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26 June, 2013
Letters On Literature
A Friend of Keats
by Lang, Andrew


To Thomas Egerton, Esq., Lothian College, Oxford.

Dear Egerton,--Yes, as you say, Mr. Sidney Colvin's new "Life of Keats" {1} has only one fault, it's too short. Perhaps, also, it is almost too studiously free from enthusiasm. But when one considers how Keats (like Shelley) has been gushed about, and how easy it is to gush about Keats, one can only thank Mr. Colvin for his example of reserve. What a good fellow Keats was! How really manly and, in the best sense, moral he seems, when one compares his life and his letters with the vagaries of contemporary poets who lived longer than he, though they, too, died young, and who left more work, though not better, never so good, perhaps, as Keats's best.

However, it was not of Keats that I wished to write, but of his friend, John Hamilton Reynolds. Noscitur a sociis--a man is known by the company he keeps. Reynolds, I think, must have been excellent company, if we may judge him by his writings. He comes into Lord Houghton's "Life and Letters of Keats" very early (vol. i. p. 30). We find the poet writing to him in the April of 1817, from the Isle of Wight. "I shall forthwith begin my 'Endymion,' which I hope I shall have got some way with before you come, when we will read our verses in a delightful place I have set my heart upon, near the castle." Keats ends "your sincere friend," and a man to whom Keats was a sincere friend had some occasion for pride.

About Reynolds's life neither time nor space permits me to say very much, if I knew very much, which I don't. He was the son of a master in one of our large schools. He went to the Bar. He married a sister of Thomas Hood. He wrote, like Hood, in the London Magazine. With Hood for ally, he published "Odes and Addresses to Great People;" the third edition, which I have here, is of 1826. The late relations of the brothers-in-law were less happy; possibly the ladies of their families quarrelled; that is usually the way of the belligerent sex.

Reynolds died in the enjoyment of a judicial office in the Isle of Wight, some thirty years later than his famous friend, the author of "Endymion." "It is to be lamented," says Lord Houghton, "that Mr. Reynolds's own remarkable verse is not better known." Let us try to know it a little better.

I have not succeeded in getting Reynolds's first volume of poems, which was published before "Endymion." It contained some Oriental melodies, and won a careless good word from Byron. The earliest work of his I can lay my hand on is "The Fancy, a Selection from the Poetical Remains of the late Peter Corcoran, of Gray's Inn, Student at Law, with a brief memoir of his Life." There is a motto from Wordsworth:

"Frank are the sports, the stains are fugitive." {2}

It was the old palmy time of the Ring. Every one knows how Byron took lessons from Jackson the boxer; how Shelley had a fight at Eton in which he quoted Homer, but was licked by a smaller boy; how Christopher North whipped the professional pugilist; how Keats himself never had enough of fighting at school, and beat the butcher afterwards. His friend Reynolds, also, liked a set-to with the gloves. His imaginary character, Peter Corcoran, is a poetical lad, who becomes possessed by a passion for prize-fighting. It seems odd in a poet, but "the stains are fugitive."

We would liefer see a young man rejoicing in his strength and improving his science, than loafing about with long hair and giving anxious thought to the colour of his necktie. It is a disinterested preference, as fighting was never my forte, any more than it was Artemus Ward's. At school I was "more remarkable for what I suffered than for what I achieved."

Peter Corcoran "fought nearly as soon as he could walk," wherein he resembled Keats, and part of his character may even have been borrowed from the author of the "Ode to the Nightingale." Peter fell in love, wrote poetry, witnessed a "mill" at the Fives-Court, and became the Laureate of the Ring. "He has made a good set-to with Eales, Tom Belcher (the monarch of the gloves!), and Turner, and it is known that he has parried the difficult and ravaging hand even of Randall himself." "The difficult and ravaging hand"--there is a style for you!

Reynolds has himself the enthusiasm of his hero; let us remember that Homer, Virgil, and Theocritus have all described spirited rallies with admiration and good taste. From his dissipation in cider-cellars and coal-holes, this rival of Tom and Jerry wrote a sonnet that applies well enough to Reynolds's own career:

"Were this a feather from an eagle's wing,
And thou, my tablet white! a marble tile
Taken from ancient Jove's majestic pile -
And might I dip my feather in some spring,
Adown Mount Ida threadlike wandering:-
And were my thoughts brought from some starry isle
In Heaven's blue sea--I then might with a smile
Write down a hymn to fame, and proudly sing!

"But I am mortal: and I cannot write
Aught that may foil the fatal wing of Time.
Silent, I look at Fame: I cannot climb
To where her Temple is--Not mine the might:-
I have some glimmering of what is sublime -
But, ah! it is a most inconstant light."

Keats might have written this sonnet in a melancholy mood.

"About this time he (Peter) wrote a slang description of a fight he had witnessed to a lady." Unlucky Peter! "Was ever woman in this manner wooed?" The lady "glanced her eye over page after page in hopes of meeting with something that was intelligible," and no wonder she did not care for a long letter "devoted to the subject of a mill between Belasco and the Brummagem youth." Peter was so ill- advised as to appear before her with glorious scars, "two black eyes" in fact, and she "was inexorably cruel." Peter did not survive her disdain. "The lady still lives, and is married"! It is ever thus!

Peter's published works contain an American tragedy. Peter says he got it from a friend, who was sending him an American copy of "Guy Mannering" "to present to a young lady who, strange to say, "read books and wore pockets," virtues unusual in the sex. One of the songs (on the delights of bull-baiting) contains the most vigorous lines I have ever met, but they are too vigorous for our lax age. The tragedy ends most tragically, and the moral comes in "better late," says the author, "than never." The other poems are all very lively, and very much out of date. Poor Peter!

