Despite John Keats’s widely acknowledged literary and cultural impact on writers of the Victorian period, little work has been done to explore the biographical methods by which this impact came about. By closely examining the publications and private correspondence of the Keats Circle during the 1820s and 1830s, one can see various patterns to the biographical development of Keats, particularly in relation to their subject’s masculinity. From the widespread eulogies immediately following the poet’s death, to Hunt’s 1828 biographical sketch in Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries, to Brown’s 1836 biography manuscript, threads are spun simultaneously of Keats as icon of middle-class masculinity, perpetually youthful Aesthetic ideal, and object of queered desire. Through the complexities of this process, the Keats Circle itself becomes a model of queered male companionship, centred around Keats as a shared object of homosocial affection. The Circle, along with the Cambridge Apostles who would assume control of the biographical project in the 1840s, thereby provide an earlier exemplum of late-Victorian Hellenism than has been previously noted, and establish a crucial conduit for the biographical basis of Keats’s Victorian fame.
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“The life of poor Keats is ended at last: he died at the age of 25—He used to say he should effect nothing upon which he would rest his fame till he was 30, and all our hopes are over at 25. But he has left enough though he did not think so and if his Biographer cannot do him Justice the advocate is in Fault, and not the Cause.”John Taylor to John Clare, 26 March 1821 (qtd. in Blunden 79)
At the time of his death on 23 February 1821, the future potential for John Keats’s fame was slim indeed. John Taylor’s assessment of the importance of biography to Keats’s after-fame, however, proved to be prophetic. It was the Keats Circle’s attempts to eulogize their friend and promulgate his genius that made Keats’s popularity in the Victorian era possible, their project fulfilled in the poet’s 1848 biography by a merging of the Circle with noteworthy Cambridge Apostle Richard Monckton Milnes. Through these same efforts, the group also developed into an inchoate model of queered male companionship, one with Keats at its centre and joined together by an intricate combination of intellect, affection, grief, desire, jealousy, and self-interest. With their influence and example, the Circle played a crucial role in the emergence of mid-century Aestheticism and its icons of representation by portraying their friend in turn as an archetypal effeminate poet, exemplar of middle-class masculinity, and an eternally youthful object of Platonic attraction. The resulting biographical accounts not only advocate Keats’s fame: they also create Keats as a subject perpetually queered and as a signifier ripe for co-optation.
Until recently, the most exhaustive study of the early development of Keats as a biographical figure has been H. George Ford’s Keats and the Victorians: A Study of His Influence and Rise to Fame, 1821-1895, published sixty years ago. Even as the most detailed and best known work to tackle the complicated ties between Keats and the Victorians, Ford’s approach is only a beginning, particularly with the limited weight he gives to the crucial near-three-decade span before Milnes’s 1848 biography. While Ford doesn’t seem to believe entirely that Keats’s Victorian fame sprang fully-formed from the brow of Milnes’s volume, his spare treatment of the crucial popularity of Keats among the literary intelligentsia during the 1820s and 1830s, and particularly the queered nature of their interest in the poet, does little to establish a timeline between Keats’s 1821 death and the 1848 biography. The truth is that Keats may have died a relative unknown, but due to the efforts of both the Keats Circle and the Cambridge Apostles that status was to change within a matter of years following his death, rather than in a span of several decades, as has been assumed by Ford. James Najarian’s 2002 volume Victorian Keats: Manliness, Sexuality, and Desire does much to update Ford’s criticism, but Najarian still limits his analysis to the influence of Keats’s literature on such Victorians as Arnold, Hopkins, and Symonds, rather than exploring the complex queering Keats himself underwent as an icon of masculinity.
Instead, a more useful rhetoric for exploring the relationship between Keats, his circle of friends, and his Victorian biographers can be found in Richard Dellamora’s Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism. Dellamora’s study explicates the social and political contexts of male-male desire, both platonic and sexual, in the Victorian period, and his work offers a unique way into the discussion of biography’s role in Keats’s after-fame. By developing Eve Sedgwick’s approach to male homosocial bonds and triangulated kinship into one that is more specific and, in Keats’s case, more applicable, Masculine Desire offers a means of analyzing male-male relationships outside the bounds of female intermediaries. When women are taken out of the picture, how can the evidence of direct desire between men, both genital and non-genital, be explored? Do all roads, so to speak, lead to homosexuality, or can the male as subject and object of desire point instead to an attempt to revise what being “male” is? By positing that an analysis of the expressions of masculine desire across the Victorian period reveals patterns of socialization across gender lines (that is, a means of identifying oneself as “masculine”) and, more subversively, across lines of sexuality (that is, a means of identifying oneself as what we now term “homosexual”), Dellamora’s approach offers Keats scholars a double-edged method for placing early biographical accounts of the poet in the lived context of their authors.
