Today’s letter consists mostly of Keats’s poem, “Dear Reynolds, as last night I lay in bed.” As such, we’ll let the poem speak mostly for itself! There are plenty of places where you can find it. Harry Buxton Forman prints it in his 1895 edition of the letters (as well as in his editions of the poems, such as the 1883 here). Included below you can find Richard Woodhouse’s transcript of the poem and the bit of prose that follows it. (Note that one sentence at the end of the prose section is written in shorthand!)
Editor’s Note: As part of the KLP’s ongoing pedagogy initiatives, one of the KLP co-founders, Brian Rejack, has been working with some of the students in his undergraduate romanticism course this semester to have students research individual letters and write introductory posts for the letters. Today, the first of five such posts scheduled to appear over the next few weeks comes from ISU students Amanda Peters and Ricky King. Enjoy!
Amanda Peters & Ricky King (Illinois State University)
Regular readers of the KLP will know we love firsts. The recipient of today’s letter is not one of the more frequent correspondents, such as John Hamilton Reynolds, or George and Tom Keats. Nope, today we have instead the first letter to James Rice. It is not surprising that Keats would write a letter to Rice, given that they were quite good friends. What is surprising is that more letters weren’t written to Rice, given the nature of their friendship. Only four total letters to Rice exist. One more will come up later this year, in late November just one week before Tom’s death. The two others to Rice appear in December of 1819 and February 1820.
It was well before this point when Keats was first introduced to James Rice. He was a lawyer, like Reynolds, the mutual friend who brought Rice and Keats together. Rice was also a member of the literary society known as the Zetosophian Society, in which Reynolds and Benjamin Bailey were also involved. Although it comes long after the writing of today’s letter, we can gather an idea of the high esteem in which Keats held Rice from the long journal letter to George and Georgiana from 17-27 September 1819, written after Keats had spent a month with Rice on the Isle of Wight in July. Keats tells of visiting Rice in London soon after their stay in Shanklin:
I was out and every body was out. I walk’d about the Streets as in a strange land–Rice was the only one at home–I pass’d some time with him. I know him better since we have liv’d a month together in the isle of Wight. He is the most sensible, and even wise Man I know–he has a few John Bull prejudices; but they improve him. His illness is at times alarming. We are great friends, and there is no one I like to pass a day with better.
Although they may not have exchanged many letters, it seems as though Keats nonetheless relished the company and companionship of his sensible friend. Indeed, it seems that just a few weeks after today’s letter, Rice joined Keats in Teignmouth, because he gave Keats a copy of Mateo Aleman’s picaresque tale, Guzman de Alfarache. Rice inscribed the book with this message: “John Keats / From his Friend / Js Rxxx / 20th April 1818.” Like so many Keats materials, this gift from Rice now resides at Harvard’s Houghton Library.With regards to the provenance of this letter, it’s one we’ve covered before. The estate of Keats’s publisher, John Taylor, was sold at Sotheby’s in 1903. Many of the Keats-related items were purchased by Bernard Quaritch on behalf of Amy Lowell. Bernard Alexander Christian Quaritch was a German-born bookseller and collector. He relocated to London in 1840s to pursue bookselling and ultimately began a business in the same decade. Following his death towards the end of the nineteenth century, his son, Bernard Alfred Quaritch, continued the bookselling legacy, eventually collecting some of Keats’s letters. Quaritch, it seems, acted as a purchaser on behalf of Amy Lowell at the sale of the Taylor estate in 1903. (The Quaritch business still exists today– you can read about the company and its history here: https://www.quaritch.com/about/our-history/.)
While we’ve mentioned Amy Lowell before, let’s devote a bit more space to her today, given that she was and forever will be a true Friend of Keats. She was a poet herself, who, like many poets of the latter half of the nineteenth century, looked to the English Romantics for inspiration and guidance. She happened to gain an affinity towards Keats, and over the course of many years she managed to acquire a pretty sizable collection of manuscripts of Keats’s letters and poems (including today’s letter to Rice). Her writing career was bookended in a way by Keats: her first volume of poetry, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, took its title from Shelley’s elegy for Keats, Adonais; and one of Lowell’s last works was her biography of Keats, published in 1925.
But to the letter itself. It takes some interesting turns as Keats discusses Milton. Apparently Milton “came into these parts” around the time he wrote “his Answer to Salmasius” (also know as Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, published in 1651). Keats hears about a meadow in which Milton “rolled himself, for three whole hours.” As a result, “in all the seven acres for seven years,” according to Keats’s informant, “not a nettle sprang up.” However, Milton’s rolling was said to have created “a new sort of plant,” a “white thorn” that is “of a thornless nature”. These white thorns are used by “the Bucks of the present to rap their Boots withall.” The Oxford English Dictionary helps us by explaining that at the time Keats wrote this letter a “Buck” would refer to “A gay, dashing fellow; a dandy, fop, ‘fast’ man.” Keats is himself being a bit of a gay and dashing fellow with his playful speculations on Milton’s long-lasting effects on a meadow in Devon.
