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Hunt and his Friends

  • Daisy Hay

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  • Daisy Hay
    Harvard University

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On 1 December, 1816, The Examiner published the article which assures Leigh Hunt his place in literary history. That article was ‘Young Poets’ and its subject was the advent of a bright ‘new school’ of poetry. ‘Young Poets’ praised Byron, pronounced Shelley to be ‘a striking and original thinker’ and expressed admiration for the ‘truth’ of Keats’s ambition, and for his ‘ardent grappling with nature.’ The article also championed the work of John Hamilton Reynolds, though in rather more qualified terms. ‘Young Poets’ was the first piece of writing to anticipate the canonisation of Shelley and Keats, and it still reads as a striking proclamation of the powers of a new generation of Romantic poets. (The Examiner, 466 (01/12/1816), 761-2).

‘Young Poets’ is, in many ways, emblematic of Hunt’s place in the Romantic canon. For much of the twentieth century he was remembered for biographical reasons, because of who he knew, rather than what he wrote. He was a man who discovered and celebrated the gifts of others, whose posthumous reputation depended not on his own career but on the circle he brought together and the talents he nurtured. As Michael Eberle-Sinatra has noted in his monograph on Hunt, ‘modern Romantic studies have inherited this Hunt, who is worthy only by association, not on his own merits.’ (Eberle-Sinatra 3).

Over the past decade Hunt has stepped out of the long critical shadow cast by his contemporaries, as a series of publications have placed him at the centre of a socialised, urban Romantic landscape. Chief among these are Jeffrey Cox’s Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School (1998); Nicholas Roe’s edited collection, Leigh Hunt: Life, Poetics, Politics (2003); essays on Hunt by Greg Kucich in Romanticism on the Net and the Cambridge Companion to English Literature (1999, 2004); Nicholas Roe’s Fiery Heart: The First Life of Leigh Hunt (2004); and Michael Eberle-Sinatra’s Leigh Hunt and the London Literary Scene (2005). The work of these scholars and others has resituated Hunt as one of the most significant writers of his generation, and has drawn particular attention to the breadth and complexity of his literary oeuvre.

Nevertheless, ideas about friendship and sociability remain central to Hunt studies, because of the emphasis placed on such ideas by Hunt himself. Hunt’s commitment to his friends was matched by his commitment to a conception of friendship as politically and philosophically significant. In The Examiner, The Indicator, Foliage and elsewhere Hunt put his friendships at the forefront of his work, and thus made them central to his public persona. In the Preface to Foliage (1818), he explained his rationale for so doing: ‘I do not write, I confess, for the sake of a moral only, nor even for that purpose principally: -- I write to enjoy myself; but I have learnt in the course of it to write for others also; and my poetical tendencies luckily fall in with my moral theories.’ ‘The main features of the book,’ he continued, ‘are a love of sociality [and] of the country.’ (Foliage 18).

Hunt’s emphasis on friendship makes particular demands on those who wish to explore his writing and restore his reputation. His work cannot be separated from his life, since that work insists on the importance of its own biographical context. Nor can the magnitude of Hunt’s achievement be properly assessed if it is considered in isolation, separated from the achievements of his friends. Modern Romantic studies may have inherited a Hunt ‘worthy only by association, not on his own merits’, but as we seek to reclaim our inheritance and to highlight Hunt’s own talents, we have to remember than an ideal of association remains at the centre of his story. In this essay, I will suggest that by focusing on the associative, sociable Hunt we see him as far more than a conduit for the ideas of others. By looking at the way his voice permeates the work of his friends, we celebrate not only a figure who enabled the work of his contemporaries, but a man whose reputation is elevated as it is refracted through the work of others.

In this spirit, this essay will explore Hunt’s Foliage – his most extended celebration of his friends – alongside works by three members of his circle. One of these works, Keats’s Endymion (1818), is firmly canonical, while Elizabeth Kent’s Flora Domestica (1823) and Mary Novello’s A Day at Stowe Gardens (1825) are not. Together with Foliage however, these texts reveal both the disciplinary variety of Hunt’s circle and the richness of his voice, which reverberates through all three.

