Letter #50: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 31 January 1818

One thing that the letters from the last week or so of January 1818 suggest to us is just how many of Keats’s letters have been lost. We’re fortunate to have as many as we do, but even so, there are lots of hints (and some hard facts) that point toward letters that remain unknown to us. That is, we know about many letters that we don’t actually have in the cultural record. Yes, there’s always the vain hope that new ones will continue to crop up, but we’re on a 20+ year drought now! Come on, universe, send us some more lost Keats letters!

We saw back on 23 January that Keats wrote four letters, and, remarkably, all four still exist (even though one just in transcript form). Well here on 31 January 1818 Keats tells Reynolds that “I have parcelld out this day for Letter Writing.” And yet this letter to Reynolds is the only one still extant. What might have been the others? Keats ends this letter by writing, “I must take a turn, and then write to Teignmouth.” Presumably Keats did return to his task of letter writing after his walk, but alas, no letter to his brothers (then staying at Teignmouth) from this date exists.

Perhaps at this point you’re thinking, “but hold on a sec, KLP–what about that letter to George and Tom from yesterday? Maybe that’s the 31 January lost letter and it was just misdated?” Well, we’re glad that you’re paying attention, and it’s not a bad guess. Here’s the problem: that recently discovered letter has a postmark of 30 January. The Royal Mail doesn’t mess around. “But, KLP, I have another idea: maybe the Reynolds letter is misdated. It’s a transcript, right? Maybe Woodhouse got that one wrong. Yeah!” Well, gentle reader, we’re again very pleased at your attentiveness. But this solution doesn’t pass the smell test either. Yes, today’s letter is from a Woodhouse transcript, but he’s a pretty reliable copyist, and when he includes dates, he tends to get them correct. The other problem is that Keats notes “Hampstead Saturday” at the beginning of the letter. On his 30 January letter to Taylor Keats began with “Friday,” and even though he’s not all that good with dates and days, it seems unlikely that he would have written “Friday” on one of his letters and then that same day written “Saturday” on another. The more exciting conclusion: Keats wrote to his brothers on both the 30th and the 31st! The latter letter could still show up some day…

But for now we have just one for today. Much of this letter to Reynolds is devoted to sharing poetry with his friend, a practice that will continue in the next few weeks (get ready for “airy pigs” and “archangelical acorns” on 3 February!). Here we encounter Keats’s lyrics “O blush not so,” “Hence Burgundy, Claret & port” (sorry, Keats–but we prefer claret to sunshine, especially in this wintry season), “God of the Meridian” (sometimes consider a second stanza of “Hence Burgundy”), and then finally he copies his “last sonnet.” It’s this last text that’s the most famous of the group: “When I have fears that I may cease to be.”

And with that we’ll leave you to Keats’s poems amid his bits of prose. As mentioned above, we have the letter only in transcript form, which we include below.

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 31 January 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 31 January 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 31 January 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Keats’s Gelding

Arden Hegele
Columbia University

Re: Keats’s 30 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats

This is a recently discovered letter, exciting both for its newly articulated place within Keats’s manuscript archive and for its literary-historical value as it documents the poet’s vacillating emotions on the cusp of the publication of Endymion. The manuscript was found in 1995 in Louisville, Kentucky in the private collection of a family once acquainted with George Keats’s daughter Emma Keats Speed. Sold to a private collector for $70,000, the letter has since been republished with editorial commentary in Romantic Circles by Lewis Dearing (1998) and in Selected Letters by John Keats by John Barnard (Penguin, 2014). But while the text is a recent inclusion in Keats’s opus, the contents of the manuscript have been known anecdotally to the poet’s followers since the nineteenth century: Edward F. Madden saw the letter in Louisville and quoted from it in an 1877 article on Keats (361), while H. E. Rollins mentions this text as “lost” in The Letters of John Keats (Harvard, 1958) (I, 225n). Including this letter in Keats’s epistolary archive, then, satisfyingly resolves a century-long mystery about the poet’s vacillating state of mind as he revised Endymion for publication.

As the letter opens, Keats is revealed in a moment of vulnerability and self-criticism as he anticipates the reception of his first long poem, “which is I think going to the Press today.” The poet’s erstwhile ambitions of producing a quarto edition of Endymion and including Benjamin Robert Haydon’s chalk drawing of himself in the overleaf have been abandoned. “On looking attentively through it,” his publisher John Taylor “changed his mind,” preferring a cheaper octavo volume without the poet’s image, though Keats assures his disappointed brothers that “Haydon will take my Likeness all the same.” As ever, Keats is demoralized by money troubles—the £5 he encloses for his brothers should properly, he says, go to Charles Brown—and the publication of Endymion promises only the faint hope of pecuniary relief. “I am convinced now that my Poem will not sell,” he writes, but since others urge him to “hope,” he promises to “wait about three Months before I make my determination—either to get some employment at Home or abroad or to retire to a very cheap way of living in the Country.”

