Mental Debauches and Manufactured Rags

Alexander Dick
University of British Columbia

Re: Keats’s 16 May 1817 letter to Taylor and Hessey

The subject of this letter from Keats to his publishers John Taylor and James Augustus Hessey is debt. Keats would return to this theme many times in his correspondence with his publishers. And why not? Contracts between writers and publishers during the Romantic period were notoriously gregarious, with each side constantly cajoling each other for promises of investment and guarantees of return. Keats had requested a short advance on his contract for Endymion and they obliged the poet with a note for 20 pounds, which Keats dismissively calls a “manufactured rag.” But Keats’s delight in receiving the loan, an obligation that will allow him to repay the obligations he already owes to others, is palpable. This strange combination of attitudes tells us something very important about the centrality of money, debt, obligation, and friendship to Keats’ poetics if not to Romanticism more broadly.

Debt had been something of a national obsession for decades by the time Keats began his poetic career. The steady increase in the national debt throughout the eighteenth century inspired a good deal of (mainly political) opposition. But things came to head in February, 1797 when a small troop of French soldiers landed at Fishguard in South Wales. Although the soldiers were quickly rounded up, fears of an invasion spread rapidly and frightened country farmers and merchants to take their paper notes to their local banks and demand gold, real money, as they were promised they could on each and every bill. The result was a mass financial panic. The Bank of England closed its doors and refused to exchange any gold for notes, an action known as a “suspension of cash payments.” That the Bank of England held no gold at the time (it had been shipped to the continent to pay for the war effort) was not mentioned. Intended to last about six weeks, the suspension actually went on for twenty-four years.

In the meantime, as I have discussed at length elsewhere, economists, politicians, journalists, and poets debated the relative merits of a paper money system, which Britain then had, and the gold standard, which Britain had never actually had but which was being devised as the most economically prudent and philosophically rational solution to the presumed fragility of paper credit and promoted as the “ancient standard of the realm.” The “bullion controversy,” as its now called, began in earnest in 1810 when a bill drawn up by Francis Horner, one of the founding editors of The Edinburgh Review and then a young MP, urging Parliament to lift the suspension of cash payments and allow the free exchange of coin and bullion to circulate in the banking sector and between Britain and the continent, failed to pass on the grounds that the existing paper credit system was necessary to continue the war. For the next several years, the debate waxed and waned without much effect. Whiggish political economists (like David Ricardo who began his writing career as a commentator on money matters) warned that “excessive” issues of paper notes would inflate prices on domestic goods and thus threaten the equilibrium of the “natural” market. But others, bankers and accountants especially, observed that the economy was doing quite well without gold anyway, so why should an arbitrary standard be imposed on it? Even during the agricultural crises that followed the victory at Waterloo, when bankruptcies threatened the very farmers who had sustained the credit system in the first place, the Bank and Parliament refused to lift the suspension. In the fall of 1816, a few months before Keats penned his letter, Parliament passed at Act of reform the silver coinage, which effectively turned all coins valued below 1 guinea into tokens and put Britain on a gold standard for the first time in its history. But the suspension continued until 1821.

It wasn’t the only suspension of cash payments that concerned the public. Indeed, gentlemen of Keats’ acquaintance had no trouble using and passing paper money unbacked by any metallic guarantee, as we have all been doing quite happily since the Nixon administration suspended the international gold standard in 1971. What really concerned the journalists and writers that Keats knew and read was forgery: through the later 1810s, hundreds of people were transported or even executed merely for holding forged, small 1 and 2 pound notes which even the Bankers themselves could not tell from “authentic ones.” Keats’ expression “manufactured rags” was a slang term for paper banknotes that also referenced the production of rag paper for making books. An anonymous pamphlet published in 1818, entitled Rotten Rag Manufactory!!!, subtitled, The Threadneedle‐Street Catechism; or Bank Bubble Exposed devoted four of its eight pages to railing against the Bank’s use of the courts as a way to protect its already engrossed and enfeebled financial system. It contended that the forgery crisis had been caused by “the common and cheap manner in which … notes are executed; by which any engraver’s apprentice may easily imitate them; thus holding out temptations to weak and wicked persons” and recommended that the only way to secure the currency against forgery was either for the bank to recall all small notes and issue instead “tokens, issued under the mint price” or, at least, for merchants to be allowed to stick examples of forgeries in their shop‐windows to show people what they looked like. Unfortunately, the pamphlet goes on, Bank clerks had taken to “collaring” any merchant sticking up forged notes in their windows on the charge of holding a forged note. Other caricaturists like James Gillray (in the 1790s), George Cruikshank, and William Hone depicted the paper credit system as itself “forgery” and thus, as Ian Haywood has noted, created in the public mind an equation between government finance and arbitrary injustice.

But other thinkers produced various theoretical justifications for maintaining the debt. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, believed that debt was essential to Christian faith. The Crucifixion was God’s gift to humanity and we are thus obliged perpetually in return for our salvation. Echoing Edmund Burke, Coleridge urged in his Statesman’s Manual and Second Lay Sermon (both published around the time of this letter) that the real arbiters of the national debt were not political economists but the Clerisy, clergyman and aristocrats, the keepers of the nation’s properties and values, and who, in turn, were owed the thanks (and tithes) of the whole population. Percy Shelley, of course, had no truck with Coleridge’s clerical standard, and though, like the radicals, William Cobbett, Thomas Wooler, and William Hone, that he professed to admire, he railed against the existing paper credit system, he did not endorse gold. Instead, Shelley believed in what I have elsewhere called a “poetic standard,” a consciousness of the need for symbols and metaphors to circulate universal signs accompanied by a concomitant awareness, known primarily to the poets themselves, of their inter-relations, complexity, and evanescence. Poetry, for Shelley, was the embodiment of an ideal system, one that was in constant need of reformulation, to which the administrators of economic welfare should appeal. This is why poets were “unacknowledged legislators.”