If the work of Kent, Keats and Novello illustrates the breadth of focus of the writers in Hunt’s circle, then their own histories illustrate that circle’s eclectic construction. Hunt’s friends were not all men; nor were they all poets. His coterie encompassed wives as well as husbands, and sisters as well as friends. While it certainly numbered poets in its ranks it also included musicians, artists, essayists, novelists, lawyers and, in the person of Elizabeth Kent, a botanist. Nor was Kent its only talented woman. Mary Shelley, Mary Lamb and Mary Novello were writers; Mary Cowden Clarke would become one. Marianne Hunt was a sculptor as well as a wife and mother, and was depicted as an artist at work in Foliage. These individuals came together in a network notable for the depth and complexity of its web of connection and influence. Hunt stood at the centre of this web, spinning it ever further even as he mapped its contours.

Nowhere are these contours more clearly and imaginatively delineated than in Foliage. Foliage is a heteroglossic volume, in which the images of others highlight both the significance of Hunt’s ideas and the particular qualities of his own poetic voice. Over the past decade it has received detailed attention as literary scholars have sought to restore Hunt’s reputation. Jeffrey Cox described it as Hunt’s ‘Cockney Manifesto’ in a 2003 essay (see Roe, Life, Poetics, Politics 58-77), and Jeffrey Robinson included an extended analysis of the volume in his 2006 monograph on the poetics of ‘Fancy’ (Robinson, Unfettering Poetry 150-66). Its significance lies partly in its Preface which, as we have seen, contains Hunt’s most explicit statement of his philosophy of ‘sociality’, but also on the fact that it brings together much of Hunt’s occasional poetry written between 1815 and 1818. Some of the material in the volume had been published previously in The Examiner, and still more of the poems would have been known to the members of Hunt’s circle, who would have seen them in manuscript or been present during their composition.

In both Preface and poems, Foliage presents Hunt’s poetic philosophy in all its multi-faceted detail. From its dedication to John Swinburne, who is praised for not being ‘one of those who pay the strange compliment to heaven of deprecating this world, because you believe in another’, (Foliage 7) to the translations which comprise the ‘Evergreens’ section with which the volume concludes, Foliage enacts Hunt’s aesthetic of sociable cheer. Throughout the volume, Hunt situates enjoyment as the centre of his poetic and moral project. He also presents a re-working of the poetic experience of nature, which democratises its beauties and makes its pleasures available for everyone, present in a Hampstead garden as well as in the mountains and vistas of the Lake District. Foliage celebrates a suburban, resolutely egalitarian, version of poetic inspiration:

I need not inform any reader acquainted with real poetry, that a delight in rural luxury has ever been a constituent part of the very business of poets as well as one of the very best things which they have recommended, as counteractions to the more sordid tendencies of cities. But I may as well insinuate, that the luxuries which poets recommend, and which are thought so beautiful on paper, are much more within the reach of every one, and much more beautiful in reality, than people’s fondness for considering all poetry as fiction would imply.

Foliage 18

Hunt’s purpose in Foliage is to make the availability of luxury in ordinary life explicit, and to illustrate the potential of friends, firesides and gardens to reproduce the experience of beauty described by earlier generations of poets. The original poems in the ‘Greenwoods’ section of the volume all work towards this and demonstrate the philosophy articulated in the Preface. Individual poems celebrate friends and the rural spaces close to Hunt’s Hampstead home and elucidate the specifics of Hunt’s friendships. Foliage contains sonnets addressed to Shelley, Keats, Marianne Hunt, Elizabeth Kent, Benjamin Haydon, Vincent Novello, Horace Smith, and John Hamilton Reynolds, as well as longer Epistles to Byron, Lamb, Hazlitt and Thomas Moore. Such poems create a public picture of Hunt’s private life through the presentation of domestic details – a fleeting glimpse of books in a parlour, a sleeping child, a laughing Mary Lamb shaking the snow from her greatcoat. These details remind the reader of Foliage’s dual purpose. First, it is designed to display the poet’s experience of friendship and familial happiness. Second, it is a tribute to those friends and family: a re-creation in poetry of community and cheerfulness. The two aspects of the volume are synthesised in a claim for the ordinary as a fit subject for poetic endeavour, revealing its capacity to inspire the poet, to act as an alternative muse for the sociable creator.