Keats’s lack of faith in Endymion’s financial prospects emerges out of the grueling project he undertook during most of January 1818 (Roe 206): correcting—or, as he says here, “gelding”—the poem before it went to press. Keats’s rhetorical choice here is perhaps the most striking thing about the letter, in its suggestion of the surgical removal of Endymion’s generative parts. (In fact, the poet’s reference to gelding is so unusual that all modern criticism of the letter engages strictly with this passage.) But does “geld” call back to the term’s Spenserian definition, “to mutilate a book […] by excising certain portions, especially objectionable or obscene passages,” as Lewis Dearing maintains (n7)? Or do we think, with Richard Marggraf Turley, that Keats wants us to consider the more familiar meaning of gelding, “to deprive (a male) of generative power or virility, to castrate or emasculate,” and that in its usage the poet calls up the “castration anxieties flickering beneath the surface of Endymion” (17)? Both significances of this charged term offer new insight into the poetry that Keats is producing at this moment—the register of Elizabethan retrospect and archaism inspires the first dated draft of “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern” enclosed in this letter, while motifs of sexual curtailment and “cold retreat” animate Endymion in its published form (Turley 19).

There is a third way of looking at Keats’s gelding: for its surgical valence, which attests to the lingering effects of his medical training on his literary practice. Anatomical dissection is a common trope of Romantic interpretive activity: consider the young Wordsworth taking the knife in hand and probing to the heart of the living body of society. But by enacting an anatomical intervention upon his own verse, Keats develops here an extraordinary register of editing as a violent form of self-surgery. The emasculatory significance of gelding reveals the poet’s ambivalence towards the procedure: this manuscript-mangling might be necessary to assure the survival of Endymion (at least, Keats’s friends thought so), but it also robs it of its most creative parts. In fact, Keats remained unsatisfied with his editorial intervention, and his anatomical critique persists in the fatal self-diagnosis he performs in the “Preface” to Endymion two months later, where he describes the poem as a “feverish attempt” and condemns this “youngster” to “die away” (147). Richard C. Sha captures the problem succinctly: “Keats’s anatomical training […] was a threat to [his] political and aesthetic stance,” and so it proved, as Keats had feared, in the reception of Endymion (227). Ultimately, his application of medical practice to poetic method would backfire: his appraisal of his own weakness in the “Preface” would set the tone for Endymion’s scathing, medically-inflected critical reviews.

But if the opening of the letter reveals a despondent and desexed Keats, its closing shows the poet revelling in the creative potential of sociable and sexual exchange. The gelded phallus is quickly restored in Keats’s transcription of Horace Smith’s bawdy sestet composed over dinner on a mutual acquaintance, Horace Twiss. An amateur poet, Twiss had a habit of inventing extemporaneous verse over the chamber pot, which Smith lampoons in a scatological investigation of “which flows out the fastest his verse or his piddle.” Keats’s delight in this double-valenced “spouting” recalls the puns on bathroom practices recorded in his letter of 5 January. His evident pleasure in the social occasions that inspired such effusions—especially the Immortal Dinner of 28 December, still in recent memory—leads the letter into more serious consideration of the potational practices of past poets. Introducing his new verses, “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern,” Keats tells George and Tom that “I was thinking of Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher and the rest who used to meet at the Mermaid in days of yore,” and the enclosed poem is a nostalgic reflection on another sort of Immortal Dinner led by the Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen at the Elizabethan watering-hole. The Mermaid Tavern’s status as an iconic site of literary exchange had recently been bolstered by William Gifford’s nine-volume edition of The Works of Ben Jonson (1816), which spread spurious anecdotes about “wit combats” between Jonson and Shakespeare (who was not known to attend the club).

For Keats, these myths of the Mermaid Tavern would strengthen his belief in the power of conviviality to inspire a deeper and more nuanced aesthetic range. This version of the “Lines” is notable for its minor variations, nearly all of which are comparative adjectives: in the poem’s 1820 published form, “Fairer” becomes “Choicer,” and “Richer” is amended to “Sweeter.” Keats’s evident pleasure in these verses’ lively and sociable language inspires him to close with a new optimism, as he advises “my dear Tom and Geo[rg]e” to “trust to the Spring” for the success of Endymion and an improvement in their affairs—an exact, whimsical reversal of his earlier doubts.


