Keats: On Overcoming Milton

[Chapter from my: The Poetry of Keats: Language and  Experience – available at a discount via contact page].


There exists throughout Keats’ life and writings a tension between Milton and Shakespeare which, after a tumultuous struggle, is resolved in favour of Shakespeare. At a certain transitional point in his creative life, Keats was fired by the example of Milton, only to discover that his influence was acting as a restriction on his inspiration, a restriction which he had, somehow, to overcome. This overcoming led back from Milton to Thomas Chatterton standing in for Shakespeare.


On 23 January 1818 Keats wrote two letters, one to Benjamin Bailey and one to his brothers, George and Tom. In these letters Milton and Shakespeare appear side by side. At just this time, on Tuesday mornings in January and early February, Keats was attending Hazlitt’s lectures on the English poets. The third of these is a comparison between Milton and Shakespeare. Hazlitt compares Shakespeare to Milton in terms of ego. Shakespeare’s ego dissolves into the world about him, permitting the world to take over. Milton’s ego, on the other hand, is always present and has a tendency to impress itself upon the world. Shakespeare’s world creates his art; Milton’s art creates his world. By December 1817, Keats had defined this quality ‘which Shakespeare possessed so enormously’. He called it ‘Negative Capability’. This way of describing Shakespeare’s creative nature was an extension of the concept of sympathy, which was itself derived from the German idea of empathy – einfühlung – which, in its turn, was one of the basic tenets of English Romantic criticism. Although more often related to ethics than aesthetics, it did assume that the imagination could grasp the truth of an object it was contemplating by a kind of immediate intuition – a process of which the rational mind was incapable. Keats described it as that state of mind in which ‘man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. The poet is able to accept the secret behind appearances and let it remain what it is, veiled from view and secret. The ego which assaults the world in search of substantive evidence, of proof, cannot let the secret be as it is but has to read it in terms of its enquiry. The world it finds is seen through spectacles tinted with the colours of method. Military cartographers sometimes use an overlay – a sketch on transparent plastic of some specific feature such as the deployment of forces – which is placed over the ordinary map and keyed to it. The only way that the real map can be read is through the overlay, and the region is then seen as a battlefield or as a problem of logistics. The man who possesses negative capability, on the other hand, subsumes his ego in the world, allowing its mysteries to remain veiled. Hazlitt says, as does Keats, that Shakespeare possesses this quality:

The striking peculiarity of Shakespeare’s mind was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds – so that it contained a universe of thought and feeling within itself, and had no one particular bias, or exclusive excellence more than another. He was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men. He was the least of an egotist that it was possible to be. He was nothing in himself; but he was all that others were, or that they could become . . . he had only to think of any thing in order to become that thing.

Shakespeare has undercut the epistemological problem over which the philosophers had agonised since the time of Descartes: he has no ego over against the world. For him, the distinction between ego and world is not a distance which has to be bridged. He annihilates his ego and becomes his world as Hazlitt puts it:

When he conceived of a character, whether real or imaginary, he not only entered into all its thoughts and feelings but seemed instantly . . . to be surrounded by all the same objects … the same local, outward and unforseen accidents which would occur in reality’. The world gives itself to Shakespeare in whose plays we have the world. The thing happens in a play as it might happen in fact.

Each of his characters is as much itself and as absolutely independent of the rest, as of the author, existing as if they were living persons, not fictions of the mind. This, for Hazlitt, is what distinguishes Shakespeare from Milton. He writes that:

The passion in Shakespeare . . . is not of some one habitual feeling or sentiment preying upon itself, growing out of itself, and moulding everything to itself

. But the passion in Milton is of just this kind. Where Shakespeare’s passion is ‘passion modified by passion’, Milton’s is passion modified by contemplation. He:

takes the imaginative part of passion – that which remains after the event, which the mind reposes on when all is over, which looks upon circumstances from the remotest elevation of thought and fancy, and abstracts them from the world of action to that of contemplation.