The intellectual project of Foliage is made explicit in ‘Fancy’s Party’, one of the most carefully reworked and revised poems in Hunt’s Foliage notebook (see Bodleian Notebook, MS. Eng. Poet. E. 38, pp. 48-47 rev.). The poem, which opens the ‘Miscellanies’ section of the volume, describes the moment at which domestic bliss inspires the poet and sends him on a flight of fancy:

And now and then I see them,

The poet comes upon me,

My back it springs

With sense of wings,

And my laurel crown is on me;

The room begins to rise with me,

And all your sparkling eyes with me.

Foliage xl

The separation Hunt indicates between himself and ‘the poet’ is particularly intriguing here. The moment of inspiration is made explicit, but Hunt suggests that it is caused by something outside himself as the poet ‘comes upon me.’ This Romantic artist is not inspired by the workings of his own consciousness, or by the grandeur of the landscape surrounding him but by something domestic, since the setting of the poem is the ‘poetic corner’ of the house, filled with books and flower and, as the reference to the laurel wreath suggests, something sociable. (The ‘laurel crown’ of the poem is a reference to an incident memorialised elsewhere in the volume, and attacked by Blackwood’s, in which Hunt was crowned by Keats with a wreath of ivy, transformed by Blackwood’s into a laurel crown. (Romantics Reviewed, Part C, I, 53-60).) Here, as elsewhere, Foliage presents a paradigm of Huntian sociability, and a model of creativity quite different to that celebrated in the poetry of Hunt’s Romantic forebears. It articulates a set of ideas, developed in the years following Hunt’s release from prison, which permeate not just his work but that of his friends too. In the next section of this essay, I will turn to the work of those friends, reading Flora Domestica, A Day at Stowe Gardens and Endymion alongside the Foliage poems in order to explore the way in which Hunt’s voice is modulated and his philosophy is re-articulated by the different members of his circle. Despite the fact that John Keats, Elizabeth Kent and Mary Novello write on different subjects and in different genres their work is bound together by their shared response to Hunt, and to his dual philosophy of sociability and democratic, rural luxury. The work of all three demonstrates how richly suggestive his contemporaries found his ideas, as well as the influence and range of his own writing.

I. Potted Plants: Flora Domestica

The idea that private pleasures of the kind described in Foliage have a public significance is central to the work of Hunt and his friends, and takes centre stage in Flora Domestica, the first full-length work of Hunt’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Kent. Kent wrote Flora Domestica after Hunt had departed for Italy, but it was nevertheless deeply engaged with his ideas. Hunt sent Kent long sections of text by letter after his arrival in Italy, and in her Preface to the volume she extended the central argument of Foliage, that the pleasures of nature should be available to all. Flora Domestica makes this its raison d’être. The volume is a celebration of suburban gardening and poetry, and it insists on every page that natural beauty is available to anyone who has space enough to grow plants in pots, and vision enough to see the beauty which results from their labours. By welding together natural history, plant lore, and quotations from poetic evocations of flowers Kent demonstrates the truth of Hunt’s claim for the democratic potential of nature in a volume which shows its readers how to find rural luxury, and how to create it in their gardens. She also draws on a negative critical alignment between Cockney poetry and suburbia[1] to articulate the ways in which an urban re-vision of nature can offer inspiration. Entries for individual flowers follow the same pattern: Kent describes habitat, colour and history, gives instructions on issues of cultivation, and quotes poetry to illustrate how the flower in question has been, and may be, translated into art. The common field daisy, for example, stands in Flora Dometica as a symbol of domestic pleasure. ‘It is connected with the sports of childhood and with the pleasures of youth. We walk abroad to seek it; yet it is the very emblem of home... No flower has been more frequently celebrated by our poets, our best poets; Chaucer, in particular, expatiates at great length upon it’ (Flora Domestica 139-40). Kent continues by quoting Drayton, Wordsworth, Burns and others on the delights of the daisy, so that the flower stands both as a signifier of private, domestic delight, and a source of soaring poetic inspiration.