Keats’ allusive and effervescent manner in his latter to Taylor and Hessey makes the internal contradictions of the poetic standard immediately evident. Evading the demands of creditors—the ‘Dun’—as Keats imagines himself doing here is not a matter of substituting a fraudulent sign of value (paper) for a real one (gold), but of transforming one medium of exchange into another. The imagined myriad of fanciful weaponry, all of which he calls “scaly commodities” and which probably were meant to refer to the “metallic” defenses of the economists against the ever-threatened catastrophe that was the national debt. As Keats’ little allegory implies, the solution to debt, national and personal, is not metal (which is itself presented as farcically excessive) but the “Bank-note of faith and the cash of salvation.” In one image, Keats parodies both the fetishization of real value shared by liberal and conservative economists and the kind of religious justifications for the continuation of the debt outlined by Coleridge—which Keats likely would have known through Hazlitt’s review of The Statesman’s Manual published in early 1817. The promiscuously satirical tone suggests that Keats himself disdained the whole debate. On the other hand, as Rollins’ scrupulous notes make clear, Keats’ references to a panoply of chivalric romances, Spenser’s Fairie Queene (the “spring-headed Hydra”, Archimago, the Castle of Carelessness), the anonymous Amadis of Gaul (Urganda), Virgil’s Aeneid (Sybil’s leaves), Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast (“never ending still beginning”), Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift (“Sir Novelty Fashion”), and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (“Snail’s Horn”) and The Tempest (“green sour ringlets”), suggests that Keats saw a parallel between the structure of literary allegory and the magical substantiality of credit, a parallel that is also evident in his verse. But it also shows, perhaps more tellingly, the way that an easy familiarity with the national poetic canon, a sign of breeding, education, and class, represents a kind of exclusive knowledge that defines in turn Margot Finn calls the “character” that sustained young, indebted gentleman as they fought perennially with “the Dun.” This is Keats’ standard of value.

Nevertheless, the gentlemanly “poetic” standard, the paper-thin romance of both literary imitability and capitalist exchange that enables him to keep the dragons at bay also gives Keats a “swimming in the head.” But like Derrida, who in Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, and in spite of his awareness of the fictitiousness of money as such, argued that its “true” value is irreducible except to already circulating debts and gifts, Keats finds in his own contemplations on money and value an impulse or promise to carry on, a philosophical confidence that is at the same time a product of his own financial and intellectual embarrassment, to use Samuel Johnson’s definition of the term to mean “perplexity,” what Keats calls his “anxiety” or “mental debauch.” There is no “real” power in money, or even thinking about money, but all the same, the 20 pounds marks a “Progression,”—to leave Margate and go to Canterbury, to “remember” yet another literary personality (Chaucer), to see himself as a “billiard ball” (an image Rollins noted Keats probably derived from Hazlitt’s lecture “On Liberty and Necessity” but which is also a riff on Hume’s refutation of necessary causality), to complete his poem. The media of credit and obligation proliferate here, with only the nose-tapping understanding of its immateriality to sustain its real value. In his next letter to Taylor and Hessey (June 10), Keats would equate his need for money to pay his debts with “los[ing] his Maidenhead,” an image that conjures both the loss of innocence and the pleasure of sex. The letter concludes, “I shall be happy to hear any little intelligence in the literary or friendly way when you have time to scribble.” Gossip too is a medium of value, like allegory, friendship, romance, and desire.

So where is Keats at this moment? Like a banknote, it seems, Keats is nowhere and everywhere: he is perpetually in/between. He is the 20 pounds he receives from Taylor and Hessey which they in turn procured from their banker, who took in money from another investor, who may have procured it as another loan, or a banknote, or a bill of exchange… and on it goes. Like literature, like gossip, like a billiard ball, like money, Keats moves, Keats circulates. An intrepid traveller, Keats knows that this circulation is the meaning of his character, his experience the source of his value.

Eventually, debts would catch up with Keats. The “anxiety” Keats implies means both energy and fear. As well as his own obligation to Taylor and Hessey to finish Endymion (which clearly gives him pause), not to mention the various creditors he apparently relied on during his travels, including the landlady of the Bell tavern on the Margate High Street, Keats was worried about poor sales and bad reception and these did nothing for his straightened circumstances and, later, weak health. Keats also had the misfortune of an “expectation,” what Robert Gittings termed “the Keats Inheritance” a sum of more than 3,000 pounds that he believed was due to him from his grandfather’s estate, but which, because of its own vague wording and perpetual legal delays, the poet never actually saw. This did not stop many of his friends and associates—including Reynolds and Hunt—from asking Keats for personal loans and which, for the sake of said friendships, Keats was loathe to refuse much as he himself here and in the letter that follow repeatedly cajole Taylor and Hessey for loans and advances. In the years that followed excess credit became more of a concern for Keats. After reading The Cenci, a text that itself is replete with subtle references to the credit crisis, he warned Shelley to clip his outlandish poetical wings and “load every rift with ore.” But, as this early letter makes clear, Keats’ financial struggles and debauched reflections can help us explain the economic and political contexts for his vivacious and allusive style.


Works Cited

—. Rotten‐Rag, Manufactory!!!. The ThreadneedleStreet Catechism, 7th ed., London: Fairburn, 1818.

Derrida, Jacques. Given Time I: Counterfeit Money. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. U of Chicago P, 1992.

Dick, Alexander. Romanticism and the Gold Standard: Money, Literature, and Economic Debate in Britain 1790-1830. Palgrave, 2013.

Finn, Margot. The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture, 1740-1914. Cambridge, 2003.

Gittings, Robert. The Keats Inheritance. Heinemann, 1964.

Haywood, Ian. Romanticism and Caricature, Cambridge UP, 2013.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats Vol. 1, 1814-1818, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, Cambridge UP, 1958.

