‘Snuffed out by an article.’ Keats, Shelley’s ‘Adonais’, Byron and the Reviewers

Author
Ken Page, Keats House Museum

Two notorious attacks on Keats’s poetry appeared during his lifetime in two monthly magazines, the ‘Quarterly Review’, and ‘Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine’. At the time of Keats’s death, although his third book of poetry, ‘Lamia’, had been generally well received, his reputation was at a low point. Keats himself acknowledged this in wishing nothing but ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ to appear on his tombstone. But the belief that the reviewers had contributed to Keats’s death was growing, and his friends hoped that the critics might eventually be brought to account. John Taylor wrote that Keats’s death ‘ought to be another Blow to the Hearts of those Blackwoods men.’ Benjamin Bailey encouraged Taylor to deal with the critics in his proposed memoir: ‘I think his unhappy life might be a means of exposing the nefarious spirit of that most odious publication of Blackwood’s.’ The inscription agreed upon by Joseph Severn and Charles Brown for Keats’s headstone (erected in 1823) attacked Keats’s enemies, and in ‘Adonais’, his elegy on the death of Keats, Shelley also associated Keats’s death with the criticism of the reviewers. He took it upon himself to ‘chastise his destroyers’, but the publication of the poem aggravated Blackwood’s and the magazine replied by attacking Shelley as well as Keats.

Notices of Keats’s death in February 1821 appeared in the newspapers and magazines in March and April, and a short article published in the ‘Literary Gossip’ presented Keats as a victim:

‘Your Reading Public, or rather the savages they employ to wield the scalping knife and tomahawk, in the character of reviewers, have treated [Keats] with a wantonness of barbarity, which I trust, will ultimately be its own punishment. These assassins of reputation, have committed high treason against the supremacy of genius, “may their pernicious souls rot half a grain a day,” may the ten plagues of Egypt pursue them’.

In April Shelley wrote to Lord Byron attributing Keats’s death to the criticism he had received. Byron replied:

  ‘I am very sorry to hear what you say of Keats – is it actually true? I did not think criticism had been so killing. Though I differ from you essentially in your estimate of his performances, I so much abhor all unnecessary pain, that I would rather he had been seated on the highest peak of Parnassus than have perished in such a manner. Poor fellow! though with such inordinate self-love he would probably have not been very happy. I read the review of “Endymion” in the Quarterly. It was very severe, – but surely not so severe as many reviews in that and other journals upon others.’

Byron repeated that he was unsure about Shelley’s claim when he wrote to his publisher John Murray on the same day:

‘Is it true, what Shelley writes me, that poor John Keats died at Rome of the Quarterly Review?’
An engraved print of a seated man. He is resting his right arm on a table and holding a quill pen. He has dark curly hair and wears a buttoned jacket with an open-necked shirt with a high collar.
Percy B. Shelley. Edward Finden, after Amelia Curran. Engraved print. About 1839. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/PZ/01/297

Shelley finished his poem ‘Adonais’ in June. He wrote to Claire Clairmont:

‘I have received a most melancholy account of the last illness of poor Keats, which I will neither tell you nor send you, for it would make you too low-spirited, – My Elegy on him is finished: I have dipped my pen in consuming fire to chastise his destroyers; otherwise the tone of the poem is solemn and exalted.’  

Shelley made his opinion clear in his preface to ‘Adonais’:

‘The savage criticism on his Endymion, which appeared in the Quarterly Review, produced the most violent effect on his susceptible mind; the agitation thus originated ended in the rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs; a rapid consumption ensued, and the succeeding acknowledgements from more candid critics of the true greatness of his powers, were ineffectual to heal the wound thus wantonly inflicted.  

  It may be well said, that these wretched men know not what they do. They scatter their insults and their slanders without heed […] you, one of the meanest, have wantonly defaced one of the noblest specimens of the workmanship of God. Nor shall it be your excuse, that, murderer as you are, you have spoken daggers, but used none.

  […] I am given to understand that the wound which his sensitive spirit had received from the criticism of Endymion, was exasperated by the bitter sense of unrequited benefits; the poor fellow seems to have been hooted from the stage of life, no less by those on whom he had wasted the promise of his genius, than those on whom he had lavished his fortune and care.’