This is obviously not to say that the context of all, or even part, of the circle of men involved in the promotion of Keats’s celebrity was one of sexual desire directed at other men (though it also does not preclude the possibility, and in many cases, historical facts support the sexual identification of some of Keats’s supporters and biographers as what we would now term bisexual or homosexual). But, as Dellamora points out in his introduction, “Sedgwick has challenged the assumption of earlier gay writers that homosexual existence is necessarily different from and in adversarial relation to other sorts of masculine experience [. . .]. This engagement does not exclude intimate or intense relations between men in which bodily (though not genital) aspects matter” (4-5). In the development of the Keats myth, the bodily aspects of his masculine experience matter very much, for the first and foremost questions at hand both for his friends and his critics are ones of proper gender performance. How does masculinity play a part in the definition of poet? Can and should masculinity present itself differently in men of different social strata? How can male friendships represent intimacy and love without representing the effeminacy or sodomy linked with “perverted” masculinities? Are there contexts in which effeminacy can be a socially and intellectually empowering means of identification?
In explicating the Keats Circle’s recollections and the significance of the rhetoric therein, one can group those most important to an understanding of the queering of Keats into three chronological periods: the immediate reaction to Keats’s death, the controversy over Hunt’s 1828 biography, and Brown’s 1836 manuscript which provided the basis for the first full-length biography in 1848. Of the three, the early eulogies are least concerned with offering biographical veracity and favour Keats’s intellectual, rather than bodily, manifestations of gender. The shared immediacy of their grief, anger, and efforts to memorialize their friend effectively results in an often awkward, limited, and forced reading of Keats’s multi-dimensional masculinity.
The best known of the Circle’s post-mortem “tellings” of Keats, and arguably the most influential, came in the form of elegy, Shelley’s Adonais. Susan Wolfson’s essay “Keats Enters History: Autopsy, Adonais, and the Fame of Keats” probes the importance of Shelley’s biographical liberties with his subject, particularly as related to gender performance and to the subsequent development of the Keats mythos of the Victorian period. Indeed, as the first to simultaneously promote Keats’s work and to lament his harsh treatment by the critics, Shelley also took, perhaps, the easiest route in doing so by downplaying his subject’s middle-class masculinity. The result was a one-dimensional gendered interpretation, by critics and fans alike, of Keats as delicate, overemotional, and effeminate, more suited to poetic object than to poet himself.
Shelley was not alone in pointing the finger of blame at the critics for Keats’s death, yet by promoting similar views to those of Adonais, Keats’s other devotees also cast him in a role in which he became the object, more than subject, of their attention. Unfortunately, in order to argue effectively that the critics played a significant role in the demise of John Keats, it was necessary to portray him as a man who could plausibly have been “snuffed out by an article.” Then, as now, that required a semantic leap into the language of effeminacy, a charge that had previously been filed against him by the same critics his friends now hoped to discredit. Due to the popular Romantic myth of short-lived and tragically ended genius, a myth whose object was by definition young, effeminate, and male, associations were quickly made between the death of this young poet and predecessors Thomas Chatterton and Kirke White. Indeed, Keats himself had shown a similar fascination with Chatterton in particular, having dedicated his second volume to the poet’s memory. The earliest elegy to Keats, published anonymously in the 31 March 1821 edition of the Literary Chronicle, opens with a motto from Chatterton (“Verses” 313); J. W. Dalby’s “Remarks on Keats” in the 4 April Pocket Magazine begins with stanzas on White penned by Skinner (317); and Lawrence Sterne’s remarks in the 14 April issue of Gossip depict his vision of Keats being met after death by Chatterton and White (320).  While poets are often described in otherworldly terms, the mythologizing pictures painted in these articles are both limiting and misleading when placed against the living man that his circle once knew. The rough-and-tumble working class writer of the letters here becomes a stereotypical amalgam of a delicate invalid turned aristocratic fop. In passages in Dalby’s article, John Hamilton Reynold’s The Garden of Florence, and Shelley’s Adonais, the cruel destruction of an overly sensitive and delicate boy-man by an uncaring society is set forth, and the origin of the Aesthetic iconization of the beautiful youth becomes evident.
