To Percy Bysshe Shelley, 16 August 1820
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), poet, atheist, nobleman and exile, was an early champion of Keats’s work. They were introduced by Leigh Hunt, whose politics were already alienating Keats. Interestingly, Shelley was critical of Hunt’s influence upon Keats’s work; he believed Keats to be a natural talent led astray by mannerisms and affectation.
Upon learning of Keats’s illness, Shelley graciously asked him to stay with his family in Italy. The poet politely refused. Shelley wrote the beautiful elegy Adonais upon Keats’s death. The next year, Shelley himself drowned; a volume of Keats’s poetry was found in his pocket.
I think Shelley’s opinion can best be described in his own words, from a letter he wrote to Marianne Hunt on 29 October 1820 regarding Keats’s latest work, Hyperion:
‘Keats’ new volume has arrived to us, & the fragment called Hyperion promises for him that he is destined to become one of the first writers of the age. – His other things are imperfect enough…. Where is Keats now? I am anxiously expecting him in Italy where I shall take care to bestow every possible attention on him. I consider his a most valuable life, & I am deeply interested in his safety. I intend to be the physician both of his body & his soul, to keep the one warm & to teach the other Greek & Spanish. I am aware indeed that I am nourishing a rival who will far surpass me and this is an additional motive & will be an added pleasure.’
This interesting letter is a reply to Shelley’s literary advice and kind offer of his home in Italy for Keats’s recuperation.
My dear Shelley,
I am very much gratified that you, in a foreign country, and with a mind almost over occupied, should write to me in the strain of the Letter beside me. If I do not take advantage of your invitation it will be prevented by a circumstance I have very much at heart to prophesy – There is no doubt that an english winter would put an end to me, and do so in a lingering hateful manner, therefore I must either voyage or journey to Italy as a soldier marches up to a battery. My nerves at present are the worst part of me, yet they feel soothed when I think that come what extreme may, I shall not be destined to remain in one spot long enough to take a hatred of any four particular bed-posts. I am glad you take any pleasure in my poor Poem; – which I would willingly take the trouble to unwrite, if possible, did I care so much as I have done about Reputation. I received a copy of the Cenci, as from yourself from Hunt. There is only one part of it I am judge of; the Poetry, and dramatic effect, which by many spirits nowadays is considered the mammon. A modern work it is said must have a purpose, which may be the God – an artist must serve Mammon – he must have “self concentration” selfishness perhaps. You I am sure will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist, and ‘load every rift’ of your subject with ore. The thought of such discipline must fall like cold chains upon you, who perhaps never sat with your wings furl’d for six Months together. And is not this extraordina[r]y talk for the writer of Endymion? whose mind was like a pack of scattered cards – I am pick’d up and sorted to a pip. My Imagination is a Monastry and I am its Monk – you must explain my metap [for metaphysics] to yourself. I am in expectation of Prometheus every day. Could I have my own wish for its interest effected you would have it still in manuscript – or be but now putting an end to the second act. I remember you advising me not to publish my first-blights, on Hampstead heath – I am returning advice upon your hands. Most of the Poems in the volume I send you have been written above two years, and would never have been publish’d but from a hope of gain; so you see I am inclined enough to take your advice now. I must exp[r]ess once more my deep sense of your kindness, adding my sincere thanks and respects for Mrs Shelley. In the hope of soon seeing you (I) remain
most sincerely yours,