This is what Keats found in Wordsworth and called damningly ‘the egotistical sublime’ and from which he wanted to distinguish himself. It is epic rather than dramatic. Milton had a reason for writing. He wrote, after all, in support of Cromwell and the Commonwealth. With this objective he organised the world artistically to fit his purposes like the plastic over the military map:

He thought of nobler forms and nobler things than those he found around him. He lived apart in the solitude of the own thoughts carefully excluding from his mind whatever might distract its purposes or alloy its purity, or damp its zeal’

Hazlitt realised that because Milton wrote epics and with a purpose, he ‘always labours’: ‘In Milton there is always an appearance of effort … the power of his mind is always stamped on every line’.

In the letters of 23 January, that is before the Hazlitt lectures on the English poets, we can see that his reactions to Shakespeare and Milton were running along the same lines as Hazlitt’s. He included in these letters two poems, neither of which he published, the first after he had been surprised ‘with a real authenticated Lock of Milton’s hair’ and the other ‘0n sitting down to read “King Lear” once again’. The distinction between Keats’ reactions to these two poets, each in his own way so important to him, is transparent. Keats’ own empathy is at work. In the lines on Milton he retains a calm and calculated distance, a ‘recollection in tranquility’ which, in both metre and feeling, is not unlike Wordsworth’s:

Chief of organic numbers!
Old Scholar of the Spheres!
Thy spirit never slumbers,
But rolls about our ears,
For ever, and for ever

Here, Keats addresses a spiritual eternal, a poet who, as Hazlitt puts it, ‘seized the pen with a hand just warm from the touch of the ark of faith’. Milton’s achievement is so other-worldly that the only way to express praise is to offer sacrifice, and even that is mad:

O what mad endeavour
Worketh he,
Who to thy sacred and ennobled hearse
Would offer a burnt sacrifice of verse
And melody
When every childish fashion
Has vanish’d from my rhyme
Will I, grey-gone in passion,
Leave to an after-time
Hymning and harmony
Of thee

thus, only after he has exorcised from his verse all the natural childlike intensity and feeling, when he is grey-gone in passion’, will he be able to offer his sacrifice in rhyme to Milton. This is something he wants to escape. It looks back to Endymion.

The lines to Shakespeare are the polar opposite of the above. The calm tone of distant admiration is gone:

O golden tongued Romance, with serene lute!
Fair plumed Syren, Queen of far-away
Leave melodizing on this wintry day,
Shut up thine olden pages, and be mute:
Adieu! for, once again, the fierce dispute
Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay
Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.

The poet bids farewell to Romances with their unruffled vision of beauty: ‘Romance, with serene lute […] Queen of far-away’. Here, in King Lear, is something of a quite different order:

the fierce dispute
Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay
Must I burn through

Reading King Lear is like going through an agony, like being burnt in the flames of suffering undergone by Lear and Gloucester and, like them, being transformed. Keats begs, before reading the play:

Let me not wander in barren dream,
But, when I am consumed in the fire
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.

Two things distinguish this sonnet from the lines on Milton. The first is its intensity. As we read, we feel the strength of emotion which the poet expects to suffer and the intensity of the expectation itself. The second, which follows inevitably from the first, lies in the quality of the experience. In the lines on Milton, Keats is praising a kind of verse in which the reader is left little room for emotional manoeuvre. The experience has been designed for him in advance. The impress of the poet’s mind has organised his world and reduced the reader’s’ potential for interpretation. In the lines on Shakespeare, miraculously, the world is simply itself, and the reader’s responsibility for interpretation is his alone; he seeks the poet’s cooperation in vain. The whole is no longer organised into a pattern. The ego of a powerful mind has not set its impress on the world and drawn us along to think with it, to think in its way. In the world of King Lear the reader is left to suffer the same agonies as the sufferers themselves; the poet’s subsumption of ego permits this. He doesn’t stand in the way of this suffering world and interpret it for us; the world itself speaks.

