A Poet’s House, Pleasure’s Temple: Keats’ Gothic, Epic, & Sublime

Born on Halloween, 1795, John Keats (d. 1821) was a tragic character, a romantic, and a poet. Considered a key figure amongst the second generation of British Romantic poets following in the footsteps of William Wordsworth, William Blake, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Keats and his young contemporaries were more open to exploring the space in which the Romantic and Gothic literary movements naturally intersected.

I had intended* to explore a few of Keats’ expressions of the Gothic over the remaining days of the Dark Poetics over on Instagram, but today I want to follow the whispers of Keats’ own muses, whilst taking you on a journey through the poet’s home.

*time is a very loose concept right now, and who knows what may happen and when…

The Front Door to John Keats’ Home in Hampstead, London | Β© Generally Gothic

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Often referenced as the closest literary relative to the early Gothic novel, Romanticism was a movement which began in 18th century Britain. The Romantic poets rejected reason, celebrated individuality, and put their faith in nature. They believed in a new world order without order – an unruly world, wild, true, and free.

Their understanding was that poetry was an innate language of the soul. It could not be learnt; a poet was born a poet, duty-bound.

Poetry-Adorned Walls | Β© Generally Gothic

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Though they revered nature – the physical world was “Great universal teacher!” (Coleridge, ‘Frost at Midnight’, 1798), and the human was encouraged to live upon instinct and emotion – so too did the Romantics acknowledge the sublime.

Sublimity is a philosophical theory of aesthetics which attempts to define the simultaneous feelings of awe and terror evoked, in Romantic terms, by nature. A thunderstorm, for example, which lights up the night sky in sparkling beauty, and crashes down with terrifying vengeance, offering a stark reminder of our mortal fragility, is sublime.

The Garden-Framed House | Β© Generally Gothic

Within the sublime, these poets believed, existed Enlightenment…
And, in the terror within the sublime: ecstasy.

Nature is a wild beast in many early Gothic texts, and it’s easy to see the progression from one literary movement to the next. They found inspiration in the same places, and in each other.

Keats’ first poetry collection was published in 1817. A year later he spent the summer on a walking tour through Scotland and the Lake District. On his return south, Keats became nurse to his younger brother, Tom, who soon died of tuberculosis. This prolonged exposure to the same disease that would later kill the poet is pinpointed, by some biographers, as the moment his sad fate was sealed.

‘To Sleep’ in Keats’ own Hand | Β© Generally Gothic

On the 1st of December that year, Keats moved into lodgings at Wentworth Place, now known as Keats House (the lack of apostrophe perturbs me, but who am I to edit the collective decision of the City of London?). He lived there, with his friend Charles Armitage Brown (1787-1842), from 1818 to 1820.

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During these two years, which were close to his last, Keats became acquainted with the teen-aged Frances Brawne (1800-1865). Known as ‘Fanny’, Brawne and her widowed mother moved into their own lodgings housed within Wentworth Place in 1819. Though biographers disagree whether it was originally composed before or after their meeting, Brawne was the unarguable recipient of ‘Bright Star’ (a love sonnet, c. 1820), and Keats’ adoration.

The Library at Keats Grove | Β© Generally Gothic

More on their relationship can be learnt in the enchanting 2009 biopic, which is named for the poem, but for the purpose of this discussion, it’s only important to acknowledge that it began with book-borrowing.

Dante Alighieri’s hellish epic, Inferno (1472) was amongst the first works Keats lent to Brawne. The young poet had grown attached to the poem during his English walking tour. In the April of 1819, the very same month that Brawne had moved to Wentworth, Keats wrote to his brother, George:

