would have sounded bitter to Dante Gabriel Rossetti as he lay dying in the same week in 1882. Though he’d painted quite a few lovely ladies, none of them stayed long enough to accompany him during his last days. Possibly he treated them as ‘things’ as was usual in that period, rather than as equal partners. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) came into being because William Holman Hunt had painted a scene from ‘The Eve of St Agnes,’ which caught Rossetti’s eye. Both the young painters met (through Millais) because of Keats. A respect for, and an admiration of, the then unknown poet brought the young artists together, leading to the formation of PRB. Though Rossetti’s paintings continue to be ‘a joy forever,’ perhaps he might have wished for at least one of his loves to have lasted for the length of his life.
The sixth line of ‘Endymion’ starts:
‘Therefore on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth…’
There’s a tangential connection to the fact that Keats’s friend, Charles Armitage Brown’s soul got bound to a human body on earth on the 14th of April 1787 (which fell on week 15 in 1717), and which also happened to be ‘Good’ Friday.
An ardent admirer of Keats, Matthew Arnold who died on the 15th of April 1888 could have opined that the following lines can be said about the former too, who penned them in Week 15:
‘And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour;….’
(Endymion Book 1, lines 20-26)
Though he was given to brooding, Byron loved the sea, and had famously swum across the Hellespont (or modern day Dardanelles). He passed away on the 19th of April 1824 in faraway Missolonghi, Greece. Given his troubles in high Society, would he have been able to identify with the following lines, from Keats’s sonnet ‘On the Sea’ written that same week (16):
‘Oh, ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody—
Sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth and brood,
Until ye start, as if the sea nymphs quired!’
Wordsworth might have been able to recognize his own sentiments, which appeared in Endymion drafted in Week 17. That same week Wordsworth would die on the 23rd of April 1850:
‘…so I will begin
Now while I cannot hear the city’s din;
Now while the early budders are just new,
And run in mazes of the youngest hue
About old forests; while the willow trails
Its delicate amber; and the dairy pails
Bring home increase of milk. And, as the year
Grows lush in juicy stalks, I’ll smoothly steer
My little boat, for many quiet hours,
With streams that deepen freshly into bowers.
Many and many a verse I hope to write,
Before the daisies, vermeil rimm’d and white,
Hide in deep herbage; and ere yet the bees
Hum about globes of clover and sweet peas,
I must be near the middle of my story.’
-Endymion Book I (lines 39-53)
Ironically, when Keats finally met his idol, the latter wounded the younger poet’s feelings by passing off his Ode to Pan as ‘a pretty piece of paganism.’
In Week 24, one reads that Edward Burne-Jones (a later pre-Raphaelite painter) died on the 17th of June 1898, and on the opposite page one can peruse an excerpt from Endymion Book I lines 591 to 609 written in June 1817, where Endymion is dazzled by the Moon. Burne-Jones’s canvas of ‘Luna’ and other Moon-related paintings could complement this passage quite well. Burne-Jones was also fascinated by myths, specially Greco-Roman and Celtic myths. A love shared by Keats. For example, both of them touched upon the marriage of Psyche with Cupid, albeit in different ways.
Perhaps Walter de la Mare, (whose death on the 22nd of June is noted in Week 25), would have appreciated the lines from ‘I stood tip-toe upon a little hill,’ given on the opposite leaf:
‘A little noiseless noise among the leaves,
Born of the very sigh that silence heaves:
For not the faintest motion could be seen
Of all the shades that slanted o’er the green.’
Perhaps the above lines could be like a prologue Walter de la Mare’s eerily famous poem, The Listeners.
One mourns the fact that Shelley died on the 8th of July 1822. The lines quoted on the opposite page are an excerpt from Endymion Book II Lines 30-43, which refer to Keats’s solitary toil:
‘…Who, thus far, discontent, has dared to tread,
Without one muse’s smile, or kind behest,
The path of love and poesy…’
These lines could very well apply to Shelley as well. Both of them were swimming upstream, both poetically and politically, in a sense, though it could be contended that Shelley with less difficulty than his younger friend, whose greater financial struggles, and family problems added to his already considerable strife. Keats was writing ‘Endymion’ in 1817 in the first place because of his friendly rivalry with Shelley. The difference in their ages, background, education, and life experience should be taken into account when comparing the quality of their 4000 line epics, Endymion, and The Revolt of Islam, respectively. In fact, Keats is arguably one of the best poets under 25 writing in English.
In Week 30, Coleridge, who died on the 25th of July, would have appreciated the nuances of lines 649-699 from Endymion Book II, since he seemed to have lost some of his inspiration as from middle age:
Young traveller, in such a mournful place?
Art thou wayworn, or canst not further trace
The diamond path? And does it indeed end
Abrupt in middle air?’