Descriptions of individual flowers in Flora Domestica are foregrounded by a Preface which celebrates a poet and a politician, both of whom draw their inspiration from the natural world. The poet is Shelley, who Kent describes as he appeared during the summer of 1817, when she and the Hunts stayed with the Shelleys at Albion House in Marlow. ‘It was his delight’, she recalls, ‘to ramble out into the fields and woods, where he would take his book, or sometimes his pen, and having employed some hours ins study, and in speculations on his favourite theme – the advancement of human happiness, would return home with his hat wreathed with briony; or wild convolvulus; his hand filled with bunches of wild-flowers plucked from the hedges as he passed’ (Flora Domestica xix). The politician is Alexander Mavrocordato, leader of the Greek resistance. An appreciation of the natural world and a commitment to grand political ideals become linked in Kent’s description of him: ‘Among the existing lovers of flowers, it is a pleasure to be able to name the gallant and accomplished young prince, Alexander Mavrocordato, one of the chief leaders of the Greeks in their present glorious struggle for freedom’ (Flora Domestica xx). Kent included Mavorcordato in her Preface at Hunt’s suggestion, and the passage quoted above was excerpted from a letter Hunt sent to Kent after reading a preliminary draft of her work. Hunt’s voice merges with Kent’s in Flora Domestica to produce a volume which celebrates the work of his contemporaries as well as the beauties of plants. Kent quotes more extensively from the work of Hunt, Keats and Barry Cornwall than she does from that of Wordsworth and Milton, and the effect of this is that her volume reads as a proclamation of an alternative, ‘Cockney’ canon. Flora Domestica puts the ideas of Foliage into practice, demonstrating both the range and scope of Hunt’s philosophy of ‘sociality’ and the extent to which that philosophy informed the work and lives of his friends.

The links between Foliage and Flora Domestica become particularly clear if we turn to two sonnets in the earlier volume. ‘Description of Hampstead’ provides a fruitful creative model for Kent’s valorisation of the ordinary, as it focuses its gaze on ‘a steeple issuing from a leafy rise/ With farmy fields in front, and sloping green’ (Foliage cxv). ‘To Horatio Smith’, meanwhile, pre-empts Flora Domestica’s articulation of the affinity between home, friendship and cultivation. The sonnet also pre-empts Kent’s defence of suburban gardening:

With what a fine unyielding wish to bless,

Does Nature, Horace, manage to oppose

The town’s encroachments! Vulgar he, who goes

By suburb gardens which she deigns to dress,

And does not recognize her green caress

Reaching back to us in those genial shows

Of box-encircled flowers and popular rows,

Or other nests for evening weariness.

Foliage cxxviii

Here, the implicit agreement written into the Foliage sonnets between poet and addressee co-opts Smith to Hunt’s cause, just as Hunt himself is subsequently co-opted by Kent. Flora Domestica repeats the conversational reciprocity of Foliage not through sonnets but through quotation. Its entry on hearts-ease, for example, makes no apology for privileging the work of Hunt over that of Spenser and Shakespeare. ‘The Heart’s-ease’, Kent writes, before quoting at length from Hunt’s poetry, ‘has been lauded by many of our poets; it has been immortalised even by Shakespeare himself; but no one has been so warm and constant in its praise as Mr Hunt, who has mentioned it in many of his works. In the Feast of the Poets, he entwines it with the Vine and the Bay, for the wreath bestowed by Apollo upon Mr T. Moore. In the notes to that little volume, he again speaks of this flower, and I do not know that I can do better than steal a few of its pages to adorn this.’ (Flora Domestica, p. 166-17). Kent makes her debt to Hunt explicit, appropriating his public writing just as elsewhere she appropriates the private voice of his letters to bring depth and variety to her own work. Flora Domestica canonises Hunt as the poet of suburban rural luxury, and creates a corpus of botantical representation around him. In Kent’s work, pleasure and creativity are established as the dual products of cultivated nature, and of the suburban foliage first celebrated by Hunt.

II. Sylvan Space: A Day at Stowe Gardens

Mary Novello’s A Day at Stowe Gardens was published in 1825 by John Hunt. It was dedicated to Leigh, who remained marooned in Italy, and was thoroughly informed by the sociable and intellectual practices developed by his circle over the course of the previous decade. Mary Novello was a prominent figure in that circle. The wife of Vincent Novello, the mother of eleven children and a published writer, she was compared to Wollstonecraft by Horace Twiss[2] and affectionately named ‘Wilful Woman’ by Hunt. It was she who suggested the title of The Indicator,[3] to which she also contributed stories under the sobriquet ‘Old Boy’ as Hunt’s health, spirits and productivity flagged.