Works Cited

Barnard, John. Selected Letters by John Keats. New York: Penguin, 2014.

Dearing, Lewis. “A Rediscovered Letter by John Keats.” A Romantic Circles Electronic Edition (November 1998). http://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/keats/index.html

Dobson, Michael, and Stanley Wells. “Mermaid Tavern.” Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 291.

Gifford, William. The Works of Ben Jonson. 9 vols. London: G.W. Nicol et al., 1816.

Keats, John. “Endymion.” Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jeffrey Cox. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 2009. 147-239.

—. “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern.” Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jeffrey Cox. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 2009. 469-470.

Madden, Edward F. “The Poet Keats.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 55 (1877): 357-361.

Newman, Ian. “Keats’s Bawdry.” The Keats Letters Project (January 5, 2018). http://keatslettersproject.com/correspondence/keatss-bawdry/

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012.

Rollins, Hyder Edward, ed. The Letters of John Keats. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Sha, Richard C. Review of Keats’ Boyish Imagination by Richard Marggraf Turley. The Wordsworth Circle 37, 4 (Autumn 2006): 227-228.

Turley, Richard Marggraf. Keats’s Boyish Imagination. London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2004.

Letter #49: To George and Tom Keats, 30 January 1818

The second letter for today is one that has been known about for a long time, but not known in full until the mid-1990s. It was quoted from in an 1877 article in Harper’s by Edward F. Madden, who saw the letter in Louisville while visiting with Emma Keats Speed, the poet’s niece. It must have been some time after that visit that EKS gave the letter in question to Sally Fauntleroy Sears, who later gave it to her niece Juliet Fauntleroy. The rest of the story is really better told by Dearing Lewis, the nephew of Juliet Fauntleroy, who wrote about the discovery of the letter for Romantic Circles back in November 1998. We encourage you to visit there to learn about the letter’s fascinating history, and for the text of the letter.

Once you’ve done that, then you certainly need to read Arden Hegele’s response to the letter, which brilliantly takes up Keats’s comment about “gelding” book one of Endymion. It’s a fascinating analysis, one attuned to the multiple resonances of that term for Keats, particularly as someone with a background in surgical procedure. And let’s not forget about the fact that this letter includes some bawdy verses from Horace Smith about Horace Twiss (keep your Horaces straight, everyone). Hegele also makes excellent connections between this late-January letter and some of what we’ve seen from others earlier in the month. It’s a great response to bring January to a close!

For the text of the letter, we direct you, as above, to the Romantic Circles post from Dearing Lewis. Enjoy!

Letter #48: To John Taylor, 30 January 1818

Two letters from today, first one to John Taylor as Keats is in the midst of his copying of and revisions to Endymion. The main focus of the letter is a revision that Keats wants to make to a moment late in Book I. That moment is now famous because of the name Keats gives to what he devises as he goes back and elaborates this part of the poem: the Pleasure Thermometer.

In the poem the title character is attempting to explain to his sister Peona how he conceives of the nature of happiness. This lead Endymion to conclude that there are gradations of pleasure. And Keats in returning the passage and adding a few lines to it says this to Taylor:

My having written that Passage Argument will perhaps be of the greatest Service to me of any thing I ever did–It set before me at once the gradations of Happiness even like a kind of Pleasure Thermometer–and is my first Step towards the chief Attempt in the Drama–the playing of different Natures with Joy and Sorrow.

It’s a fascinating analogy for many reasons. Among them is the oddity that the Pleasure Thermometer itself is only one degree on the way to something larger. He seems to have come up with a thermometer to measure all pleasure that there is, but then he realizes that this metric is just one small piece of a larger project, which he’ll need to pursue further by writing a drama. As we all know, he never succeeded in “the Drama” in the way he hoped, but he sure did figure out how to write poetry that plays with the “Joy and Sorrow.”

In order to reflect upon this letter, the KLP has fabricated the world’s first genuine (rhymes with wine) Pleasure Thermometer. We call it the PT2K18TM.

The PT2K18TM in all its glory. Patent pending.

At press time KLP co-editors Brian Rejack and Michael Theune have just begun to experiment with this powerful instrument. They are documenting the results of various measurements (pleasurements?). So far we can share with you this exclusive finding: their pizza, topped with giardiniera and green olives (plus sausage for the savage meat-eater Mike), received the official PT2K18TM rating of … ONE KEATS. We don’t know what other results will follow on this marvelous device, but we shall keep you posted when more pleasures have been tested and the results analyzed. For now, enjoy these pictures from the initial findings.

Brian performs an initial measurement of his first slices.