Unlike Shelley’s and Dalby’s elegies, Charles Cowden Clarke’s epistolary account of Keats’s death in the 27 July 1821 Morning Chronicle tries to create an equilibrium between a stereotypically sensitive nature so wounded by a critical review as to lose its desire to live, and “a noble – a proud – and an undaunted heart” that deserved the literary recognition due those men who aspired to poetry as their birthright (328). He emphasizes Keats’s Englishness and his love of liberty, aligning him with the ideological construct of poet as ideal statesman, but it can easily be said that he goes too far when he observes that “[Keats] had a ‘little body,’ but he too had a ‘mighty heart,’ as any one of them would have discovered, had the same impertinences been offered to him personally which were put forth in their anonymous scandal-rolls” (329). As much as charges of an effeminate masculinity would serve to undermine the appropriateness of Keats’s verse by calling his sexuality into question, this overt reference to Keats’s propensity towards physical violence underscores his embodiment of lower-class masculinity, serving to prove his inappropriateness as a poet in a different fashion. While both of these sides to the Keats myth play a part in the Aesthetic imagination of the poet, neither one, in and of itself, can be said to accurately define who Keats was, a problem with which the Keats Circle struggled during their debates over how best to write the poet’s life.
The Circle’s hopes for publishing a biography continued throughout the 1820s, particularly in reaction to what they viewed as the emasculating response to their friend’s death circulated in the press. Though the emphasis on Keats’s innate sensitivity had been found primarily in the obituary references of his friends, theirs were not the only obituaries of Keats to make mention of the harshness of the Endymion critics or to feminize Keats’s reported reaction to their words. And while not all accounts agree with Shelley, Clarke, and Reynolds that this criticism played a lamentable role in Keats’s early demise, B.W. Procter (“Barry Cornwall”), Dalby, Sterne, and others agree that, even at his young age, Keats’s work showed great promise. As Lewis Schwartz notes in a summary of the first responses to Keats’s death, “At the close of 1821, Keats’s name was known to many, and he was recognized by some of the best critical minds of his day as a poet of exceptional merit” (313).  The challenge for the Circle, then, would be not simply to increase Keats’s name recognition, as it were, but to do so in a manner that would also reclaim his appropriateness and palatability for critics and general readers alike.
The result was that a delicate balance would need to be struck between Keats’s lower-class background and his upper-class vocation. This balance was intricately entwined in his performance of gender, and would prove to be entwined in the homosociality of the Circle’s memory as well. Managing this poise was difficult for his advocates and biographers, just as it had been for him personally during his own lifetime. A written life of the poet was proposed shortly after his death and even advertised in the papers by his publishers Taylor and Hessey, but the resulting fact-finding mission over the next several years led to an overwhelming sense of unease in those intent on discovering the earliest details of his upbringing. The answers provided by childhood acquaintances and friends, such as Clarke, Frederick Salmon, and Richard Abbey, did more to support conservative beliefs in Keats’s unfitness for the vocation of poet than had any information already provided in the classist Scottish reviews.  Being the surgeon son of a liveryman cast enough doubts on his intellectual and hereditary suitability to the task; having his own mother confirmed as a licentious alcoholic who had both abandoned her children and squandered her fortune would seal the validity of Keats’s critics in the eyes of the public. As Taylor noted to Richard Woodhouse on 23 April 1827,
These are not Materials for a Life of our poor Friend which it will do to communicate to the World—they are too wretched to be ‘told by a Cavern Wind unto a Forest old’—How strange it seems that such a Creature of the Element as he should have sprung from such gross Realities.—But how he refined upon the Sensualities of his Parents!Rollins 1: 309
George Keats echoed Taylor’s concerns when he lamented to Charles Dilke that “it is not the thing to hand down to posterity that John was born in wretchedness” (Rollins 1: 314), a reaction in particular to the Keats described in Hunt’s Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries. He ends his letter of 12 May 1828 by reassuring Dilke that the poet’s grandparents were upstanding citizens, both morally and by birth, and certainly not of the class stature that Hunt had ascribed to them.
The difficulty of dealing with Keats’s gender performance combined with this additional problem of playing down his heritage and the “Sensualities” within his works, however “refined” they may have been, left his biographers with quite the problem indeed. After all, Keats’s own anxiety over the public’s consumption of both his poetry and his person makes its way into his letters and prefaces, particularly in relation to his ambiguous state as an author straddling the line between boyhood and manhood. He utilizes his embodiment of that “space of life between” in the preface to Endymion as a means of deflecting the worst of the critics’ blows (505), yet this embodiment of perpetual youth, ultimately fixed in time by death, also makes him a powerful signifier of tragically ended genius and an object of same-sex desire. The sensual objectification of Keats is further emphasized by his seeming identification with the often feminized sexual subjectivity of his youthful male characters: the perpetually ravished pale, wan Endymion, with his tousled dark curls, fringed eyes, and “lurking trouble in his nether lip” (remarkably like the Circle’s descriptions of the poet) (Book I, line 179); Porphyro, at the whim of a sexually-awakened and demanding Madeline; and Lycius, subject to the serpentine wiles of Lamia. Even Keats’s own “Negative Capability” places him in a position of feminized passivity, awaiting the penetrative power of divine inspiration.