An admirer of Keats, Robert Graves born in Week 30 (on the 26th of July 1895), would have been partial to the entire passage written by the former that same week (in 1817) on Endymion being picked up by Jove in the form of an eagle, quite like Ganymedes. Indeed, the entire poem is full of allusions to Greco-Roman myths.
It’s also mentioned that Beatrix Potter was born on the 28th of July 1866. She would have appreciated the passage that appears on the opposite page, which contains lines 649-669 from Endymion Book II, wherein ‘Endymion is rescued by an Eagle, and deposited in a jasmine bower.’
Van Gogh who committed suicide in the same week (on the 29th of July 1890) aged just 37 had lost his way in life.
Thomas Gainsborough who died on the 2nd of August 1788 could have illustrated the love poem (that appears on the opposite page in Week 31), given that his ‘Haymaker and Sleeping Girl’ could be an oblique visual sketch of it, at a stretch:
‘Unfelt, unheard, unseen,
I’ve left my little queen,
Her languid arms in silver slumber lying:
Ah! through their nestling touch,
Who — who could tell how much
There is for madness — cruel, or complying?
Those faery lids how sleek!
Those lips how moist! — they speak,
In ripest quiet, shadows of sweet sounds:
Into my fancy’s ear
Melting a burden dear,
How Love doth know no fulness, and no bounds.
True — tender monitors!
I bend unto your laws:
This sweetest day for dalliance was born!
So, without more ado,
I’ll feel my heaven anew,
For all the blushing of the hasty morn.’
A visionary poet, who never lost his verve, Blake died in relative poverty and obscurity on the 12th of August 1827. Perhaps the following lines scribbled on an unsuspecting sheet of paper by Keats that same week in 1817 would have resonated with the former:
‘O what a wretch is he! and when ’tis his,
After long toil and travelling, to miss
The kernel of his hopes, how more than vile:
Yet, for him there’s refreshment even in toil;’
-Endymion Book II (lines 144-147)
Earlier in November 1816, in another sonnet Keats had identified his mentor, Hunt as one of the
‘Great spirits now on earth are sojourning.’ Leigh Hunt, born on the 28th of August may have appreciated lines 723-732 from Endymion Book II, written during Week 35 in 1817:
‘Aye, the count
of mighty poets is made up; the scroll
Is folded by the Muses; the bright roll
Is in Apollo’s hand: our dazed eyes
Have seen a new tinge in the western skies:’
Certain words such as ‘Enchantress!’ in lines 756-772 from Endymion Book II (written that week) might have inspired the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones (born on the 28th of August) to capture these images in a portrait. Perhaps that of Maria Zambaco, his favourite model, specially as she appeared The Beguiling of Merlin.
Mary Shelley, born on the 30th of August would have felt the keen poignancy of this passage had she read it after her husband’s death, since he had done his utmost to fulfill his duty as a poet, writer, and philosopher:
‘The world has done its duty. Yet, oh yet,
Although the sun of poesy is set,
These lovers did embrace, and we must weep
That there is no old power left to steep
A quill immortal in their joyous tears.’
She also did her duty by her husband, for she never re-married, despite the fact that Shelley was a proponent of free love.
Known as a late Romantic, J. R. R. Tolkien passed away that week on the 2nd of September in 1973. He would have appreciated the following passage where Endymion swoons for love of an immortal, as it could have been uttered by Lúthien in Beren and Lúthien when the hero was wounded by Carcharoth the giant werewolf:
‘Revive, dear youth, or I shall faint and die;
Revive, or these soft hours will hurry by
In tranced dulness; speak, and let that spell
Affright this lethargy! I cannot quell
Its heavy pressure, and will press at least
My lips to thine, that they may richly feast
Until we taste the life of love again.’
In both cases, (Endymion and Beren) the protagonists were revived, though by different means.
When one reaches Week 42, a surreal image comes to mind, that of Florence Nightingale (born on the 15th of October 1820) administering Mercury to Keats in an efficient manner. The reason? As mentioned on the opposite leaf, Keats wrote about this substance in a letter to Benjamin Bailey on the 8th of October 1817:
‘The little Mercury I have taken has corrected the Poison and improved my Health…’
Scholars are still wondering about the reasons why Keats took the mercury. Had the above quotation been given as a prompt to Oscar Wilde, or Eugene O’Neill, or Arthur Miller, who were born in the same week, but in different decades, the resulting plays would have been as different as they’d have been dramatic.
In Week 49 one discovers that on the 8th of December, Charles Brown lent Keats his silver ticket to Drury Lane, which would have given the young word-spinner access to the performances there. A fact which dramatists John Gay (who died on the 4th of December 1732) and John Osborne (born on the 9th of December 1929) would have approved of. Their names appear on the facing leaf.
