When John Keats and Benjamin Robert Haydon were introduced in late 1816, the two men could hardly have been more different. Keats was a virtually unknown young apothecary who had a passion for poetry and a growing belief in his own abilities. Haydon was several years older and one of the most famous painters in London, a man who was certain that he was destined to create a new Renaissance in English art. He was known throughout Europe for his vivid but controversial essays on the deplorable state of painting in England at the time, and his belief that the Elgin Marbles, recently transported from the Parthenon in Athens to a back yard in London, were the greatest work of genius in the history of European culture. Underpinning Haydon’s confidence in his paintings and his opinions was a theory of beauty and truth which Keats absorbed and gradually made his own. Today, Haydon is almost forgotten but Keats is among the greatest poets in the English language.
How did this incredible reversal of fortune come about? Colin Silver’s book attempts to answer this question, and along the way we meet many of the characters who were central to the story of Haydon and Keats’ relationship. Charles Cowden Clarke, Leigh Hunt, John Hamilton Reynolds and Percy Bysshe Shelley all knew Haydon and all influenced Keats as he struggled to find his voice and assert his poetic identity. The poetry of William Wordsworth (a personal friend of Haydon’s) and James Beattie caused Keats to consider the study of philosophy as essential to the development of a poet, and when he had the chance to spend some time with a scholar called Benjamin Bailey in Oxford, he shared Bailey’s interests in Plato, the Bible and linguistics. Parallel to this story of Keats’ development as a poet is the story of Haydon’s life as an artist. Haydon was already famous when he met Keats but he had suffered some terrible trials and tribulations. He was lonely and seeking a “kindred spirit”, someone who had a “high calling” (ostensibly a desire to achieve perfection in art, but also a desperate need for fame). Keats was that kindred spirit and Haydon took it upon himself to be his guide and mentor, to ensure that Keats’ education as a poet paralleled Haydon’s as an artist. When Haydon took Keats to see the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, he introduced the young poet to his own theory of beauty and truth. “Beauty of form is but the vehicle of conveying Ideas,” said Haydon, “but truth of conveyance is the first object.” Haydon was applying this principle to a monumental painting of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem and its success or failure would ultimately determine the course of his career.
William Hazlitt was a close friend of Haydon’s who became a central figure in Keats’ story. Hazlitt, the man whom the lawyer and diarist Henry Crabb Robinson described as “the cleverest man I know”, was a published writer who had an ambition to be a painter, and as such he loved to spend time painting at his cottage in Winterslow near Salisbury. Realising he could never make a living as an artist, he decided to give up painting and return to London where he gave a series of lectures on the English Poets. When Keats attended Hazlitt’s lectures at the Surrey Institution, he learned enough to ensure that his education was almost complete.
The final part of Colin Silver’s book brings all of these threads together and shows how Keats used Hazlitt’s lectures and Haydon’s theories to write some of his most beautiful poetry, and in particular what is perhaps his best known poem, the Ode on a Grecian Urn. This poem is famous for its enigmatic final statement:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.