Letter #20: To John Taylor and James Augustus Hessey, 16 May 1817

As we’ve seen in the letters this spring, Keats has been on the move. When he last wrote to Taylor and Hessey (on 12 or 13 April), he had time (and paper) enough for but a “shabby affair” of a letter before leaving town. On 15 April Keats was in Southampton, from which he wrote to George and Tom (Richard Marggraf Turley’s response gives us an excellent account of what that journey from London to Southampton would have been like). For about a week, maybe a bit longer, Keats stayed at Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight, where he began work on Endymion. While there he wrote to John Hamilton Reynolds, and for that letter we have not one, not two, but three fantastic responses! (Allison Dushane’s, Rosie Whitcombe’s, and Victoria Rego’s). Feeling restless and a bit too solitary, Keats relocated to Margate sometime around the last week of April and was joined there by his brother Tom. They would not remain there for long either, but Keats did write more of Endymion during those weeks, as well as three letters that have survived: to Leigh Hunt on 10 May (response from John Strachan), to Benjamin Haydon on 10 and 11 May (response from Mike Theune), and today’s letter to Taylor and Hessey. And then Keats sets off again! He’ll visit Canterbury and then Hastings (where he first meets Isabella Jones) before arriving back in Hampstead by early June.

In today’s playful letter to Taylor and Hessey, we see Keats addressing a topic that will remain a source of anxiety in future years: “that spring-headed Hydra the Dun.” Debts and other money matters will only get worse for the Keatses going forward. But now we see how funny Keats can be while discussing money. At the same time, one senses the uneasiness in Keats’s inclination to spin a plan for an allegory of debt when intending to simply express his thanks to Taylor and Hessey. We can also see that Keats’s relationship with his new publishers is a fresh one from the simple fact that he fills only two pages in this letter, and even adds a post-script at the bottom of the second page, perhaps after realizing that he ought to at least attempt to fill the whole of that second page. In this case it’s probably fortunate that the third page was blank, since the hastiness with which the letter was opened left a whole the size of the wax that had sealed the letter. One supposes that the busy publishers were trying to get through their correspondence quickly and didn’t realize that they might be eliminating precious words from the epistolary output of John Keats! Come on, Taylor and Hessey! The KLP forgives and forgets, though. And we thank the Taylor family for caring for these papers until they were sold at auction in 1903. Amy Lowell snatched up most of the Keats items from that sale the next year and bequeathed them to Harvard in 1925. We reproduce the MS images here courtesy of the Houghton Library, and we direct you once again to Harry Buxton Forman’s 1883 edition for a printed text (Forman most likely relied on Milnes’s 1848 or 1867 edition for this letter, not having the MS available to him).

For help understanding the broader historical and cultural context for Keats’s comments on debt and money, we have a response from Alex Dick. He expertly sketches that context, demonstrates its significance for writers during the period, and close reads the letter for an articulation of Keats’s thinking on value, monetary and poetic. Enjoy!


“but here I am talking like a Madman”: Keats’s Capability for Negativity

Michael Theune
Illinois Wesleyan University

Re: Keats’s 10, 11 May 1817 letter to Haydon

Mid-May, 1817. Negative capability is still over seven months away. But, of course, according to the oft-told story of negative capability, the substance behind the term begins to take shape in a number of letters Keats writes prior to the December, 1817 letter to his brothers, including, most famously, the November 22 letter to Benjamin Bailey in which Keats discusses his “Humility and capability of submission” and theorizes the subtle yet pervasive power of “Men of Genius” (I, 184).

Aspects of the May 10, 11 letter certainly have been integrated into the story of negative capability. After all, many of the spring letters’ subjects and themes overlap with those of the December letter. There’s the overt Bardolatry: Shakespeare has become the “good Genius” and, hopefully, Keats’s “Presider” (I, 142). Additionally, there’s the enactment of this adoration through quotation, in both letters, of Antony and Cleopatra (one of Rollins’s notes to the negative capability letter reminds us that the exclamation “in sooth la!!” near the close of the letter comes from Antony and Cleopatra, IV.iv.8 (I, 194)). There’s also the presence of Hazlitt. In the negative capability letter, he is invoked via his term “gusto”; in the letter to Haydon, he is named and noted for being another lover of the Bard: Keats states, “I am very near agreeing with Hazlit that Shakespeare is enough for us” (I, 143), though, according to Rollins, the precise source for this particular insight from Keats is unknown.

There are, as well, as I will show, some deeper connections between the May letter to Haydon and the negative capability letter, and, as a result, I will argue, the letter to Haydon needs to be as closely considered as, say, the November 22 letter to Bailey for what it has to say about negative capability. Of course, it so far has not been considered in this way. This in itself is an interesting fact, and so I’ll use this response as an opportunity to think a bit about that, focusing on the ways that the letter to Haydon challenges some cherished ideas about Keats and negative capability.

Not only does Keats’s May letter to Haydon share subjects and themes with the negative capability letter, but it also shares some argumentative dynamics. In both letters, the genius of Shakespeare is praised in contrast to the work of a lesser poet: Hunt or Coleridge. The ordering of the argument is different in the two letters: Coleridge seems to be something of an afterthought in the negative capability letter while the critique of “Selfdeluder” Hunt serves as the occasion for the turn to considering the greatness of Shakespeare (I, 143). And yet, in each instance, Shakespeare interestingly arrives as a kind of eruptive epiphany from the midst of what is or might become a longer discourse, whether it be the “disquisition” with Dilke when “at once” the notion of negative capability happens to strike Keats (I,193) or the “long Confab” from which Keats manages to “desist” in order to turn his attentions to the satisfying plenitude of Shakespeare (I, 143).