The Diary further broadens one’s view of the artistic landscape by including the births and deaths of other European writers, composers, film-makers, architects etc.
On opening Week 12, one traverses ‘On a Picture of Leander’ composed by Keats in March, and one learns of Ovid’s birth on the 20th of March in the same week in 43 BC. Would the writer of Heriodes XVIII and XIX from Leander to Hero and vice versa, have appreciated John’s modern take on the myth penned so many centuries later?
According to the Diary, the same week the funeral anniversary of Keats’s mother, Frances took place. Perhaps she might have looked at her young husband’s ‘dead-heavy’ body with horror, rather like Hero (from afar). Could she have run their business by herself? Since she married Mr Rawlings just two months later, it makes one wonder what promises or threats he’d used to get her to marry him so soon after her spouse’s death. Specially as he left her destitute after just a few years. The fact that John was devoted to her, and looked after day and night in an attempt to possibly save her life belies the rumours that she had taken to the streets after her second husband had left her.
On the 16th of May, Keats thanked his publishers in a letter for the handsome advance of £20, not knowing that over the decades, his poems would reap that amount at least a million times over. Emily Dickinson, who died on the 15th of May 1886 had received almost nothing for the few poems published during her life-time. Luckily, she could afford to write poetry for her own amusement, or satisfaction, and later on as an outlet, even if most of her poems are more of a reflection on the vagaries of life, rather than on pleasure. But at least her family were well-off, and she didn’t have to earn a living, unlike Keats who quickly got mired in financial problems. At least she didn’t lose both her parents in childhood. However, she couldn’t have known about her own posthumous fame either.
Surely, Botticelli, whose death is recorded in Week 20, could have painted a detailed, flowery picture from Keats’s ‘Hymn to Pan’ given on the opposite page. As could Thomas Gainsborough have, born during that week too, though on more somber lines, with less exuberant colours.
Skipping to Week 27, Hemmingway who died on the 2nd of July during the same week in 1961, might have appreciated the words, ‘chafing restlessness’ from the same excerpt. Having left behind quite a long trail of broken hearts, he may have been acquainted with the myths of Hero, Imogen, and Pastorella, all spurned heroines mentioned on the opposite page. Ironically, Hemmingway’s ‘chafing restlessness’ was connected to life itself. His physical, mental and emotional problems affected him in such a way that like a matador, he was always bating death, and finally succeeded in committing suicide at the age of 61. What Keats wouldn’t have given to be spared from the TB that claimed him so early at 25, and to get a few more years, so that he would be able to make his name ‘known amongst the English poets.’
Also born on the 28th of August, were James Hessey, who obviously counted Keats as among the great poets, for he was one of the first to publish his book of poems. Though neither Goethe nor Tolstoy are known for their poetry, their names could very well have ended up in the scroll of sadder Muses, for they were born on the same day nearly seventy decades apart.
In Week 47, one learns that Toulouse-Lautrec was born on the 24th of November 1864. He might have appreciated the oft-quoted phrase of Keats, which appears on the opposite page:
‘O for a Life of Sensations rather than of thought,’ written in a letter to Benjamin Bailey on the 22nd of November 1817.
In Week 49, the birth of Jean Sibelius, the Finnish composer on the 8th of December 1865 has been noted. No doubt, coming from Finland, he would have appreciated ‘In drear-nighted December’ written in December 1817, outlined in the page before.
Two excerpts from Keats’s review of Edmund Kean are given in Week 51. Should one take the trouble to read the omitted middle part, or the full review, one would come upon the words, ‘Shakespearean hieroglyphics.’ During the same week, Jean Francois Champollion, who cracked the code of the Egyptian hieroglyphs using the Rosetta Stone, was born in 1790. (In view of the fact that a fair number of books have been written about codes and secrets messages in Shakespeare’s works, in the last century alone, the Keats’s use of ‘Shakespearean hieroglyphics’ takes on a different meaning, and may not seem all that far-fetched now).
Furthermore, during the KFC 2017, Dr Li Ou touched upon ‘Keats, Montaigne, and Hamlet,’ DrAnthony Howe spoke specifically about the possible meaning of the words, ‘Shakespearean hieroglyphics’ in his talk “‘His head I have hung over my Books’: Keats’s year of reading Shakespeare.”
Overall, the Diary provides a multitude of information, and can be interpreted in a number of ways, not least of which are the surreal links between Keats’s words and other personages. No doubt, more surreal connections await to be made by other readers. Created with a lot of thought and care by Peter Phillips, the Diary is a literary and artistic merry-go-round for those who choose to step onto it.
It will be considered to be an artefact in itself when the tercentenary of Keats is celebrated a hundred year hence. Both Keats’s scholars and admirers have much to appreciate and glean from this unique Diary.