Keats and the Lawyer

KeatsA few months ago, I pulled the Norton Anthology of English Literature from my bookshelf—an old friend to read on a cold winter day. The page fell open to Keats, and a reference to Richard Woodhouse, barrister and friend of Keats, caught my eye.

John Keats (1795-1821) was an English Romantic poet. Keats wrote for six years before he died of tuberculosis in Rome at age 25. During that short time, he created some of the most beautiful verse, such as his sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (1816):

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Richard Woodhouse was an English barrister who represented Keats’ publisher, Taylor and Hessey. Keats and Woodhouse became friends, and Woodhouse encouraged Keats in his writing. Keats was to receive an inheritance when he turned 21, but he did not know of the inheritance. As such, Keats struggled for want of money, and his publisher gave him an advance on his second book. To me, Woodhouse had a unique view of Keats that came in part from Woodhouse’s work as a lawyer: Woodhouse, as a lawyer, was able to evaluate Keats both professionally and personally, and he recognized Keats’ talent.

The Norton Anthology (1968 ed. at 716) includes the following passage, in which Woodhouse noted Keats’ thoughts on writing. This passage provides insights into how a serious writer approaches his or her craft:

Richard Woodhouse: Keats on Composing, From Notes on Keats

“My judgment,” [Keats] says, “is as active while I am actually writing as my imagination. In fact all my faculties are strongly excited, and in their full play.—And shall I afterwards, when my imagination is idle, and the heat in which I wrote has gone off, sit down coldly to criticize when in possession of only one faculty what I have written when almost inspired.”—This fact explains the reason of the perfectness, fullness, richness, and completion of most that comes from him. He has said that he has often not been aware of the beauty of some thought or expression until after he had composed and written it down.—It has then struck him with astonishment, and seemed rather the production of another person than his own.—He has wondered how he came to hit upon it. This was the case with the description of Apollo in the 3rd book of Hyperion, “white melodious throat.” . . . It seemed to come by chance or magic—to be as it were something given to him.

And, here is a letter from Keats to Woodhouse (October 27th, 1818, original spelling), which shows Keats’ candor in addressing Woodhouse.  The letter also reminds me in some ways of the structure of an argument:

My dear Woodhouse,

Your Letter gave me a great satisfaction; more on account of its friendliness, than any relish of that matter in it which is accounted so acceptable in the ‘genus irritabile’. The best answer I can give you is in a clerk-like manner to make some observations on two princple points, which seem to point like indices into the midst of the whole pro and con, about genius, and views and achievements and ambition and cetera. 1st. As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort of which, if I am any thing, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body – The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures. If then he has no self, and if I am a Poet, where is the Wonder that I should say I would write no more? Might I not at that very instant have been cogitating on the Characters of Saturn and Ops? It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature – how can it, when I have no nature? When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated – not only among Men; it would be the same in a Nursery of children: I know not whether I make myself wholly understood: I hope enough so to let you see that no despondence is to be placed on what I said that day.

In the second place I will speak of my views, and of the life I purpose to myself. I am ambitious of doing the world some good: if I should be spared that may be the work of maturer years – in the interval I will assay to reach to as high a summit in Poetry as the nerve bestowed upon me will suffer. The faint conceptions I have of Poems to come brings the blood frequently into my forehead. All I hope is that I may not lose all interest in human affairs – that the solitary indifference I feel for applause even from the finest Spirits, will not blunt any acuteness of vision I may have. I do not think it will – I feel assured I should write from the mere yearning and fondness I have for the Beautiful even if my night’s labours should be burnt every morning, and no eye ever shine upon them. But even now I am perhaps not speaking from myself: but from some character in whose soul I now live. I am sure however that this next sentence is from myself. I feel your anxiety, good opinion and friendliness in the highest degree, . . . .

At this 11th hour of National Poetry month, earlier celebrated by Professor Lisa Mazzie in her blog, let’s remember Keats and his lawyer and friend.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Ellen Henak

    I would rather not remember Keats. I have not seen that poem since I was forced to memorize it in my freshman year of high school. Why would anyone expect a 9th grader to understand that poem? I’m afraid that experience ruined Keats for me (although I still can recite most of the poem.)

  2. Brantley

    I always loved “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” It’s incredible to think that what Keats accomplished having only lived 25 years.

  3. Melissa Greipp

    Keats was already writing poetry in his late teens, and I think he is sometimes included in the high school English curriculum in part for that reason–that the age of the student reader and the writer are not that far apart. The first Keats poem I read in a high school class was the one I included above, along with “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.

  4. S. Malman

    Great article and information. It’s great that Woodhouse encouraged Keats and his writing. It seems like they had a good working relationship.

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