This movement is present in the Spring Odes. Here, the ‘egotistical sublime’ is set aside, the Self annihilated and truth itself allowed utterance, ‘whether it existed before or not’ The Miltonic ego which surfaces in the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is recognised as such and, in the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, renounced. No ego making use of language’ ‘composed’ this ode. Here, Keats’ imagination was not operating consciously in this way. On the contrary, ‘The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth. The renunciation of Self in the moodlessness of indolence is at one and the same time the renunciation of language and in this renunciation the poet is granted the poem – ‘the eternal Being, ‘the real of Beauty’.

But Keats went far beyond this, and he did it with the aid of Milton. Between mid-April 1819, immediately after the period of the Spring Odes, and the September of that year, he came to deny the poetic knowledge through which those odes came into being and then to rediscover it at a higher level. This process involved a determination to accept the ideas which he saw reflected in Milton’s verse and then, finally, to overcome them when he came to recognise the ruinous effect that they were having on his life and poetry.

Having completed the odes, Keats had to face the pressing problem of earning a living. He had come to the end of his meagre resources and was discovering the need to ‘stand upon some vantage ground and begin to fight’. By June, his financial affairs were in a very bad state. His guardian, Abbey, informed him that Mrs Midgely Jennings, his aunt, was making ready to file another petition against the estate which, said Abbey, would put him ‘very undeservedly in the wrong box’. At the time, Abbey told Keats, without any grounds whatsoever as it now appears, that the moneys due to Tom from his grandmother and for which he had been hoping, should now be held in trust until Fanny came of age. On 17 June, suppressing his pride, Keats wrote to Haydon, ‘I was the day before yesterday much in want of Money: but some news I had yesterday’ – which concerned the bill in chancery against the estate – ‘has driven me into necessity’. and he pleads, ‘Do borrow or beg some how what you can for me’. Again, on the same day, he told his sister that he had, ‘written this morning to several people to whom I have lent money, requesting repayment’, and he apologised that he was unable to visit her as, ‘I cannot afford to spend money by Coachire’ which can have only been a matter of a few pence. The situation was very serious. On 31 May he had written to Miss Jeffreys, ‘My Brother George always stood between me and any dealings with the World – Now I find I must buffet it’.

To qualify as a surgeon in Edinburgh was out of the question as it would have cost money before making any. This left Keats with two alternatives which he mentions in the letter of 31 May, ‘I have the choice as it were of two Poisons … the one is voyaging to and from India for a few years; the other is leading a fevrous life alone with Poetry’. He had already virtually rejected the first of these and admits immediately that, ‘the latter will suit me best.’ He begs Miss Jeffrey to ask her mother to ‘Enquire in the Villages round Teignmouth if there is any Lodging commodious for its cheapness’ and to let him know, ‘where it is and what price’. This settling down to write poetry was possible because his friend Charles Brown had agreed to loan him enough money to do so. The idea was for Keats to compose another volume and also to flesh out a scenario of Brown’s for a play, ‘Otho the Great’, which they had hopes of Edmund Kean, the great actor-manager, putting on at the Drury Lane Theatre. That Keats should have agreed to this is not so surprising. Brown had already had a play staged at Drury Lane and had made some £300 at the venture, Keats’ newly avowed aim in writing was to earn a living.

The financial straights in which he found himself were bad enough in themselves; but worse than that, they made marriage to Fanny out of the question, and it was this above all else that was preying on his mind. In order to make money, he must calm his passions for Fanny, leave Hampstead and write. ‘I am going to try the Press once more and to that end shall retire to live cheaply in the country and compose myself and verses as well as I can’. In order to compose himself, he needed to put his love for Fanny out of his mind. This was clearly the advice that Brown was pressing upon him, with little thought as to the effect it might be having. Brown was a realist and believed, in his own way, that Keats’ passion for Fanny was detrimental to their project of making money by writing. Keats also, for the time being at least, accepted Brown’s advice; but the paradox involved in his attempt to forget Fanny was always close to the surface and eventually had to come up for air. Yet the main reason for his writing for money in the first place was to enable him to marry Fanny. In logic, the means might justify the end, but poetically the process was an unnatural one. As Keats had earlier said, ‘If Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all’. For poetry to come naturally to Keats, it had to come through Self-annihilation in the moodlessness of diligent Indolence. Only then could the Imagination seize hold of the Identity and language speak, so that, on waking, the poet could find it truth. Only when the great conscious aims of life – in Keats’ case, love, ambition and poetry – had been subsumed by Indolence could this happen. In the Ode on Indolence’ Keats writes:

So, ye Three Ghosts, adieu! Ye cannot raise
My head cool-bedded in the flowery grass;
For I would not be dieted with praise,
A pet-lamb in a sentimental farce!

