Early literary influences on Keats


Keats was much influenced by John Clarke, Headmaster of Enfield Academy, the school he attended from 1803 to 1811. It was here that he started reading voraciously, encouraged by Clarke and perhaps also in response to the loneliness he must have felt following the absence of his mother, followed by her death.
Clarke’s approach to education encompassed broad reading in classical and modern languages. Clarke’s beliefs and friendships also had an influence on the young Keats, bringing him into contact with the ideas of radical reformers John Cartwright and Joseph Priestley. 

The Examiner

Clarke also subscribed to The Examiner, a newspaper edited by Leigh Hunt, a man who was later to become a close friend of Keats. This newspaper was published each Sunday and consisted of sixteen double-column pages. It was renowned for its incisive, witty articles and the force of its campaigns: against the slave trade, against the over-use of the death penalty and against the ‘eternal war’ with Napoleon which, amongst other things, was imposing a huge tax burden on the British. Other targets for attack included ministerial corruption, the extravagance of the royal family and the government’s refusal to allow voting rights to Roman Catholics. Leigh Hunt’s central point was that Parliamentary reform was urgently required. Only this, he said, would ‘purify the whole constitution’.
Clarke himself said that Keats’ regular and enthusiastic reading of The Examiner ‘no doubt laid the foundation of his love of civil and religious liberty.’

The school library

Clarke’s son, Cowden, wrote about the breadth and depth of his friend Keats’ reading whilst at school. He recalled Keats’ fondness for history books as well as novels and travel stories. However, the books 
that were his constant recurrent sources of attraction were Tooke’s Pantheon, Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary, which he appeared to learn, and Spence’s Polymetis. This was the store whence he acquired his intimacy with the Greek mythology.    
Whilst at school, Keats translated most of Virgil’s Aeneid.
The texts Keats started to encounter as a schoolboy opened up a world of imaginative richness that remained an essential influence on him for the rest of his life. Later he wrote about the ‘realms of gold’ he found in these books, not simply a world of escapism but a source of beauty that enriches the human experience and enlarges imaginative sympathy.

After school (1811-1814)

Keats continued his friendship with John and Cowden Clarke after he had left school and joined the surgeon Thomas Hammond as an apprentice. He would often walk the four miles from Edmonton to Enflield to borrow books from the school library and to discuss them with his friends. According to Cowden Clarke, Keats ‘devoured rather than read’ the books he borrowed. 
It was during this period that Keats read Ovid’s Metamorphoses as well as Virgil’s Eclogues and Milton’s Paradise Lost. But there was one book more than any other which awakened his love of poetry and which shocked him into a realisation of his own imaginative and literary powers: Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, a work first published in the 1590s.

The Faerie Queene

The Faerie Queen frontispieceSpenser’s great epic poem was conceived in twelve books, each one focusing upon a Christian virtue. In fact, Spenser lived only to finish six of these books. He called it ‘an allegory or dark conceit’ and stated its aim as being ‘to fashion a gentleman or noble person’ and to do so he would portray Arthur, before he became king, as the image of a brave knight, ‘perfected in the twelve private moral virtues’, the purpose of the twelve books of the poem.
It is easy to see how Spenser’s imaginative ambition - and the visionary world he created - would have appealed to the young Keats. Book 1 of the poem begins with
a faire Ladye in mourning weedes, riding on a white Asse, with a dwarfe behind her leading a warlike steed.     
Spenser’s world is full of knights, enchantresses, hermits, dragons, floating islands and castles of brass. Keats was also intoxicated by Spenser’s linguistic richness, his eye for sensuous detail, his capacity to create dream-like visions – and his moral seriousness.
Cowden Clarke wrote that Spenser was central to Keats’ poetic development:
 ‘It was The Faerie Queene that awakened his genius. In Spenser’s fairy land he was enchanted, breathed in a new world, and became another being … He ramped through the scenes of that … purely poetical romance, like a young horse into a Spring meadow. 
In 1814 Keats wrote his first poem, In Imitation of Spenser, in which Keats uses a Spenserian rhyme scheme and shows an awareness of the power of poetic image to create a dreamy scene:
For sure so fair a place was never seen,
Of all that ever charmed romantic eye:
It seemed an emerald in the silver sheen
Of the bright waters…       


Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.