Mike sees how the Cholula stacks up (which will adorn his pizza).


The PT2K18TM comes through with a solid reading. The pizza (with and without Cholula) was indeed one blissed out Keats mask.

For further pleasurements (we think Keats would be down with this neologism), check out the KLP next week!

And don’t forget about the letter, which you can read via Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition. We don’t have images of the manuscript, but the transcript in Woodhouse’s notebook is at Harvard, which we include below.

Transcript of Keats’s 30 January 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #47: “To any friend who may call” (on John Taylor), January (?) 1818

We’re running out of days in January, and the best guess for the date of today’s letter is sometime in January 1818, so we’ll go with today! There’s a lot we don’t know about this letter. We’ll count among the uncertainties that it was even written in January 1818. The note was acquired by Amy Lowell in 1903 when John Taylor’s descendants auctioned off his papers. She ventured a guess of January 1818 as the date of the letter’s composition, and no one else has made another guess since. Rollins prints it as the first letter of January 1818, but we’re guessing that, if it were written during that month, it probably happened toward the latter half of it. Here’s why.

The letter is addressed “To any friend who may call,” and it reads like this:

Mr Taylor’s Com pts to any Ladies or gentleman his friends who may call, and begs they will pardon him for being led away by an unavoidable engagement, which will detain him till eleven o’clock to night

In Richard Woodhouse’s transcript of the note, he prefaces it with this explanation: “Keats Persuaded Taylor to accompany him one afternoon to Hampstead & left wrote for him the following note–“. Woodhouse offers no date. In his notebook he copies this letter after Keats’s 10 June 1817 letter to Taylor and Hessey, and before the 23 January 1818 letter to Taylor (see image below). Woodhouse’s transcripts are not copied in a regular chronological order, but if the transcript’s placement before the 23 January letter is the justification for dating the letter to that same month, then we could just as well argue that we ought to date it to the month of the transcript that precedes it: June 1817. Keats was in Hampstead during that month as well, and he could presumably have visited Taylor during that month (he had, after all, asked Taylor for a loan in his 10 June letter). All of this is to say, we’re dating this letter as January 1818, but we have no real confidence in that dating.

Now, why are we going with late January instead of early? All respect to our hero, Hyder Edward Rollins, but there is some decent circumstantial evidence to point the letter toward later in the month. So here goes. Keats writes to Taylor on 10 January and apologizes for not seeing him for a while. If he had convinced Taylor to spend an afternoon with him in Hampstead at some point in the nine days preceding that letter, it seems unlikely that he would open the letter by apologizing for a long absence. We know Keats visited Taylor on 11 and 12 January, but there’s no evidence to suggest Taylor went to Hampstead on either of those days (and Keats writes to George and Tom on 13 January of being absent from Hampstead for the two days prior). Keats brought his first book of Endymion to Taylor on 20 January, but he also attended Hazlitt’s lecture at the Surrey Institution that evening (or tried to do so–he arrived at 8 pm for a 7 pm lecture). So if Taylor spent an afternoon and evening (“till eleven o’clock at night”) in Hampstead with Keats, it wasn’t on that day. Our supposition, then, is that the visit occurred sometime after January 23, when Keats had corresponded with Haydon and with Taylor about the prospect of having an engraved frontispiece for Endymion. Perhaps while still mulling the possibilities, Keats persuaded Taylor to walk with him from his shop in Fleet Street northwest toward Haydon’s residence in Lisson Grove, and then on to Hampstead where they could all chat further.

But alas, we just don’t know! Sorry, folks–the KLP demands of its readers a bit of that good ol’ fashioned negative capability. Now stop irritably reaching after fact and reason!

Keats’s Jan (?) 1818 letter to callers on John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.17). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Transcript of Keats’s January (?) 1818 letter to callers on John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

On “the Ripening of the Intellectual Powers”

Marc Palmieri
Mercy College

Re: Keats’s 23/24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats

I find this to be a most uplifting letter, one for a “writer for the stage,” (written by a poet) as it reflects on two activities I often look to in pitched battle with my own “addiction to passiveness.” First, Keats mentions a distaste for being “uninterested or unemployed,” states which happen to be two persistent companions to me in regards to “finding” a new play to write. One cannot be engaged in the making without first being struck by the idea that enthralls him – and the “change in intellect” that (hopefully) comes with it. In times of drought, and there are many, attending, reading, or teaching a Shakespeare play in my classes has often rescued me from these states – temporarily, of course, but sometimes long enough to ripen the intellectual powers to eventually grind out a new first draft.

