On January 13, 1820, Keats wrote to his sister-in-law, in America, ‘If you should have a boy, do not christen him John, and persuade George not to let his partiality for me come across. ’T is a bad name, and goes against a man. If my name had been Edmund, I should have been more fortunate.’
Whether or not this was true about John Keats, the principle is true about many other names foisted upon defenseless children, who grow up embittered by a real malediction, a name disliked. We can learn to endure our own features and our other limitations, but a name cannot be lived down, it is always being spoken or written. Who can say what an incentive there might be in Edmund? Who knows what elements of harmony contributed to make certain names famous? Possibly the sound of the author’s name, rather than his merit, has won fame for many a writer.
Coleridge insisted that a woman’s name should be a trochee. Is it, perhaps, by trochees that we measure the fame of Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Walter Raleigh, Philip Sidney, Francis Bacon, Robert Herrick, Isaak Walton, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, Robert Browning, Walter Pater, and many others? A man or woman named in trochaic dimeter will
Why did Keats long to be Edmund? There seems to be no special tradition of literary fortune among Edmunds. Edmund Spenser, of course, was the poet who gave Keats his first inspiration to achievement, and Edmund Kean aroused Keats to a profounder sense of Shakespearean tragedy. It would be easier to explain a preference for William. It seems to be an axiom that a boy named William will succeed in literature. Will was the name for a poet, in the Middle Ages, as Bayard was the name for a horse. In a rapid glance over the annals of English literature I have found twenty-seven Williams who have won lasting fame.
Keats said: ‘ We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us.’ With this quotation in mind let us consider the precedent of John in English literature.
John Gower was the great pedantic moralist; John Wyclif, the controversial first Protestant; John Skelton was tutor to Henry VIII; John Lyly launched Euphuistic platitudes; John Milton wrote Paradise Lost; John Bunyan, imprisoned, wrote an allegory (matchless, to be sure); John Dryden wrote two of the most childishly vapid odes in literature, for, in his own language, he was
John Locke pried into the Human Understanding.
It is easy to see why Keats did not care to be listed with the Johns.
His friends called him, affectionately, ‘Junkets’; and in this year of the centenary of his death, critics, interpreters, and readers have made amends for his John, for they have ‘call’d him soft names in many a musèd rhyme.’
There are, however, cases of real hardship in names, I fear for the future of a beautiful child named Jabez. Whatever he does, he deserves forgiveness. Harsh unmelodious names ought to be taboo. No human being should be compelled to wear, not only inherited features and tendencies, but also inherited names. Here in New England many a disposition is wrecked by the possession of some such Biblical ancestral name.
And then there are the classical names. Why torment a boy by calling him Achilles, or a girl by naming her Calliope? There are tragedies and comedies of names Proper, or otherwise. Think of being called, aloud, ‘ Poe,’ and think of surmounting this affliction by writing beautiful poems! Names have some occult influence over destiny.
Why did Cowley ruminate in the pastoral strain, in many of his writings? Was it not because he was Phineas, that Fletcher wrote his Piscatory Dialogues? What made Gay and Swift the fast friends of the Wicked Wasp of Twickenham? Is there a reasonable doubt of the suitability of the publication of Swinburne’s poems by Chatto and Windus? Why was ‘Fiona Macleod’ preferred by the man who wielded a critical Sharp pen?
The moral is clear. Even if a last name is unchangeable, a first name may be bestowed wisely. Give a boy a name that has no predetermined character, no conspicuousness; let him make it have individuality — call him John.