In July Byron wrote to his publisher John Murray:

‘Are you aware that Shelley has written an elegy on Keats, and accuses the Quarterly of killing him?

“Who killed John Keats?”
  “I”, says the Quarterly,
  So savage and Tartarly;
“ ’Twas one of my feats.”

“Who shot the arrow?”
“The poet-priest Milman
(So ready to kill man),
Or Southey or Barrow.”

   You know very well that I did not approve of Keats’s poetry, or principles of poetry, or of his abuse of Pope; but as he is dead, omit all that is said about him in any MSS. of mine, or publication. His Hyperion is a fine monument, and will keep his name. I do not envy the man who wrote the article: your review people have no more right to kill than any other foot pads. However, he who would die of an article in a review would probably have died of something else equally trivial.’
An engraved print of the head and shoulders of a man standing and facing slightly to the left. He has black curly hair and wears an unbuttoned jacket with a waistcoat, an open-necked shirt and a black neck-cloth.
Lord Byron. At the age of 19. Edward Finden, after G. Sanders. Engraved print. 1837. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/PZ/01/072.  

In July Shelley, living in Pisa, received copies of ‘Adonais’ from the printer and sent them on to his publishers in London, the Ollier brothers. In August Shelley wrote to them: ‘The “Adonais,” in spite of its mysticism, is the least imperfect of my compositions, and, as the image of my regret and honour for poor Keats, I wish it to be so.’

Notices of Shelley’s forthcoming poem appeared in the September issues of the monthly magazines and copies began to be available in October. On 11 November Shelley wrote to his publishers that he  hoped the poem would be noticed: ‘I am especially curious to hear the fate of “Adonais.” I confess I should be surprised if that poem were born to an immortality of oblivion.’

Shelley was less hopeful of the success of his poem when he wrote to Joseph Severn, also living in Italy, on 29 November, enclosing a copy of ‘Adonais’.

  ‘I send you the Elegy on poor Keats – and I wish it were better worth your acceptance. You will see by the preface, that it was written before I could obtain any particular account of his last moments; all that I still know was communicated to me by a friend who had derived his information from Colonel Finch; I have ventured to express as I felt the respect and admiration which your conduct towards him demands.

  In spite of his transcendent genius, Keats never was, or ever will be, a popular poet and the total neglect and obscurity in which the astonishing remnants of his mind still lie, was hardly to be dissipated by a writer, who, however he may differ from Keats in more important qualities, at least resembles him in that accidental one, a want of popularity. 

  I have little hope, therefore, that the poem I send you will excite any attention, nor do I feel assured that a critical notice of his writings would find a single reader. But for these considerations, it had been my intention to have collected the remnants of his compositions, and to have published them with a life and criticism. – Has he left any poems or writings of whatsoever kind, and in whose possession are they? Perhaps you would oblige me by information on this point.

[…]

For my part, I little expected, when I last saw Keats at my friend Leigh Hunt’s that I should survive him.’

Meanwhile, William Maggin, one of the ‘Blackwood’s men’, warned Blackwood that his magazine should be prepared to vigorously defend itself:

‘Get some good hand […] to review Shelley’s what d’ye call it about Master Clysterpipe the dead poet. and acquit yourself of the murder of that Knight of the burning pestle.’

‘Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine’ reviewed ‘Adonais’ in its December issue.

  ‘The present story is thus: – A Mr John Keats, a young man who had left a decent calling for the melancholy trade of Cockney-poetry, has lately died of a consumption, after having written two or three little books of verses, much neglected by the public. His vanity was probably wrung not less than his purse; for he had it upon the authority of the Cockney Homers and Virgils, that he might become a light to their region at a future time. But all this is not necessary to help a consumption to the death of a poor sedentary man, with an unhealthy aspect, and a mind harassed by the first troubles of versemaking. The New School, however, will have it that he was slaughtered by a criticism of the Quarterly Review, – “O flesh, how art thou fishified!” – There is even an aggravation in this cruelty of the Review – for it had taken three or four years to slay its victim, the deadly blow having been inflicted at least as long since.’