In addition to the similarities of subjects and dynamics, there is one important additional link between this letter of May, 1817, and the negative capability letter: historical circumstance. The two letters were linked by John Dewey in “The Live Creature and ‘Etherial Things,’” the second chapter of his Art as Experience, which would inspire the work of the most important theorist of negative capability, Walter Jackson Bate. Toward the end of this chapter, Dewey clarifies his use of Keats’s quotation in his chapter’s title, offering this version of the relevant passage: “the Sun, the Moon, the Earth and its contents, are material to form greater things, that is, etherial things—greater things than the Creator himself made” (I, 143). Dewey uses (or, as I show below, constructs) this passage to show that Keats was precisely the kind of artist Dewey was trying to encourage: one for whom there was no distance between creaturely, participatory living and even the most ethereal creations of art. Dewey reinforces this view by linking Keats’s famous statements on humanity’s essentially creaturely existence—that just like “a Stoat or a field mouse,” man is a “Creature” that “has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it” (Dewey 32-33; II, 79-80))—with negative capability. Immediately following the above quotations, Dewey cites “Negative Capability” and then closes out his citation of Keats’s letters with a citation of a passage from the November 22 letter to Bailey: “Can it be that even the greatest philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections?” (Dewey 33; I, 185).

It was through Dewey’s Art as Experience that Walter Jackson Bate first discovered the term “negative capability.” According to Bate, when he was a teenager, on the advice of his father, who checked out the book from the local library, he read Art as Experience and so discovered the “mysterious phrase” (55). This intrigue turned into the work that became Bate’s undergraduate thesis, which was then published as Negative Capability: The Intuitive Approach in Keats, and which subsequently became the conceptual heart of Bate’s magisterial biography of the poet. Without Art as Experience, Bate may never have put negative capability at the center of Keats’s system of thought, and so draw volumes of critical attention to the term. And here, at this initiating moment, are joined not only Bate and negative capability but also negative capability and the May 10, 11 letter to Haydon.

Given the significant links between Keats’s May 10, 11 letter to Haydon and his negative capability letter, why isn’t the connection between these two letters more broadly recognized? Why, for example, don’t we think of this letter in the same way that we think of Keats’s November 22, 1817 letter to Bailey? Or, a bit more pointedly, why doesn’t Bate, who notes only that the negative capability letter “distills the reactions of three months to the dimension of thinking that had opened to him in September” (237), make provisions for this connection? The answer is: this letter is, or particular aspects of it are, embarrassing. Tracking the trajectory of the letter’s attacks on Hunt, which begin with the projection of “self-dissatisfaction” and then turn into “irritable smugness,” Bate himself notes that Keats arrives at a dismal endpoint:

Then with an unfairness and self-deception unmatched even in Keats until some of the wretched moments near the end, when he was fatally ill, he suddenly condemns Hunt for an ambition to which Hunt never aspired but to which Keats had been completely dedicated for so long, and especially with the generous encouragement of Hunt during the last half year. And ironically he is talking about self-deception. (165)

Here, it goes without saying, Keats reveals his great capability for negativity, and how very far he is from being negatively capable.

It is tempting to ignore or quickly turn away from this ugliness from the poet of truth and beauty. Bate does. Moving on from his discussion of this letter, Bate refers to it by a single descriptor: “cathartic” (166). But we shouldn’t. There is so much more to glean from Keats’s being mean.

The May 10, 11 letter is so much more than merely cathartic. It is, among many other things, also revelatory. In it, Keats admits to possessing “a horrid Morbidity of Temperament,” which he is certain is “the greatest Enemy and stumbling block I have to fear” (I, 142). Keats even goes so far as to say that “it is likely to be the cause of [his] disappointment” (I, 142). That is, if Keats does not succeed as a poet, it will be this particular aspect of himself that is to blame. However, fascinatingly, Keats goes on to recognize this aspect of himself as an advantage:

However every ill has its share of good—this very bane would at any time enable me to look with an obstinate eye on the Devil Himself—ay to be as proud of being the lowest of the human race as Alfred could be in being the highest. I feel confident I should have been a rebel Angel had the opportunity been mine. (I, 142)

This is not catharsis. This is reveling in deep self-understanding. Nicholas Roe, via the discussion of “morbid sensibility” in Hazlitt’s “On Mr. Kean’s Iago,” connects Keats’s “Morbidity of Temperament” with “the corrosive effects of personal ambition mingled with feelings of social disadvantage,” and defines it as “the rankling of a self-made young man who felt himself frustrated by the prejudice of others and hampered by his own self-doubt” (168). And, in part prompted by Roe’s insight, I think we should feel free to connect the above passage from Keats, and especially its linking the lowest with the highest, with his October 27, 1818 letter to Woodhouse. This letter, one as intricately tied to negative capability as the Bailey letter of November 22, 1817), introduces Keats’s notion of the “camelion Poet,” as delighted by “an Iago as an Imogen” (I, 387). Roe, however, suggests that Keats was trying to “overcome” aspects of his morbid temperament and so “be at liberty to create himself” (168), but it’s not clear in this letter that Keats wants to be free of that part of him which is a source of Luciferian strength. (Though Keats may later say that “[i]t is possible to write fine things which cannot be laugh’d at in any way” (II, 174), he also is clear that “there lives not the Man who may not be cut up, aye hashed to pieces on his weakest side” (I, 210). Everyone can be critiqued, sussed out and satirized. Everyone is, to use a term Keats will come to use repeatedly, smokeable.)

What are we to think about the fact that here in this letter with its close ties to negative capability Keats is celebrating his own dark side? I suggest the following:

First, it’s another helpful reminder that Keats’s relationship with negative capability is not as stable as it is sometimes thought to be. It certainly was not after Keats formulated it. Jean-Claude Sallé posits that though “[t]he [negative capability] passage provides so apt a formulation of Keats’s early poetic creed that readers have often been tempted to regard it as the definitive summation of his poetics,” it in fact is not “a permanent credo” but rather “a stage in the evolution of Keats’s thinking, as the definition of an aesthetic quietism which his growing skepticism eventually led him to qualify and relinquish.” And nor was the birth of negative capability without its complications. The May 10, 11 letter, we are given a clear picture of where negative capability comes from, and perhaps see what base material it is made from, how compromised it is, or rather, perhaps, how alloyed it is with this other aspect of Keats, this judging, critical side.

