- Foreword:Forward from 1817 to 2017
Chronological units, as meta-historiographers know, are administrative conveniences, not documentary inevitabilities, and so are always relative, contingent constructions. For the Keats-Shelley Association's meeting at the MLA convention of 2017–– part of the arc of the Association's Romanticism 200 events––William Galperin and I wanted to float a year (with some liberal expansion) to see what a bicentennial perspective might cast into relationship, either not usually caught and worked through, or known, and ready to be seen afresh. To set the stage for the three adventures that sparked our panel and flourished into this forum for the Keats-Shelley Journal, I'll keep my eye on Keats, on the Shelleys, and on the second generation of the group that we now, with relativizing quotation marks, call "Romantic."
Gary Dyer's closely researched essay brings us into the complex network of law and letters in 1817, where even copyright protection for an embarrassed Poet Laureate could be unpredictable. Let's imagine a public ready, with coterie buzz, to read John Keats's first volume, Poems (published March 3, 1817), and then, on the very next day, reeling when a reactionary ministry secured the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act. Lord Sidmouth (icon of "Hypocrisy" in P. B. Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy) had presented the bill to Parliament in February, citing a homegrown, "traitorous conspiracy," long dedicated to "overthrowing … the established government" and operating with increasing annoyance and threat "since the commencement of the French Revolution." He wasn't shy about tagging the "Reform" movement (for representation in Parliament) as a "specious pretext for revolution and rebellion."1 With this hard jab landed and harassment impending, opposition journalists had few options: crouch in retreat, flee the country, conform, or stick with it, and brave imprisonment of uncertain duration. [End Page 99]
Keats's first volume and the Crown's latest tyranny are no random historical coincidence, but had real consequence for Keats, not least because his volume debuted under the wing of Leigh Hunt with cheer from Percy Bysshe Shelley, both already notorious for political writing and not immune from court actions, and with a convenient proxy target in their protégé. Thinking of "poetry" rather than politics, Shelley's publishers, Charles and James Ollier, were persuaded (with the good offices of Hunt, Benjamin Robert Haydon, and Keats's mentor at Enfield, Charles Cowden Clarke) to sponsor Keats's Poems. Hunt had already introduced Keats to readers of The Examiner, first with a sonnet in the issue of May 3, 1816 ("To Solitude"), then, recently in the December 1 issue, with his own manifesto-essay titled "Young Poets," featuring (in order) Shelley, J. H. Reynolds, and "the youngest of them all … JOHN KEATS," with a full display of what is still Keats's best-known sonnet, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer."2
Hunt was a hub of arts and letters in London, and The Examiner was hospitable to poetry (Hunt was a poet); but it was more conspicuously a hot spot of oppositional journalism, and Hunt and his brother John (the publisher) were frequent lightning rods in the state's retaliatory storms. After some acquittals on charges from 1808 on, they were nailed at last for libel in December 1812 for an attack on the Regent in the March 22 paper, "The Prince on St. Patrick's Day." Each Hunt was hit with a fine of £500 and a two-year prison term, a sentence meant to destroy their health, their finances, and viability of the newspaper. They survived and re-emerged as cultural champions, but with no immunity from further state action.
From May 1816 through February 1817, The Examiner published four sonnets by Keats, in effect, an accumulating advertisement for the coming debut of Poems in March.3 Keats reflected, respected, and repaid Hunt's generous support in several serial gestures. At the front [End Page 100] of Poems is a "Dedication," a sonnet "To Leigh Hunt, Esq." This was poetically rather than politically themed, lamenting a disenchanted modern world, with gratitude for the "leafy luxury" of Hunt's poetry. The untitled poem with which...