A Day at Stowe Gardens was Mary Novello’s only full-length work. It comprises a collection of stories purportedly told by a group of friends gathered in the landscaped grandeur of Stowe for a glorious day-long picnic. Its narrator is the lonely bachelor who discovers the group and who, like Novello’s Indicator persona, signs himself ‘Old Boy’. He is a melancholy, isolated figure at the volume’s opening, who accepts an invitation to join in the activities of a group of musical strangers with alacrity: ‘There needed not much persuasion to induce my accepting so pleasant an invitation. Loneliness is the curse of bachelors, and in the midst of nature’s delights, I had begun to have symptoms of desiring the society of my fellow infirmities’ (A Day at Stowe Gardens v). The conclusion to the volume’s Introduction testifies to the delights of friendship enjoyed in a sylvan setting, in the same familiar, conversational tone which characterises the rest of the narrative: ‘Now, gentle reader, if you feel tempted to go further with me, let it be to leafy and grassy nooks; for in such were most of these fancies engendered: and may you experience many delightful days in such spots this ensuing summer, amidst intelligent, warm-hearted friends, male and female (A Day at Stowe Gardens ix-x).

Throughout A Day at Stowe Gardens, two counterpointed sources of inspiration are at work. The first is textual and, as in Flora Domestica, stems from the sonnets of Foliage. The action of A Day at Stowe Gardens takes place in an enclosed, cultivated bower which is canopied with trees, carpeted with grass, and adorned with Classical statuary. Its stories spring from a collaborative, competitive impulse, after the ‘Old Boy’ suggests that his new friends should compete to see who can tell the best story. It celebrates friendship, as the storytellers make music, share food, swap tales and pass ‘pleasantly from one delight to another, now silent from perfect enjoyment, anon laughing as some pleasant conceit floated through our fancies’ (A Day at Stowe Gardens 145). Friendship, food, music and nature merge in the volume to produce delight and alleviate melancholy, just as they do in Foliage. There, sonnets written in competition with Keats and Shelley testify to the value of competitive exchange (‘The Nile’, ‘To the Grasshopper and the Cricket’); while ‘To Miss K.’ idealises a garden bower. The sonnet to Henry Robertson, John Gattie and Vincent Novello, meanwhile, makes explicit the joy immanent in the company of musical friends:

Harry, my friend, who full of tasteful glee,

Have music all about you, heart and lips;

And, John, whose voice is like a rill that slips

Over the sunny pebbles breathingly;

And, Vincent, you, who with like mastery

Can chace the notes with fluttering finger-tips,

Like fairies down a hill hurrying their trips,

Or sway the organ with firm royalty;

Why stop ye on the road?

Foliage cxxiv

Hunt’s friends are animated in this poem by the memory of the music they produce, as ‘Harry’ is made synonymous with music, ‘John’s’ voice is compared to a babbling brook, and as ‘Vincent’s’ piano-playing is endowed with an ethereal, other-worldly quality. The sonnet bemoans the fact that its three dedicatees have not kept ‘their appointed hour’, so that the poet is left to conjure them into being by recalling memories of their talents.

A Day at Stowe Gardens, too, is shot through with memories of sociable music. Indeed, recollection serves as a second source of inspiration for Novello’s work, as she transposes memories of the sociable activities of the Hunt circle to an Arcadian setting so delightful that her bachelor narrator half expects it to be ‘visited by gallant knights and their ladies, to hold a court of love, or settle the weighty affairs of the flower and the leaf’ and to hear ‘among the breezy sounds that came sweeping by us, the chuckling voice of hamadryad or fawn’ (A Day at Stowe Gardens 145). The gathering in A Day at Stowe Gardens is modelled on those of the Hunts and Novellos in the Hampstead fields in the 1810s, subsequently described by Charles Cowden Clarke in his co-authored Recollections of Writers (1878). There he describes one ‘memorable out-door revel’ held in honour of a Novello birthday, where ‘the children frolicked about the fields and had agile games among themselves, while their elders sat on the turf enjoying talk upon all kinds of gay and jest-provoking subjects... To crown the pleasure Leigh Hunt, as he lay stretched on the grass, read out to the assembled group, old and young – or rather, growing and grown up – the Dogberry scenes from “Much Ado about Nothing,” till the place rang with shots and shrieks of laughter.’ (Cowden Clake 22-3). Scenes such as this inform and colour Novello’s work just as clearly as do Hunt’s poems. Her volume demonstrates the continued interest among Hunt’s acquaintances in the emotional and creative efficacy of sociability: an interest which survived Hunt’s prolonged absence in Italy. In A Day at Stowe Gardens Hunt’s poems and memories of activities codified by him combine in an elegiac testimony to the pleasure and importance of competitive, collaborative friendship.