As the very real facts of his childhood seem to underscore the concerns of critics over the sexual improprieties of Keats and his language, even the poet’s friends had to admit that they too had harboured the same doubts over the appropriateness of his overtly sensual word choice and subject matter. Benjamin Bailey had admitted these concerns to Taylor as early as two and a half years before Keats’s death, when a chance meeting with Lockhart gave him forewarning of the impending Blackwood’s attack. As Bailey explains in his letter of 29 August 1818,
[T]he quarter I fear, & cannot defend, is the moral part of it. There are two great blotches in [Endymion] in this respect. The first must offend every one of proper feelings; and indelicacy is not to be borne . . . The second fault I allude to I think we have noticed—The approaching inclination it has to that abominable principle of Shelley’s—that Sensual Love is the principle of things. Of this I believe him to be unconscious, & can see how by a process of imagination he might arrive at so false, delusive, & dangerous conclusion—which may be called ‘a most lame & impotent conclusion.’ If he be attacked on these points, & on the first he assuredly will, he is not defensible.Rollins 1: 34-35
What is particularly noteworthy in this passage is how much it anticipates the strong impact Keats’s sensuality and lack of morality will later have on the Cambridge Apostles, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Aesthetes. Conversely to Bailey’s opinion, it is Keats’s belief in the sensual as the “principle of things” that will prove the most fertile part of his poetic legacy, rather than an “impotent conclusion.”
Bailey’s insisted belief in the unconsciousness of Keats’s adherence to a religion of aesthetics is worthy of a closer look. For Bailey, as for the contemporary public, if it were a conscious decision, it would provide incontrovertible evidence of Keats’s inherent immorality and would implicate his imagination in being as “false, delusive, and dangerous” as the conclusions it presented in his poetry. There is also a subtler second reading of this passage made possible by Bailey’s reference to Shelley and his “abominable principle.” Shelley, well known as a promoter of the principles of free love and atheism, also numbered an unpublished treatise on the valors of the “abominable principle” of same-sex sensual love among the Greeks in his philosophical works. His active expression of the virtues of desire between men in the face of established hegemonic restraints on male friendship serves to add a homophobic subtext to “a most lame & impotent conclusion,” highlighting the alternate definitions of this overtly sexualized phrase to refer to a “lack of self-restraint” or a “violent passion” (“Impotence”). For the Romantics and Victorians as well, the fear that following an amoral religion of aesthetics to its final conclusion would lead to a legitimization of sodomitical activity among men was one of the most often implied, yet rarely explicitly stated, criticisms of the Aesthetic Movement. That Bailey has identified this area in Keats’s work as indefensible while the poet was still living emphasizes the difficulty his biographers would have with the same subject matter in the decades following his death.
Thus, as it presented itself to the late Romantics, the desire to record their memory of Keats most accurately had the potential to be marred by two things: a perceived tendency towards subject matter of questionable moral origin (in other words, a literature less than gentlemanly, and perhaps even less than masculine), and a background immersed in lower-class turpitude (a life literally ungentlemanly). Both of these elements were wrought by the historically specific signifier of the poet-as-gentleman, an important part of the gendered social constraints of Georgian ideology, and a role that proved difficult to force Keats and his life to play on paper. However, there is an additional gendered liability for Keats’s biography found in the primary sources of the Keats Circle, one made manifest by the theoretical approach suggested by Dellamora’s work. The gendered emphasis of his friends’ accounts is not solely concerned with the abstract realm of language or even the classed specifics of gender, but, more revealingly, it often queers Keats by focusing on the bodily manifestations of the masculine and the desire inherent in homosocial friendship. As the majority of the Circle went on to endure several years of infighting, laced with homophilic language, over who was best suited to setting his life to paper, the first account of length on Keats’s life was published. Ironically, it happened to be by the person most often deemed a bad influence on Keats and his writing: Leigh Hunt.