Indeed, secondly, it reminds us that, though it is rarely thought to be so, negative capability in fact has always been a critical term. When we think of negative capability, we tend to think of, as Ou Li succinctly characterizes the concept, “imaginativeness, experiential and artistic intensity, submission of the self, sympathetic identification, the dramatic quality of the poet, disinterestedness, a neutral intellect tolerating diversity and contradiction, and a tragic vision of human experience, all of which are intricately related to one another” (8). But of course the first thing that Keats does after he defines his new term is lambaste Coleridge. Though its substance might include submission and sympathy, negative capability is deployed right away as a battle cry.

Third, if the May 10, 11 letter revises our notion of the context of negative capability, then it also might prepare us to understand the concept in new ways. In particular, it might encourage us to take much more seriously perhaps the clearest and simultaneously the least-attended to contexts of negative capability: the Christmas pantomimes. What about negative capability is pantomimically playful, satirical, violent, socially fluid, and transformative? We’re fortunate that we won’t have to wait too long for an answer: critic Brian Bates already has presented a paper on this, “Keats’ Negative Capability: On Pantomime and ‘Irritable Reaching,’” at the 2016 conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism. When more widely disseminated, this essay has the potential to be paradigm-shifting in terms of the ways negative capability is understood. While I’m confident that Bates’s excellent argument will be persuasive on its own, there’s no reason we should not be ready to hear it.

If any of the above seems too much, too far, it leads us to my fourth and final point: even though we’ve come far in our understanding of Keats, engaging his embarrassment, his boyish imagination, we’re still to prone to clean him, and what he writes, up. In his October, 1818 journal letter to George and Georgiana, Keats says that “there are two distinct tempers of mind in which we judge of things—the worldly, theatrical and pantomimical; and the unearthly, spiritual and etherial” (I, 395). Our ongoing tendency to think about negative capability as spiritual and ethereal and not as worldly and pantomimical indicates this. Dewey did it. In citing the passage from the May 10, 11 letter that resulted in a portion of the title of his second chapter (“the looking upon the Sun the Moon the Stars, the Earth and its contents as materials to form greater things—that is to say ethereal things”), Dewey adds: “—greater things than the Creator himself made” (20). Thus, Dewey stops short of citing Keats’s full addendum to his so far seemingly sincere aesthetic statement: “—but here I am talking like a Madman greater things that our Creator himself made!!” (I, 143; my emphasis). Is Keats proud here? Proud as “a rebel Angel”? Is he critical of this pride? Is Keats here being self-chastisingly spiritual or deliriously, deliciously pantomimical? Significantly, we cannot tell.

Dewey opens the second chapter of Art as Experience by asking rhetorically, “Why is the attempt to connect the higher and ideal things of experience with the basic vital roots so often regarded as betrayal of their nature and denial of their value?” (20) Similarly, we should not wish to sever negative capability’s vital roots in Keats’s painful, powerful, rebellious Temperament as it is revealed in his May 10, 11 letter to Haydon. If we are to have negative capability, it must be as complex as if it were actually made from Keats’s complexities.

Works Cited


Bate, Walter Jackson. “The Endurance of Keats.” The Persistence of Poetry: Bicentennial Essays on Keats. Eds. Robert M. Ryan and Ronald A. Sharp. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

——. Negative Capability: The Intuitive Approach in Keats. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1939.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1934.

Li, Ou. Keats and Negative Capability. London: Continuum, 2009.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. New Haven, CT: Yale, 2012.

Sallé, Jean-Claude. “Negative Capability.” A Handbook to English Romanticism. Eds. Jean Raimond and J.R. Watson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. 187-9.

Letter #19: To Benjamin Robert Haydon, 10/11 May 1817

One can’t help but feel a bit sorry for Leigh Hunt when reading this letter to Haydon–the very day after Keats sent a friendly letter to Hunt, here he is in the letter to Haydon saying some pretty nasty things about Hunt! It’s Keats at his meanest and gossipyist. Hey, we never said Keats was perfect. However, as Michael Theune points out in his ambitious response for today, Keats does show remarkable self-awareness about his own meanness, his tendency toward a “horrid Morbidity of Temperament.” Theune also makes a compelling argument linking Keats’s negativity here with his more famous negative capability, the letter for which we’re all counting down the months and days until this December! We may be a bit partial since Theune is one of the KLP founders, but we find his response to be quite illuminating. We hope you will too!

On a more somber note, it’s worth pointing out that contrary to Keats’s wish at the beginning of the letter (“I pray God that our brazen Tombs be nigh neighbors”), they’re actually about a thousand miles apart. When Haydon received the letter in 1817, he underlined the phrase and wrote a note above it, “I wonder if they will be.” In November 1845 when Haydon copied the letter to send to Richard Monckton Milnes, he slightly changed the note, reading instead “Perhaps they may be.” On 28 May 1846, Haydon sent along to Milnes the original of the letter as well. And just over three weeks later, on 22 June, Haydon took his own life. Alas, his brazen tomb is in London, at the Church of St. Mary in Paddington. The gravestone has seen better days, the cemetery is not nearly as lovely as the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, and fame may not exactly be registered on the tomb. But Haydon and Keats nonetheless remain linked together as “heirs of all eternity.” Or at least some of eternity.

The MS images come from Harvard’s collection, and the 1883 Forman edition offers a good printed text.



Harry Brown’s Letters to his Friends: To J. K.

John Strachan
Bath Spa University

Re: Keats’s 10 May 1817 letter to Leigh Hunt

Leigh Hunt, as is well known, was one of Keats’s earliest patrons, and his first publisher (the younger poet’s sonnet ‘O Solitude, if I must with thee dwell’ appeared in the Examiner on 5 May 1816). Under the pen name ‘Harry Brown’, Hunt wrote a series of conversational verse epistles to his poetic and political allies, gossipy yet profound in their own way, which were published in the Examiner in 1816. These included tributes to like-minded friends, including William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb and Thomas Moore. He never wrote one to John Keats …

‘Harry Brown’s Letters to his Friends. Letter VIII.
To J. K.’