Reynolds was married by 1818, and it is impossible to guess whether the poems of Peter Corcoran did or did not contain allusions to his own more lucky love affair. "Upon my soul," writes Keats, "I have been getting more and more close to you every day, ever since I knew you, and now one of the first pleasures I look to is your happy marriage." Reynolds was urging Keats to publish the "Pot of Basil" "as an answer to the attack made on me in Blackwood's Magazine and the Quarterly Review."

Next Keats writes that he himself "never was in love, yet the voice and shape of a woman has haunted me these two days." On September 22, 1819, Keats sent Reynolds the "Ode to Autumn," than which there is no more perfect poem in the language of Shakespeare. This was the last of his published letters to Reynolds. He was dying, haunted eternally by that woman's shape and voice.

Reynolds's best-known book, if any of them can be said to be known at all, was published under the name of John Hamilton. It is "The Garden of Florence, and Other Poems " (Warren, London, 1821). There is a dedication--to his young wife.

"Thou hast entreated me to 'write no more,'" and he, as an elderly "man of twenty-four," promises to obey. "The lily and myself henceforth are two," he says, implying that he and the lily have previously been "one," a quaint confession from the poet of Peter Corcoran. There is something very pleasant in the graceful regret and obedience of this farewell to the Muse. He says to Mrs. Reynolds:

"I will not tell the world that thou hast chid
My heart for worshipping the idol Muse;
That thy dark eye has given its gentle lid
Tears for my wanderings; I may not choose
When thou dost speak but do as I am bid, -
And therefore to the roses and the dews,
Very respectfully I make my bow; -
And turn my back upon the tulips now."

"The chief poems in the collection, taken from Boccaccio, were to have been associated with tales from the same source, intended to have been written by a friend; but illness on his part and distracting engagements on mine, prevented us from accomplishing our plan at the time; and Death now, to my deep sorrow, has frustrated it for ever!"

I cannot but quote what follows, the tribute to Keats's kindness, to the most endearing quality our nature possesses; the quality that was Scott's in such a winning degree, that was so marked in Moliere,

"He, who is gone, was one of the very kindest friends I ever possessed, and yet he was not kinder, perhaps, to me than to others. His intense mind and powerful feeling would, I truly believe, have done the world some service had his life been spared--but he was of too sensitive a nature--and thus he was destroyed! One story he completed, and that is to me now the most pathetic poem in existence."

It was "Isabella, or the Pot of Basil."

The "Garden of Florence" is written in the couplets of "Endymion," and is a beautiful version of the tale once more retold by Alfred de Musset in "Simone." From "The Romance of Youth" let me quote one stanza, which applies to Keats:

"He read and dreamt of young Endymion,
Till his romantic fancy drank its fill;
He saw that lovely shepherd sitting lone,
Watching his white flocks upon Ida's hill;
The Moon adored him--and when all was still,
And stars were wakeful--she would earthward stray,
And linger with her shepherd love, until
The hooves of the steeds that bear the car of day,
Struck silver light in the east, and then she waned away!"

It was on Latmos, not Ida, that Endymion shepherded his flocks; but that is of no moment, except to schoolmasters. There are other stanzas of Reynolds worthy of Keats; for example, this on the Fairy Queen:

"Her bodice was a pretty sight to see;
Ye who would know its colour,--be a thief
Of the rose's muffled bud from off the tree;
And for your knowledge, strip it leaf by leaf
Spite of your own remorse or Flora's grief,
Till ye have come unto its heart's pale hue;
The last, last leaf, which is the queen,--the chief
Of beautiful dim blooms: ye shall not rue,
At sight of that sweet leaf the mischief which ye do."

One does not know when to leave off gathering buds in the "Garden of Florence." Even after Shakespeare, and after Keats, this passage on wild flowers has its own charm:

"We gathered wood flowers,--some blue as the vein
O'er Hero's eyelid stealing, and some as white,
In the clustering grass, as rich Europa's hand
Nested amid the curls on Jupiter's forehead,
What time he snatched her through the startled waves; -
Some poppies, too, such as in Enna's meadows
Forsook their own green homes and parent stalks,
To kiss the fingers of Proserpina:
And some were small as fairies' eyes, and bright
As lovers' tears!"

I wish I had room for three or four sonnets, the Robin Hood sonnets to Keats, and another on a picture of a lady. Excuse the length of this letter, and read this:

"Sorrow hath made thine eyes more dark and keen,
And set a whiter hue upon thy cheeks, -
And round thy pressed lips drawn anguish-streaks,
And made thy forehead fearfully serene.
Even in thy steady hair her work is seen,
For its still parted darkness--till it breaks
In heavy curls upon thy shoulders--speaks
Like the stern wave, how hard the storm hath been!

"So looked that hapless lady of the South,
Sweet Isabella! at that dreary part
Of all the passion'd hours of her youth;
When her green Basil pot by brother's art
Was stolen away; so look'd her pained mouth
In the mute patience of a breaking heart!"

There let us leave him, the gay rhymer of prize-fighters and eminent persons--let us leave him in a serious hour, and with a memory of Keats. {3}

{1} Macmillans.

{2} Reynolds was, perhaps, a little irreverent. He anticipated Wordsworth's "Peter Bell" by a premature parody, "Peter Bell the First."

{3} Appendix on Reynolds's "Peter Bell."


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