‘Is it too daring to Fancy Shakspeare this Presidor?’
‘You tell me never to despair–I wish it was as easy for me to observe the saying–truth is I have a horrid Morbidity of Temperament which has shown itself at intervals–it is I have no doubt the greatest Enemy and stumbling block I have to fear–I may even say that it is likely to be the cause of my disappointment.’
‘I know no one but you who can be fully sensible of the turmoil and anxiety, the sacrifice of all what is called comfort the readiness to Measure time by what is done and to die in 6 hours could plans be brought to conclusions–the looking upon the Sun the Moon the Stars, the Earth and its contents as materials to form greater things–that is to say ethereal things–but here I am talking like a Madman greater things that our Creator himself made!!’
The painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) met Keats at Leigh Hunt’s home in October 1816. They were close and devoted friends for the next three years. Haydon included Keats’s face in his historical painting Christ’s Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem, along with Hazlitt’s, Wordsworth’s, and Lamb’s. Their friendship ended in June 1819 when Haydon quarreled with their mutual friends Hunt and John Hamilton Reynolds and reneged on a loan Keats had made him. Haydon’s work never achieved popular or critical success and he committed suicide in 1846. He remains the source of most well-known anecdotes about Keats; he also held the famous ‘Immortal Dinner’ of 1817, which Keats attended with Wordsworth and Lamb.
This letter is typical of the many Keats sent to Haydon while beginning his poetic career. He writes to Haydon as a fellow artist and discusses their mutual ambition.
Margate Saturday Eve
My dear Haydon,
Let Fame, which all hunt after in their Lives,
Live register’d upon our brazen tombs,
And so grace us in the disgrace of death:
When spite of cormorant devouring time
The endeavour of this present breath may buy
That Honor which shall bate his Scythe’s keen edge
And make us heirs of all eternity.
To think that I have no right to couple myself with you in this speech would be death to me me so I have e’en written it–and I pray God that our brazen Tombs be nigh neighbors. It cannot be long first the endeavor of this present breath will soon be over–and yet it is as well to breathe freely during our sojourn–it is as well if you have not been teased with that Money affair–that bill-pestilence. However I must think that difficulties nerve the Spirit of a Man–they make our Prime Objects a Refuge as well as a Passion. The Trumpet of Fame is as a tower of Strength the ambitious bloweth it and is safe. I suppose by your telling me not to give way to forebodings George has mentioned to you what I have lately said in my Letters to him–truth is I have been in such a state of Mind as to read over my Lines and hate them. I am “one that gathers Samphire dreadful trade” the Cliff of Poesy Towers above me–yet when, Tom who meets with some of Pope’s Homer in Plutarch’s Lives reads some of those to me they seem like Mice to mine. I read and write about eight hours a day. There is an old saying “well begun is half done” –’tis a bad one. I would use instead–“Not begun at all till half done” so according to that I have not begun my Poem and consequently (a priori) can say nothing about it. Thank God! I do begin arduously where I leave off, notwithstanding occasional depressions: and I hope for the support of a High Power while I clime this little eminences and especially in my Years of more momentous Labor. I remember your saying that you had notions of a good Genius presiding over you. I have of late had the same thought–for things which [I] do half at Random are afterwards confirmed by my judgment in a dozen features of Propriety. Is it too daring to Fancy Shakspeare this Presidor? When in the Isle of Whight I met with a Shakspeare in the Passage of the House at which I lodged–it comes nearer to my idea of him than any I have seen–I was but there a Week yet the old Woman made me take it with me though I went off in a hurry–Do you not think this is ominous of good? I am glad you say every Man of great Views is at times tormented as I am–
Sunday Aft. This Morning I received a letter from George by which it appears that Money Troubles are to follow us up for some time to come perhaps for always–these vexations are a great hindrance to one–they are not like Envy and detraction stimulants to further exertion as being immediately relative and reflected on at the same time with the prime object–but rather like a nettle leaf or two in your bed. So now I revoke my Promise of finishing my Poem by the Autumn which I should have done had I gone on as I have done–but I cannot write while my spirit is fevered in a contrary direction and I am now sure of having plenty of it this Summer. At this moment I am in no enviable Situation–I feel that I am not in a Mood to write any to day; and it appears that the loss of it is the beginning of all