Hunt, the earliest of Keats’s biographers, seemed also to be the biographer least aware of the import his own words held in relation to Keats’s rise to fame. As his son corroborates as the editor of the 1891 edition of Hunt’s Autobiography, Hunt’s bookish nature and obliviousness to public opinion may not have made him the best proponent for a young poet with many strikes against him. Indeed, Keats was all too aware of Hunt’s status as a liability, rather than an asset, to his career, something other members of the Circle, including Bailey, Reynolds, and George Keats, were particularly concerned about. Nevertheless, Hunt persevered in placing the name of Keats before the public in the Examiner, in Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries, and in his own memoirs. His description of his affections for Keats in Lord Byron emphasizes the closeness of their relationship:
Mr. Keats and I were friends of the old stamp, between whom there was no such thing as obligation, except the pleasure of it. Keats enjoyed the usual privilege of greatness with all whom he knew, rendering it delightful to be obliged by him, and an equal, but not a greater delight, to oblige. It was a pleasure to his friends to have him in their houses, and he did not grudge it.257-258
Yet this expression of affection was not without its price. Keats’s brother George was particularly concerned by its implications, and singled out this passage to Dilke, on 12 May 1828, as one of the incompetences in Hunt’s work. George lamented Hunt’s suggestion that John had “lived with spiritual carelessness on Mr Hunt and Brown—John was noble and manly, he was more magnanimous in conferring than in receiving a benefit, he felt too impatient of obligations” (Rollins 1: 314). In George’s eyes, to live off the generosity of one’s friends may have been acceptable for “other than gifted men,” but when ascribed to his brother, it was a signal of an inferiority of morals, birth, character, and, most pointedly, gender (Rollins 1: 314). Hunt may have thought he was doing John’s memory a favour by putting his connection with the poet in such effusive terms, when in reality it only brought up further questions for the public over the appropriateness of their relationship in terms that emphasized “obligations” more physical than literary.
The brutal and at times misguided honesty with which Hunt addresses Keats’s life is matched by Hunt’s acknowledgement of the flawed masculinity present in the poet’s work. Early in the chapter, he brings up “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” as an example of the poet’s “premature masculinity” (248), and he later elaborates on the gendered weakness in his overall style:
Mr. Keats’s natural tendency to pleasure, as a poet, sometimes degenerated, by reason of his ill health, into a poetical effeminacy [. . .]. His lovers grow ‘faint’ with the sight of their mistresses; and Apollo [. . .] suffers a little too exquisitely among his lilies. But Mr. Keats was aware of this contradiction to the real energy of his nature, and prepared to get rid of it.253
Hunt’s explication of Keats’s style here has many levels, and his obvious uneasiness over its implications is important to contextualizing Keats within the gendered relations of the Circle. As with Bailey’s letter a decade earlier, there is still a concern over the poet’s overall tenor towards the sensual, ironically a problem often linked by contemporary critics to Hunt’s influence on his writing. It is crucial to note that Hunt draws a precise distinction between an acceptable, “natural,” and assumably masculine epicureanism normally associated with the vocation of poetry, and a “degenerated” manifestation of that love of pleasure. Hunt specifically links this degeneration in Keats to “ill health,” offering an explanation for his behaviour that is beyond his control and excusable to the public.
Yet there is only a small step from delineating a degeneration of the natural tendency to pleasure as resulting in effeminacy in one’s writing to causing effeminacy in oneself. In fact, this step later became an essential part of the very definition of an Aesthete. This is particularly noteworthy when coupled with the historical usage of degeneration and disease to signify homosexual activity. In fact, if one simply takes out the specifiers “as a poet” and “poetical” in Hunt’s statement, one makes the possible subtexts and latent anxieties in Hunt’s reading of Keats’s poetical self all too clear. This association is further made evident in the examples given to prove Hunt’s point; Keats’s male protagonists are not manly at all, and, indeed, Apollo himself sounds more like an object of male masturbatory desire than a god. Crucial, then, is Hunt’s attempt to recontain his meaning at the paragraph’s end by clarifying that the impression given by Keats’s writing was not equivalent to the “real energy of his nature.” In other words, Keats’s true nature, albeit one unable to be found in his work, is virile, manly, and strictly heterosexual. Unfortunately, in the context of the rest of Hunt’s literary analysis, this reassurance of Keats’s adherence to the gendered status quo actually does very little to reassure.