Today your letter, sent up from Margate.
A pleasure to read, and a change from the duns:
The midget, the gossip, and why you were late
In replying.  Your wit, your style, your puns,
Why my Junkets, if I might be so bold —
I’d not be lying to say that it stuns
Me to think it — but yes — the realms of gold
Await you, for the gifts that you’re sent.

But seize the day — for we don’t all grow old;
Your gift’s for so much more than the lament
Of Castlereagh and Prinny — and me in the gaol.
Your righteous rage at them — yes, it must be spent,
But there’s vintage as well as town ale.

Whate’er I write and whatever I say,
In Apollo’s assizes I’m bound to fail.
But you’re worth much more than mere today,
And when my wits the Tories bedraggle,
And when politics presses in, then I can say
That now of new poets there’s a gaggle —
Those young poets, of whom I can tell,
So with Apollo I’ll not haggle.

Why thank you, all the nymphs are well,
Oceanid, nereid, naiad, dryad,
The ones that came to me in my cell
Wafted me wheresoe’er — from the bad,
Beyond the motes of Bigotry’s sick eye.
They thought that they could make me mad,
That what I stood for — that would die
But liberty’s a thing that will not fall,
I’ll not submit to an empty lie.
You fight in your own way, against all
Who seek to deny a place in the sun
For peasant, for poet, for great and for small.

What little time we have, then we are gone
And utterance leaves us. — But you’ll live on,
A Poet more than other Men, dear John.



Leigh Hunt, Poetical Works, ed. John Strachan, vols 5 and 6 of Robert Morrison and Michael Eberle-Sinatra, general editors, The Selected Writings of Leigh Hunt, 6 vols (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2003).

Letter #18: To Leigh Hunt, 10 May 1817

The story of Keats’s early years cannot be told without considering Leigh Hunt, the indefatigable poet, essayist, and editor who, among other things, published Keats’s first poem (in The Examiner, before he and Keats had ever met in person), introduced him to the literary circle gathered around him in London during these years, and continued to champion the poet after his untimely death in Rome in 1821. Curiously enough, however, only two letters from Keats to Hunt still exist: today’s letter and a brief one from late in 1820.

In addition to this letter being the first to Hunt, it has another significant honor: it is, as far as the KLP knows, the first of Keats’s letters to ever appear in print. Thanks here go to Susan Wolfson for pointing out sometime last year to one of the KLP founders, who shall not be named for fear of the opprobrium that would surely be heaped upon him for his egregious oversight, that his assertion that the first Keats letters to appear in print were the two published by James Freeman Clarke in The Western Messenger in 1836 was, in fact, wrong. Hunt beat Clarke to it by 8 years! Ok, we admit–it was that dastardly Brian Rejack who made the mistake. For his crimes against Keats, his status at the KLP is currently under review.

Back to Hunt. It was in his 1828 Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries that Hunt published the greater part of Keats’s letter (he excised a few things, most notably Keats’s congratulations for Hunt’s recent Examiner essay, which he described as a “Battering Ram against Christianity”). The chapter on Keats was also one of the more extensive biographical treatments to have appeared by that point. It reinforced some of the elements of the narrative established powerfully by Percy Shelley in Adonais, namely that Keats was a delicate flower rudely cut down in his prime by harsh criticism from the periodicals, a narrative that we now know had more to do with Shelley’s own axes to grind than with the truth of the situation. One delightful detail from Hunt, whether it be true or no, we feel we ought to share here. He claims that Keats, as did Byron and Shelley, had a “head [that] was a puzzle for the phrenologists, being remarkably small in the skull.” Hunt adds of the three small-skulled poets, “none of [their] hats I could get on.” Who knew?

In today’s letter Keats does not discuss skull size, which is a shame. But the letter is a lively one, with Keats ranging across many topics, and with him seeming to be in particularly good cheer, an appropriate mood with which to meet his correspondent, Hunt being the great Cockney champion of cheerfulness. In that same spirit, our response for today comes from John Strachan, who imagines what one of Hunt’s poems from his series written as “Harry Brown’s Letters to His Friends” might have looked like if he had written one to Keats. Strachan certainly captures Hunt’s voice as he responds to Keats’s letter in verse. Enjoy!

Images of the MS come to us courtesy of the British Library. You can read the letter in Hunt’s 1828 book, or if you prefer a fuller text of it, Forman’s 1883 edition is based on the MS without any excisions.

The KLP Pedagogy Series Presents: Keats, Travel, and Aesthetics

[Today’s post is the first installment of the KLP Pedagogy Series, in which we feature student work, work about pedagogy, and other Keats-related things that intersect with some of the vibrant teaching happening in and around romanticism today. Our first author in the series, Victoria Rego, is an undergraduate student studying English and Creative Writing at the College of Charleston, where she also works as a writing lab consultant and has completed grant funded research on the intersection of Victorian Literature and Popular Tourism. Her short fiction has been featured in Bully, from KY Story, with more of her fiction forthcoming.

Read more about this series on our Pedagogy page, and contact us with pedagogy related ideas as you have them!]

