1795-1815: BIRTH AND PARENTAGE: SCHOOLDAYS AND APPRENTICESHIP
Obscure family history–The Finsbury livery stable–The surname Keats– Origin probably Cornish– Character of parents– Traits of childhood– The Enfield School– The Edmonton home– The Pymmes Brook– Testimonies of schoolmates– Edward Holmes– Charles Cowden Clarke– New passion for reading– Left an orphan– Apprenticed to a surgeon– Relations with his master– Readings in the poets– The Faerie Queen– The Spenser fever– Other poetic influences– Influences of nature– Early attempts in verse– Early sympathizers– George Felton Mathew– Move to London.
For all the study and research that have lately been spent on the life and work of Keats, there is one point as to which we remain as much in the dark as ever, and that is his family history. He was born at an hour when the gradually re-awakened genius of poetry in our race, I mean of impassioned and imaginative poetry, was ready to offer new forms of spiritual sustenance, and a range of emotions both widened and deepened, to a generation as yet only half prepared to receive them. If we consider the other chief poets who bore their part in that great revival, we can commonly recognize either some strain of power in their blood or some strong inspiring quality in the scenery and traditions of their home, or both together. Granting that the scenic and legendary romance of the Scottish border wilds were to be made live anew for the delight of the latter-day world, we seem to see in Walter Scott a man predestined for the task alike by origin, association, and opportunity. Had the indwelling spirit of the Cumbrian lakes and mountains, and their power upon the souls and lives of those living among them, to be newly revealed and interpreted to the general mind of man, where should we look for its spokesman but in one of Wordsworth’s birth and training? What, then, it may be asked, of Byron and Shelley, the two great contrasted poets of revolution, or rather of revolt against the counter-revolution, in the younger generation,–the one worldly, mocking, half theatrically rebellious and Satanic, the other unworldly even to unearthliness, a loving alien among men, more than half truly angelic? These we are perhaps rightly used to count as offspring of their age, with its forces and ferments, its violent actions and reactions, rather than of their ancestry or upbringing. And yet, if we will, we may fancy Byron inspired in literature by demons of the same froward brood that had urged others of his lineage on lives of adventure or of crime, and may conceive that Shelley drew some of his instincts for headlong, peremptory self-guidance, though in directions most opposite to the traditional, from the stubborn and wayward stock of colonial and county aristocracy whence he sprang.
Keats, more purely and exclusively a poet than any of these, and responding more intuitively than any to the spell alike of ancient Greece, of mediæval romance, and of the English woods and fields, was born in a dull and middling walk of London city life, and ‘if by traduction came his mind’,–to quote Dryden with a difference,–it was through channels hidden from our search. From his case less even than from Shakespeare‘s can we draw any argument as to the influence of heredity or environment on the birth and growth of genius. His origin, in spite of much diligent inquiry, has not been traced beyond one generation on the father’s side and two on the mother’s. His father, Thomas Keats, was a west-country lad who came young to London, and while still under twenty held the place of head ostler in a livery-stable kept by a Mr John Jennings in Finsbury. Seven or eight years later, about the beginning of 1795, he married his employer’s daughter, Frances Jennings, then in her twentieth year. Mr Jennings, who had carried on a large business in north-eastern London and the neighbouring suburbs, and was a man of substance, retired about the same time to live in the country, at Ponder’s End near Edmonton, leaving the management of the business in the hands of his son-in-law. At first the young couple lived at the stable, at the sign of the Swan and Hoop, Finsbury Pavement, facing the then open space of Lower Moorfields. Here their eldest child, the poet JOHN KEATS, was born prematurely on either the 29th or 31st of Octobey, 1795. A second son, named George, followed on February 28, 1797; a third, Tom, on November 18, 1799; a fourth, Edward, who died in infancy, on April 28, 1801; and on the 3rd of June, 1803, a daughter, Frances Mary. In the meantime the family had moved from the stable to a house in Craven Street, City Road, half a mile farther north.
The Keats brothers as they grew up were remarked for their intense fraternal feeling and strong vein of family pride. But it was a pride that looked forward and not back: they were bent on raising the family name and credit, but seem to have taken no interest at all in its history, and have left no record or tradition concerning their forbears. Some of their friends believed their father to have been a Devonshire man: their sister, who long survived them, said she remembered hearing as a child that he came from Cornwall, near the Land’s End.
There is no positive evidence enabling us to decide the question. The derivation of English surnames is apt to be complicated and obscure, and ‘ Keats’ is no exception to the rule. It is a name widely distributed in various counties of England, though not very frequent in any. It may in some cases be a possessive form derived from the female Christian name Kate, on the analogy of Jeans from Jane, or Maggs from Margaret: but the source accepted as generally probable for it and its several variants is the Middle-English adjective ‘kete’, a word of Scandinavian origin meaning bold, gallant. In the form ‘Keyte’ the name prevails principally in Warwickshire: in the variants Keat (or Keate) and Keats (or Keates)(1) it occurs in many of the midland, home, and southern, especially the south-western, counties.