He tells the three shadows:

Fade softly from my eyes, and be once more
In masque-like figures on a dreamy urn

In this renunciation of love, ambition and poetry lay the hidden secret of their attainment, and it was exactly this vital renunciation which he was now being denied. He gave up the Indolence which was so precious to his creative life and instead took up Energy, its polar opposite. This decision makes its appearance for the first time in the letter to Miss Jeffrey of 31 May. He wrote. ‘I must choose between despair & Energy – I choose the latter’. A little earlier in the same letter he told her, ‘Yes, I would rather conquer my indolence and strain my nerves at some grand Poem’.

The impression given by Keats in these letters is that he was forcing himself against the grain. He didn’t really want to write, but he felt that he had to. The comparison between these letters and the one to Haydon of 8 March is transparent, ‘I have come to this resolution never to write for the sake of writing, or making a poem … with respect to my livelihood I will not write for it, for I will not mix with that most vulgar of all crowds the literary’. Yet now he was steeling himself to do just this – to write for his livelihood – and this approach to poetry was a major trial for him and, above all, unnatural. On 8 July he wrote to Fanny, ‘I am at the diligent use of my faculties here. I do not pass a day without sprawling some blank verse or tagging some rhymes’. To Reynolds, three days later, he wrote, ‘I have great hopes of success, because I make use of my Judgement more deliberately than I yet have done’. The strangeness of all this comes out later in the same letter:

I have of late been moulting: not for fresh feathers & wings: they are gone, and in their stead I hope to have a pair of patient sublunary legs. I have altered, not from a Chrysalis into a butterfly, but the Contrary … The first time I sat down to write, I could scarcely believe in the necessity of so doing. It struck me as a great oddity.

By this conscious and poetically unnatural act he ‘set his Mind at work’, and turned away from his better instincts. It is this betrayal that governed all the creative period that began early in June. He did, indeed, set his mind to work with the most prodigious energy. On 11 July he was writing to Reynolds, ‘You will be glad to hear … how diligent I have been, & am being. I have finish’d the Act and … have proceeded pretty well with Lamia’. On 14 August to Bailey:

Within these two Months I have written 1500 Lines . . . I have written two tales, one from Boccacio call’d the Pot of Basil; and another call’d Saint Agnes Eve … and a third call’d Lamia – half finished – I have also been writing parts of my Hyperion and completed 4 Acts of a Tragedy.

During the two months of July and August Keats wrote ‘Lamia’, the revision of ‘Hyperion’ and the whole of ‘Otho the Great’. This enormous quantity of words he was forcing out of himself against the current of his natural inclinations. At the same time he was denying his love for Fanny, also against the current of his natural inclinations. The two movements ran in parallel. Keats was forcing out words in order, to make money so that he could marry Fanny; but to do this, he had to `conquer his indolence – a poetically unnatural act for him – and to do this, he had to force himself to forget Fanny. This dual strain tells on him. He yearns to be with her while, in the very same moment, forcing himself to deny her and remain at a distance and write. On 1 July he told her:

I will never return to London if my Fate does not turn up Pam or at least a Court-Card. Though I could centre my Happiness in you, I cannot expect to engross your heart so entirely – indeed if I thought you felt as much for me as I do for you at this moment I do not think I could restrain myself from seeing you again tomorrow for the delight of one embrace. But no – I must live upon hope and Chance. In case of the worst that can happen, I shall still love you – but what hatred shall I have for another!

