‘My book is coming out with very low hopes, though not spirits on my part’
John Keats to Charles Brown, 16 June 1820
In summer 1820, John Keats’s third and final book of poems was published. While at the time this simple looking volume failed to sell well, it is one of the strongest collections of poetry ever written.
The Lamia etc volume contains many of the poems Keats composed during 1818 and 1819, a brief time of extraordinary creativity and craftsmanship. These poems reveal what Keats knew so well – there could be no happiness without sorrow.
By 1820 his problems were mounting. Illness, heartache and money worries overshadowed the months when his best and last work was made public. Without the support of his friends and publishers, his poems might never have appeared in print.
Keats never knew the pleasure the poetry in this volume would later bring to so many people. He died within six months of its publication and for years after his death it remained virtually unknown.
‘I had intended to delay seeing you till a Book which I am now publishing was out, expecting that to be the end of this Week… as I was setting out yesterday morning a slight spitting of blood came on which returned rather more copiously at night.’
Keats writes to his sister Fanny Keats, 23 June 1820
Any pleasure Keats might have felt while preparing his poems for publication during the spring and summer of 1820 was overshadowed by serious problems.
Keats was physically and emotionally weak from consumption, now known as tuberculosis. He had money worries, no permanent lodgings and, perhaps most tormenting of all, he was broken-hearted. Without money or health, he could not pursue his engagement to his beloved Fanny Brawne.
Keats’s previous book, the epic poem Endymion, had been published in happier times but its savage reviews by the press were professionally devastating. As his latest book was made ready, Keats worked under the fear of literary failure.
While some critics did in fact recognise the beauty and originality of his poems, Keats couldn’t enjoy the moment. Just before his book’s publication he suffered the second major haemorrhage caused by his illness. In the weeks that followed, his letters show a young man grappling with the painful decision to leave behind his loved ones and travel to Italy in the hope of surviving the winter.
‘Next week Keats’s new Volume of Poems will be published, & if it does not sell well, I think nothing will ever sell again. I am sure of this that for poetic Genius there is not his equal living & I would compare him against any one with either Milton or Shakespeare for Beauties.’
John Taylor, Keats’s publisher
Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems was published by Taylor and Hessey, a publishing house and booksellers on Fleet Street in London. John Taylor and James Hessey were supporters of Keats and generous in helping him financially. The book itself was printed by Thomas Davison, a champion of radical causes.
Lamia etc consisted of only 200 pages and it was bound in drab grey paper boards with a label on the spine. There were 500 copies printed, and it was priced at 7 shillings and 6 pence - over £20 today. For an additional cost, purchasers could have their copy bound by Taylor and Hessey in an attractive binding.
Publication was delayed due to Keats’s illness, during which he struggled to concentrate on editing the volume. When it finally appeared on 1 July 1820 the publishers had included an ‘Advertisement’ which claimed Keats was discouraged from completing the poem ‘Hyperion’ because of previously poor reviews. Keats disagreed with this and angrily crossed it out in one copy, adding ‘This is a lie’.
Adverts for Lamia etc appeared in newspapers late in June 1820 and continued through the rest of the year. Favourable reviews began appearing in July. Sales were promising to begin with, but a scandal in the Royal Family distracted readers and sales fell. After Keats’s early death in February 1821, Taylor and Hessey stopped advertising his works and never made a profit on the book.
‘I think no single volume of Poems ever gave me more real delight on the whole than I have received from this.’
James A. Hessey, Keats’ publisher, on Lamia etc.
Keats’s third book of poetry is a powerful collection of some of the greatest poems in the English language.
The poems have an extraordinary variety of content and verse forms, but uniting them is the poet’s love of nature and his belief in the transforming power of the imagination.They are also marked by a pervasive melancholy. In ‘Ode to A Nightingale’ the beauty of a late spring night gives only a temporary release from his sorrow, and his three tales of love at the start of the volume, with their lush natural imagery, all end with images of death.
Keats’s first reviewers gave the book a mixed reception, seeing it as powerfully inventive and original, but also accusing him of ‘peculiarity’. A notice in the Monthly Review of July 1820 sums up the critics’reservations. The volume, it says, ‘displays the ore of true poetic genius,though mingled with a large portion of dross’.
Attitudes to how poetry should be written have broadened since the 1820s and today these poems are among the best-loved and most widely anthologised in the English language.
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
The final lines of Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’
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.