Mr Thomas Hardy tells me of a Keats family sprung from a horsedealer of Broadmayne, Dorsetshire, members of which lived within his own memory as farmers and publicans in and near Dorchester, one or two of them bearing, as he thought, a striking likeness to the portrait of the poet. One Keats family of good standing was established by the mid-eighteenth century in Devon, in the person of a well-known head-master of Blundell’s school, Tiverton, afterwards rector of Bideford. His son was one of Nelson’s bravest and most famous captains, Sir Richard Godwin Keats of the ‘Superb’, and from the same stock sprang in our own day the lady whose tales of tragic and comic west-country life, published under the pseudonym ‘Zack’, gave promise of a literary career which has been unhappily cut short. But with this Bideford stock the Keats brothers can have claimed no connexion, or as schoolboys they would assuredly have made the prowess of their namesake of the ‘Superb’ their pride and boast, whereas in fact their ideal naval hero was a much less famous person, their mother’s brother Midgley John Jennings, a tall lieutenant of marines who served with some credit on Duncan’s flagship at Camperdown and by reason of his stature was said to have been a special mark for the enemy’s musketry. In the form Keat or Keate the name is common enough both in Devon, particularly near Tiverton, and in Cornwall, especially in the parishes of St Teath and Lanteglos,–that is round about Camelford,-and also as far eastward as Callington and westward as St Columb Major: the last named parish having been the seat of a family of the name entitled to bear arms and said to have come originally from Berkshire.
But neither the records of the Dorsetshire family, nor search in the parish registers of Devon and Cornwall, have as yet yielded the name of any Thomas Keat or Keats as born in 1768, the birth-year of our poet’s father according to our information. A ‘ Thomas Keast’, however, is registered as having been born in that year in the parish of St Agnes, between New Quay and Redruth. Now Keast is a purely Cornish name, limited to those parts, and it is quite possible that, borne by a Cornishman coming to London, it would get changed into the far commoner Keats (a somewhat similar phonetic change is that of Crisp into Cripps). So the identification of this Thomas Keast of St Agnes as the father of our Keats is not to be excluded. The Jennings connexion is of itself a circumstance which may be held to add to the likelihood of a Cornish origin for the poet, Jennings being a name frequent in the Falmouth district and occurring as far westward as Lelant. Children are registered as born in and after 1770 of the marriage of a John Jennings to a Catherine Keate at Penyrn; and it is a plausible conjecture (always remembering it to be a conjecture and no more) that the prosperous London stable-keeper John Jennings was himself of Cornish origin, and that between him and the lad Thomas Keats, whom he took so young first as head stableman and then as son-in-law, there existed some previous family connexion or acquaintance. These, however, are matters purely conjectural, and all we really know about the poet’s parents are the dates above mentioned, and the fact that they were certainly people somewhat out of the ordinary. Thomas Keats was noticed in his life-time as a man of sense, spirit, and conduct: ‘of so remarkably fine a commonsense and native respectability,’ writes Cowden Clarke, in whose father’s school the poet and his brother were brought up, ‘that I perfectly remember the warm terms in which his demeanour used to be canvassed by my parents after he had been to visit his boys.’ And again:–‘I have a clear recollection of his lively and energetic countenance, particularly when seated on his gig and preparing to drive his wife home after visiting his sons at school. In feature, stature, and manner John resembled his father.’ Of Frances Keats, the poet’s mother, we learn more vaguely that she was ‘tall, of good figure, with large oval face, and sensible deportment’: and again that she was a lively, clever, impulsive woman, passionately fond of amusement, and supposed to have hastened the birth of her eldest child by some imprudence. Her second son, George, wrote in after life of her and of her family as follows:–‘my grandfather Mr Jennings was very well off, as his will shows, and but that he was extremely generous and gullible would have been affluent. I have heard my grandmother speak with enthusiasm of his excellencies, and Mr Abbey used to say that he never saw a woman of the talents and sense of my grandmother, except my mother.’
As to the grandmother and her estimable qualities all accounts are agreed, but of the mother the witness quoted himself tells a very different tale. This Mr Richard Abbey was a wholesale tea-dealer in Saint Pancras Lane and a trusted friend of Mr and Mrs Jennings. In a memorandum written long after their death he declares that both as girl and woman their daughter, the poet’s mother, was a person of unbridled temperament, and that in her later years she fell into loose ways and was no credit to her family.(2) Whatever truth there may be in these charges, it is certain that she lived to the end under her mother’s roof and was in no way cut off from her children. The eldest boy John in particular she is said to have held in passionate affection, by him passionately returned. Once as a young child, when she was ordered to be left quiet during an illness, he is said to have insisted on keeping watch at her door with an old sword, and allowing no one to go in. Haydon, an artist who loved to lay his colours thick, gives this anecdote of the sword a different turn:–‘He was when an infant a most violent and ungovernable child. At five years of age or thereabouts, he once got hold of a naked sword and shutting the door swore nobody should go out. His mother wanted to do so, but he threatened her so furiously she began to cry, and was obliged to wait till somebody through the window saw her position and came to the rescue.’ Another trait of the poet’s childhood, mentioned also by Haydon, on the authority of a ganuner who had known him from his birth, is that when he was first learning to speak, instead of answering sensibly, he had a trick of making a rime to the last word people said and then laughing.
The parents were ambitious for their boys, and would have liked to send them to Harrow, but thinking this beyond their means, chose the school kept by a Mr John Clarke at Enfield. The brothers of Mrs Keats, including the boys’ admired uncle, the lieutenant of marines, had been educated here, and the school was one of good repute, and of exceptionally pleasant aspect and surroundings. The school-house had been originally built for a rich West India merchant, in the finest style of early Georgian classic architecture, and stood in a spacious garden at the lower end of the town. When years afterwards the site was used for a railway station, the old house was for some time allowed to stand: but later it was taken down, and the central part of the façade, with its fine proportions and rich ornaments in moulded brick, was transported to the South Kensington (now Victoria and Albert) Museum, and is still preserved there as a choice example of the style. It is evident that Mr Clarke was a kind and excellent schoolmaster, much above the standards of his time, and that lads with any bent for literature or scholarship had their full chance under him. Still more was this the case when his son Charles Cowden Clarke, a genial youth with an ardent and trained love of books and music, grew old enough to help him as usher in the school-work. The brothers John and George Keats were mere children when they were put under Mr Clarke’s care, John not much over and George a good deal under eight years old, both still dressed, we are told, in the childish frilled suits which give such a grace togroups of young boys in the drawings of Stothard and his contemporaries.