And on 15th July he wrote:

When I have to take my candle and retire to a lonely room, without the thought as I fall asleep, of seeing you tomorrow morning? or the next day, or the next – it takes on the appearance of impossibility and eternity … [and yet] I should not like to be so near you as London without being continually with you: after having once kissed you Sweet I would rather be here alone at my task than in the bustle and hateful literary chitchat.

By the 25 July the tension between his yearning and effort at calm was becoming intolerable:

You cannot conceive how I ache to be with you: how I would die for one hour – for what is in the world? I say you cannot conceive; it is impossible you should look with such eyes upon me as I have upon you: it cannot be. You absorb me in spite of myself – you alone . .. I hate the world: it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it.

In trying to forget the world and Fanny’s love, Keats fell back on his Self-will, using work as a means of escape. But the tension of being pulled two ways at once was clearly becoming too much of a strain. Two weeks later, on 5 August, he writes:

Thank God for my diligence! were it not for that I should be miserable. I encourage it, and strive not to think of you – but when I have succeeded in doing so all day and as far as midnight, you return as soon as this artificial excitement goes off more severely from the fever I am left in … So you intend to hold me to my promise of seeing you in a short time. I shall keep it in as much sorrow as gladness: for I am not one of the Paladins of old who lived on watergrass and smiles for years together – What though would I not give to night for the gratification of my eyes alone? . . . This day week . . . in [Brown’s] absence I will flit to you and back. I will stay very little while; for as I am in a train of writing now I fear to disturb it – let it have its course bad or good – in it I shall try my own strength and the public pulse.

Seeing Fanny would certainly have put at risk his ‘artificial excitement’, and he was afraid of disturbing the ‘train of writing’ he was in. The next letter to Fanny came ten days later. As they had probably agreed to write weekly, this means that Keats had missed one letter. He writes:

I see you through a Mist: as I dare say you do me by this time. Believe in the first Letters I wrote you: I assure you I felt as I wrote – I could not write so now … Remember I have had no idle leisure to brood over you – ’tis well perhaps I have not – I could not have endured the throng of Jealousies that used to haunt me before I plunged so deeply into imaginary interests. I would feign, as my sails are set, sail on without interruption for a Brace of Months longer – I am in complete cue – in the fever; and shall in these four Months do an immense deal … My heart seems now made of iron… I cannot help it – I am impell’d, driven to it. I am not happy enough for silken Phrases, and silver sentences.

After breaking off for a page to describe Winchester, to which he had moved from Shanklin, he returned again to the theme that was preying on his mind:

Forgive me this flint-worded Letter – and believe and see that I cannot think of you without some sort of energy – though mal a propos – Even as I leave off – it seems to me that a few more moments thought of you would uncrystallize and dissolve me – I must not give way to it – but turn to my writing again – If I fail I shall die hard – O my love, your lips are growing sweet again to my fancy – I must forget them.

In this letter Keats’ attempt to wrest himself from the influence of his love had reached its extreme point, as had his almost feverish concentration on producing something for the presses. The tension he was feeling has mirrored itself in the very texture of the letters: they are ‘flint-worded. The phrases are, as he says, ’like so many strokes of a Hammer’. After this letter of 16 August there is a gap of one month and it seems more than probable that the reason is that Keats didn’t write any. His next he wrote in London. He had been drawn there by a letter from America telling him that George was ruined. Keats wrote to Fanny, but he did not go to see her:

Am I mad or not? I came by the Friday night coach – and have not yet been to Hampstead. Upon my soul it is not my fault, I cannot resolve to mix any pleasure with my days: they go one like another undistinguishable. If I were to see you today it would destroy the half comfortable sullenness I enjoy at present … Knowing well that my life must be passed in fatigue and trouble, I have been endeavouring to wean myself from you.

