Keats, Endymion, and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine

Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton, 1822..
Portrait of John Keats
by William Hilton, 1822..

Nearly 195 years after John Keats’ death, even the most non-poetic amongst us can still quote the first line of Endymion: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever…”  Yet, upon its release in 1818, Endymion was so harshly reviewed by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine that Lord Byron was prompted to write that the sensitive Keats had been “snuffed out by an article.”

And what an article!  Between referencing the “imperturbable driveling idiocy of Endymion” and snidely referring to Keats as “Johnny” and “Mr. John,” John Gibson Lockhart (writing for Blackwood’s) took jabs at Keats’ education, his middle-class upbringing, and even his former career as a licensed apothecary.  According to Lockhart, Keats was an “ignorant, unsettled pretender” and an “uneducated and flimsy stripling…without logic enough to analyze a single idea, or imagination enough to form one original image.”  He closed his scathing critique with the following prediction:

“We venture to make one small prophecy, that his bookseller will not a second time venture 50 quid upon anything he can write.  It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr. John, back to plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.”

For a time, Keats considered doing just that, giving up his poetry and returning to Edinburgh to resume his medical studies.  Ultimately, with the support of a small circle of friends, he continued writing and, in spite of poor reviews and even poorer health, went on to produce some of his finest work, including such masterpieces as Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, and Bright Star.

Keats Tomb
Headstone of John Keats,
Protestant Cemetery, Rome.
(Photo by Piero Montesacro,
CC by SA-3.0)

Sadly, Keats career was not destined to last.  On February 23, 1821, just two and half years after the Blackwood’s article, he died in Rome of tuberculosis.  He was only twenty-five.  Convinced that the critics had hastened his demise, his friends, Joseph Severn and Charles Brown, added the following words above the brief epitaph that Keats had requested for himself:

This Grave contains all that was Mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water.

Did the critics drive John Keats to an early grave?  Some of his contemporaries certainly thought so.  Yet in the end, Keats was not killed off by one critique.  Nor was his name writ on water.  Instead, he lives on as one of the most beloved and well-known of the nineteenth-century English Romantic poets.

And John Gibson Lockhart?  Well, I would venture to guess that if it were not for his connection with John Keats, most of us would not even know who he was.

*Note: This article was previously published on A Covent Garden Gilfurt’s Guide to Life.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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12 Comments on "Keats, Endymion, and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine"

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Sarah Waldock
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A fitting epilogue for John Gibson Lockhart. There are critics who delight in doing that sort of thing. And there are always people who get it wrong, like the guy who said of Fred Astaire “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Can dance a little.”
Thank you for the origin of that quote, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”

Mimi Matthews
Guest

So glad you enjoyed it Sarah! Yes, it is so true about some critics. And I had forgotten that quote about Fred Astaire! Just goes to show artists in any discipline that no matter how brilliant you are, there are always some who are blind (sometimes willfully blind!) to your talents.

Anna M. Thane
Guest

Happy 3-month anniversary!
Thanks for sharing this inspiring post.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thank you so much, Anna! :)

Angelyn
Guest

You’re so right that Lockhart would have faded from view long ago were it not for Keats’ brilliance.

I discovered the dark-natured critic via his devotion to his wife, which rivalled anything in Keats’ Bright Star–but then, I like looking into history’s lost nooks and crannies.

Happy anniversary!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thank you so much Angelyn! Lockhart is a whole story all on his own – and by no means was he 100% a villain. He wrote a very famous biography on his father-in-law Sir Walter Scott. But in many circles it is his vicious criticisms that he is best known for – criticisms not only of Keats and his circle, but of Tennyson, too!

Sarah M. Fredericks
Guest
Dear Mimi, Although I just discovered your wonderful website a few weeks ago, I will reiterate everyone’s best wishes: Congratulations on your first three months! I really enjoyed this article on John Keats. We are lucky that he did not give up writing his poetry because of shallow criticisms from people who probably did not know the difference between an Ode and a Sonnet. I think his poetry is very passionate, imaginative, and spiritual. I love the last two lines from his poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all Ye know on… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thank you so much for the good wishes, Sarah! I too am glad Keats did not give up. I hope writers today can learn from his experience and not let criticisms get them down – especially those criticisms that veer into the personal! Thanks for commenting :)

Marvin
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Very nice post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wanted
to mention that I’ve truly loved browsing your weblog posts.
After all I will be subscribing to your feed and I am hoping you write once more soon!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks so much, Marvin :) I’m glad you enjoy my articles!

Noirfifre
Guest

What a fitting epitaph for Keats.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I agree. The words on his headstone are incredibly apt – and very moving, too.

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