Not long after Keats had been put to school he lost his father, whose horse fell and threw him in the City Road as he rode home late one night after dining at Southgate, perhaps on his way home from the Enfield School. His skull was fractured: he was picked up unconscious about one o’clock and died at eight in the morning. This was on the 16th of April, 1804. Within twelve months his widow had taken a second husband–one William Rawlings, described as ‘of Moorgate in the city of London, stable-keeper,’ presumably therefore the successor of her first husband in the management of her father’s business. (It may be noted incidentally that Rawlings, like Jennings, is a name common in Cornwall, especially in and about the parish of Madron). This marriage must have turned out unhappily, for it was soon followed by a separation, under what circumstances or through whose fault we are not told. In the correspondence of the Keats brothers after they were grown up no mention is ever made of their stepfather, of whom the family seem soon to have lost all knowledge. Mrs Rawlings went with her children to live at Edmonton, in the house of her mother, Mrs Jennings, who was just about this time left a widow. The family was well enough provided for, Mr Jennings (who died March 8, 1805) having left a fortune of over £13,000, of which, in addition to other legacies, he bequeathed a capital yielding £200 a year to his widow absolutely; one yielding £50 a year to his daughter Frances Rawlings, with reversion to her Keats children after her death; and £1000 to be separately held in trust for the said children and divided among them on the coming of age of the youngest.
Between the home, then, in Church Street, Edmonton, and the neighbouring Enfield school, where the two elder brothers were in due time joined by the youngest, the next five years of Keats’s boyhood (1806-1811) were passed in sufficient comfort and pleasantness. He did not live to attain the years, or the success, of men who write their reminiscences; and almost the only recollections he has left of his own early days refer to holiday times in his grandmother’s house at Edmonton. They are conveyed in some times which he wrote years afterwards by way of foolishness to amuse his young sister, and testify to a partiality, common also to little boys not of genius, for dabbling by the brookside and keeping small fishes in tubs,–
There was a naughty boy
And a naughty boy was he
He kept little fishes
In washing tubs three
Of the might
Of the Maid,
Of his Granny-good
He often would
Get up early
By hook or crook
To the brook
And bring home
Not over fat,
As the stal
Of a glove
Of a nice
O he made
‘Twas his trade
Of Fish a pretty kettle
Of Fish a pretty kettle
In a later letter to his sister he makes much the same confession in a different key, when he bids her ask him for any kind of present she fancies, only not for live stock to be kept in captivity, ‘though I will not now be very severe on it, remembering how fond I used to be of Goldfinches, Tomtits, Minnows, Mice, Ticklebacks, Dace, Cock salmons and all the whole tribe of the Bushes and the Brooks.’ Despite the changes which have overbuilt and squalidly or sprucely suburbanized all those parts of Middlesex, the Pymmes brook still holds its course across half the county, is still bridged by the main street of Edmonton, and runs countrywise, clear and open, for some distance along a side street on its way to join the Lea. Other memories of it, and of his childish playings and musings beside it, find expression in Keats’s poetry where he makes the shepherd-prince Endymion tell his sister Peona how one of his love-sick vagaries has been to sit on a stone and bubble up the water through a reed,–
So reaching back to boy-hood: make me ships
Of moulted feathers, touchwood, alder chips,
With leaves stuck in them; and the Neptune be
Of their petty ocean.
If we learn little of Keats’s early days from his own lips, we have sufficient testimony as to the impression which he made on his school companions; which was that of a fiery, generous little fellow, handsome and passionate, vehement both in tears and laughter, and as placable and loveable as he was pugnacious. But beneath this bright and mettlesome outside there lay deep in his nature, even from the first, a strain of painful sensibility making him subject to moods of unreasonable suspicion and self-tormenting melancholy. These he was accustomed to conceal from all except his brothers, to whom he was attached by the very closest of fraternal ties. George, the second brother, had all John’s spirit of manliness and honour, with a less impulsive disposition and a cooler blood. From a boy he was the bigger and stronger of the two: and at school found himself continually involved in fights for, and not unfrequently with, his small, indomitably fiery senior. Tom, the youngest, was always delicate, and an object of protecting care as well as the warmest affection to the other two.
Here are some of George Keats’s recollections, written after the death of his elder brother, and referring partly to their school-days and partly to John’s character after he was grown up:
I loved him from boyhood even when he wronged me, for the goodness of his heart and the nobleness of his spirit, before we left school we quarrelled often and fought fiercely, and I can safely say and my schoolfellows will bear witness that John’s temper was the cause of all, still we were more attached than brothers ever are.
From the time we were boys at school, where we loved, jangled, and fought alternately, until we separated in 1818, I in a great measure relieved him by continual sympathy, explanation, and inexhaustible spirits and good humour, from many a bitter fit of hypochondriasm. He avoided teazing any one with his miseries but Tom and myself, and often asked our forgiveness; venting and discussing them gave him relief.