The publication of Hunt’s Lord Byron renewed the interest of George Keats and the rest of the Circle in the project of writing Keats’s life and the desire, in George’s words, to find “any one who is competent to do it well” (Rollins 1: 313).  Therein lay the difficulty, as those who looked for an appropriate biographer in their midst found themselves at odds over who would best fill the role. Against the complaints of Taylor, Woodhouse, and Reynolds, in 1829 Charles Brown took the task on himself to follow in Hunt’s footsteps, a choice that made George uneasy for two reasons.  His first concern was over the motivation of the person chosen; as he points out, both Hunt and Brown are eager to promote themselves as the “munificent patrons” of John Keats. George’s second concern was that previous biographical biases not be continued, and he notes specifically that inaccuracies in Shelley’s Adonais seem to have been carried over by Hunt. The friendship between Shelley, Hunt, and Brown particularly concerns him in this instance, for in Brown’s case, “I cannot but infer that he received from [Hunt] the false impression, and fear that for the sake of consistency he will repeat the wrong” (Rollins 1: 328).  Both of these considerations have significant import for the development of the Keats of the Victorian period, for they anticipate two of the major shortcomings in early biographical accounts: the jockeying for position amongst the Keats Circle over who played the most significant roles in the poet’s life (often voiced in terms of male-male desire, a sort of “I loved him more than you did” playground parlance), and a repetition of biographical inaccuracies for the sake of biographical consistency.
Despite the shared concerns of Dilke and George Keats, ultimately Brown was chosen by the Circle, albeit by default, to become the official biographer of Keats. It was only after Taylor finally gave up his intention of writing the Life that the project was officially passed to Brown by him and Woodhouse in 1832. Unfortunately, due to poor communication and wounded feelings amongst the living members of the group, Brown’s final draft proved to be, in his own words, “a most plain unvarnished tale, and rather short” (Rollins 2: 27).  After presenting the work at the Plymouth Literary Institution in 1836, Brown failed to secure a publisher, and the manuscript was set aside. In 1841 he decided that it was time to pass off the project to “a true lover of Keats” (Rollins 2: 50), a Cambridge Apostle whose interest in the poet dated to the late 1820s and whose literary and social connections included some of the most prominent (and most prominently queer) Victorians on record. This biographer was Richard Monckton Milnes, later Lord Houghton.
The original manuscript sent to Milnes presents, like Hunt’s Lord Byron, a one-sided view of Keats from a friend whose relationship with the poet, according to other members of the Circle, is rendered through remarkably rose-coloured glasses. Marked by a combination of homosocial desire for the “dearly beloved, and [. . .] superior being” and a grasping for the peripheral fame to which he believes that desire entitles him, Brown’s memoir of Keats is an extended lament and rationalization for the death of a friend whose “memory is still my chief happiness” (Brown 54).  Unfortunately, as Dilke observed, Brown’s memory is more than a little inaccurate, as is his best judgement.
This is not to say that Brown’s Life did not also do much to promote Keats’s literary cause. He admits with clear pride that “the best and the greater part of his literary countrymen have learnt to feel delight in his poetry” and emphasizes Keats’s inclusion in the English tradition of “Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare” (Brown 56). But his manuscript also makes clear the importance of the bodily in his friendship with Keats and his concern over the public’s interpretation of Keats’s material masculinity. Brown comes most alive when describing the physical intimacy and connection between himself and the poet, as when he presents the tale of their first meeting on the street, when “in that interview of a minute I inwardly desired his acquaintanceship, if not his friendship” (57). He notes that soon thereafter Keats became his neighbour, and “We quickly became intimate” (57). Relaying this information causes Brown to ponder not the intellectual impact his new friend had made on him, but the immediate visceral impact made by his physical beauty:
He was small in stature, well proportioned, compact in form, and, though thin, rather muscular;—one of the many who prove that manliness is distinct from height and bulk. There is no magic equal to that of an ingenuous countenance, and I never beheld any human being’s so ingenuous as his. His full fine eyes were lustrously intellectual, and beaming (at that time!) with hope and joy. It has been remarked that the most faulty feature was his mouth; and, at intervals, it was so. But, whenever he spoke, or was, in any way, excited, the expression of the lips was so varied and delicate, that they might be called handsome.57
The detail of description herein reminds one more of the reminiscence of a past love than of a twenty-years-dead roommate, a point made in Dilke’s comments on the memoir when he scoffed to Joseph Severn, “Why as to the soul-sympathy which united them at their first meeting, it was not till long after they had met & met often, that Brown became even friendly & familiar with him” (Rollins 2: 104).  However, Brown was not alone in his seemingly borderline-erotic idealizations of the poet’s appearance, as Milnes would discover as he later collected additional material for the biography.