The review contained two parodies of ‘Adonais’, ‘O weep for Wontner, for his leg is broke’, and an ‘Elegy’, ‘Weep for my Tomcat! all ye Tabbies weep’ which begins:

Weep for my Tomcat! all ye Tabbies weep,
  For he is gone at last! Not dead alone,
In flowery beauty sleepeth he no sleep;
  Like that bewitching youth Endymion!

An article in the ‘Imperial Magazine’ for the same month was more sympathetic. Keats

‘was treated […] in a manner for which they may now be sorry, but for which they cannot atone! It was his ill fate to encounter the criticism of men now living, who, almost without any of those feelings that ought to be possessed by them, have cast a degree of ridicule and contempt upon every passage which they could discover in his writings; not for the purpose of warning the poet, nor in the true spirit of criticism, but to indulge their own personal hatred of the man, because he was so attached to a party to which they were opposed. – It was this that damped the ardour of his poetical genius, – this that gave a shock to his delicate frame and feelings, – and to this he has fallen a prey before the summer of his days had passed away.’

The ‘Literary Gazette’ also reviewed ‘Adonais’ in their December issue. They attacked both Keats and Shelley:

‘[…] as the vigour of Sampson lay in his hair, the secret of talent with these persons lies in the neck; and what aspirations can be expected from a mind enveloped in muslin. Keats caught cold in training for a genius, and after a lingering illness, died, to the great loss of the Independents of South America, whom he had intended to visit with an English epic poem, for the purpose of exciting them to liberty. But death, even the death of the radically presumptuous profligate, is a serious thing; and as we believe that Keats was made presumptuous chiefly by the treacherous puffing of his cockney fellow gossips, and profligate in his poems merely to make them saleable, we regret he did not live long enough to acquire common sense, and abjure the pestilent and perfidious gang who betrayed his weakness to the grave, and are now panegyrising his memory into contempt. For what is the praise of the cockneys but disgrace, or what honourable inscription can be placed over the dead by the hands of notorious libellers, exiled adulterers, and avowed atheists. […]

  It is so far a fortunate thing that this piece of impious and utter absurdity can have little circulation in Britain. The copy in our hands is one of some score sent to the Author’s inmates from Pisa […] Solemn as the subject is, (for in truth we must grieve for the early death of any youth of literary ambition,) it is hardly possible to help laughing at the mock solemnity with which Shelley charges the Quarterly Review for having murdered his friend with ––––– a critique!’

Later in the month a short article in the ‘Observer of the Times’ commented that ‘Adonais’  

‘contains an extensive assemblage of poetical images blended with much of the author’s peculiar absurdity. – The unfortunate subject of this monody fell a victim to the savage criticism on his “Endymion” in the Quarterly Review.’

In July 1823 Joseph Severn wrote to William Haslam about the erection of the headstone on Keats’s grave.

‘I have just put up the Tomb to poor Keats – it has cost me 16£ - but Brown insists on paying half […] Our Keats Tomb is simply this – a Greek Lyre in Basso relieve – with only half the Strings – to show his Classical Genius cut off by death before its maturity – the Inscription is this “This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a Young English Poet – who on his death-bed – in the bitterness of his heart – at the malicious power of his enemies – desired these words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone”

“Here lies one whose name was writ in Water”’

Byron’s earlier concern for truth did not stop him from including a stanza on Keats’s death in Canto XI of ‘Don Juan’, written in 1822 and published in 1823. Leigh Hunt saw the stanza before it was published. He commented later: ‘I told [Byron] the real state of the case, proving to him that the supposition was a mistake, and therefore, if printed, would be a misrepresentation. But a stroke of wit was not to be given up.’

John Keats, who was killed off by one critique,
  Just as he really promised something great,
If not intelligible, – without Greek
  Contrived to talk about the Gods of late,
Much as they might have been supposed to speak.
  Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate: –
’Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article.
A printed eight-line stanza from a poem.
Lord Byron. Don Juan. Cantos IX, X and XI. London. Hunt. 1823. Canto XI, stanza LX.

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.

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