Victoria Rego
College of Charleston

Re: Keats’s 17/18 April 1817 letter to J. H. Reynolds

Keats was twenty-one when he wrote a letter to J.H. Reynolds in the spring of 1817. It was the seventeenth of April and he was settling into his lodgings, newly arrived from London to the Isle of Wight, in hopes of making progress on his first grand-scale poem: Endymion. This poetic pilgrimage was, in part, an escape from the bleakness of London, that “jumbled heap of murky buildings,” as Keats refers to it in “O Solitude,” written only a few months earlier (line 1). True poetic inspiration, Keats believed, would require a different sort of setting. Rosemary Hill writes that William Gilpin’s idea of the picturesque was one catalyst that sent Keats to the Isle of Wight: “no matter how he might grumble about the Picturesque … Keats was following the routes prescribed” in Gilpin’s works (122). Gilpin’s essays on the Picturesque, published mostly in the latter half of the 18th century, distinguished between an everyday notion of beauty, and beauty that “please[s] from some quality, capable of being illustrated by painting” (3). Picturesque beauty stands, in many significant ways, in opposition to the philosopher Edmund Burke’s Beautiful, which was smooth, neat, and clearly composed. The Picturesque, in Gilpin’s view, was defined by roughness, crooked edges, and a look of untidiness. While Palladian architecture is undoubtedly beautiful, Gilpin argues, “should we give it picturesque beauty, we must use the mallet instead of the chisel: we must beat one half of it, deface the other, and throw the mutilated members around in heaps” (7). The Picturesque, originally affiliated with landscape paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, and JMW Turner, soon spread to many facets of English culture, such as landscape gardening. David Lowenthal and Hugh C. Prince, in “English Landscape Tastes” wrote that “landscapes are formed by landscape tastes. People in any country see their terrain through preferred and accustomed spectacles, and tend to make it over as they see it” (186). While landscapes can seem like something objective—it’s easy to assume that geography and the physical things that make up the natural landscape just are what they are, irrespective of human intention—what the Romantics knew best was that the human imagination is capable of reshaping any and everything. For this reason, popular writers of the time began to infuse picturesque sentiments into their poems and narratives. These writers soon found that this movement, inspired by the imagination, was readily transferable to linguistic mediums: “the picturesque tends always towards narrative, while the Beautiful and the Sublime depend on stasis” (Hill 124). The conflict between motion and stasis, imagination and reality, sublimity and narrative, is a central one to Keats’ poetry, one that relies on the aesthetic impulse, always, for its realization.

I was twenty-one when I made my first trip abroad to study at the University of Nottingham in the English midlands. For me, travel was a thing of novels: a place of escape in the imagination, not an actualization. Up to that point, much like Keats, I had never left my home country—had never even traveled to the West Coast—and had spent the vast majority of my days in the same tristate area. After my arrival in the Manchester airport, I took a public bus to Nottingham. It took over three sleep-deprived hours to arrive at the place that would become my home for the next five months. Amid bouts of exhausted delirium, I was in awe.

A view of the Midlands scenery. Photo by the author.

The midlands seemed to me a post card: the grass so green it seemed impossible, the effortless hills divided by low-lying stone walls that had compartmentalized the land for centuries and were here and there falling into a crumpled heap, weather-beaten sheep huddled in loose clusters, the sky a smoky blue that seeped into everything. It was both something I felt I knew intimately, but had never seen before—“Was it a vision, or a waking Dream? Do I wake or sleep?”

It seems that Keats felt a similar sentiment while on his journeys across the Isle of Wight. In his letter to Reynolds, Keats writes of a walk he took the previous day to Shanklin:

Shanklin is a most beautiful place—sloping wood and meadow ground reaches around the Chine, which is a cleft between the Cliffs of the depth of nearly 300 feet at least. This cleft is filled with trees & bushes in the narrow part; and as it widens becomes bare, if it were not for primroses on one side, which spread to the very verge of the Sea, and some fishermen’s huts on the other, perched midway in the Ballustrades of beautiful green hedges along their steps down the sands. (130)

Keats’s depiction of the Picturesque starts with nature: the “Chine” filled with trees and bushes” lined with primroses. His depiction ends with the modest human footprint: the fishermen’s huts and “beautiful green hedges.” Rosemary Hill writes that while nature in its pure state may be Sublime, “it could not be Picturesque: the Picturesque [is] a contingent state, secondary to the Sublime and the Beautiful” (124). While the Sublime is revealed in natural scenes which are unable to be fully conceptualized, thereby shoving mankind’s mortality back in the viewer’s face, the Picturesque opens up as something warm, inviting, and rich, exactly because of human presence. The Picturesque delights in human history and the stamp of human activity, although limited. Picturesque scenes, while primarily arising in the bucolic setting, no matter how “their creators strive to conceal their handiwork,” are always “inherently artificial” (Lowenthal 195). The Picturesque setting was just as contrived—whether through actual handiwork, or through the imagination of the spectator—as any landscape painting or pastoral poem.

On one of my weekend journeys in Spring, I visited Dartmoor, a place with a rich literary history. Among the desolate, mist-covered moors, it is simple to see why those from Devon might see themselves as a particularly superstitious people; their landscape has more than enough spaces which seem well fit for ghostly inhabitants. My guide took me to Buckfastleigh Church, a catalyst for Devonshire superstitions for decades.

Buckfastleigh Church. Photo by the author.

The church has been rebuilt and burnt down multiple times over the centuries, with the latest disaster completely destroying the church’s roof. On my visit, I wasn’t the only one there to admire the ruin: I saw locals wandering amidst the grave stones, gazing up at the church tower which seemed to me solid and formidable against the skeleton of the nave. I watched a magpie balance himself on an empty window tucked into a disembodied wall standing at the end of the grounds and separating the church from the thick forest around it. The walls were engulfed in a miasma of vines and lichens. The irregular heads of moss marbled tombstones poked out of weed infested grass. The place was eerie, but it had a beauty. Could this be called Picturesque? My guide told me that the place was popular for photoshoots, for weddings, special occasions, and films.

In his letter to Reynolds, Keats praises the beauty of Carisbrooke Castle. He writes: “I have not seen many specimens of Ruins—I don’t think however I shall ever see one to surpass Carisbrooke Castle” (131). Lowenthal and Prince note that “the ruin was a landscape feature especially favored by lovers of the picturesque” (196). The ruin unites the Picturesque with the Antiquarian, another sentiment favored by the English Romantics. When Gilpin wrote of ruins, he argued that they were, although not necessarily more beautiful than complete specimens of architectural master work, favored subjects by painters. The rough surfaces of ruins diffused light in a way that was easier to replicate in paint. While this could be part of the Picturesque fascination with ruins, even Gilpin knew it was far from the whole story. The Picturesque love of ruins can be understood in light of the movement’s philosophy as a whole. The Picturesque “proposed a reciprocal relationship between material reality and subjective experience;” between the physical world and the imagination of the perceiver. (Hill 121) The ruin is a physical manifestation of this reciprocal relationship—an object built by a past peoples, no longer serving its original purpose (whether secular, religious, or political) and having been at least partially taken over by the natural landscape. In his letter, Keats praises the beauty of the ruinous castle:

The trench is o’ergrown with the smoothest turf, and the walls with ivy—the keep within side is one Bower of ivy—a colony of Jackdaws have been there many years—I dare say I have seen many a descendant of some old cawer who peeped through the Bars at Charles the first, when he was there in Confinement. (131)

Keats admires the melding of the natural world with the world of human activity; he delights in seeing the Jackdaws overtaking the castle, and the ivy claiming its walls. Hill argues that the Picturesque relies on a “greeting of the spirit’ in which self and spectacle meet” (Hill 125). It is in the ruin that the human self and the natural spectacle meet and find aesthetic harmony.