Let us turn now from these honest and warm brotherly reminiscences to their confirmation in the words of two of Keats’s school-friends; and first in those of his junior Edward Holmes, afterwards a musical critic of note and author of a well-known Life of Mozart:–
Keats was in childhood not attached to books. His penchant was for fighting. He would fight any one–morning, noon, and night, his brother among the rest. It was meat and drink to him. Jennings their sailor relation was always in the thoughts of the brothers, and they determined to keep up the family reputation for courage; George in a passive manner; John and Tom more fiercely. The favourites of John were few; after they were known to fight readily he seemed to prefer them for a sort of grotesque and buffoon humour. I recollect at this moment his delight at the extraordinary gesticulations and pranks of a boy named Wade who was celebrated for this. . . . He was a boy whom any one from his extraordinary vivacity and personal beauty might easily fancy would become great-but rather in some military capacity than in literature. You will remark that this taste came out rather suddenly and unexpectedly. Some books of his I remember reading were Robinson Crusoe and something about Montezuma and the Incas of Peru. He must have read Shakespeare as he thought that ‘no one would care to read Macbeth alone in a house at two o’clock in the morning.’ This seems to me a boyish trait of the poet. His sensibility was as remarkable as his indifference to be thought well of by the master as a ‘good boy’ and to his tasks in general. . . . He was in every way the creature of passion. . . . The point to be chiefly insisted on is that he was not literary–his love of books and poetry manifested itself chiefly about a year before he left school. In all active exercises he excelled. The generosity and daring of his character with the extreme beauty and animation of his face made I remember an impression on me–and being some years his junior I was obliged to woo his friendship-in which I succeeded, but not till I had fought several battles. This violence and vehemence–this pugnacity and generosity of disposition–in passions of tears or outrageous fits of laughter –always in extremes–will help to paint Keats in his boyhood. Associated as they were with an extraordinary beauty of person and expression, these qualities captivated the boys, and no one was more popular.(3)
Entirely to the same effect is the account of Keats given by a school friend seven or eight years older than himself, to whose appreciation and encouragement the world most likely owes it that he first became aware of his own vocation for poetry. This was the aforementioned Charles Cowden Clarke, the son of the head master, who towards the close of a long life, during which he had deserved well of literature and of his generation in more ways than one, wrote retrospectively of Keats:–
He was a favourite with all. Not the less beloved was he for having a highly pugnacious spirit, which when roused was one of the most picturesque exhibitions–off the stage–I ever saw. One of the transports of that marvellous actor, Edmund Kean–whom, by the way, he idolized–was its nearest resemblance; and the two were not very dissimilar in face and figure. Upon one occasion when an usher, on account of some impertinent behaviour, had boxed his brother Tom’s ears, John rushed up, put himself into the received posture of offence, and, it was said, struck the usher–who could, so to say, have put him in his pocket. His passion at times was almost ungovernable; and his brother George, being considerably the taller and stronger, used frequently to hold him down by main force, laughing when John was ‘in one of his moods,’ and was endeavouring to beat him. It was all, however, a wisp-of-straw conflagration; for he had an intensely tender affection for his brothers, and proved it upon the most trying occasions. He was not merely the favourite of all, like a pet prize-fighter, for his terrier courage; but his highmindedness, his utter unconsciousness of a mean motive, his placability, his generosity, wrought so general a feeling in his behalf, that I never heard a word of disapproval from any one, superior or equal, who had known him.(4)
The same excellent witness records in agreement with the last that in his earlier school-days Keats showed no particular signs of an intellectual bent, though always orderly and methodical in what he did. But during his last few terms, that is in his fifteenth and sixteenth years, he suddenly became a passionate student and a very glutton of books. Let us turn again to Cowden Clarke’s words:–
My father was in the habit, at each half-year’s vacation, of bestowing prizes upon those pupils who had performed the greatest quantity of voluntary work; and such was Keats’s indefatigable energy for the last two or three successive halfyears of his remaining at school, that, upon each occasion, he took the first prize by a considerable distance. He was at work before the first school-hour began, and that was at seven o’clock; almost all the intervening times of recreation were so devoted; and during the afternoon holidays, when all were at play, he would be in the school–almost the only one–at his Latin or French translation; and so unconscious and regardless was he of the consequences of so close and persevering an application, that he never would have taken the necessary exercise had he not been sometimes driven out for the purpose by one of the masters. . . .
One of the silver medals awarded to Keats as a school prize in these days exists in confirmation of this account and was lately in the market. Cowden Clarke continues:–
In the latter part of the time–perhaps eighteen months-that he remained at school, he occupied the hours during meals in reading. Thus, his whole time was engrossed. He had a tolerably retentive memory, and the quantity that he read was surprising. He must in those last months have exhausted the school library, which consisted principally of abridgements of all the voyages and travels of any note; Mavor collection, also his Universal History; Robertson’s histories of Scotland, America, and Charles the Fifth; all Miss Edgeworth’s productions, together with many other books equally well calculated for youth. The books, however, that were his constantly recurrent sources of attraction were Tooke Pantheon, Lemprière Classical Dictionary, which he appeared to learn, and Spence Polymetis. This was the store whence he acquired his intimacy with the Greek mythology; here was he ‘suckled in that creed outworn;’ for his amount of classical attainment extended no farther than the Æneid, with which epic, indeed, he was so fascinated that before leaving school he had voluntarily translated in writing a considerable portion. . . .
He must have gone through all the better publications in the school library, for he asked me to lend him some of my own books; and, in my ‘mind’s eye,’ I now see him at supper (we had our meals in the schoolroom), sitting back on the form, from the table, holding the folio volume of Burnet History of his Own Time between himself and the table, eating his meal from beyond it. This work, and Leigh Hunt Examiner–which my father took in, and I used to lend to Keats–no doubt laid the foundation of his love of civil and religious liberty.
