‘One of the three Books I have with me is Shakespeare’s Poems: I neer found so many beauties in the Sonnets–they seem to be full of fine things said unintentionally–in the intensity of working out conceits. Is this to be borne?’
John Hamilton Reynolds (1794-1852) met Keats at Leigh Hunt’s home in October 1816. Reynolds later introduced Keats to Charles Brown, James Rice, Benjamin Bailey, Charles Wentworth Dilke (among others), as well as his future publisher, John Taylor. Reynolds had dabbled in poetry himself but abandoned it for a career in law. He was a passionate advocate of Keats’s work and a devoted friend. They discussed poetry and planned several works together.
This letter to Reynolds includes a discussion of Shakespeare and many quotations from his works. Keats also sends Reynolds a selection from his own Endymion.
My Dear Reynolds
There are two things which tease me here–one of them Crips, and the other that I cannot go with Tom into Devonshire–however I hope to do my duty to myself in a week or so; and then I’ll try what I can do for my neighbour–now is not this virtuous? on returning to Town–I’ll damn all Idleness–indeed, in superabundance of employment, I must not be content to run here and there on little two-penny errands–but turn Rakehell, ie go a masking or Bailey will think me just as great a Promise Keeper as he thinks you–for myself I do not,-and do not remember above one Complaint against you for matter o’ that–Bailey writes so abominable a hand, to give his Letter a fair reading requires a little time: so I had not seen, when I saw you last, his invitation to Oxford at Christmas–I’ll go with you. You know how poorly Rice was–I do not think it was all corporeal–bodily pain was not used to keep him silent. I’ll tell you what; he was hurt at what your Sisters said about his joking with your Mother, he was, soothly to sain–It will all blow over. God knows, my Dear Reynolds, I should not talk any sorrow to you-you must have enough vexations–so I won’t any more–If I ever start a rueful subject in a Letter to you–blow me! Why don’t you–Now I was agoing to ask a very silly Question neither you nor any body else could answer, under a folio, or at least a Pamphlet–you shall judge–Why don’t you, as I do, look unconcerned at what may be called more particularly Heart-vexations? They never surprize me-lord! a man should have the fine point of his soul taken off to become fit for this world–I like this place very much. There is Hill & Dale and a little River–I went up Box hill this Evening after the Moon–you a’ seen the Moon–came down–and wrote some lines. Whenever I am separated from you, and not engaged in a continued Poem–every Letter shall bring you a lyric–but I am too anxious for you to enjoy the whole, to send you a particle. One of the three Books I have with me is Shakespear’s Poems: I neer found so many beauties in the Sonnets–they seem to be full of fine things said unintentionally–in the intensity of working out conceits. Is this to be borne? Hark ye!
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And Summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard.
He has left nothing to say about nothing or anything: for
look at Snails, you know what he says about Snails, you know
where he talks about “cockled Snails”–well, in one of these
sonnets, he says–the chap slips into–no! I lie! this is in the
Venus and Adonis:1 the Simile brought it to my Mind.
Audi–As the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks back into his shelly cave with pain
And there all smothered up in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to put forth again:
So at his bloody view her eyes are fled,
Into the deep dark Cabins of her head.
He overwhelms a genuine Lover of Poesy with all manner of abuse, talking about–
“a poet’s rage
And stretched metre of an antique song.”
Which by the by will be a capital Motto for my Poem, won’t it?–He speaks too of “Time’s antique pen”–and “april’s first born flowers”–and “deaths eternal cold”.–
By the Whim King! I’ll give you a Stanza, because it is not material in connection and when I wrote it I wanted you to–give your vote, pro or con.–
Crystalline Brother of the belt of Heaven,
Aquarius! to whom King Jove hath given
Two liquid pulse-streams! ‘stead of feather’d wings–
Two fan-like fountains–thine illuminings
For Dian play:
Dissolve the frozen purity of air;
Let thy white shoulders silvery and bare,
Show cold through watery pinions: make more bright
The Star-Queen’s Crescent on her marriage night:
Haste Haste away!–
Now I hope I shall not fall off in the winding up, as the woman said to the [illegible word]–I mean up and down. I see there is an advertizement in the Chronicle to Poets–he is so overloaded with poems on the late Princess. –I Suppose you do not lack–send me a few–lend me thy hand to laugh a little–send me a little pullet sperm, a few finch eggs–and remember me to each of our Card playing Club–When you die you will all be turned into Dice, and be put in pawn with the Devil–for Cards they crumple up like any King–I mean John in the stage play what pertains Prince Arthur.
Your affectionate friend
Give my love to both houses –hinc atque illinc.
Notes: John Keats quotes from ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, ‘Venus and Adonis’, and the Sonnets. And he did indeed use the ‘stretched metre of an antique song’ quote on the title-page of Endymion. He also quotes from Book IV of this work, lines 581-90. The final paragraph makes reference to the death of Princess Charlotte on 6 November 1817.
The final paragraph also plays upon various Shakespearean works.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "John Keats Letters To J H Reynolds, 22 November 1817" https://englishhistory.net/keats/letters/j-h-reynolds-22-november-1817/, March 2, 2015