III. Isolated Idyll: Endymion

Both Elizabeth Kent and Mary Novello take Huntian ideas of sociability and rural luxury and celebrate those ideas in their own work. In the case of Keats, however, the incorporation of Hunt’s voice into his own writing is more complicated and richly suggestive. For Keats, Hunt’s voice serves as a source of productive disagreement, and nowhere is this clearer than in his first long poem, Endymion.

Endymion and the texts surrounding it expose the increasingly fraught nature of Keats’s intellectual relationship with Hunt. In October 1817, only a few months after the publication of his Poems (1817), a volume dedicated to Hunt and filled with poems inspired by his attachment to short, occasional forms, Keats wrote to Benjamin Bailey of his frustration with his former mentor:

I am quite disgusted with literary Men... Here is an instance of the friendships of such ... Haydon says to me Keats don’t show your Lines to Hunt on any account or he will have done half for you – or so Hunt wishes it to be thought. When he met Reynolds at the Theatre John told him I was getting on to the completion of 4000 Lines. Ah! Says Hunt, had it not been for me they would have been 7000! If he will say this to Reynolds what would he to other People?

Keats, Letters, I, 169

Later in the same letter he tells Bailey that his project of a long poem is explicitly anti-Huntian, as is his rejection of the short, occasional poetry typical of Hunt himself:

I have heard Hunt say and may be asked – why endeavour after a long Poem? To which I should answer – Do not the Lovers of Poetry like to have a little Region to wander in where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second Reading: which may be food for a Week’s stroll in the Summer? Do not they like this better than what they can read through before Mrs Williams comes down stairs? a Morning work at most. Besides a long Poem is a test of Invention which I take to be the Polar Star of Poetry, as Fancy is the Sails, and Imagination the Rudder. Did our great Poets ever write short Pieces? ... But enough of this, I put on no Laurels till I shall have finished Endymion, and I hope Apollo is [not] angered at my having made a Mockery of him at Hunt’s You see Bailey how independant my writing has been – Hunts discussion was of no avail – I refused to visit Shelley, that I may have my own unfettered scope – and after all I shall have the Reputation of Hunt’s élève – His corrections and amputations will by the knowing ones be traced in the Poem – This is to be sure the vexation of a day.

Keats, Letters, I, 170

There is more than resistance to Hunt’s poetic philosophy expressed here. Keats’s reaction to the suggestion that Hunt is implicated in Endymion is expressed in terms of outraged embarrassment. His shame at having taken part in the exchange of laurel crowns in Hampstead is evident in his evocation of Apollo’s anger: the incident, described light-heartedly by Hunt in his sonnets and more ambivalently by Keats in his own occasional poetry, is transformed into a presumptive, arrogant act of which Keats is ashamed. The violence with which he rejects the suggestion of Hunt’s involvement in Endymion is realised linguistically: ‘unfettered’, ‘mockery’ and ‘amputation’ demonstrate the damage he believes Hunt will inflict on both his poetry and his reputation. He rejects the companionable nature of shared poetic experience championed by Hunt: poems which can be read before women (represented in the letter by the imaginary ‘Mrs Williams’) come down stairs are not poems worth writing. The letter expresses a rejection, not just of Hunt’s poetic philosophy, but of the manner of his creative work. Keats’s poetic powers will be tested, he suggests, by the task of writing a long poem. Spontaneous, sociable sonneteering is dismissed; instead Keats imagines the creative process as a prolonged labour of the imagination, which will test and extend the powers of the poet.

