Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Keats as Bassoon

'Keats, Bewick & I dined together, Keats brought some friend of his, a noodle. After dinner, to his horror, when he expected we should all be discussing Milton & Raphael &c, we burst into the most boisterous merriment. We had all been working most dreadfully hard the whole week. I proposed to strike up a concert. Keats was the bassoon, Bewick the flageolet, & I was the organ & so on. We went on imitating the sounds of these instruments till we were ready to burst with laughing, while the Wise acre sat by without saying a word, blushing & sipping his wine as if we meant to insult him.'
   This delightful cameo is from the entry for May 11, 1818, in the dairies of the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, which I'm reading just now in an edition (by John Joliffe) under the semi-ironic title Neglected Genius. Bewick, by the way, is not the famous wood engraver but a pupil of Haydon's. The identity of the high-minded 'noodle' is not known, and he seems unlikely company for Keats, who was never high-minded in that censorious sense. High-spirited, yes, but wherever his art and thought led him, he and his work always remained firmly rooted in the realm of the senses.  Keats did not, like some self-conscious mediocrities, place Art on an exalted level above and beyond the vulgar charms of This World. One of the chief joys of reading his letters is the infectious delight he takes in all the pleasures of life, from the highest to the lowest. Indeed you might say that his genius consisted in an infinite capacity for taking pleasure - even in imitating a bassoon.
   Lovers of Keats will know Haydon as the host of the 'Immortal Evening', when Keats, Wordsworth and Lamb dined with him ('Great spirits now on Earth are sojourning...'), and the addressee of several of Keats's poems and a good many letters, which, alas, show an increasing exasperation with Haydon's endless extortionate demands for 'loans'. Haydon fancied himself as a history painter of heroic genius, the artist who would restore and elevate the pride of his nation and its art, and who was therefore owed a living by a grateful nation. Unfortunately, not only was he working in a deeply unfashionable (and very unEnglish) genre, he had all but ruined his eyes in his obsessive application to his Art, and, more importantly, he was really not very good at all, his draughtsmanship, colouring and composition all being notably clumsy.
  The irony is that Haydon was a far better writer than he ever was a painter, as is evident throughout his Diaires and, I believe, his highly praised Autobiography. As Dickens put it after Haydon's death (by suicide, after having chewed off every hand that fed him, failed in his high ambitions and accrued massive debts):  'All his life he had utterly mistaken his vocation. No amount of sympathy with him and sorrow for him in his manly pursuit of a wrong idea for so many years — until, by dint of his perseverance and courage, it almost began to seem a right one — ought to prevent one from saying that he most unquestionably was a very bad painter, and that his pictures could not be expected to sell or to succeed.'
  But as a writer, at least about his own life, he is really rather wonderful. I am enjoying these Diaries hugely (though I know how badly they will end), and will probably be returning to this subject... 

4 comments: