A fan letter to Byron

I recently had the great pleasure of spending four days with a wonderful group of people who were here in Venice on a Readers’ Tour of our city and its literary associations, organised by my dear friend Anna Dreda, the proprietor of Wenlock Books.

We visited Shakespeare’s Venice, around Rialto and in the Ghetto, Byron and Ruskin’s Venice, and said a passing hello to Casanova, Henry James and Ezra Pound, among others. Anna wrote about it on her own excellent blog.

On our final evening together, we enjoyed an evening of food, wine and poetry, with poems old and new about Venice, Italy, water. One member of our group, Eve, read a poem which I was very cross with myself for not having come across before, since it was by John Keats, addressed to Byron.

Keats wrote the sonnet in 1814, when he was only nineteen years old. It’s very much a fan-letter from an aspiring poet to one who had already woken one morning and found himself famous. Not Keats’ best work, obviously – which of us is ready to produce our best at only nineteen? – but interesting all the same.

Byron in 1814 was producing the sort of verses that almost seem to have been written with teenagers in mind, his “nobody loves me, nobody understands me” period, of Childe Harold, who “was sore sick at heart”… “and none did love him,” and The Giaour, a cheerful tale of sex and murder. These themes are echoed in Keats’ sonnet, where he speaks of the “sweetly sad” melody, and “the tale of pleasing woe.”

Sadly, Keats’ hero-worship was short-lived, and he came to believe that Byron’s success as a poet was down to his wealth and social status whereas he, John Keats remained unknown and in poverty. And Byron had a low opinion of Keats’ work (“mental masturbation,” he called it, believing that Keats continually repeated the same ideas in his verses).

But who hasn’t had to face up to the fact that our idols have feet of clay? Here are young Johnny Keats’ lines before he had to admit that Byron was less than perfect.

To Byron

by John Keats

Byron! how sweetly sad thy melody!

Attuning still the soul to tenderness,

As if soft Pity, with unusual stress,

Had touch’d her plaintive lute, and thou, being by,

Hadst caught the tones, nor suffer’d them to die.

O’ershadowing sorrow doth not make thee less

Delightful: thou thy griefs dost dress

With a bright halo, shining beamily,

As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil,

Its sides are ting’d with a resplendent glow,

Through the dark robe oft amber rays prevail,

And like fair veins in sable marble flow;

Still warble, dying swan! still tell the tale,

The enchanting tale, the tale of pleasing woe.