To Benjamin Bailey, 8 October 1817
‘Do not the Lovers of Poetry like to have a little Region to wander in where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second Reading: which may be food for a Week’s stroll in the Summer?’
‘Haydon says to me Keats dont show your Lines to Hunt on any account or he will have done half for you – so it appears Hunt wishes it to be thought.’
Benjamin Bailey (1791-1853) was a student at Oxford when he and Keats became friends. The friendship ended when Bailey, after passionately courting Marianne Reynolds, married Hamilton Gleig instead. The marriage may have been determined by his career; Gleig was the daughter of the bishop of Brechin and Bailey was a country parson. Keats’s last letter to Bailey was an achingly polite congratulations on his wedding.
In this letter, Keats discusses the politics of literary London and his growing disenchantment with Leigh Hunt. He also mentions his fellow poets Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron. Note his signature – ‘your sincere friend & brother’ – which shows his deep affection for Bailey, severed upon Bailey’s ambitious marriage.
The end of this letter is often quoted in biographies of Keats: “The little Mercury I have taken has corrected the Poison and improved my Health – ” This has been used to suggest Keats was treating venereal disease with mercury. True? No one knows, but the mystery is discussed in Robert Gittings’ excellent biography.
Hamps[t]ead Octr Wednesday
My dear Bailey,
After a tolerable journey I went from Coach to Coach to as far as Hampstead where I found my Brothers – the next Morning finding myself tolerably well I went to Lambs Conduit Street and delivered your Parcel – Jane and Marianne were greatly improved Marianne especially she has no unhealthy plumpness in the face – but she comes me healthy and angular to the Chin – I did not see John I was extrem(e)ly sorry to hear that poor Rice after having had capital Health During his tour, was very ill. I dare say you have heard from him. From No. 19 I went to Hunt’s and Haydon’s who live now neighbours. Shelley was there – I know nothing about any thing in this part of the world – every Body seems at Loggerheads. There’s Hunt infatuated – theres Haydon’s Picture in statu quo. There’s Hunt walks up and down his painting room criticising every head most unmercifully – There’s Horace Smith tired of Hunt. The web of our Life is of mingled Yarn” Haydon having removed entirely from Marlborough street Crips must direct his Letter to Lisson Grove North Paddington. Yesterday Morning while I was at Brown’s in came Reynolds – he was pretty bobbish we had a pleasant day – but he would walk home at night that cursed cold distance. Mrs Bentley’s children are making a horrid row – whereby I regret I cannot be transported to your Room to write to you. I am quite disgusted with literary Men and will never know another except Wordsworth – no not even Byron – Here is an instance of the friendships of such – Haydon and Hunt have known each other many years – now they live pour ainsi dire jealous Neighbours. Haydon says to me Keats dont show your Lines to Hunt on any account or he will have done half for you – so it appears Hunt wishes it to be thought. When he met Reynolds in the Theatre John told him that I was getting on to the completion of 4000 Lines. Ah I says Hunt, had it not been for me they would have been 7000 ! If he will say this to Reynolds what would he to other People? Haydon received a Letter a little while back on this subject from some Lady – which contains a caution to me through him on this subject – Now is not all this a most paultry thing to think about? You may see the whole of the case by the following extract from a Letter I wrote to George in the spring “As to what you say about my being a poet, I can retu[r]n no answer but by saying that the high Idea I have of poetical fame makes me think I see it towering to high above me. At any rate I have no right to talk until Endymion is finished – it will be a test, a trial of my Powers of Imagination and chiefly of my invention which is a rare thing indeed – by which I must make 4000 Lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry; and when I consider that this is a great task, and that when done it will take me but a dozen paces towards the Temple of Fame – it makes me say – God forbid that I should be without such a task I have heard Hunt say and may be asked – why endeavour after a long Poem? To which I should answer – Do not the Lovers of Poetry like to have a little Region to wander in where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second Reading: which may be food for a Week’s stroll in the Summer? Do not they like this better than what they can read through before Mrs Williams comes down stairs? a Morning work at most. Besides a long Poem is a test of Invention which I take to be the Polar Star of Poetry, as Fancy is the Sails, and Imagination the Rudder. Did our great Poets ever write short Pieces? I mean in the shape of Tales – This same invention seems i[n]deed of late Years to have been forgotten as a Poetical excellence(.) But enough of this, I put on no Laurels till I shall have finished Endymion, and I hope Apollo is (not) angered at my having made a Mockery at him at Hunts” You see Bailey how independant my writing has been – Hunts dissuasion was of no avail – I refused to visit Shelley, that I might have my own unfetterd scope – and after all I shall have the Reputation of Hunt’s elevé – His corrections and amputations will by the knowing ones be trased in the Poem – This is to be sure the vexation of a day – nor would I say so many Words about it to any but those whom I know to have my wellfare and Reputation at Heart – Haydon promised to give directions for those Casts and you may expect to see them soon – with as many Letters You will soon hear the dinning of Bells – never mind you and Gleg will defy the foul fiend – But do not sacrifice your heal[t]h to Books do take it kindly and not so voraciously. I am certain if you are your own Physician your stomach will resume its proper strength and then what great Benefits will follow. My Sister wrote a Letter to me which I think must be at (….) post office Ax Will to see. My Brothers kindest remembrances to you – we are going to dine at Brown’s where I have some hopes of meeting Reynolds. The little Mercury I have taken has corrected the Poison and improved my Health – though I feel from my employment that I shall never be again secure in Robustness – would that you were as well as
your sincere friend & brother
The Dilks are expected to day –
Notes: Mrs Bentley was Keats’s landlady at 1 Well Walk, Hampstead. Mrs Williams was a friend of Dr Johnson; Keats was reading Johnson’s notes on Shakespeare and disagreeing with most of it. Keats refers to making a mockery of Apollo at Hunt’s when he allowed Hunt to crown him with laurel. ‘Ax Will’ is a slang expression, perhaps referring to a servant.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "John Keats Letter To Benjamin Bailey, 8 October 1817" https://englishhistory.net/keats/letters/letter-to-benjamin-bailey-8-october-1817/, February 24, 2015