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This report is taken from PN Review 252, Volume 46 Number 4, March - April 2020.

A New Source for Keats’s ‘Nightingale’ John Clegg
Musarum deliciæ: or, The Muses recreation, by the Cavalier poet Sir John Mennis (with contributions from James Smith), was first published in 1656, and ran to a few editions. It was not reprinted during the eighteenth century. In 1817, E. Dubois oversaw a new edition – by subscription only, since it is intermittently a very obscene collection, and incorporating two other mid-seventeenth-century volumes, Wit Restor’d and Wit’s Recreation. It is in this edition that I believe Keats lighted upon Mennis’s poem ‘The Nightingale’, sometime before beginning his Ode.

Where exactly he lighted on the book is a difficult question. It is mentioned in an interesting-sounding footnote in Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which Keats had certainly read. Alternatively, Leigh Hunt had a long association with Epsom – about which Mennis had written his most famous poem – and discussed its cavalier history in The Companion (‘A Walk from Dulwich to Brockham’). This was many years after Keats’s nightingale; is it possible, all the same, that Hunt’s interest in Epsom had begun earlier, that he was one of Dubois’ 150 subscribers, and that Keats had found Musarum deliciæ in Hunt’s Hampstead library? Mennis’s style, I think, would not have repelled Keats; I take it that what he objected to in Byron was the superiority of tone, the innate sneer, which he might have found in many Cavalier lyricists but not in Mennis. Mennis’s humour is much closer to Keats’s ‘Cap and Bells’, or the squib beginning ‘Give me women, wine, and snuff’; much closer to Rabelais ...


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