‘These last two day[s] however I have felt more confident – I have asked myself so often why I should be a Poet more than other Men, – seeing how great a thing it is, – how great things are to be gained by it – …. When I consider that so many of these Pin points go to form a Bodkin point (God send I end not my Life with a bare Bodkin, in its modern sense) and that it requires a thousand bodkins to make a Spear bright enough to throw any light to posterity – I see that nothing but continual uphill Journeying!
Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) was a devoted friend and supporter of Keats. Lending books, giving advice, engaging in ‘composition contests, printing and praising Keats’s poetry, Hunt also introduced Keats to Haydon, Shelley, and others. Hunt’s radical politics, however, earned him the enmity of influential critics. And since Keats was regarded as Hunt’s protégé, he suffered the same fate. He understandably wished to distance his poetry from Hunt’s influence (perceived or otherwise), but they remained friends. Hunt later traveled to Italy where he began an ill-fated literary journal with Shelley and Byron. In 1828, he wrote a biographical sketch of Keats.
This is a wonderfully rambling letter, typical of Keats, which discusses mutual friends, literary critics, and Keats’s ambition.
Margate May 10th –
My dear Hunt,
The little Gentleman that sometimes lurks in a gossips bowl ought to have come in very likeness of a coasted crab and choaked me outright for not having answered your Letter ere this – however you must not suppose that I was in Town to receive it; no, it followed me to the isle of Wight and I got it just as I was going to pack up for Margate, for reasons which you anon shall hear. On arriving at this treeless affair I wrote to my Brother George to request C. C. C. to do the thing you wot of respecting Rimini; and George tells me he has undertaken it with great Pleasure; so I hope there has been an understanding between you for many Proofs – – C. C. C. is well acquainted with Bensley. Now why did you not send the Key of your Cupboard which I know was full of Papers? We would have lock’d them all in a trunk together with those you told me to destroy; which indeed I did not do for fear of demolishing Receipts. There not being a more unpleasant thing in the world (saving a thousand and one others) than to pay a Bill twice. Mind you – old Wood’s a very Varmant-sharded in Covetousness – And now I am upon a horrid subject – what a horrid one you were upon last sunday and well you handled it. The last Examiner was [a] Battering Ram against Christianity – Blasphemy – Tertullian – Erasmus – Sr. Philip Sidney. And then the dreadful Petzelians and their expiation by Blood – and do Christians shudder at the same thing in a Newspaper which the [?] attribute to their God in its most aggravated form? What is to be the end of this? I must mention Hazlitt’s Southey – O that he had left out the grey hairs! Or that they had been in any other Paper not concluding with such a Thunderclap – that sentence about making a Page of the feelings of a whole life appears to me like a Whale’s back in the Sea of Prose. I ought to have said a word on Shakspeare’s Christianity – there are two, which I have not looked over with you, touching the thing: the one for, the other against. That in favor is in Measure for Measure Act 2. S. 2 Isab. Alas! alas!
Why all the Souls that were, were forfeit once
And he that might the vantage best have took,
Found out the Remedy –
That against is in Twelfth Night. Act 3. S. 2. Maria – for there is no Christian, that means to be saved by believing rightly, can ever believe such impossible Passages of grossness! Before I come to the Nymphs I must get through all disagreeables – I went to the Isle of Wight – thought so much about Poetry so long together that I could not get to sleep at night – and moreover, I know not how it was, I could not get wholesome food – By this means in a Week or so I became not over capable in my upper Stories, and set off pell mell for Margate, at least 150 Miles – because forsooth I fancied that I should like my old Lodging here, and could contrive to do without Trees. Another thing I was too much in Solitude, and consequently was obliged to be in continual burning of thought as an only resource.
However Tom is with me at present and we are very comfortable. We intend though to get among some Trees. How have you got on among them? How are the Nymphs? I suppose they have led you a fine dance-Where are you now. In Judea, Cappadocia, or the Parts of Lybia about Cyrene, Strangers from “Heaven, Hues and Prototypes. I wager you have given given several new turns to the old saying “Now the Maid was fair and pleasant to look on” as well as mad[e] a little variation in “once upon a time” perhaps too you have rather varied “thus endeth the first Lesson” I hope you have made a Horseshoe business of – “unsuperfluous lift” “faint Bowers” and fibrous roots. I vow that I have been down in the Mouth lately at this Work. These last two day[s] however I have felt more confident – I have asked myself so often why I should be a Poet more than other Men, – seeing how great a thing it is, – how great things are to be gained by it – What a thing to be in the Mouth of Fame – that at last the Idea has grown so monstrously beyond my seeming Power of attainment that the other day I nearly consented with myself to drop into a Phaeton – yet ’tis a disgrace to fail even in a huge attempt, and at this moment I drive the thought from me. I began my Poem about a Fortnight since and have done some every day except travelling ones – Perhaps I may have done a good deal for the time but it appears such a Pin’s Point to me that I will not coppy any out. When I consider that so many of these Pin points go to form a Bodkin point (God send I end not my Life with a bare Bodkin, in its modern sense) and that it requires a thousand bodkins to make a Spear bright enough to throw any light to posterity – I see that nothing but continual uphill Journeying! Now is there any thing more unpleasant (it may come among the thousand and one) than to be so journeying and miss the Goal at last. But I intend to whistle all these cogitations into the Sea where I hope they will breed Storms violent enough to block up all exit from Russia. Does Shelley go on telling strange Stories of the Death of Kings? Tell him there are strange Stories of the death of Poets – some have died before they were conceived “how do you make that out Master Vellum”. Does Mrs. S. cut Bread and Butter as neatly as ever? Tell her to procure some fatal Scissors and cut the thread of Life of all to be disappointed Poets. Does Mrs Hunt tear linen in half as straight as ever? Tell her to tear from the book of Life all blank Leaves. Remember me to them all – to Miss Kent and the little ones all.
Your sincere friend
John Keats alias Junkets –
You shall know where we move –
Notes: Keats, of course, meant ‘roasted’ crab and not ‘coasted’.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "John Keats Letters To Leigh Hunt, 10 May 1817" https://englishhistory.net/keats/letters/leigh-hunt-10-may-1817/, March 2, 2015