In the midst of these ardent studies of Keats’s latter school-days befell the death of his mother, who had been for some time in failing health. First she was disabled by chronic rheumatism, and at last fell into a rapid consumption, which carried her off at the age of thirty-five in February 1810. We are told with what devotion her eldest boy attended her sick-bed,–‘he sat up whole nights with her in a great chair, would suffer nobody to give her medicine, or even cook her food, but himself, and read novels to her in her intervals of ease,’–and how bitterly he mourned for her when she was gone,–‘he gave way to such impassioned and prolonged grief (hiding himself in a nook under the master’s desk) as awakened the liveliest pity and sympathy in all who saw him.’
From her, no doubt, came that predisposition to consumption which showed itself in her youngest son from adolescence and carried him off at nineteen, and with the help of ill luck, over-exertion, and distress of mind, wrecked also before twenty-five the robust-seeming frame and constitution of her eldest, the poet. Were the accounts of her character less ambiguous, or were the strands of human heredity less inveterately entangled than they are, it would be tempting, when we consider the deep duality of Keats’s nature, the trenchant contrast between the two selves that were in him, to trace to the mother the seeds of one of those selves, the feverishly over-sensitive and morbidly passionate one, and to his father the seeds of the other, the self that was all manly good sense and good feeling and undisturbed clear vision and judgment. In the sequel we shall see this fine virile self in Keats continually and consciously battling against the other, trying to hold it down, and succeeding almost always in keeping control over his ways and dealings with his fellow-men, though not over the inward frettings of his spirit.
In the July following her daughter’s death, Mrs Jennings, being desirous to make the best provision she could for her orphan grand-children, ‘in consideration of the natural love and affection which she had for them,’ executed a deed putting them under the care of two guardians, to whom she made over, to be held in trust for their benefit from the date of the instrument, the chief part of the property which she derived from her late husband under his will.(5) The guardians were Mr Rowland Sandell, merchant, who presently renounced the trust, and the aforesaid Mr Richard Abbey, teadealer. Mrs Jennings survived the execution of this deed more than four years,(6) but Mr Abbey seems at once to have taken up all the responsibilities of the trust. Under his authority John Keats was withdrawn from school at the end of the summer term, 1811, when he was some months short of sixteen, and made to put on harness for the practical work of life. With no opposition, so far as we learn, on his own part, he was bound apprentice to a Mr Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary of good repute at Edmonton, for the customary term of five years.(7)
The years between the sixteenth and twentieth of his age are the most critical of a young man’s life, and in these years, during which our other chief London-born poets, Spenser, Milton, Gray, were profiting by the discipline of Cambridge and the Muses, Keats had no better or more helpful regular training than that of an ordinary apprentice, apparently one of several, in a suburban surgery. But he had the one advantage, to him inestimable, of proximity to his old school, which meant free access to the school library and continued encouragement and advice in reading from his affectionate senior, the headmaster’s son. The fact that it was only two miles’ walk from Edmonton to Enfield helped much, says Cowden Clarke, to reconcile him to his new way of life, and his duties at the surgery were not onerous. As laid down in the ordinary indentures of apprenticeship in those times, they were indeed chiefly negative, the apprentice binding himself ‘not to haunt taverns or playhouses, not to play at dice or cards, nor absent himself from his said master’s service day or night unlawfully, but in all things as a faithful apprentice he shall behave himself towards the said master and all his during the said term.’
Keats himself, it is recorded, did not love talking of his apprentice days, and has left no single written reference to them except the much-quoted phrase in a letter of 1819, in which, speaking of the continual processes of change in the human tissues, he says, ‘this is not the same hand which seven years ago clenched itself at Hammond.’ It was natural that the same fiery temper which made him as a small boy square up against an usher on behalf of his brother,-an offence which the headmaster, according to his son Cowden Clarke, ‘felt he could not severely punish,’-it was natural that this same temper should on occasion flame out against his employer the surgeon. If Keats’s words are to be taken literally, this happened in the second year of his apprenticeship. Probably it was but the affair of a moment: there is no evidence of any habitual disagreement or final breach between them, and Keats was able to put in the necessary testimonial from Mr Hammond when he presented himself in due course for examination before the Court of Apothecaries. A fellow-apprentice in after years remembered him as ‘an idle loafing fellow, always writing poetry.’ This, seeing that he did not begin to write till he was near eighteen, must refer to the last two years of his apprenticeship and probably represents an unlettered view of his way of employing his leisure, rather (judging by his general character) than any slackness in the performance of actual duty. One of the very few glimpses we have of him from outside is from Robert Hengist Horne (‘Orion’ Horne), another alumnus of the Enfield school who lived to make his mark in literature. Home remembered Mr Hammond driving on a professional visit to the school one winter day and leaving Keats to take care of the gig. While Keats sat in a brown study holding the reins, young Horne, remembering his school reputation as a boxer, in bravado threw a snowball at him and hit, but made off into safety before Keats could get at him to inflict punishment. The story suggests a picture to the eye but tells nothing to the mind.