Yet despite Keats’s professed resentment at Hunt’s attempt to appropriate Endymion as the work of a Huntian ‘elevé’, the poem reveals its stylistic indebtedness to Hunt at every turn, incorporating Huntian effects throughout its four books. Its tone is set by ornate and sensuous imagery, exemplified by the description of Endymion’s eyes, which widen ‘as when Zephyr bids/ A little breeze to creep between the fans/ Of careless butterflies’ (I, 764-5); adjectival nouns, and by Huntian feminine rhymes and the sentimentalism with which Endymion’s plight is described. In addition, the version of the pastoral in Endymion is, like that of Hunt’s Hampstead poems and that subsequently offered by Elizabeth Kent and Mary Novello, distinctly suburban. Peona’s bower is a domestic space, the creation of which is mirrored by the description of the embroidery undertaken by Peona and her playmates in ‘times gone by’ (I, 434-5). It is, in short, just as cultivated as the canopy which shelters Elizabeth Kent in the Foliage sonnet ‘To Miss K’. While Endymion reclines on a ‘couch, new made of flower leaves’ (I, 438), Hunt imaginatively adorns Elizabeth Kent with ‘bracelets of berries’ and ‘tassels made of cherries’ so that she becomes a ‘rural queen’ receiving ‘sylvan homage’ (Foliage cxxi). Both canopy and bower are artificial constructs, created by those who delight in rural luxury and who subdue it for their own ends.

Endymion’s stylistic debts to Hunt were noted by the poem’s reviewers, and were responsible for the critical opprobrium heaped on Keats when the poem was published. ‘We must inform our readers’, Z. warned in his review of Endymion, ‘that this romance is meant to be written in English heroic rhyme. To those who have read any of Hunt’s poems, this hint might indeed be needless. Mr Keats has adopted the loose, nerveless versification and Cockney rhymes of the poet of Rimini; but in fairness to that gentlemen, we must add, that the defects of the system are tenfold more conspicuous in his disciple’s work than in his own.’ (Blackwoods, III (1818), 522; repr. Romantics Reviewed, Part C, I, 93). While the vitriol directed against his Hunt-inspired work was in part responsible for Keats’s increasingly distant intellectual relationship with Hunt, it is clear from both the reviews and from Endymion itself that, despite his protestations of independence, his poem owes a great deal to the man he had hymned in his first volume of Poems.

In addition to Endymion’s stylistic debts to Hunt, it is possible that Keats’s decision to write a long poem also stemmed from their friendship. In his Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1847), Thomas Medwin gave an account of the genesis of Endymion and Shelley’s Revolt of Islam (1818):

Shelley told me that he and Keats had mutually agreed in the same given time (six months each) to write a long poem, and that Endymion and the Revolt of Islam were the fruits of this rivalry.

Medwin, Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, I, 298

Thomas Medwin was not a reliable biographer, but he seemed sure of his facts on this occasion, and cited this story in multiple editions of his Life of Shelley and also in the earlier The Shelley Papers (1833). Edmund Blunden believed in the anecdote, and suggested that Hunt’s ‘The Nymphs’ (the poem with which Foliage opens) arose at the same moment, and in the same spirit of friendly rivalry (546). Although it is not possible to judge definitively the accuracy of Medwin’s account and Blunden’s suggestion, it seems likely that the impetus for Endymion was partly derived from conversation with Hunt and Shelley in the early months of 1817, when Keats was still closely allied with Hunt and his circle. Although Medwin does not suggest that Endymion and The Revolt of Islam were the product of a long-poem competition, formed along the same lines as the sonnet competitions of late 1816 and early 1817, it seems that there are certain similarities in both instances. If we accept the essential accuracy of Medwin’s account, then it seems likely that Endymion grew out of a similar bond of competitive allegiance to that which inspired Keats and Hunt to write sonnets in each other’s honour. Given this, Keats’s insistence on his creative independence, and his portrayal of Hunt (who had, after all, produced The Story of Rimini the year before) as a writer of short poems only, becomes more problematic. Endymion’s form and subject enact a critique of Hunt’s philosophy of creative sociability, but it is itself deeply indebted to the practices it critiques.