“𝔗π”₯𝔒 𝔣𝔦𝔣𝔱π”₯ π” π”žπ”«π”±π”¬ 𝔬𝔣 π”‡π”žπ”«π”±π”’ π”­π”©π”’π”žπ”°π”’π”° π”ͺ𝔒 π”ͺ𝔬𝔯𝔒 π”žπ”«π”‘ π”ͺ𝔬𝔯𝔒 – 𝔦𝔱 𝔦𝔰 𝔱π”₯π”žπ”± 𝔬𝔫𝔒 𝔦𝔫 𝔴π”₯𝔦𝔠π”₯ π”₯𝔒 π”ͺ𝔒𝔒𝔱𝔰 𝔴𝔦𝔱π”₯ π”“π”žπ”²π”©π”¬ π”žπ”«π”‘ π”‰π”―π”žπ”«π” π”₯π”’π”°π” π”ž – β„‘ π”₯π”žπ”‘ π”­π”žπ”°π”°π”’π”‘ π”ͺπ”žπ”«π”Ά π”‘π”žπ”Άπ”° 𝔦𝔫 π”―π”žπ”±π”₯𝔒𝔯 π”ž 𝔩𝔬𝔴 π”°π”±π”žπ”±π”’ 𝔬𝔣 π”ͺ𝔦𝔫𝔑 π”žπ”«π”‘ 𝔦𝔫 𝔱π”₯𝔒 π”ͺ𝔦𝔑𝔰𝔱 𝔬𝔣 𝔱π”₯𝔒π”ͺ β„‘ π”‘π”―π”’π”žπ”ͺ𝔱 𝔬𝔣 π”Ÿπ”’π”¦π”«π”€ 𝔦𝔫 𝔱π”₯π”žπ”± 𝔯𝔒𝔀𝔦𝔬𝔫 𝔬𝔣 β„Œπ”’π”©π”©. 𝔗π”₯𝔒 π”‘π”―π”’π”žπ”ͺ π”΄π”žπ”° 𝔬𝔫𝔒 𝔬𝔣 𝔱π”₯𝔒 π”ͺ𝔬𝔰𝔱 𝔑𝔒𝔩𝔦𝔀π”₯𝔱𝔣𝔲𝔩 𝔒𝔫𝔧𝔬𝔢π”ͺ𝔒𝔫𝔱𝔰 β„‘ 𝔒𝔳𝔒𝔯 π”₯π”žπ”‘ 𝔦𝔫 π”ͺ𝔢 𝔩𝔦𝔣𝔒 – β„‘ π”£π”©π”¬π”žπ”±π”’π”‘ π”žπ”Ÿπ”¬π”²π”± 𝔱π”₯𝔒 𝔴π”₯𝔦𝔯𝔩𝔦𝔫𝔀 π”žπ”±π”ͺ𝔬𝔰𝔭π”₯𝔒𝔯𝔒 π”žπ”° 𝔦𝔱 𝔦𝔰 π”‘π”’π”°π” π”―π”¦π”Ÿπ”’π”‘ 𝔴𝔦𝔱π”₯ π”ž π”Ÿπ”’π”žπ”²π”±π”¦π”£π”²π”© 𝔣𝔦𝔀𝔲𝔯𝔒 𝔱𝔬 𝔴π”₯𝔬𝔰𝔒 𝔩𝔦𝔭𝔰 π”ͺ𝔦𝔫𝔒 𝔴𝔒𝔯𝔒 𝔧𝔬𝔦𝔫𝔒𝔑 𝔦𝔱 𝔰𝔒𝔒π”ͺ’𝔑 𝔣𝔬𝔯 π”žπ”« π”žπ”€π”’ – π”žπ”«π”‘ 𝔦𝔫 π”ͺ𝔦𝔑𝔰𝔱 𝔬𝔣 π”žπ”©π”© 𝔱π”₯𝔦𝔰 𝔠𝔬𝔩𝔑 π”žπ”«π”‘ π”‘π”žπ”―π”¨π”«π”’π”°π”° β„‘ π”΄π”žπ”° π”΄π”žπ”―π”ͺ…”

It is easy to imagine the passionate young man interpreting the now daily presence of Fanny in his life as a direct actualisation of his dreams. She would become his muse, and in the autumn of that same year, his secret fiancΓ©e.

A Precious Promise | Β© Generally Gothic

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Inspired by Henry Francis Cary’s (1772-1844) translation, Keats penned his own lines of poetry directly onto his copy of the text – the very one which he gave to Brawne. Later published as ‘A Dream, After Reading Dante’s Episode of Paolo and Francesca’ (1820), these lines may well have been written specifically for Fanny, suggesting the power which the woman had upon him as muse.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (poet, artist, and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1828-1882) referred to the piece as “by far the finest of Keats’ sonnets […] besides that on Chapman’s Homer” (in a letter to Henry Buxton Forman, 1880), which also demonstrates the continued inspiration Keats found in the epics.

Cary’s translation of Dante was bold and unfaithful; he spoke with his own voice and even changed the title from the Divine Comedy to The Vision. Regardless, it was initially popular amongst the Romantics.

The Heart of the Home: the Kitchen | Β© Generally Gothic

Peter Levine states that, in Keats’ favourite episode of Inferno, “[w]hen Dante told Francesca’s story, he deliberately set passion in conflict with morality” (‘Keats against Dante: The Sonnet on Paolo and Francesca’, Keats-Shelley Journal, 2002). Levine argues that Dante was, at least in part, preaching the moral worth of resisting temptation, but that Keats and his fellow Romantics chose to interpret things differently.

