‘he is continually shocking our ideas of poetical decorum’
From a review of Lamia etc
The publication of Keats’s third collection was overshadowed by the critical mauling given to his previous book, Endymion, by two of the most influential journals of the time. An abusive review by John Gibson Lockhart in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine had described Endymion as 'settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy’, while attacking Keats himself as an uneducated upstart whose writings ‘profane and vulgarise every association’. Both Blackwood’s and its fellow Tory paper The Quarterly also condemned Keats as a follower of the ‘Cockney’ Leigh Hunt. The Quarterly called him ‘more unintelligible, … twice as diffuse and ten times more tiresome and absurd than his prototype’.
Some of the alterations made by Keats’s editors to the manuscript of Lamia were probably a response to these attacks, changing words and expressions which might be accused of obscurity or vulgarity.
The Lamia collection was much better received than Endymion had been. There were some glowing reviews, including two from Keats’s friends Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt. Lamb, writing in the New Times on 19 July, compared Keats favourably to Dante, Chaucer and Spenser, and Hunt’s review in his own paper The Indicator concluded, ‘Mr Keats undoubtedly takes his seat with the oldest and best of our living poets.’
Other journals also praised the collection’s imaginative power and beauty of expression, notably the respected Edinburgh Review. Despite the rather patronising start, it made clear that Keats was a poet of great promise:
Mr Keats, we understand, is still a very young man, and his whole works, indeed, bear evidence enough of the fact. They manifestly require, therefore, all the indulgence that can be claimed for a first attempt: - but we think it no less plain that they deserve it; for they are flushed all over with the rich lights of fancy, and so coloured and bestrewn with the flowers of poetry, that even while perplexed and bewildered in their labyrinths, it is impossible to resist the intoxication of their sweetness, or to shut our heart to the enchantments they so lavishly present.
But the book was also attacked for its unorthodoxy in language, religion and even politics.The Eclectic Review objected to the poems’ paganism, complaining that Keats had no ‘regulating principle of religion’.
An otherwise favourable notice in Baldwin’s London Magazine singled out passages in two poems to accuse Keats of unfairly attacking trade and tradesmen and to claim that their author was guilty of ‘false … reasoning on human nature’. Isabella’s brothers in ‘The Pot of Basil’ are described as ‘vile moneybags’ who exploit others for their riches, and the lament in ‘Robin Hood’ says:
Strange! that honey
Can’t be got without hard money!
Above all, it was Keats’s language that alarmed the critics. Even the favourable Edinburgh Review notice complained of the poems’ ‘extravagance’. The Monthly Review acknowledged Keats’s ‘true poetic genius’, but added, ‘he is continually shocking our ideas of poetical decorum’ and regretted that his ‘peculiarities’ would damage his reputation.
Sadly, this prediction proved accurate throughout Keats’s life. In August he wrote:
‘My book has had good success among literary people’,
but he never achieved the wider readership he hoped for. It was not until his discovery by figures like Rossetti and Tennyson, nearly thirty years after his death, that he began to be recognised as a great poet.
Keats’s Last Book: a virtual journey is a Keats House exhibition, published in July 2020 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems.
The Keats200 bicentenary is a celebration of Keats’s life, works and legacy, beginning in December 2018 through to February 2021 and beyond. It is led by three major partners – Keats House, Hampstead, The Keats Foundation and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association – and is open to all individuals and organisations who have an interest in Keats or poetry. The bicentenary of Keats’s most productive years as a poet, and the period when he found inspiration, friendship and love, is an exciting opportunity to (re)discover and enjoy his works as well as engage with poetry and its ongoing relevance to us all today.