sorts of irregularities. I am extremely glad that a time must come when every thing will leave not a wrack behind. You tell me never to despair–I wish it was as easy for me to observe the saying–truth is I have a horrid Morbidity of Temperament which has shown itself at intervals–it is I have no doubt the greatest Enemy and stumbling block I have to fear–I may even say that it is likely to be the cause of my disappointment. However every ill has its share of good–this very bane would at any time enable me to look with an obstinate eye on the Devil Himself–ay to be as proud of being the lowest of the human race as Alfred could be in being of the highest. I feel confident I should have been a rebel Angel had the opportunity been mine. I am very sure that you do love me as your own Brother–I have seen it in your continual anxiety for me–and I assure you that your wellfare and fame is and will be a chief pleasure to me all my Life. I know no one but you who can be fully sensible of the turmoil and anxiety, the sacrifice of all what is called comfort the readiness to Measure time by what is done and to die in 6 hours could plans be brought to conclusions–the looking upon the Sun the Moon the Stars, the Earth and its contents as materials to form greater things–that is to say ethereal things–but here I am talking like a Madman greater things that our Creator himself made!! I wrote to Hunt yesterday–scarcly know what I said in it. I could not talk about Poetry in the way I should have liked for I was not in humor with either his or mine. His self delusions are very lamentable they have inticed him into a Situation which I should be less eager after than that of a galley Slave–what you observe thereon is very true must be in time.
Perhaps it is a self delusion to say so–but I think I could not be be deceived in the Manner that Hunt is–may I die tomorrow if I am to be. There is no greater Sin after the 7 deadly than to flatter oneself into an idea of being a great Poet–or one of those beings who are privileged to wear out their Lives in the pursuit of Honor–how comfortable a feel it is that such a Crime must bring its heavy Penalty? That if one be a Selfdeluder accounts will be balanced? I am glad you are hard at Work–t will now soon be done–I long to see Wordsworth’s as well as to have mine in: but I would rather not show my face in Town till the end of the Year–if that will be time enough–if not I shall be disappointed if you do not write for me even when you think best. I never quite despair and I read Shakspeare–indeed I shall I think never read any other Book much–Now this might lead me into a long Confab but I desist. I am very near Agreeing with Hazlit that Shakspeare is enough for us–By the by what a tremendous Southean Article his last was–I wish he had left out “grey hairs” It was very gratifying to meet your remarks of the Manuscript –I was reading Anthony and Cleopatra when I got the Paper and there are several Passages applicable to the events you commentate. You say that he arrived by degrees and not by any single struggle to the height of his ambition–and that his Life had been as common in particulars as other Mens. Shakspeare makes Enobarb say-Where’s Antony Eros–He’s walking in the garden–thus: and spurns the rush that lies before him; cries fool, Lepidus! In the same scene we find: “let determined things to destiny hold unbewailed their way.” Dolabella says of Antony’s Messenger
“An argument that he is pluck’d when hither He sends so poor a pinion of his wing”–Then again, Eno–“I see Men’s Judgments are A parcel of their fortunes; and things outward Do draw the inward quality after them, To suffer all alike”–The following applies well to Bertram
“Yet he that can endure To follow with allegience a fallen Lord, Does conquer him that did his Master conquer, And earns a place i’ the story”
But how differently does Buonap bear his fate from Antony!
‘Tis good too that the Duke of Wellington has a good Word or so in the Examiner. A Man ought to have the Fame he deserves–and I begin to think that detracting from him as well as from Wordsworth is the same thing. I wish he had a little more taste–and did not in that respect “deal in Lieutenantry”. You should have heard from me before this–but in the first place I did not like to do so before I had got a little way in the 1st Book and in the next as G. told me you were going to write I delayed till I had hea[r]d from you. Give my Respects the next time you write to the North and also to John Hunt–
Remember me to Reynolds and tell him to write–Ay, and when you sent Westward tell your Sister that I mentioned her in this–So now in the Name of Shakespeare Raphael and all our Saints I commend you to the care of heaven!
Your everlasting friend
Notes: The opening quote is from Love’s Labour’s Lost.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "John Keats Letters To Benjamin Robert Haydon, 10-11 May 1817" https://englishhistory.net/keats/letters/benjamin-robert-haydon-10-11-may-1817/, February 28, 2015