That last sentence is the key to the month of silence. Keats had, indeed, been endeavouring to wean himself from Fanny. This endeavour and its parallel, his pursuit of the presses with all his energy, forced on him by ever-increasing financial troubles, were destroying his creativity. To win Fanny, he had first to lose her. To ‘compose’ poetry, he had first to deny the very ground from which he knew poetry to spring. The torment of these paradoxes is clearly present in the letters of this time. And it was driving Keats away from Shakespeare and into the hands of Milton. He was doing exactly what Hazlitt says of Milton ‘He lived apart, in the solitude of his own thoughts, carefully excluding from his mind whatever might distract its purposes or alloy its purity, or damp its zeal’. Keats’ ego was manifesting itself and was doing so in a great outpouring of productive energy – in a movement away from the natural creativity of Shakespeare in which the Self is annihilated and energy subsumed in Indolence. This movement away from Shakespeare can be seen in the letters written at this critical moment when the tensions were reaching crisis point. The first of these was to Bailey on 14 August, the second to Taylor on 23 August and the last to Reynolds on the following day. In these letters he did what he had not done in the ones to Fanny – he wrote directly about his creative life. ‘I am convinced more and more every day that … a fine writer is the most genuine Being in the World – Shakespeare and the paradise Lost every day become greater wonders to me – I look upon fine Phrases like a Lover’. This from the first letter, to Bailey.

In the letter to Reynolds he uses virtually the same sentence, but there is a radical alteration and an even more radical omission. ‘I am convinced more and more day by day that fine writing is next to fine doing the top thing in the world; the Paradise Lost becomes a greater wonder’. The difference is small but dramatic. Shakespeare is no longer invoked along with Milton. Milton alone remains. Also, fine writing has taken second place to fine doing as the ‘top thing in the world’. This is the end result of the process evidenced in all the letters of this period. It is the end result of Keats’ refutation of his own better nature and of his belief in the creativity of Imagination that can be achieved in the moodlessness [ungestimmtheit] of diligent Indolence and Self-annihilation. He wrote to Taylor in the second of these letters, ‘You will observe at the end of this if you put down the Letter “How a solitary life engenders Pride and egotism!” True: I know it does but this Pride and egotism will enable me to write finer things than any thing else could – so I will indulge it’. In the last letter, he continued in the same vein, ‘The more I know what my diligence may in time probably effect: the more does my heart distend with Pride and Obstinacy’. Self-annihilation has here given way to a diligence directed towards an end – an effect – and the result is two of the sins of egotism: Pride and Obstinacy. The second half of this sentence contains an arresting quotation from Paradise Lost’, a quotation of which Keats must have known the conclusion:

And now his heart
Distends with Pride, and hardning in his strength

This is exactly the tenor of these letters of Keats: the desperation of Satan revelling in the power of his forces; a desperate determination to believe that the course which circumstances had forced on him was the right one. This ‘hardning’ permits him to keep on course, even though he has dropped all of his poetic doctrines one by one. Self-annihilation has given way to the Pride and Obstinacy of ego; Indolence has given way to diligence; the immediacy of the silence in which language alone can speak has given way to the mediation of language as communication – a writing for the presses. And after this incomplete but telling quotation from Milton, Keats wrote, ‘I feel it in my power to become a popular writer’. In the earlier letter to Taylor he had said, ‘I feel every confidence that if I choose I may be a popular writer’.

Negative capability, the ‘quality which Shakespeare possessed so enormously’ and which depends crucially upon the annihilation of ego, has gone, ‘My own being which I know to be becomes of more consequence to me than the crowds of Shadows in the Shape of Man and Women that inhabit a kingdom’. Keats is now no longer ‘unpoetical’; he is like ‘Men and Women who…are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute’. Thus far had he come from his own ideas on the ‘poetical Character’ which ‘is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character’. Ambition, love and poetry were not now ‘three ghosts’, ‘shadows’ which come as ‘masque-like figures on a dreamy urn’, but ‘of more consequence … than the crowds of shadows’. Keats now wanted to be dieted with praise’.