It is also noteworthy that, despite the aura of homosocial desire in Brown’s description of Keats, his emphasis on his friend’s “manliness” is exaggerated, at times to a degree of easily disputed inaccuracy. As a part of Brown’s allegations against Blackwood’s, he takes particular offence to the review’s attacks on Keats’s gender performance, alleging that “They represented him as affected, effeminate, and sauntering about without a neckcloth, in imitation of the portrait of Spenser,” and dismisses this depiction as malicious “falsehood” (Brown 58). Yet, as Dilke himself pointed out in his April 1841 letter to Severn, Severn’s portrait of Keats accurately portrays the poet in this very costume, and the poet’s tendency towards dandiacal sartorial choices has been widely noted. Dilke blames this inaccuracy either on Brown’s poor memory or “utter obliviousness” (2: 106), yet it also begs the question of why Brown found the allegations relating to Keats’s masculinity most worthy of a specific mention in his Life. There was little refutation of Blackwood’s or the Quarterly’s claims against Keats’s writing style, nor against the reviews’ ridicule of his class background. The aspects of the “author’s person” under attack which concerned Brown were those which reflected most negatively on the ramifications of his “intimate” relationship with this “superior being” who shared a roof with him.
As for their living situation, Brown prefers to present it not as the business relationship described by the rest of the Circle, but as an artistic collaboration of like minds. Regrettably, in emphasizing his own munificence towards Keats as a roommate, the letters he quotes in his manuscript open up Keats to accusations of living seemingly as a early-nineteenth-century “rentboy.” In a letter of 23 September 1819, Keats laments to Brown, “I have never yet exerted myself. I am getting into an idle minded, vicious way of life, almost content to live upon others” (Brown 68). The letter goes on to express his concerns that Brown has placed Keats’s needs ahead of his own, and asks for this to stop, adding the exclamation that, “I have a natural timidity of mind in these matters: liking better to take the feeling between us for granted, than to speak of it. But, good God! what a short while you have known me!” (68). This was exactly the sort of inaccuracy George Keats had most worried about finding in Brown’s biography of his brother. While Keats may have had concerns about seemingly “living upon others,” financial records and the reports of friends show that, however Brown may wish to cast it, their living together was a business arrangement above and beyond all else.
Yet the effusions of Keats upon the depths of his feelings for Brown call to mind again Brown’s concerns over certain popular depictions of the masculinity of his friend and the Hellenistic implications of their queered male companionship. Brown includes an additional letter, dated the same day as the previous one, in which Keats laments to Brown, “I wish, at one view, you could see my heart towards you. ‘Tis only from a high tone of feeling that I can put that word upon paper—out of poetry” (Brown 70). This “high tone of feeling” echoes the same valorization of the Greek principle of love between men promoted by Shelley and accentuates Brown’s seeming conflict over the appropriateness of his emotional attachment to his past companion. These moments of Keats’s unburdening of himself to Brown seem included not as necessary biographical elaborations on information already available to the public, but rather as validations of their onetime relationship, intended to prove the closeness of their friendship and the depth of understanding between them to his reader. In fact, nearly the entire second half of Brown’s memoir is simply direct copies of the final letters from Keats to himself, and of Severn’s letters from Italy relaying the last weeks of Keats’s life, with little to no biographical commentary from Brown.
Brown’s decision to place this manuscript in Milnes’s hands had significant import not only for the success of the project, but also for the long-term queering of Keats in literary history. As an impartial outsider to the debates and quarrels of the Keats Circle, Milnes became a biographer whom the disparate factions could equally trust, and over the course of the 1840s, many of the Circle who had previously been unwilling to cooperate with Brown’s work offered to lend him their assistance. Yet Milnes’s interest in Keats himself was hardly impartial, and what makes his role as biographer most significant within the context of the Circle’s queer sociability is the queerness inherent in Milnes himself, and in the group through which he became aware of Keats’s poetry.
The Cambridge Apostles, of whom Milnes was a pivotal member, offer a key precursor to the Hellenism Linda Dowling has so effectively theorized in her discussions of mid-to-late-century Oxford. Whereas the Keats Circle’s queer space was framed around a mutual homophilic bond with a single individual, the Apostles’ prototypical Victorian model of a queered community of male companionship was based on a combination of both Greek ideals and a belief in the necessity of open debate to a vital and vigorous progressive society. As was the case for later Aesthetes, this included an open acknowledgement and acceptance of alternative sexual practices, exemplified by Arthur Henry Hallam’s essay “On Cicero” in which he promoted the Platonic ideal of male-male desire at one of the society’s weekly debates. While the extent of Hallam’s personal exploration of Hellenistic sexuality has been widely debated (particularly in relation to Tennyson), suspected and confirmed experimentation with sodomy by other Apostles, including Milnes, has been noted by historians, including Peter Allen, Richard Deacon, Robert Bernard Martin, and Dellamora himself.
