New Friendships; Reynolds, Rice and Bailey. (December, 1816--March, 1817)
THE winter and early spring of 1817 was a period of new contacts and experiences. The mind of Keats, fixed to the rock of his own character and individuality, was reaching out its tentacles and grasping food for new poetry and thought.
He must have spent many hours in Leigh Hunt's booklined study and in Haydon's crowded painting-room. Although public association with Hunt did damage to Keats's reputation, and although Hunt perhaps encouraged him unduly in his native luxuriance of sentiment and expression, his influence was a fruitful one. Hunt was a fine and a constructive critic (his reputation as a critic has been overshadowed in that age so rich in criticism by Hazlitt, Coleridge and Lamb) and, though as a writer of poetry his taste was faulty, it was fastidious, epicurean in his reading of it. Later in Imagination and Fancy he shewed how swiftly he was able to get at the heart of a poet.
Hunt could bring Keats not only into closer acquaintance with the Elizabethans, but into early touch with that wealth of poetry from which the Elizabethans drew their early inspiration, the Italian. Keats could not yet read the language, but he had a fair knowledge of Latin and he would hear its beautiful cadences as Leigh Hunt read aloud to him. We know that Hunt's reading of poetry was a joy to his friends. Keats could not fail, with his keen ear, to catch something of the liquid and lovely movement. Colvin pointed out that the opening of the sonnet, ' On a Picture of Leander' (now considered to have been written in 1817):
Come hither all sweet maidens soberly, Down-looking aye, and with a chasten'd light, Hid in the fringes of your eyelids white, And meekly let your fair hands joined be . . .
has a feeling of:
1Voi, che portate la sembianza umile, Cogli occbi bassi mostrando dolore,
Onde venite, chè'l vostro colore
Par divenuto di pietà simile?
your hue seam grown to pity's semblance.--( THOMAS OKEY's translation.)