John Keats, Benjamin Robert Haydon, and the aesthetics of light and shade

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Abstract

This thesis is the first full-length investigation into the influence of the historical painter Benjamin Robert Haydon on the poetry and poetics of John Keats. Recent historical approaches to Keats have unearthed materials that provide fresh insights into the ramifications of his interactions with his contemporaries: in this context, our understanding of Keats’s relationship with Haydon also needs to be revised. This thesis challenges the traditional view that Haydon’s sway was confined to the shaping of Keats’s general ideas about art, and that it failed to affect his poetics substantively. Through a close analysis of their shared assumptions and methods, this study demonstrates that Haydon’s impact on Keats was much more profound—and arguably further reaching—than has been assumed hitherto.

In discussing the intimate, mutual, and creative relationship between Keats and Haydon, this thesis draws on those modalities of ‘light and shade’ that are emphasized in the poet’s writings, including his letters. As both an artist and an art critic and polemicist, Haydon was a great exponent, in both practical and theoretical terms, of chiaroscuro effects. His exemplary work in this respect is Christ’s Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem (begun in 1814 and finished in 1820). Haydon’s manipulation of clarity and obscurity in the picture served Keats (himself depicted among the crowd) as encouragement and inspiration for his own poetic creations. From time to time, Haydon advised Keats—who considered the picture a ‘part’ of himself—to materialize a similar complex and unstable polarity in the ‘canvas’ of his own medium of poetry. We will witness the fruits of the friendship between the two men in the development of Keats’s ‘painterly’ poetics of light and shade, from his ‘Great Spirits’ sonnet of late 1816 to his last surviving letter of late 1820.
Date of Award28 Sep 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorAndrew Bennett (Supervisor) & Stephen H Cheeke (Supervisor)

Keywords

  • John Keats
  • Benjamin Robert Haydon
  • Romanticism
  • the sister arts
  • ekphrasis

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