Keats explores a problematic doubling of solitude and sociability throughout Endymion, as his hero performs a series of retreats from the communities through which he moves. This doubling is not something the poem is able to reconcile. Endymion is denied his imagined domestic idyll with the Indian Maid (‘Where shall our dwelling be? Under the brow/ Of some steep mossy hill, where ivy dun/ Would hide us up (IV, 670-672)), and is instead finally united with Cynthia, the Indian Maid’s immortal incarnation. Rather than retire to a mossy dwelling ‘Where it shall please thee in our quiet home/ To listen and think of love’ (IV, 688-689), Endymion departs for an immortal realm. He leaves behind Peona, and it is on her isolation that the poem gazes in conclusion:

Next Cynthia bright

Peona kiss’d, and bless’d her with fair good night:

Her brother kiss’d her too, and knelt adown

Before his goddess, in a blissful swoon.

She gave her fair hands to him, and behold,

Before three swiftest kisses he had told,

They vanish’d far away! – Peona went

Home through the gloomy wood in wonderment.

IV, 996-1004

This final shift in focus points towards the uneasiness of the poem’s conclusion. Peona is left alone in a wood whose gloominess offers little consolation, and Endymion swoons at the feet of his goddess, so ending the poem partially separated from both her and his sister. Love triumphs for Endymion and Cynthia, but since Endymion is unable to remain conscious in the presence of his lover the vision of erotic companionship presented in the poem leaves something to be desired. Neither does Peona’s solitariness offer an alternative ideal existence. The possibility of a domestic idyll with the Indian Maid remains in the poem’s conclusion to shadow the vision of an ideal erotic life with Cynthia, lived in an immortal realm, with an alternative vision of a sociable, domestic life, lived on earth among nature. The poem ends by depicting both an ideal of erotic companionship and one of romantic domestic existence, but neither mode of behaviour triumphs.

Keats’s depiction of sociability and solitariness in Endymion thus enacts a critique of Hunt’s philosphy of sociability: a critique which is richly ambivalent. The domesticity of Hunt’s occasional sonnets and miscellaneous poems is rejected in favour of communities of creatures, both mortal and immortal, who are ideally rather than realistically realised. Hunt’s aesthetic is rejected: there is little in Endymion to suggest that the pleasures of simple friendship and companionship are as consolatory as Hunt’s poetry argues. Yet there is also little in the depiction of solitude in Endymion to suggest that it might present a positive alternative to sociability. Hunt’s images and ideas filter through the poem via a process of exploration and assertive rejection, as Keats’s search for a model distinct from that epitomised by Hunt produces a poem which is simultaneously different from and indebted to the Huntian concepts with which it engages. Hunt’s voice shades Endymion, Keats’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. The poem is Keats’s apprentice work, and it reveals him shaping and honing his poetry. Through the incorporation of Hunt’s voice, however, it also demonstrates the rich potential of Hunt’s own poetics.

***

In this essay, I have suggested that Hunt is not diminished when we contextualise his work by reading it alongside that of his friends. Rather, friendship is so central to his sociable aesthetic that we diminish his achievements when, in an attempt to free him from the shadows cast by his contemporaries, we critically render him in isolation. To read Hunt through the work of Keats, Kent and Novello is not to detract from the significance of his own writing, but to illustrate the scope of his ideas and the range of his influence. When Kent attributes political and creative value to suburban garden; and Novello celebrates the pleasures of music, nature and friendship; and Keats grapples with dilemmas of form, influence and the competing claims of solitude and sociability, all three do so because of Hunt, and because of the philosophy which comes to fruition in Foliage.

‘Young Poets’, the Examiner article with which this essay opened, celebrates the talents of Hunt’s friends and, at first glance, has little to say about Hunt himself. Yet the article irrevocably ties Byron, Keats, Shelley and Reynolds to Hunt, and situates the latter three as his protégés, his discoveries. Thus it positions Hunt, not as a bit-part player in literary history, but as the lynchpin of a new, Romantic, generation. In this reading, the achievements of Hunt’s friends become his achievements too, and ‘Young Poets’ becomes a remarkable assertion of literary power. Contextualised by Foliage and the other works discussed in this essay, the article allows us to see Hunt not just as a man who was made by his friends, but as one whose friends were made by him.

Appendices