Our only real witness for this time of Keats’s life is Cowden Clarke. He tells us how the lad’s newly awakened passion for the pleasures of literature and the imagination was not to be stifled, and how at Edmonton he plunged back into his school occupations of reading and translating whenever he could spare the time. He finished at this time his prose version of the Æneid, and on free afternoons and evenings, five or six times a month or oftener, was in the habit of walking over to Enfield,–by that field path where Lamb found the stiles so many and so hard to tackle,-to see his friend Cowden Clarke and bring away or return borrowed books. Young Clarke was an ardent liberal and disciple of Leigh Hunt both in political opinions and literary taste. In summer weather he and Keats would sit in a shady arbour in the old school garden, the elder reading poetry to the younger, and enjoying his looks and exclamations of delight. From the nature of Keats’s imitative first flights in verse, it is clear that though he hated the whole ‘Augustan’ and post-Augustan tribe of social and moral essayists in verse, and Pope, their illustrious master, most of all, yet his mind and ear had become familiar, in the course of his school and after-school reading, with Thomson, Collins, Gray, and all the more romantically minded poets of the middle and later eighteenth century. But the essential service Clarke did him was in pressing upon his attention the poetry of the great Elizabethan and Jacobean age, from The Shepheard’s Calendar down to Comus and Lycidas,–‘our older and nobler poetry,’ as a few had always held it to be even through the Age of Reason and the reign of Pope and his followers, and as it was now loudly proclaimed to be by all the innovating critics, with Leigh Hunt and Hazlitt among the foremost.
On a momentous day for Keats, Cowden Clarke introduced him for the first time to Spenser, reading him the Epithalamion in the afternoon and at his own eager request lending him the Faerie Queene to take away the same evening. With Spenser’s later imitators, playful or serious, as Shenstone and Thomson, Beattie and the more recent Mrs Tighe, Keats, we know, was already familiar; indeed he owned later to a passing phase of boyish delight in Beattie Minstrel and Tighe languorously romantic Psyche. But now he found himself taken to the fountain head, and was enruptured. It has been said, and truly, that no one who has not had the good fortune to be attracted to the Faerie Queene in boyhood can ever quite wholeheartedly and to the full enjoy it. The maturer student, appreciate as he may its innumerable beauties and noble ethical temper, can hardly fail to be critically conscious also of its arbitrary forms of rime and language, and sated by its melodious redundance: he will perceive its faults now of scholastic pedantry and now of flagging inspiration, the perplexity and discontinuousness of the allegory, and the absence of real and breathing humanity amidst all that luxuriance of symbolic and decorative invention, and prodigality of romantic incident and detail. It is otherwise with the greedy and indiscriminate imaginative appetite of boyhood. I speak as one of the fortunate who know by experience that for a boy there is no poetical revelation like the Faerie Queene, no pleasure equal to the pleasure of being rapt for the first time along that ever-buoyant stream of verse, by those rivers and forests of enchantment, glades and wildernesses alive with glancing figures of knight and lady, oppressor and champion, mage and Saracen,–with masque and combat, pursuit and rescue, the chivalrous shapes and hazards of the woodland, and beauty triumphant or in distress. Through the new world thus opened to him Keats went ranging with delight: ‘ramping’ is Cowden Clarke’s word: he shewed moreover his own instinct for the poetical art by fastening with critical enthusiasm on epithets of special felicity or power. For instance, says his friend, ‘he hoisted himself up, and looked burly and dominant, as he said, “What an image that is–sea-shouldering whales!”‘
Spenser has been often proved not only a great awakener of the love of poetry in youth, but a great fertilizer of the germs of original poetical power where they exist; and Charles Brown, Keats’s most intimate companion during the two last years of his life, states positively that it was to the inspiration of the Faerie Queene that his first notion of attempting to write was due. ‘Though born to be a poet, he was ignorant of his birthright until he had completed his eighteenth year. It was the Faerie Queene that awakened his genius. In Spenser’s fairy-land he was enchanted, breathed in a new world, and became another being; till enamoured of the stanza, he attempted to imitate it, and succeeded. This account of the sudden development of his poetic powers I first received from his brothers and afterwards from himself. This, his earliest attempt, the Imitation of Spenser, is in his first volume of poems, and it is peculiarly interesting to those acquainted with his history.’ Cowden Clarke places the attempt two years earlier, but his memory for dates was, as he owns, the vaguest. We may fairly take Brown to be on this point the better informed of the two, and may assume that it was some time in the second year after he left school that the Spenser fever took hold on Keats, and with it the longing to be himself a poet. But it was not with Spenser alone, it was with other allegoric and narrative poets as well, his followers or contemporaries, that Keats was in these days gaining acquaintance. Not quite in his earliest, but still in his very early, attempts, we find clear traces of familiarity with the work both of William Browne of Tavistock and of Michael Drayton, and we can conceive how in that charming ingenuous retrospect of Drayton’s on his boyish vocation to poetry, addressed to his friend Henry Reynolds, Keats will have smiled to find an utterance of the same passion that had just awakened in his own not very much maturer self.
Let it be remembered moreover that the years of Keats’s school days and apprenticeship were also those of the richest and most stimulating outburst of the new poetry in England. To name only their chief products,-the Lyrical Ballads of Coleridge and Wordsworth had come while he was only a child: during his school days had appeared Wordsworth’s still richer and not less challenging volumes of 1807, and the succession of Scott’s romantic lays (but these last, in spite of their enormous public success, it was in circles influenced by Leigh Hunt not much the fashion to admire): during his apprentice years at Edmonton, the two first cantos of Byron Childe Harold and the still more overwhelmingly successful series of his Eastern tales: and finally Wordsworth Excursion, with which almost from the first Keats was profoundly impressed. But it was not, of course, only by reading poetry that he was learning to be a poet. Nature was quite as much his teacher as books: and the nature within easy reach of him, time indeed and unimpressive in comparison with Wordsworth’s lakes and mountains, had quite enough of vital English beauty to afford fair seed-time to his-soul. Across the levels of the Lea valley not then disfigured as they are now by factories and reservoir works and the squalor of sprawling suburbs, rose the softly shagged undulations of Epping forest, a region which no amount of Cockney frequentation or prosaic vicinity can ever quite strip of its primitive romance. Westward over Hornsey to the Highgate and Hampstead heights, north-westward through Southgate towards the Barnets, and thence in a sweep by the remains of Enfield Chase, was a rich tract of typically English country, a country of winding elm-shadowed lanes, of bosky hedge and thicket and undulating pasture-land charmingly diversified with parks and pleasaunces. Nearly such I can myself remember it some sixty years ago, and even now, off the tram-frequented highways and between the devastating encroachments of bricks and mortar, forlorn patches of its ancient pastoral self are still to be found lurking.