For all of Keats’s ruminations on the landscape, one aspect seems to unabashedly steal his attention. When he gets to the waterfront, the poet seems to lose his words: “but the sea, Jack, the sea” (131). Although sometimes depicted in picturesque landscape paintings, the sea rests largely within the Burkeian Sublime. The attempt to capture the Sublime in language is a defining feature of Keats’ works, such as the Elgin Marbles Sonnets, his Hyperion poems, and Endymion. Throughout his short writing career, Keats struggled to find a balance between the impulse to capture the Sublime and a recognition of the impossibility of the task. However, rather than give up his mission to capture that which defies language, Keats struggles on, as in the sonnet, “On the Sea” that concludes his letter to Reynolds:

It keeps eternal Whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns; till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
often ’tis in such gentle temper found
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell,
When last the winds of Heaven were unbound.
Oh ye who have your eye-balls vex’d and tir’d,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea
Oh ye whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody—
Sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth, and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quir’d— (132)

In the sonnet, Keats prescribes the ocean as a soothe for those who are “vex’d and tir’d,” writing that a look at the sea will help one’s soul to “start,” will possibly reawaken the spectator. In his Guide to the Lakes, Wordsworth argues for a new category of aesthetic achievement, the “Tranquil Sublime.” Wordsworth believed that the Tranquil Sublime could be seen in the English Lake District. He argued that the Sublime had become synonymous with “enormity,” and so sought to recategorize aesthetic distinctions in a way more suiting to aesthetic merit. For Wordsworth, neither the Sublime nor the Picturesque were satisfying aesthetic tendencies; the Tranquil Sublime was his way of mediating between these two, collapsing the soothing elements of the Picturesque with the awe-inspiring grandeur of the Sublime. Keats was as skeptical as Wordsworth towards the Picturesque movement, and as Rosemary Hill notes, was vocal about his dislike of Picturesque tourism (122). However, regardless of Keats’ disdain for the Popular Picturesque movement, it is this same inclination to seek out picturesque locations that goes on to fuel some of his poetry. But his treatment of the Sublime element, the ocean, complicates the Picturesque. While the Picturesque is an aesthetic that revels in the traces of human agency in a beautiful scene, Keats’ treatment of the ocean in his sonnet is something contrary to this. In the sonnet, Keats writes that a person feeling the pressures of the world should “sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth, and brood / Until ye start” (line 13 132). Keats isn’t suggesting that one can either tame the ocean, or leave one’s mark on it; rather, he suggests that aesthetic pleasure comes from the contemplation of the object in its natural state. As in his Elgin Marbles sonnets, there is an underlying anxiety that something so beautiful can only reduce one to passivity. This possibility seems, at times, to haunt Keats. However, this letter and its sonnet reveal a reconciliation between the fear and awe inspired by the sublime and his tranquil appreciation of the Picturesque. Here, at least temporarily, Keats seems to find a kind of aesthetic equilibrium.

Endymion, the epic poem he starts on the Isle of Wight, begins: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” In his private correspondence, one can see clearly the joy he takes in beauty, whether it be Sublime, Picturesque, or somewhere in between. Perhaps this is something that made Keats, so scorned by the critics of his time, charming to many readers; his affection for the Beautiful seems at first so simple and genuine. However, it would be wrong to say his aesthetic impulse is simple. Keats is able to straddle these different aesthetic tendencies, recognizing their merit and pointing to their inadequacies, but eternally believing in the transformative powers of beauty in all its forms.


***This response was written for a class taught by Kathleen Beres Rogers at the College of Charleston. Below, she reflects on how the essay emerged from that context.***

One of the joys of my teaching career has been reading John Keats’s letters with my undergraduate students at the College of Charleston; often, our students work two jobs, struggle with young adult angst, and want their writing to “mean something”: in other words, Keats is a natural fit.

In the fall, I taught my usual Keats course with an emphasis on sympathy and the sublime; although I did give them some ideas for paper topics, I read their responses to our readings and suggested research based on their own areas of interest. In order to promote interest in Keats’s letters, I showed them some essays on the KLP page and suggested they attempt something similar. Tori, a philosophy minor with interests in creative writing, aesthetics and literary tourism, gravitated toward this particular letter and submitted this essay as her final paper for the course. It is undergraduate work, but that’s what (to me) makes it a compelling response to a young man attempting to find his own place in the world.


Works Cited

Cox, Jeffrey N., editor. Keats’s Poetry and Prose. W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.

Gilpin. William. Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty; On Picturesque Travel; and on Sketching Landscape. Cadell and W. Davies, 1808.

Hill, Rosemary. “Keats, Antiquarianism, and the Picturesque.” Essays in Criticism, vol. 64, no. 2, 2014, pp. 119-137.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats: 1814-1821. Edited by Hyder Edward Rollins, Harvard University Press, 1958, pp. 130-132.

Lowenthal, David and Hugh C. Prince. “English Landscape Tastes.” Geographical Review , vol. 55, no. 2, 1965, pp. 186-222.

Ottum, Lisa. “Discriminating Vision: Rereading Place in Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes.Prose Studies, vol. 34, no. 3, 2012, pp. 167-184.