To Charles Cowden Clarke

Author: John Keats  | Date: 1817


Oft have you seen a swan superbly frowning,

And with proud breast his own white shadow crowning;

He slants his neck beneath the waters bright

So silently, it seems a beam of light

Come from the galaxy: anon he sports,-

With outspread wings the Naiad Zephyr courts,

Or ruffles all the surface of the lake

In striving from its crystal face to take

Some diamond water drops, and them to treasure

In milky nest, and sip them off at leisure.

But not a moment can he there insure them,

Nor to such downy rest can he allure them;

For down they rush as though they would be free,

And drop like hours into eternity.

Just like that bird am I in loss of time,

Whene’er I venture on the stream of rhyme;

With shatter’d boat, oar snapt, and canvass rent

I slowly sail, scarce knowing my intent;

Still scooping up the water with my fingers,

In which a trembling diamond never lingers.

By this, friend Charles, you may full plainly see

Why I have never penn’d a line to thee:

Because my thoughts were never free, and clear,

And little fit to please a classic ear;

Because my wine was of too poor a savour

For one whose palate gladdens in the flavour

Of sparkling Helicon:- small good it were

To take him to a desert rude, and bare,

Who had on Baiae’s shore reclin’d at ease,

While Tasso’s page was floating in a breeze

That gave soft music from Armida’s bowers,

Mingled with fragrance from her rarest flowers:

Small good to one who had by Mulla’s stream

Fondled the maidens with the breasts of cream;

Who had beheld Belphoebe in a brook,

And lovely Una in a leafy nook,

And Archimago leaning o’er his book:

Who had of all that’s sweet tasted, and seen,

From silv’ry ripple, up to beauty’s queen;

From the sequester’d haunts of gay Titania,

To the blue dwelling of divine Urania:

One, who, of late, had ta’en sweet forest walks

With him who elegantly chats, and talks-

The wrong’d Libertas,- who has told you stories

Of laurel chaplets, and Apollo’s glories;

Of troops chivalrous prancing through a city,

And tearful ladies made for love, and pity:

With many else which I have never known.

Thus have I thought; and days on days have flown

Slowly, or rapidly- unwilling still

For you to try my dull, unlearned quill.

Nor should I now, but that I’ve known you long;

That you first taught me all the sweets of song:

The grand, the sweet, the terse, the free, the fine;

What swell’d with pathos, and what right divine:

Spenserian vowels that elope with ease,

And float along like birds o’er summer seas;

Miltonian storms, and more, Miltonian tenderness;

Michael in arms, and more, meek Eve’s fair slenderness,

Who read for me the sonnet swelling loudly

Up to its climax and then dying proudly?

Who found for me the grandeur of the ode,

Growing, like Atlas, stronger from its load?

Who let me taste that more than cordial dram,

The sharp, the rapier-pointed epigram?

Show’d me that epic was of all the king,

Round, vast, and spanning all like Saturn’s ring?

You too upheld the veil from Clio’s beauty,

And pointed out the patriot’s stern duty;

The might of Alfred, and the shaft of Tell;

The hand of Brutus, that so grandly fell

Upon a tyrant’s head. Ah! had I never seen,

Or known your kindness, what might I have been?

What my enjoyments in my youthful years,

Bereft of all that now my life endears?

And can I e’er these benefits forget?

And can I e’er repay the friendly debt?

No, doubly no;- yet should these rhymings please,

I shall roll on the grass with two-fold ease:

For I have long time been my fancy feeding

With hopes that you would one day think the reading

Of my rough verses not an hour misspent;

Should it e’er be so, what a rich content!

Some weeks have pass’d since last I saw the spires

In lucent Thames reflected:- warm desires

To see the sun o’erpeep the eastern dimness,

And morning shadows, streaking into slimness

Across the lawny fields, and pebbly water;

To mark the time as they grow broad, and shorter;

To feel the air that plays about the hills,

And sips its freshness from the little rills;

To see high, golden corn wave in the light

When Cynthia smiles upon a summer’s night,

And peers among the cloudlets jet and white,

As though she were reclining in a bed

Of bean blossoms, in heaven freshly shed.

No sooner had I stepp’d into these pleasures

Than I began to think of rhymes and measures:

The air that floated by me seem’d to say

"Write! thou wilt never have a better day."

And so I did. When many lines I’d written,

Though with their grace I was not oversmitten,

Yet, as my hand was warm, I thought I’d better

Trust to my feelings, and write you a letter.

Such an attempt required an inspiration

Of a peculiar sort,- a consummation;-

Which, had I felt, these scribblings might have been

Verses from which the soul would never wean:

But many days have passed since last my heart

Was warm’d luxuriously by divine Mozart;

By Arne delighted, or by Handel madden’d;

Or by the song of Erin pierc’d and sadden’d:

What time you were before the music sitting,

And the rich notes to each sensation fitting.

Since I have walk’d with you through shady lanes

That freshly terminate in open plains,

And revel’d in a chat that ceased not

When at night-fall among your books we got:

No, nor when supper came, nor after that,-

Nor when reluctantly I took my hat;

No, nor till cordially you shook my hand

Mid-way between our homes:- your accents bland

Still sounded in my ears, when I no more

Could hear your footsteps touch the grav’ly floor.

Sometimes I lost them, and then found again;

You chang’d the footpath for the grassy plain.

In those still moments I have wish’d you joys

That well you know to honour:- "Life’s very toys

"With him," said I, "will take a pleasant charm;

"It cannot be that aught will work him harm."

These thoughts now come o’er me with all their might:-

Again I shake your hand,- friend Charles, good night.

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Chicago: John Keats, To Charles Cowden Clarke Original Sources, accessed February 25, 2024,

MLA: Keats, John. To Charles Cowden Clarke, Original Sources. 25 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: Keats, J, To Charles Cowden Clarke. Original Sources, retrieved 25 February 2024, from