Rather than focusing upon a moral battle of good versus evil, the Romantics, according to Levine, saw Francesca as a tragic heroine fighting for love. Along with Immanuel Kant (German Philosopher, 1724 – 1804), Dante believed that to be astounded by the splendour of nature led to moral betterment. This is the sublime.

Whilst the Romantics did agree that the sublime, as I previously mentioned, was thus a route to enlightenment, they were less opposed to the presence of sin. It was in the sin, after all, that the ecstasy was to be found. The reading of Inferno that Levine asserts they favoured was ‘anti-sublime’, or a subversion of the sublime. And, when subversion is mentioned, my mind makes only one (generally Gothic) connection!

Life – Not Death – Mask of the Young Poet | Β© Generally Gothic

Dante’s Divine Comedy (of which the Inferno is just one part) paved the way for the Gothic, introducing many themes and ideas which were repeated so frequently that they remain tropes of the mode to this day.

Unlike the first wave of Romantic poets, Keats did not exist in an anti-Gothic literary space. Whilst the older poets were reluctant to even acknowledge the Gothic as literature, Keats was rapidly consuming their work.

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According to Gothic and Romantic scholar, Douglass Thomson, Keats read the following Gothic texts:-
Vathek, William Beckford (1787),
Wieland, Charles Brockden Brown (1798),
Caleb Williams (1794) and St Leon (1799), both William Godwin,
The Monk, Matthew Lewis, (1796),
Bertram (1815) and Manuel (1816), both Charles Maturin,
Nightmare Abbey (1818) and Headlong Hall (1816), both Thomas Love Peacock,
and The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe (1794).

The Contemplative Reader, a Portrait | Β© Generally Gothic

Last on Thomson’s list is Radcliffe. In a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds (1818), Keats wrote:

“β„‘ π”žπ”ͺ 𝔀𝔬𝔦𝔫𝔀 π”žπ”ͺ𝔬𝔫𝔀 𝔰𝔠𝔒𝔫𝔒𝔯𝔢 𝔴π”₯𝔒𝔫𝔠𝔒 β„‘ 𝔦𝔫𝔱𝔒𝔫𝔑 𝔱𝔬 𝔱𝔦𝔭 𝔢𝔬𝔲 𝔱π”₯𝔒 π”‡π”žπ”ͺ𝔬𝔰𝔒𝔩 β„œπ”žπ”‘π” π”©π”¦π”£π”£π”’ – ℑ’𝔩𝔩 π” π”žπ”³π”’π”―π”« 𝔢𝔬𝔲, π”žπ”«π”‘ 𝔀𝔯𝔬𝔱𝔱𝔬 𝔢𝔬𝔲, π”žπ”«π”‘ π”΄π”žπ”±π”’π”―-π”£π”žπ”©π”© 𝔢𝔬𝔲, π”žπ”«π”‘ 𝔴𝔬𝔬𝔑 𝔢𝔬𝔲, π”žπ”«π”‘ π”΄π”žπ”±π”’π”― 𝔢𝔬𝔲, π”žπ”«π”‘ 𝔦π”ͺπ”ͺ𝔒𝔫𝔰𝔒-𝔯𝔬𝔠𝔨 𝔢𝔬𝔲, π”žπ”«π”‘ 𝔱𝔯𝔒π”ͺ𝔒𝔫𝔑𝔬𝔲𝔰-𝔰𝔬𝔲𝔫𝔑 𝔢𝔬𝔲, π”žπ”«π”‘ 𝔰𝔬𝔩𝔦𝔱𝔲𝔑𝔒 𝔢𝔬𝔲.”

Relaying a windy walk which nearly ended in tragedy to his friend, Keats playfully evokes the superstition and sublime of the natural world which exists in Radcliffe, the Romantic, and, of course, the Gothic. Whilst it’s a wonder he didn’t think instead of Walpole – the incident he’s describing is a near-miss with a chimney tumbling from the sky! – Radcliffe appeared dear to Keats… So much so that in a letter to his brother George on Valentine’s Day, 1819, he affectionately referred to her as “Mother Radcliff [sic].”

To Hope, from Keats | Β© Generally Gothic

Radcliffe was clearly an important influence upon his work. In that same letter to George, Keats lists ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil’ (1820), ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ (1820), and ‘The Eve of St. Mark’ (unfinished fragment) as all divinely inspired by the Gothic novelist.

