John Keats is now known as one of the greatest poets in the English language. Often included in the great ‘triad’ of younger Romantics with Shelley and Byron, his life and work has arguably retained a larger and more interested audience than either of those legendary figures, due in part to the wonderful body of writing in the letters he wrote, now often published alongside his poetry.
The letters, which include some of the most extraordinary analysis of the relationship of poet and poetry to the wider world, were written to family – his brothers George and Tom in particular – and friends who, recognising the genius they contained, copied and treasured them. His love letters to Fanny Brawne have received recent attention following the release of the film ‘Bright Star’ in 2009; the knowledge that she treasured them following his death, keeping them secret until after her own death more than 40 years later, adds to the intensity of their story.
In 1818 Keats wrote ‘I could not live without the love of my friends’, and for him they were the support he needed as contact with his family was withdrawn. His brother George married and emigrated to America in the summer of 1818; he nursed his other brother, Tom, through TB until Tom died in December of the same year and Fanny, his only sister and youngest sibling was kept a semi-prisoner by her guardian Richard Abbey in Walthamstow.
Keats’ reputation has lately been rescued by eminent biographers from that image of the young, romantic but frail and doomed poet that prevailed for more than one hundred years after his death in 1821. In fact, he was a robust young man, his physique often compared to that of a boxer – short and stocky with broad shoulders. His hair was reddish-brown, his eyes large and his face strong and open with an attractive, large bony nose. He had a wonderful sense of humour, was full of life and felt that poetry – that sensuous delight – should be ‘felt on the pulses’. He loved a good claret and was never happier than with his close circle of male friends. His letters show him to be both a serious-minded man of letters and a bawdy, jokey man; he could be sensitive, generous and a truly gentle man whilst also having the potential for fury and jealousy. It was a magical combination that could hold people spellbound. Charismatic but not arrogant or conceited, his publisher John Taylor said of him: ‘If you knew him you would also feel that strange personal interest in all that concerns him’. A man that could only ever be himself – sincere, deeply sympathetic, open and incapable of the guile necessary to make friends for a purpose - cast a spell that holds us to him into the 21st century.
Now – I appreciate that many of those that read my blog regularly, especially those posts that relate to matters poetic, will know that my love for Keats has been something of a lifelong passion. From teenage crush to adult preoccupation I have willingly spent hours in his company and his poems and letters have been with me through some tough times. But his attraction to all those who knew him is well documented; many of those that sought his company had their own fame as writers, artists, critics and journalists and we can be grateful to them for the care they took to note Keats’ story (whilst acknowledging that they perpetuated the myth of doomed youth).
So, I thought I would start a series of posts that focus on those friends that, like Joseph Severn, who nursed Keats through his final illness in Rome, were proud to say they were the ‘friend of Keats’. These friends had such faith in the value of his work that they championed him after his death until the critics and public had to acknowledge what they all knew to be the truth – that they had been in the company of a genius.
So, I hope you will look forward to finding out more about poet, satirist and critic John Hamilton Reynolds and the Rev. Benjamin Bailey, men who received letters full of Keats’ philosophy of life and poetry; the artists Benjamin Robert Haydon and Joseph Severn; Charles Armitage Brown, with whom Keats lived and travelled; essayist journalist and campaigner (James Henry) Leigh Hunt; editor John Taylor and critic and writer Charles Wentworth Dilke. I will also write of Fanny Brawne, who was more generous about many of his friends than they were about her. Keats wrote to her the words that summed up his own view on the value of love and friendship:
“I love you the more in that I believe you had liked me for my own sake and for nothing else.”
I will also try to convey something of the influence each friend had on Keats and how their friendships, with Keats and with each other, affected his life and posthumous reputation.
John Keats was a special man, but as Fanny Brawne said in a letter to his sister, Fanny:
‘I am certain he has some spell that attaches them to him or else he has met with a set of friends that I did not believe could be found in the world’
Perhaps the truth is that the man of genius found the friends that genius deserved.