Kirke White and Keats

When Keats began to emerge as a poet of remarkable powers, he was already older than Kirke White had been when he died. By 1817, thanks to Southey’s Remains, Kirke White was a byword for the unjustly neglected youthful genius, and Keats’s friends were apt to compare the two men. Richard Woodhouse used Kirke White’s example to spur Keats on, urging him to be the ‘one bard’ who could redeem ‘the land which let Chatterton and K. White die of unkindness & neglect’.[i]   Keats, Woodhouse thought, had himself made this comparison – Kirke White being one of the ‘lone spirits who could proudly sing / Their youth away, and die’ alluded to in Sleep and Poetry (1817).   J. H. Reynolds, likewise, portrayed Keats in Kirke White’s image. Answering J. W. Croker’s notorious review of Endymion in an article in The Examiner, Reynolds noted that

The Monthly Reviewers, it will be remembered, endeavoured, some few years back, to crush the rising heart of Kirk White; and indeed they in part generated that melancholy which ultimately destroyed him; but the world saw the cruelty, and, with one voice, hailed the genius which malignity would have repressed, and lifted it to fame. Reviews are creatures that ‘stab men in the dark;’—young and enthusiastic spirits are their dearest prey.[ii]

Here was the origin of the myth that Keats was a plant so sensitive that he was killed by a review – a victim of the harsh world of the commercial book market and those who presided over it – a social elite who enforced the boundaries of taste.  In this myth, the coincidence that Keats, like Kirke White, died young from TB, was turned into a story of poetry’s – and youth’s – martyrdom at the hands of an unfeeling world governed by the tired orthodoxy of an empowered older generation.  This story retains its power – romanticising the lives and deaths of Shelley, Byron, Lovell Beddoes, and latterly Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain.

            If Keats’ poetic ambition, his struggle to gain a reputation, and ultimately his death from consumption, made him seem to be repeating Kirke White’s trajectory, so did the verse itself. Keats too was seen as having foreseen his own demise in poems haunted by narcosis and oblivion.  Beyond this public image, moreover, there is some suggestive evidence that it was in dialogue with Kirke White that Keats developed his trademark depictions of trance and dream as alluring alternatives to a world of time and death.  According to John Barnard, it is possible that the key passage in the ‘Ode on Melancholy’ grew from a point of departure in this section of Kirke White’s Clifton Grove:

Could he but feel how sweet, how free from strife,
The harmless pleasures, of a harmless life,
No more, his soul would pant for joys impure,
The deadly chalice would no more allure,
But the sweet potion he was wont to sip
Would turn to poison on his conscious lip.

(text taken from my forthcoming edition of the Collected Poetry (Liverpool University Press, 2023))

Keats wrote:

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
       And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
       Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips

The possibility that Keats was riffing on Kirke White’s idea – and phrasing –is made the stronger because ‘bee-mouth’ is close to a phrase in Kirke White’s ‘Genius: an Ode’ – ‘bee-eyed’.[iii]  

            There are further parallels. Kirke White was an accomplished sonneteer who used the form to dramatise a dreaming selfhood dispersed into the various spirits of nature which then awoke from poetic reverie into a consciousness of isolation and foreboding.  He called the reverie state induced by poetry ‘high romance’ – the very phrase Keats used for it in his sonnet ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’.   First, Kirke White:

WHEN high romance o’er every wood and stream,
  Dark lustre shed, my infant mind to fire;
Spell-struck, and fill’d with many a wondering dream,
  First in the groves I woke the pensive lyre.
All there was mystery then, the gust that woke
  The midnight echo was a spirit’s dirge,
And unseen fairies would the moon invoke,
  To their light morrice by the restless surge.
Now to my sober’d thought with life’s false smiles,
  Too much * * *
The vagrant Fancy spreads no more her wiles,
  And dark forebodings now my bosom fill.

