Theatrical Criticism; Brown, Dilke and New Friends; the Immortal Dinner (December, 1817--March, 1818)

BEFORE December 15th Keats was back at Hampstead and alone in Well Walk. George had taken Tom out of the rigour of a London winter to Teignmouth in Devon. Reynolds, who was now courting Eliza Powell Drewe, was bound for Devon also. Keats agreed to take his place for a few weeks over the Christmas holidays as dramatic critic on The Champion.

The theatre was an old love and, although he professed a strong dislike for journalism, Keats must have enjoyed and welcomed the new experience, especially as Edmund Kean, then at the height of his powers, had now returned to Drury Lane after an absence of some weeks. On December 15th Keats saw him in his finest part, Richard III.

On the 18th Kean played Luke in a weak play called Riches. Keats was present in his official capacity but could muster up no interest in the play, and on Sunday, the 21St, there appeared in his journal, not a report of Riches, but a panegyric on Kean as Shakespearean actor. The performance of Riches was dismissed in a sentence: 'On Thursday evening he acted Luke in "Riches," as far as the stage will admit, to perfection.'

The article is a fine piece of writing and interesting both as a contemporary view of a young enthusiast for the splendid herald of the new naturalistic school of acting and as a piece of self-revealing and imaginative prose. The style is perhaps too reminiscent of the admired Hazlitt and has not the ease and simplicity of the letters, but the sentences are clear, balanced and rhythmic. They are in the true rhythm of prose and not in the transferred poetic rhythm so often found in the prose of young poets. The article, printed by H. Buxton Forman in the Complete Works, is accessible, together with the other Champion dramatic criticisms, in the small five-volume edition. I give one of the most striking passages of 'Kean as Shakespearean Actor':

Amid his numerous excellencies, the one which at this moment most weighs upon us, is the elegance, gracefulness, and music of elocution. A melodious passage in poetry is full of pleasures both sensual and spiritual. The spiritual is felt when the very letters and points of charactered language show like the hieroglyphics of beauty; the mysterious signs of our immortal freemasonry! "A thing to dream of, not to tell!" The sensual life of verse springs warm


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A Life of John Keats


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