Two hundred years ago this Friday, John Keats witnessed a remarkable event. Ian Haywood (University of Roehampton, London), tells us more…
On 13 September 2019, John Keats witnessed a remarkable political spectacle. Taking a short break from a prolonged residence in the provincial city of Winchester, Keats’s brief return to London coincided with the huge triumphal procession of the leading radical orator Henry Hunt. It was the botched arrest of Hunt at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester on 16 August that produced the Peterloo ‘massacre’, an event which sent shockwaves through the country and mobilised thousands of ordinary people to take to the streets in protest. Although he was on bail pending a trial that would lead to over two years in prison, Hunt returned to London like a conquering hero. In Keats’s words, writing to his brother George and his wife:
You will hear by the papers of the proceedings at Manchester and Hunt’s triumphal entry into London – It would take me a whole day and a quire of paper to give you any thing like detail – I will merely mention that it is calculated that 30,000 people were in the streets waiting for him – The whole distance from the Angel Islington to the Crown and Anchor was lined with Multitudes.[i]
Far from warranting a ‘mere mention’ in Keats’s life, this experience is now regarded by scholars as having had a major impact on Keats’s imagination. In John Keats and the Culture of Dissent (1998), Nicholas Roe argues that Hunt’s ‘triumphal entry’ gave a political tinge to Keats’s last great poem ‘To Autumn’, drafted just 6 days later.[ii] Using a New Historicist approach, Roe interprets the word ‘conspiring’ in the poem’s third line as a potent allusion to radical accusations that the violence at Peterloo was premeditated. Ostensibly a homage to the pastoral tradition and his rural seclusion in Winchester, ‘To Autumn’ can now be read as a political allegory about repressive government, enclosure acts, rural labour and surveillance. If further evidence is needed about Keats’s agitated and combative frame of mind, adjacent sections of the same letter discuss the historical progress of democracy and the trial of the radical publisher Richard Carlile.
However circumstantial or speculative these conclusions may be,[iii] they add an exciting new dimension to Keats’s account of his London peregrination on 13 September. If, as Roe states, ‘Keats’s private affairs overlapped with public events’[iv] at this supercharged political moment, this encourages us to look for further identifications between Keats’s own frustrations and the wider canvas of social and political struggle. It is at this juncture that Romantic illustration enters (pun intended) into the picture. The very next sentence after the description of Hunt’s procession cited above records a seemingly inconsequential visual encounter:
As I pass’d Colnaghi’s window I saw a profile portrait of Sands the destroyer of Kotzebue. His very look must interest every one in his favour – I suppose they have represented him in his college dress – He seems to me like a young Abelard – A fine mouth, cheek bones (and this is no joke) full of sentiment: a fine unvulgar nose and plump temples.[v]
This may appear to be a random and disconnected incident, but it ‘overlaps’ in numerous significant ways with ‘the afternoon’s deeper dramaturgy of suspicion’, in Richard Marggraf Turley’s phrase.[vi] It is surely no coincidence that Keats stopped to admire an engraving of a celebrated revolutionary assassin, Karl Ludwig Sand (see above). On 23 March 1819, this liberal-nationalist German student had murdered the dramatist August von Kotzebue as an enemy of the people. Kotzebue is probably known to most Romanticists today as the author of Lovers Vows, the scandalous home entertainment of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, but in Keats’s day he was a prime example of a political ‘apostate’ or turncoat, a former supporter of reform who had become an apologist for authoritarian government. Keats would have followed this sensational story in Leigh Hunt’s Examiner, and it is unlikely he would have disagreed with Hunt’s conclusion that Sand was a martyr to the democratic spirit of the age: his action was morally repugnant but politically sanctioned; put another way, Kotzebue paid the price of reaction and Legitimacy. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, the Congress of Vienna had betrayed the promise of national liberty for formerly occupied countries and returned much of Europe to the rule of the Holy Alliance. Kotzebue’s crime was that of trahison des clercs, liberal ‘men of letters’ who became ‘scribes and servants to despotism’ (Examiner, 11 April 1819) and used their cultural authority to scoff at reformers. By 1817 German students were publicly burning Kotzebue’s works and he was a locus of radical hatred. The Examiner condemned the assassination as a ‘feverish mistake’ which ‘never can supply the want of proper elementary reform’, but sympathy for Sand’s victim was strictly limited: ‘The fate of Kotzebue is pitiable, we allow, although he was a renegade and a spy; but so is that of the victim of his tergiversation and of the broken promises of kings’ (ibid). This partisanship was legion, and by the summer of 1819 Sand had become a national hero. The portrait which Keats saw is almost certainly the one that appeared in A Memoir of Charles Louis Sand, published just a few days before Peterloo (Figure 1).[vii] According to the unnamed Editor, Germany was full of ‘involuntary sympathy’ for Sand, and his portrait was frequently ‘exhibited in frames containing those of the most distinguished German patriots’ (vii).
