Letter #24: To John Hamilton Reynolds, September 1817

Today’s letter exists only in a fragmentary form. Presumably during one of the first few days of Keats’s visit to Benjamin Bailey at Oxford, Keats wrote to Reynolds to inform him of his arrival. In that letter he included these playful verses offering some initial observations on the place.

Keats’s verses on Oxford, from his letter to Reynolds.

This particular copy of the poem comes from Harry Buxton Forman’s 1883 edition of Keats’s complete writings. Forman got the text from a letter written by Charles Brown to his friend Henry Snook in March 1820. As you can see from the bit of the letter above the poem, Brown says he had just come across the lines for the first time in spring 1820, almost three years after they were first written. Brown may have seen them from the letter itself, probably then still in Reynolds’s possession, but to the KLP it seems more likely that he encountered another copy of the verses. Brown says nothing about the context on the poem provided in the letter.

So how do we know about this letter? Well, our indefatigable Keats-chronicler, Richard Woodhouse, made two transcriptions of the poem, and in his copies, he added Keats’s setup for the verses: “Wordsworth sometimes, though in a fine way, gives us sentences in the style of school exercises–for instance ‘The lake doth glitter / Small birds twitter’ &c. Now I think this is an excellent method of giving a very clear description of an interesting place such as Oxford is–”

One of Woodhouse’s two transcriptions, with the two-sentence setup for Keats’s poem.

Sadly for us, Woodhouse did not copy the entire letter. His transcripts are found not among his other copies of Keats’s letters, but in the two notebooks he used for Keats’s poems. Alas. At least we have these two sentences preserved from the letter. If we had only Brown’s letter as the source for the poem, the KLP would likely not be talking about the text as a letter.

Below you’ll find the two images of Woodhouse’s transcripts, courtesy of Harvard. For a response to this fragment of this letter, the co-hosts of This Week in Keats (Brian Rejack and Mike Theune) have been co-writing a poem in imitation of Keats’s imitation of Wordsworth, chronicling Rejack and Theune’s adventures in Oxford during a visit in summer 2015. The poem (and pictures!) will be forthcoming next week. Since the date of the letter is uncertain (and *not* because Brian and Mike are slow composers of poetry), we feel justified in delaying the response until next week. More soon!

Keats’s poem, as copied by Richard Woodhouse. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.1). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Keats’s poem, as copied again by Richard Woodhouse. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.2). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #23: To Jane and Mariane Reynolds, 4 September 1817

Today marks the beginning of a series of letters written by Keats during his stay at Oxford with Benjamin Bailey. Many of these letters are sent to members of the Reynolds family, including today’s letter, the first extent letter to Jane and Mariane Reynolds, two of the sisters of John Hamilton Reynolds (the recipient of several letters we’ve encountered previously–see here, and here, and here). During the summer Keats had spent significant time with the Reynoldses, as he indicated in last week’s letter, and including a dinner engagement with them just a day or two before heading to Oxford. As Keats departed for Oxford, the Reynolds sisters also embarked on a journey: they would be doing a bit of late-summer seaside vacationing at Littlehampton.

As we at the KLP are wont to draw attention to firsts of various kinds, we should note that today’s letter is the first of Keats’s sent to female correspondents. Keats himself will regularly note his anxiety about women, as in a letter to Bailey in July 1818 where he writes, “I am certain I have not a right feeling towards Women.” Some of that “not right feeling” is on display in the letter to Jane and Mariane, which is at times affectionate and playful, but at others condescending and mean. That Keats condescends in a self-conscious, slightly self-deprecatory way, however, only highlights his own awareness of his anxiety. So at least he knows he’s being a jerk?? But come on–be nice, JK!

Now, one other factor that may influence his anxiety: Keats has a co-correspondent here. At the top of this letter are several lines written by Benjamin Bailey, and later crossed out rather rigorously. Bailey was at this time courting Mariane, although it seems Keats did not know as much just yet. One wonders what Bailey had to say in his opening half of the letter, and how it might have affected Keats’s own part in the correspondence.

As can be seen from the images of the letter, it’s likely that Bailey wrote not only the few lines at the top of the page which remains, but also filled the first two pages of an adjoining leaf. Recall that Keats’s letters (as would have been true of other letters during this period) were typically written on four sides of two conjugate leaves of paper (or think of it as one sheet folded in half to make a mini-booklet of four pages and two leaves). So, Bailey would have begun the letter, filled the front and back of the first leaf completely, and then finished his message on the top of the second leaf. Although the crossed out lines are almost completely illegible, it seems to the KLP that after Bailey’s struck-through signature, we have a brief post-script that concludes with “Keats.” Thus, Bailey probably wrote something like, “and now I’ll turn things over to Keats.”

The KLP’s educated guess: Bailey’s signature, then just below it to the left, “Keats,” and then Keats’s part of the letter clearly begins below.

“Ah!” you ask, “but what happened to that other leaf??” Well, here’s the KLP’s best guess on that one. In a letter to George and Georgiana in early 1819, Keats explains how the Bailey-Mariane Reynolds drama unfolded: Mariane had rejected a proposal from Bailey sometime in late 1817 or early 1818, but Bailey asked her to give it more thought and reconsider. Meanwhile, having left London after obtaining a curacy at Carlisle, Bailey proceeded to fall in love with a Miss Hamilton Gleig, the sister of one of Bailey’s Oxford classmates. He thereby withdrew his proposal to Mariane, returned her letters and asked for his from her. (Incidentally, Bailey’s conduct in this matter led to the end of his friendship with most of the circle around the Reynoldses. Way to go, Bailey.) Presumably this letter was one of those which Mariane did indeed return to Bailey. After Keats’s death, when Bailey provided much of his correspondence with Keats to John Taylor, he presumably removed the first leaf, crossed out the few lines on the top of the remaining leaf, and sent it on its way. Most of the papers in Taylor’s possession remained in the family until they were sold at auction in 1903 to Bernard Quaritch, soon thereafter purchased by Amy Lowell, and then ultimately bequeathed to Harvard. This letter, however, took a slightly different route, having entered into the possession of a Boston-based collector named William E. Benjamin sometime before March 1886, when he sold it to James R. Osgood. After a few more sales, it eventually wound up with Arthur Houghton, who presented the letter to Harvard.

A final intriguing tidbit: Hyder Edward Rollins notes in his edition of the letters that Bailey’s crossed out lines “fail to reveal their secret to ultra-violet photography.” First, how cool that he (or someone) tried to do so. Second, what additional tools exist now that might be brought to bear on revealing the secret to us? If any DH practitioners want to take a stab at it, please be our guest!

Ok, now comes our admission of guilt… the KLP is a bit “behind hand” with our correspondence right now, as Keats would be at various times. If Keats can fall behind, then we figure we’re allowed some wiggle room too. But fear not, an excellent response from Lauren Neefe is on the way! Once the KLP editorial team catches up again, we’ll have it posted for your reading pleasure. For now, see if you can figure out what Bailey crossed out! Here are the images, courtesy of Houghton Library at Harvard.

Page 1 of Keats’s 4 Sept 1817 letter to Jane and Mariane Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.10). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 4 Sept 1817 letter to Jane and Mariane Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.10). Houghton Library, Harvard University.