Letters of John Keats to His Family and Friends, by John Keats

34. — To John Hamilton Reynolds.

My dear Reynolds — I thank you for your dish of Filberts — would I could get a basket of them by way of dessert every day for the sum of twopence.45 Would we were a sort of ethereal Pigs, and turned loose to feed upon spiritual Mast and Acorns — which would be merely being a squirrel and feeding upon filberts, for what is a squirrel but an airy pig, or a filbert but a sort of archangelical acorn? About the nuts being worth cracking, all I can say is, that where there are a throng of delightful Images ready drawn, simplicity is the only thing. The first is the best on account of the first line, and the “arrow, foil’d of its antler’d food,” and moreover (and this is the only word or two I find fault with, the more because I have had so much reason to shun it as a quicksand) the last has “tender and true.” We must cut this, and not be rattlesnaked into any more of the like. It may be said that we ought to read our contemporaries, that Wordsworth, etc., should have their due from us. But, for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist? Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself. Many a man can travel to the very bourne of Heaven, and yet want confidence to put down his half-seeing. Sancho will invent a Journey heavenward as well as anybody. We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, and, if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself — but with its subject. How beautiful are the retired flowers! — how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway, crying out, “Admire me, I am a violet! Dote upon me, I am a primrose!” Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this: each of the moderns like an Elector of Hanover governs his petty state and knows how many straws are swept daily from the Causeways in all his dominions, and has a continual itching that all the Housewives should have their coppers well scoured: The ancients were Emperors of vast Provinces, they had only heard of the remote ones and scarcely cared to visit them. I will cut all this — I will have no more of Wordsworth or Hunt in particular — Why should we be of the tribe of Manasseh, when we can wander with Esau? Why should we kick against the Pricks, when we can walk on Roses? Why should we be owls, when we can be eagles? Why be teased with “nice-eyed wagtails,” when we have in sight “the Cherub Contemplation”? Why with Wordsworth’s “Matthew with a bough of wilding in his hand,” when we can have Jacques “under an oak,” etc.? The secret of the Bough of Wilding will run through your head faster than I can write it. Old Matthew spoke to him some years ago on some nothing, and because he happens in an Evening Walk to imagine the figure of the old Man, he must stamp it down in black and white, and it is henceforth sacred. I don’t mean to deny Wordsworth’s grandeur and Hunt’s merit, but I mean to say we need not be teased with grandeur and merit when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive. Let us have the old Poets and Robin Hood. Your letter and its sonnets gave me more pleasure than will the Fourth Book of Childe Harold and the whole of anybody’s life and opinions. In return for your Dish of Filberts, I have gathered a few Catkins, I hope they’ll look pretty.

To J. H. R. In Answer to His Robin Hood Sonnets.

No! those days are gone away,

And their hours are old and gray,

And their minutes buried all

Under the down-trodden pall

Of the leaves of many years.

Many times have Winter’s shears,

Frozen North and chilling East,

Sounded tempests to the feast

Of the forest’s whispering fleeces,

Since men paid no rent on Leases.

No! the Bugle sounds no more,

And the twanging bow no more;

Silent is the ivory shrill

Past the heath and up the Hill;

There is no mid-forest laugh,

Where lone Echo gives the half

To some wight amaz’d to hear

Jesting, deep in forest drear.

On the fairest time of June

You may go with Sun or Moon,

Or the seven stars to light you,

Or the polar ray to right you;

But you never may behold

Little John or Robin bold;

Never any of all the clan,

Thrumming on an empty can

Some old hunting ditty, while

He doth his green way beguile

To fair Hostess Merriment

Down beside the pasture Trent,

For he left the merry tale,

Messenger for spicy ale.

Gone the merry morris din,

Gone the song of Gamelyn,

Gone the tough-belted outlaw

Idling in the “grenè shawe”:

All are gone away and past!

And if Robin should be cast

Sudden from his turfed grave,

And if Marian should have

Once again her forest days,

She would weep, and he would craze:

He would swear, for all his oaks,

Fall’n beneath the Dock-yard strokes,

Have rotted on the briny seas;

She would weep that her wild bees

Sang not to her —“strange that honey

Can’t be got without hard money!”

So it is! yet let us sing,

Honour to the old bow-string,

Honour to the bugle-horn,

Honour to the woods unshorn,

Honour to the Lincoln green,

Honour to the archer keen,

Honour to tight little John,

And the horse he rode upon:

Honour to bold Robin Hood,

Sleeping in the underwood!

Honour to maid Marian,

And to all the Sherwood clan —

Though their days have hurried by

Let us two a burden try.

I hope you will like them — they are at least written in the Spirit of Outlawry. Here are the Mermaid lines,

Souls of Poets dead and gone,

What Elysium have ye known,

Happy field, or mossy cavern,

Fairer than the Mermaid Tavern?

Have ye tippled drink more fine

Than mine Host’s Canary wine?

Or are fruits of paradise

Sweeter than those dainty pies

Of Venison? O generous food

Drest as though bold Robin Hood

Would with his Maid Marian,

Sup and bowse from horn and can.

I have heard that, on a day,

Mine host’s sign-board flew away,

No body knew whither, till

An astrologer’s old Quill

To a sheepskin gave the story,

Said he saw you in your glory,

Underneath a new old-sign

Sipping beverage divine,

And pledging with contented smack,

The Mermaid in the Zodiac.

Souls of Poets dead and gone,

Are the winds a sweeter home?

Richer is uncellar’d cavern,

Than the merry mermaid Tavern?46

I will call on you at 4 to-morrow, and we will trudge together, for it is not the thing to be a stranger in the Land of Harpsicols. I hope also to bring you my 2nd Book. In the hope that these Scribblings will be some amusement for you this Evening, I remain, copying on the Hill,

Your sincere friend and Co-scribbler

John Keats.

45 Alluding to two sonnets of Reynolds On Robin Hood, copies of which Keats had just received from him by post. They were printed in the Yellow Dwarf (edited by John Hunt) for February 21, 1818, and again in the collection of poems published by Reynolds in 1821 under the title A Garden of Florence.

46 Both the Robin Hood and the Mermaid lines as afterwards printed vary in several places from these first drafts.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44