Like the Examiner, the Editor gives short shrift to the fate of Kotzebue, a ‘perverter of literature’ and ‘miserable pensioned penman’ who resisted the ‘universal cry for amelioration and reform’ being heard ‘from the rock of Gibraltar to Bergen; from Venice to Hebrides!’ (xxxi-iv). The Examiner’s dire warnings of a reactionary backlash were also repeated, and this prediction that the authorities would use the assassination as an excuse for a crackdown proved to be grimly reliable. It is ironic that just one week after Keats admired Sand’s portrait, the German Confederation passed the Carlsbad Decrees, a highly repressive set of laws restricting press freedom, purging the universities of liberals, and installing surveillance into the public sphere (see Figure 2). If ‘To Autumn’ exudes a ‘suspicion’ of the forthcoming Six Acts, the British government’s response to Peterloo, it also allegorizes the ‘wailful’ consequences of Sand’s Romantic, or Byronic, heroism, the ‘last oozings hours by hours’ of intellectual freedom in Germany.[I]
As much as Hunt’s procession, and partly because of it, Sand’s portrait is a locus of powerful and resonant ‘overlaps’ between Keats’s private life and public events. The parallel between Kotzebue and the ‘Cockney’ view of first-generation Romantic apostasy is striking, and it is tempting to speculate that Sand occupied for Keats a fantasy role of righteous, Oedipal vengeance. Indeed, an early report in the Examiner (4 April) noted that the assassination was like an event ‘we read of in novels and mysterious histories, as written by the societies of Illuminati’. As a foreign patriot, Sand was an ideal figure for displaced identification, admiration, and even glamour: ‘His very look must interest every one in his favour’. Any resemblance to Keats himself, as movie credits might say today, was entirely coincidental, but the allusion to ‘young Abelard’ takes us deep into Keats’s private and professional life: both his struggle with romantic love and his quest for ‘unvulgar’ fame intensified in 1819. If Keats needed masculine role models, Sand the veteran of Waterloo and Hunt the veteran of Peterloo were at hand. In Freudian terms, we can certainly detect a ‘joke’ of sentimental affiliation in the portrait, despite Keats’s disavowal. With hindsight, Sand’s ‘plump temples’ are a poignant contrast to Keats’s imminent demise, so it is unsurprising to see a verbal echo in the eroticized, ‘plumped’ hazel shells of ‘To Autumn’, the bearers of the ‘sweet kernel’ of fruition, meaning and hope, but also, perhaps, conspired against by the ‘clammy cells’ of constitutional decomposition.
[i] Sand was executed by beheading on 20 May, 1820.
[i] Letters of John Keats, ed. Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 313. The distance from Islington in north London to the Crown and Anchor tavern, a well-known venue for radical politics in the Strand in central London, was several miles.
[ii] Nicholas Roe, John Keats and the Culture of Dissent (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 256.
[iii] Roe has noted that some of his students even make an ingenious association between the cider press in ‘To Autumn’ and the carnage of pressed bodies at Peterloo. See ‘John Keats at Winchester’, in Richard Margraff Turley, ed. Keats’s Places (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 225-44, 241.
[iv] Roe, ibid, 253. See also Roe’s John Keats: A New Life (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016), 344.
[v] The print seller Colnaghi was located at 23 Cockspur Street, near Trafalgar Square, which was not on the route of Hunt’s procession.
[vi] Richard Marggraf Turley, ‘Objects of Suspicion: Keats, ‘To Autumn’ and the Psychology of Romantic Surveillance’, in Nicholas Roe, ed. John Keats and the Medical Imagination (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 173-206, 184.
[vii] Memoir of Charles Louis Sand (London: G. & W. B. Whittaker, 1819). Further page references in parentheses. The Editor’s Introduction is dated 10 August 1819.
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