In my experience, there is a great distance between two familiar states of a playwright – the first being life when there is no working draft, and life when there is. When in the latter, happier state, those colorful catastrophes Keats describes from his visit to the theatre’s bowels exist as longed-for agents of the play’s eventual realization, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. In life without a working draft under the arm, that kind of visit, for the playwright, can be a painful and lonely one. A little world of dreams and shadows where he had been a leading light, has no use for him now.

One might expect that reading the work of an immortal literary titan might just push a writer further into that passiveness he was seeking to escape. After all, what’s the point of me giving it a go now that THIS has been accomplished? Keats touched on this in his “Spenser! a jealous honourer of thine” where upon being asked to write a Spenserian poem, he declines out of flattening humility:

                …’tis impossible
For an inhabitant of wintry earth
To rise like Phoebus with a golden quell,
Fire-winged, and make a morning in his mirth.

But by sonnet’s end he’s up for it, at least once the weather improves:

Be with me in the summer days and I
Will for thine honour and his pleasure try.

Passiveness overcome.

It’s been three years since my last play premiered. I’ve tried, but can’t get past an opening scene. Now in my 48th winter, I’ve grown so much more accustomed to the idea of  my own death that I may not have chosen to sit down today with my copy of the great tragedy of old age for activating inspiration, but Mr. Keats has once again shown me how that Prince of Darkness can prove a gentleman.


Marc Palmieri is a fulltime core faculty member at Mercy College’s School of Liberal Arts in Dobbs Ferry, NY, where he teaches courses in Theatre, Film and Speech. He has taught dramatic writing since 2010 at The City College of New York’s MFA Creative Writing Program. Since 2006 he has taught Shakespeare, Modern & Post-Modern Drama, World Humanities and Dramatic and Creative Writing in CCNY’s undergraduate English Department. Publications include the plays: The Groundling, Levittown (NY Times Critic’s Pick), Carl the Second and Poor Fellas (all by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.). Marc has published fiction in Fiction Magazine, and portions of his plays in the anthologies 10 Minute Plays for Kids (Applause Books), The Best Stage Scenes (of 2002 and 2007 by Smith & Kraus Inc.), The Best Stage Monologues for Men (2002, 2007 and 2015 by Smith & Kraus, Inc.). He is also the author of the screenplays Telling You (Miramax, 1999), and The Thing (web series). www.marcpalmieri.com

Letter #46: To George and Tom Keats, 23/24 January 1818

And now for the fourth letter of 23 January 1818! Keats, after feeling “rather tired” and with “head rather swimming” from writing so many letters that day, finished on 24 January and sent it off to his brothers in Teignmouth. We hear again about the topic covered in the letters to Haydon and Taylor (the working plans for an engraving for Endymion, plans which never panned out). And we hear more about social tensions in their circle of friends. Keats notes that Leigh Hunt had read the first book of Endymion and “allows it not much merit as a whole.” Ever the astute observer of human behavior, Keats attributes Hunt’s huffiness to disappointment that Keats did not show proper deference to the elder poet and mentor. Keats did most of his writing away from London, and he did so in part to avoid the constant “dissect[ing] & anatomiz[ing]” that he knew Hunt would provide throughout the process. So now Hunt obliges after the fact. But Keats seems pretty unfazed: “But whose afraid Ay! Tom! demme if I am.”

More accounts of goings-on about town follow, including Keats showing up an hour late to one of Hazlitt’s lectures, whereupon he was met by everyone flowing out of the Surrey Institution. And then we shift to King Lear. This letter is perhaps most famous for its account of the sonnet “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” which Keats copies in the letter. He also wrote the sonnet (perhaps drafted?) in his facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. We certainly share Keats’s self-assessment of the poem: “So you see I am getting at it, with a sort of determination & strength.”

Keats’s sonnet, written on the page facing the beginning of King Lear in his copy of a First Folio facsimile.

When Keats returns to the letter the next day, his mind remains on the theatre. He recounts his visit to a “private theatrical” at an “oily place.” Keats managed to get behind the scenes thanks to his friend Charles Wells, and they witnessed “the oily scene shifters” and “a little painted Trollop” who says: “‘damned if she’d play a serious part again, as long as she lived.'” All in all, it sounds like a fun time! For a response to today’s letter we turn to Marc Palmieri, a playwright himself, among other things. He reflects from that perspective on what such a visit to “the theatre’s bowels” might have felt like for a playwright. We hope you enjoy it!

For the text of the letter, we point you to Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition. And we include the images of the John Jeffrey transcript (the only source for the letter) from Harvard’s Houghton Library.

Page 1 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 23/24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 2 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 23/24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 3 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 23/24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 4 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 23/24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).