The Apostles had developed their own appreciation for Keats during the late 1820s, most likely through the mediation of Adonais. The homosociality therein, which had created such difficulties for the biographical efforts of the Circle, reflected the homosociality of the Apostles themselves and the variety of its manifestations within their friendships. In fact, Hallam was so taken by Shelley’s account that he arranged for the first publication of Adonais in England in 1829, shortly after his initiation into the society. Keats quickly became an aesthetic icon for the Apostles, a symbol of the social potential found in the artistic power and integrity of beauty and an empowering example of the intellectual and bodily connections made possible through effeminate identification and male companionship.
As a result of his 1832 death, Hallam would become a part of the same mythology shared by Keats, Chatterton, and White, that of the effeminate poet whose potential was tragically cut short by an untimely death. Similar to the memory of Keats, that of Hallam would come to function as a shared connection between an entire circle of friends, a group that suggested broader implications for the possibility of queered Victorian communities. Like the Keats Circle, who had once provided a model of mentorship centred around the development and promotion of their younger friend’s genius, the Apostles would go on to develop a system of mentorship between active members of the society and those “Angels” who had taken their place in the public realm, reminiscent of Greek paederasty’s cross-generational conflation of instruction, friendship, and homoerotic desire. Milnes himself was both an Apostolic Angel and an eminent Victorian; his extensive social network, cultural influence, and singular skill at recognizing and promoting literary talent would lead to his eventual mentoring of such notable Aesthetes as Swinburne and Wilde. Ultimately, his role in bringing the Circle’s biographical project to fruition proved key to the dissemination of Keats as a figure of queer representation beyond the confines of the Society and to establishing both the Keats Circle and the Apostles as creators of the cultural mode of male companionship currently theorized as a later-century construction.
The Apostles’ co-optation of a Keats viewed through the queered lens of the Keats Circle’s biographical projects of the 1820s and 30s, as well as their shared interest in that project’s central goal of developing Victorian interest in the poet’s genius and person, fully realized biography’s importance to Keats’s after-fame. The marriage of these two queered male communities resulted in a powerful championing of Keats’s cause, made possible by a common interest in the poet that was both mental and physical, homosocial and homophilic. The Keats of the 1848 Life was a new fabrication, an amalgamation of memories compiled by a member of a group to whom those very traits which the Keats Circle had originally tried to suppress—Keats’s sensuality, nonmorality, and effeminacy—were the greatest part of his continued appeal. Through its pages, the queered nature of Keats’s gender offered itself up as a new multi-dimensional signifier of social and sexual masculinity for the next generation of his followers and critics alike.
These and other 1821 responses to Keats’s death can be found in Lewis M. Schwartz’s Keats Reviewed by his Contemporaries: A Collection of Notices for the Years 1816-1821.
This is an important point, for it shows a much earlier recognition of Keats’s potential than critics such as Ford have previously acknowledged and does much to explain the increased inclusion of Keats’s work in literary anthologies within the decade following his death. Ironically, Ford’s argument against Keats’s early fame includes a footnote referring to several early publications of Keats’s work, including the 1829 edition of his poems and such anthologies as George Croly’s Beauties of the English Poets (London, 1828), Alaric A. Watts’s The Poetical Album (London, 1828), Thomas Hood’s annual The Gem (n.c., 1829), and Robert Fletcher Housman’s A Collection of English Sonnets (n.c., 1835).
Unless otherwise noted, these letters come from Rollins.
Letter to Dilke, 12 May 1828.
The particular complaints of the group against Brown’s authorship are made clear in Rollins’s biographical sketch of Brown, 1: liv-lxix.
Letter to Dilke, 7 May 1830.
Letter to Hunt, 21 December 1836.
Brown’s complete draft, as sent to Milnes, is included in the second volume of Rollins’s anthology, and the parenthetical citations refer to the page numbers therein.
Letter to Severn, April 1841.
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- Brown, Charles. “Charles Brown: Life of John Keats.” The Keats Circle: Letters and Papers and More Letters and Poems of the Keats Circle. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1965. 52-97.
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- Croly, George, ed. Beauties of the English Poets. London, 1828.
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- ———, trans. Plato: The Banquet. Provincetown, MA: Pagan, 2001.
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- “Verses to Keats by ‘P.’ in the Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review.” Keats Reviewed by his Contemporaries: A Collection of Notices for the Years 1816-1821. Ed. Lewis M. Schwartz. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1973. 313-314.
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