It was in his rambles afield in these directions and in his habitual afternoon and evening strolls to Enfield and back, that a delighted sense of the myriad activities of nature’s life in wood and field and brook and croft and hedgerow began to possess Keats’s mind, and to blend with the beautiful images that already peopled it from his readings in Greek mythology, and to be enhanced into a strange supernatural thrill by the recurring magic of moonlight. It is only in adolescence that such delights can be drunk in, not with conscious study and observation but passively and half unaware through all the pores of being, and no youth ever drank them in more deeply than Keats. Not till later came for him, or comes for any man, the time when the images so absorbed, and the emotions and sympathies so awakened, define and develop themselves in consciousness and discover with effort and practice the secret of rightly expressing themselves in words.
After Keats, under the stimulus of Spenser, had taken his first plunge into verse, he went on writing occasional sonnets and other pieces: secretly and shyly at first like all other young poets: at least it was not until some two years later, in the spring of 1815, that he showed anything that he had written to his friend and confidant Cowden Clarke. This was a sonnet on the release of Leigh Hunt after serving a two years’ sentence of imprisonment for a political offence. Clarke relates how he was walking in to London from Enfield to call on and congratulate the ex-prisoner, whom he not only revered as a martyr in the cause of liberty but knew and admired personally, when Keats met him and turned back to accompany him part of the way. ‘At the last field-gate, when taking leave, he gave me the sonnet entitled Written on the day that Mr Leigh Hunt left prison. This I feel to be the first proof I had received of his having committed himself in verse; and how clearly do I remember the conscious look and hesitation with which he offered it! There are some momentary glances by beloved friends that fade only with life.’ About a score of the pieces which Keats had written and kept secret during the preceding two years are preserved, and like the work of almost all beginners are quite imitative and conventional, failing to express anything original or personal to himself. They include the aforesaid Spenserian stanzas, which in fact echo the cadences of Thomson Castle of Indolence much more than those of Spenser himself; an ode to Hope, quite in the square-toed manner of eighteenth-century didactic verse, and another to Apollo, in which style and expression owe everything to Gray; a set of octosyllabics recording, this time with some touch of freshness, a momentary impression of a woman’s beauty received one night at Vauxhall, and so intense that it continued to haunt his memory for years; two sets of verses addressed in a vein of polite parlour compliment to lady friends at the seaside; and several quite feeble sonnets in the Wordsworthian form, among them one on the peace of Paris in 1814, one on Chatterton and one on Byron.
Of Keats’s outward ways and doings during these days when he was growing to manhood we know nothing directly except from Cowden Clarke, and can only gather a little more by inference. It is clear that he enjoyed a certain amount of liberty and holiday, more, perhaps, than would have fallen to the lot of a more zealous apprentice, and that he spent part of his free time in London in the society of his brother George, at this time a clerk in Mr Abbey’s counting-house, and of friends to whom George made him known. Among these were the family of an officer of marines named Wylie, to whose charming daughter, Georgiana, George Keats a little later became engaged, and another family of prosperous tradespeople named Mathew. Here too there were daughters, Caroline and Ann, who made themselves pleasant to the Keats brothers, and to whom were addressed the pair of complimentary jingles already mentioned. One of the sisters, asked in later life for her recollections of the time, replied in a weariful strain of evangelical penitence for the frivolities of those days, and found nothing more to the purpose to say of Keats than this:–‘I cannot go further than say I always thought he had a very beautiful countenance and was very warm and enthusiastic in his character. He wrote a great deal of poetry at our house but I do not recollect whether I ever had any of it, I certainly have none now; Ann had many pieces of his.’ A cousin of this family, one George Felton Mathew, was a youth of sensibility and poetical leanings, and became for a time an intimate friend of Keats, and next to his brothers and Cowden Clarke the closest confidant of his studies and ambitions. Their intimacy began in the Edmonton days and lasted through the earlier months of his student life in London. Looking back upon their relations after some thirty years, Mr Felton Mathew, then a supernumerary official of the Poor Law Board, struggling meekly under the combined strain of a precarious income, a family of twelve children, and a turn for the interpretation of prophecy, wrote as follows:–
Keats and I though about the same age, and both inclined to literature, were in many respects as different as two individuals could be. He enjoyed good health–a fine flow of animal spirits –was fond of company–could amuse himself admirably with the frivolities of life–and had great confidence in himself. I, on the other hand was languid and melancholy–fond of repose –thoughtful beyond my years–and diffident to the last degree. But I always delighted in administering to the happiness of others: and being one of a large family, it pleased me much to see him and his brother George enjoy themselves so much at our little domestic concerts and dances. . . . He was of the sceptical and republican school. An advocate for the innovations which were making progress in his time. A faultfinder with everything established. I, on the contrary, hated controversy and dispute-dreaded discord and disorder–loved the institutions of my country. . . . But I respected Keats’s opinions, because they were sincere–refrained from subjects on which we differed, and only asked him to concede with me the imperfection of human knowledge, and the fallibility of human judgment: while he, on his part, would often express regret on finding that he had given pain or annoyance by opposing with ridicule or asperity the opinions of others.