In an exploration of the Gothic sublime and anti-sublime, Alison Milbank, a priestess and literary scholar, states that “[i]n Radcliffe […], the sublime is often a shared, equalising experience” (‘From the Sublime to the Uncanny’, Gothick Origins and Innovations, 1994). Milbank continues, “this aesthetic is not merely a matter of individual emotion, but of universal claim.”

This, I think, captures the enduring appeal of Keats. He wrote centuries ago, with great skill and passion. He created fantasies and expressed realities, in a way which is no less relevant today than during his own tragically short lifetime.

“A Poet’s House, Pleasure’s Temple” | Β© Generally Gothic

In his last known letter, Keats wrote to his former housemate, Charles Armitage Brown. Dated the 30th of November, 1820, Keats wrote from Rome, where he had gone to convalesce from tuberculosis. His friend and his fiancΓ©e awaited him in England, not knowing that he was never to return.

“𝔗𝔦𝔰 𝔱π”₯𝔒 π”ͺ𝔬𝔰𝔱 𝔑𝔦𝔣𝔣𝔦𝔠𝔲𝔩𝔱 𝔱π”₯𝔦𝔫𝔀 𝔦𝔫 𝔱π”₯𝔒 𝔴𝔬𝔯𝔩𝔑 𝔱𝔬 π”ͺ𝔒 𝔱𝔬 𝔴𝔯𝔦𝔱𝔒 π”ž 𝔩𝔒𝔱𝔱𝔒𝔯. 𝔐𝔢 𝔰𝔱𝔬π”ͺπ”žπ” π”₯ 𝔠𝔬𝔫𝔱𝔦𝔫𝔲𝔒𝔰 𝔰𝔬 π”Ÿπ”žπ”‘, 𝔱π”₯π”žπ”± β„‘ 𝔣𝔒𝔒𝔩 𝔦𝔱 𝔴𝔬𝔯𝔰𝔒 𝔬𝔫 𝔬𝔭𝔒𝔫𝔦𝔫𝔀 π”žπ”«π”Ά π”Ÿπ”¬π”¬π”¨ – 𝔢𝔒𝔱 β„‘ π”žπ”ͺ π”ͺ𝔲𝔠π”₯ π”Ÿπ”’π”±π”±π”’π”― 𝔱π”₯π”žπ”« β„‘ π”΄π”žπ”° 𝔦𝔫 π””π”²π”žπ”―π”žπ”«π”±π”¦π”«π”’. 𝔗π”₯𝔒𝔫 β„‘ π”žπ”ͺ π”žπ”£π”―π”žπ”¦π”‘ 𝔱𝔬 𝔒𝔫𝔠𝔬𝔲𝔫𝔱𝔒𝔯 𝔱π”₯𝔒 𝔭𝔯𝔬𝔦𝔫𝔀 π”žπ”«π”‘ 𝔠𝔬𝔫𝔫𝔦𝔫𝔀 𝔬𝔣 π”žπ”«π”Ά 𝔱π”₯𝔦𝔫𝔀 𝔦𝔫𝔱𝔒𝔯𝔒𝔰𝔱𝔦𝔫𝔀 𝔱𝔬 π”ͺ𝔒 𝔦𝔫 π”ˆπ”«π”€π”©π”žπ”«π”‘. β„‘ π”₯π”žπ”³π”’ π”žπ”« π”₯π”žπ”Ÿπ”¦π”±π”²π”žπ”© 𝔣𝔒𝔒𝔩𝔦𝔫𝔀 𝔬𝔣 π”ͺ𝔢 π”―π”’π”žπ”© 𝔩𝔦𝔣𝔒 π”₯π”žπ”³π”¦π”«π”€ π”­π”žπ”°π”±, π”žπ”«π”‘ 𝔱π”₯π”žπ”± β„‘ π”žπ”ͺ π”©π”’π”žπ”‘π”¦π”«π”€ π”ž 𝔭𝔬𝔰𝔱π”₯𝔲π”ͺ𝔬𝔲𝔰 𝔒𝔡𝔦𝔰𝔱𝔒𝔫𝔠𝔒.”

On Friday the 23rd of February, 1821, John Keats passed away in Rome, to live forever a poet’s posthumous existence.

~

This piece is published as part of my Dark Poetics series – click through to keep reading. If you’ve enjoyed this post, please consider making a small contribution towards my next tea or coffee, for they are the muses that fuel my own work!

5 thoughts on “A Poet’s House, Pleasure’s Temple: Keats’ Gothic, Epic, & Sublime

  1. I love when Keats goes Gothic! β€œIsabella” and β€œThe Eve of St Agnes” are some of my favourite poems of his, and the influence is so clear. I really found that reading list interesting, as I didn’t know what specifically had inspired him – so thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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