Now Keats:

When I have fears that I may cease to be 
  Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain, 
Before high piled books, in charact’ry, 
  Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain; 
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face, 
  Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance, 
And think that I may never live to trace 
  Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance; 
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour! 
  That I shall never look upon thee more, 
Never have relish in the faery power 
  Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore 
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think 
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

If Keats’s ‘faery power’ also echoes Kirke White’s ‘unseen faeries’, so does the sonnet’s stance vis a vis nature, poetry and time – and so does its narrative arc from a ‘when’ that is a suspended present to a ‘now’ of particular sequential events in time.   This arc, used by Keats in several sonnets, may ultimately derive from Shakespeare, but Kirke White is an intertext — closer both verbally and in the visualised scenario, as here:

When I sit musing on the chequer’d past,
  (A term much darken’d with untimely woes),
  My thoughts revert to her, for whom still flows
The tear, though half disown’d;—and binding fast
Pride’s stubborn cheat to my too yielding heart,
  I say to her, she robb’d me of my rest,
  When that was all my wealth.—’Tis true my breast
Received from her this wearying, lingering smart;
Yet, ah! I cannot bid her form depart;
  Though wrong’d, I love her—yet in anger love,
  For she was most unworthy.—Then I prove
Vindictive joy; and on my stern front gleams,
Throned in dark clouds, inflexible * * *
The native pride of my much injur’d heart.

Fancy and or dream is superseded by loss, and a ‘sole self’ is the pyrrhic victory gained in the process.

            Given the verbal, thematic and structural similarities, it is remarkable that modern critics of Keats have (mostly) left Kirke White unexplored – although nineteenth-century readers saw them as a pair as if both were Child Harolds. The letter of a youth who wrote to Byron seeking to be his valet indicates just how prevalent the image of the Romantic poet as a sensitive suffering for his art had become, and how central Kirke White was to this image: ‘your lordship must forgive a love of fame even in me, and poetry has ever been the idol of my worship! – I think I take in some measure after Henry Kirke White and John Keats, in my love of the melancholy’.[iv] 

            Perhaps this youth had noticed that both Keats and Kirke White use the figure of Endymion to narrate loss in love, and loss of a unity with the spirit of nature that is available only in trance or dream. In  Kirke White’s ‘Dance of the Consumptives’ the lovelorn Angelina says:

With what a silent and dejected pace
Dost thou, wan moon! upon thy way advance
In the blue welkin’s vault!—Pale wanderer!
Hast thou too felt the pangs of hopeless love,
That thus, with such a melancholy grace,
Thou dost pursue thy solitary course!
Has thy Endymion, smooth-fac’d boy, forsook
Thy widow’d breast—on which the spoiler oft
Has nestled fondly, while the silver clouds
Fantastic pillow’d thee, and the dim night,
Obsequious to thy will, encurtain’d round
With its thick fringe thy couch?—Wan traveller,
How like thy fate to mine!—

He uses the image again in a fragment published in Remains:

Saw’st thou that light? exclaim’d the youth, and paus’d:
Through yon dark firs it glanced, and on the stream
That skirts the woods, it for a moment play’d.
Again, more light it gleam’d,—or does some sprite
Delude mine eyes with shapes of wood and streams,
And lamp far beaming through the thicket’s gloom,
As from some bosom’d cabin, where the voice
Of revelry, or thrifty watchfulness,
Keeps in the lights at this unwonted hour?
No sprite deludes mine eyes,—the beam now glows
With steady lustre.—Can it be the moon
Who, hidden long by the invidious veil
That blots the Heavens, now sets behind the woods?—
No moon to-night has look’d upon the sea
Of clouds beneath her, answered Rudiger,
She has been sleeping with Endymion.


[i] From a letter of 21 October 1818; in Hyder Edward Rollins, The Letters of John Keats, 2 vols (Cambridge MA, 1958), I, 50-51.

[ii] J. H. Reynolds, ‘The Quarterly Review. Mr. Keats’, The Examiner, 563 (11 October 1818), 648-49.

[iii] John Barnard, ‘Keats Echoes Kirke White’, Review of English Studies, 47 (1996), 389-92. 

[iv] Undated letter from William Wake to Lord Byron, MS 43523, John Murray Archive, National Library of Scotland. Thanks to Andrew Rudd for this reference.