Of Keats’s physical appearance and poetical preferences the same witness writes further:–
A painter or a sculptor might have taken him for a study after the Greek masters, and have given him ‘a station like the herald Mercury, new lighted on some heaven-kissing hill.’ His eye admired more the external decorations than felt the deep emotions of the Muse. He delighted in leading you through the mazes of elaborate description, but was less conscious of the sublime and the pathetic. He used to spend many evenings in reading to me, but I never observed the tears in his eyes nor the broken voice which are indicative of extreme sensibility. These indeed were not the parts of poetry which he took pleasure in pointing out.
This last, it should be noted, seems in pretty direct contradiction with one of Cowden Clarke’s liveliest recollections as follows:–‘It was a treat to see as well as hear him read a pathetic passage. Once when reading Cymbeline aloud, I saw his eyes fill with tears, and his voice faltered when he came to the departure of Posthumus, and Imogen saying she would have watched him–
Till the diminution
Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle; Nay follow’d him till he had melted from
The maliness of a gnat to air; and then
Have turn’d mine eye and wept.’
Early in the autumn of 1815, a few weeks before his twentieth birthday, Keats left the service of Mr Hammond, his indentures having apparently been cancelled by consent, and went to live in London as a student at the hospitals, then for teaching purposes united, of Guy’s and St Thomas’s. What befell him during the eighteen months that followed, and how his career as a student came to an end, will be told in the next two chapters.(8)
1. Between the forms with and without the final ‘s’ there is no hard and fast line to be drawn, one getting changed into the other either regularly, by the normal addition of the possessive or patronymic suffix, or casually, through our mere English habit of phonetic carelessness and slipshod pronunciation. I learn from a correspondent belonging to the very numerous St Teath stock, and signing and known only as Keat, that other members of his family call themselves Keats. And my friend Mr F. B. Keate, working-man poet and politician of Bristol, whose forbears came from Tiverton and earlier probably from St Teath, assures me that he is addressed Keates in speech and writing as often as not. There are several families in Bristol, most of them coming from Wilts or (as the famous flogging headmaster of Eton came) from Somerset, whose names are spelt and spoken Keat or Keats and Keate or Keates indifferently.
2. This document, a memorandum written for the information of Keats’s friend and publisher, John Taylor, was sold in London in 1907. I saw and took rough note of it before the sale, meaning to follow it up afterwards: but circumstances kept me otherwise fully occupied, and later I found that the buyer, a well known and friendly bookseller, had unfortunately mislaid it: neither has he since been able to recover it from among the chronic congestion of his shelves.
3. Houghton MSS.
4. Charles Cowden Clarke, Recollections of Writers, 1878.
5. Rawlings v. Jennings.
6. She was buried at St Stephen’s, Colman Street, Decr. 19, 1814, aged 78.
7. Mistakes have crept into the received statements (my own included) as to the dates when Keats’s apprenticeship began and ended. The witnesses on whom we have chiefly to depend wrote from thirty to fifty years after the events they were trying to recall, and some of them, Cowden Clarke specially, had avowedly no memory for dates. The accepted date of Keat’s leaving school and going as apprentice to Mr Hammond at Edmonton has hitherto been the autumn of 1810, the end of his fifteenth year. It should have been the late summer of 1811, well on in his sixteenth, as is proved by the discovery of a copy of Bonnycastle Astronomy given him as a prize at the end of the midsummer term that year (see Bulletin of the Keats-Shelley Memorial, Rome, 1913, p. 23). On the other hand we have material evidence of his having left by the following year, in the shape of an Ovid presented to him from the school and inscribed with a fine writing-master’s flourish, ‘ JOHN KEATS, emer: 1812;’ emer, added in a fainter ink, is of course for emeritus, a boy who has left school. This book is in the Dilke collection of Keats relics at Hampstead, and the inscription has been supposed to be Keats’s own, which it manifestly is not. Another school-book of Keats’s, of five years’ earlier date, has lately been presented to the same collection: this is the French-English grammar of Duverger,–inscribed in much the same calligraphy with his name and the date 1807. He must have studied it to some purpose, if we may judge by the good reading knowledge of French which he clearly possessed when he was grown up.
8. Surmise, partly founded on the vague recollections of former fellow students, has hitherto dated this step a year earlier, in the autumn of 1814. But the publication of the documents relating to Keats from the books of the hospital show that this is an error. He was not entered as a student at Guy’s till October 1, 1815. If he had moved to London, as has been supposed, a year earlier, he would have had nothing to do there, nor is it the least likely that his guardian would have permitted such removal. That he came straight from Mr Hammond’s to Guy’s, without any intermediate period of study elsewhere, is certain both from a note to that effect against the entry of his name in the hospital books, and from the explicit statement of his fellow-student and sometime housemate, Mr Henry Stephens. It results that the period of his life as hospital student in a succession of London lodgings must be cut down from the supposed two years and a half, October 1814-April 1817, to one year and a half, Oct. 1815-April 1817. There is no difficulty about this, and I think that both as to his leaving school and his going to London the facts and dates set forth in the present chapter may be taken as well established.
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "John Keats By Sidney Colvin Chapter I" https://englishhistory.net/keats/john-keats-sidney-colvin-chapter-i/, March 2, 2015