By the middle of September Keats’ suffering was reaching its peak. At just this point he heard that Kean, without whom ‘Otho the Great’ stood little chance of success, had gone off to America. At one blow his most realistic opportunity of making money had vanished. But this was not the end of his troubles. It was at this moment, as we have seen, that he received the letter from America which was ‘not of the brightest intelligence’, the letter saying that George was ruined. As a result of this, Keats took the coach to London on 10 September to see Abbey in the hope of raising some ready money to send to America. It was on this visit that he wrote to Fanny without going to Hampstead to see her, ‘I am a Coward, I cannot bear the pain of being happy’. Five days later he returned to Winchester. Brown, fortunately for us, was away in Ireland. Keats was left alone to mull over things. In these few days the profound tension that he had worked himself into snapped and the old serene, and Shakespearian, Keats re-emerged. At this point the ode ‘To Autumn’ was written and the revision of ‘Hyperion’ was abandoned. On 21 September he gave the reason to Reynolds, ‘I have given up Hyperion – there were too many Miltonic inversions in it – Miltonic verse can not be written but in an artful or rather artist’s humour’.
Keats’ effort to produce something for the presses was foreign to his natural poetic idiom and produced, through a conscious effort of will, poetry which was ‘a corruption of our Language’. Exceptional as it is, it has about it something forced, calculated, ‘cut by feet’. Keats now threw this aside in order to devote himself ‘to another sensation’. On the same day, 21 September, he wrote in his journal letter to America:

I shall never become attach’d to a foreign idiom so as to put it into my writings. The Paradise lost though so fine in itself is a corruption of our Language – It should be kept as it is unique – a curiosity – a beautiful and grand Curiosity. The most remarkable Production of the world – A northern dialect accommodating itself to greek and latin inversions and intonations. The purest english I think – or what ought to be the purest – is Chatterton’s – The Language had existed long enough to be entirely uncorrupted of Chaucer’s gallicisms and still the old words are used – Chatterton’s language is entirely northern – I prefer the native music of it to Milton’s cut by feet I have but lately stood on my guard against Milton. Life to him would be death to me. Miltonic verse cannot be written but in the vein of art – I wish to devote myself to another sensation.

And again, on the same day, to Reynolds:

No I will not copy a parcel of verses. I always somehow associate Chatterton with Autumn. He is the purest writer in the English Language. He has no French idiom, or particles like Chaucer – ’tis genuine English idiom in English words. I have given up Hyperion – there were too many Miltonic inversions in it – Miltonic verse cannot be written but in an artful or rather artist’s humour. I wish to give myself up to other sensations. English ought to be kept up. It may be interesting to you to pick out some lines from Hyperion and to put a mark x to the false beauty proceeding from art, and one || to the true voice of feeling.

‘English ought to be kept up’, conscious writing ‘for the presses’ is a corruption of language, and language must be natural. It must come ‘as naturally as the Leaves to a tree [or] it had better not come at all. Language must not accommodate itself to foreign intonations, it must not be written ‘in an artful or rather artist’s humour’. In these letters Chatterton stands in for Shakespeare, a comparison which Keats could make to his own poetry without discomfort. For Keats, Chatterton was the example, after Shakespeare, of the natural English poet, as the original dedication to ‘Endymion’ shows:


The close relationship between Chatterton and Shakespeare in Keats’ mind is seen also in the ’Epistle to George Felton Mathew’:

Where we may soft humanity put on,
And sit, and rhyme and think on Chatterton;
And that warm-hearted Shakespeare sent to meet him
Four laurell’d spirits, heaven-ward to entreat him.

In giving up ‘Hyperion’, Keats was giving up Milton for Shakespeare/Chatterton and the purity of natural language. He had succeeded in ‘convincing [his] nerves’ that ‘a fine writer is the most genuine Being in the World’, and that the fine writer is compromised in subsuming fine writing to fine doing.

In October, on Keats’ return to London, he was called on by Severn who read ‘Hyperion’ and begged Keats to complete it, arguing that it was great enough to have been written by Milton. Keats replied that this was exactly the point: he did not want to put his name to a poem that might have been written by John Milton when he could put his name to one written by John Keats.

Within a few days he was back in Hampstead. By the end of December at the latest they were engaged. Eddectively he wrote no more poetry. The greatest lesson a poet can learn was, in his case, fruitless.

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