Keats turns a bit more serious as he goes into a discussion of the scholarly debate between Milton and Salmasius, which then leads him into a broader contemplation about the difficulty of intellectual labor. The struggle he identifies is that the our thoughts are always restless. He writes, “What a happy thing it would be if we could settle our thoughts, make up our minds on any matter in five minutes and remain content.” Keats continues to compare the disharmony caused by a restless mind and whether or not it is better than having a rested (but limited) mind, using a wonderful extended metaphor of the mind as a “mental Cottage.” Eventually he arrives at the necessity of unsettled thoughts, as Keats discusses how he cannot rest his mind because of his attraction to the “Loadstone Concatenation.” This magnetic force does not allow Keats to cannot rest his mind because he can’t ignore his thoughts, which are endlessly led on in an unbroken and unending chain of associations.
Keats’s concatenation of thoughts continues as he ponders the question, “‘Did Milton do more good or ha[r]m to the World?”. His joke revolves around the idea that just as the vastness of our universe is composed of “the same quantity of matter,” there must have been “a certain portion of intellect” assigned to the universe at creation. But Milton, with all his impressive intellectual “gormandizing,” might not have left anything for the rest of us to eat! Oh well. We daresay Keats’s own intellectual playfulness, here and elsewhere, proves that a few scraps were leftover after Milton had his feast.
Back on 18 March, Keats received a letter from George, who’d now been back in London for a week or so. George informed John that the publishers of Endymion, John Taylor and James Augustus Hessey, had made good progress in printing the poem. According to George, Charles Brown had also conveyed the message that they needed more fair copy to keep up their progress: “Brown has I understand written to you and given you the pleasant information that the printer’s are in immediate want of the Fourth book and preface–By the time you have received this I have no doubt but T & H will have received them.” George wasn’t quite correct with that last prediction, even though Keats had finished copying Book IV by at least 14 March, and he had written his preface on 19 March. It seems George’s letter was the final prod he needed to get his act together.
So it was that the MS of Keats’s fourth book of Endymion traveled by mail coach from Teignmouth to Exeter and on to London. If you’d like a sense of the route it may have taken, there’s lots of good information in Richard Marggraf Turley’s piece from last April, “Keats Underway.” If you really want to get in the weeds, you can study Cary’s New Itinerary (1819), which provides, as its title page says, “An Accurate Delineation of the Great Roads, Both Direct and Cross throughout England and Wales.” The images below come from a similar guide, A New and Accurate Description of all the Direct and Principal Cross Roads in England and Wales, by Daniel Paterson. They give some sense of the general path Endymion followed. Good thing the coach arrived safely with its precious cargo!
As usual, the letter can be read from Forman’s 1895 edition of the letters. The manuscript is owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum. No images as of yet–sorry ’bout that!
It seems the constant rain in Devon leads Keats to summon up his fair share of jokes. He continues ragging on the county and its weather, telling Haydon, “I have blown up said County for its urinal qualifications.” He also includes two silly poems (“For there’s Bishop’s teign” and “Where be ye going you devon Maid”). And then there’s the letter’s final passage, which we include in full here:
It’s a wonderful notion, coming up with “fine things” that have been ruined for him by their association with people he’s not overly fond of. Here one imagines how well Keats might have done if he ever took up writing for periodical magazines, writing funny essays à la Charles Lamb’s Elia on a topic such as this one. (Or if Keats were alive today, coming up with examples of fine things damned by their connection with the wrong people would make for an ideal Buzzfeed listicle!)
Hazlitt, of course, would be another appropriate comparison along these lines. And an interesting shift happens in Keats’s list when he arrives at the prose stylist whom he so admired. The Hazlitt examples are obviously offered up ironically (“how durst the Man” ruin bigoted people for Keats?!). We suspect the shift happens because Hazlitt was known for his ability to damn with harsh criticism. In the language of today’s social media environment, one could imagine Hazlitt “eviscerating” his fair share of targets with his sick burns and vicious twitter clapbacks (claps back?). There’s some confusing about what Keats intended with his last thought. You’ll notice above that Forman has this: “if ever I am damn’d–damn me if I shouldn’t like him to damn me.” In the manuscript of the letter, which you can see below, the text read as “damn me if” has been scratched out. So is Keats wishing to be damned by Hazlitt, or to avoid that fate? Seems like he could probably go either way. If you’re gonna be damned, might as well be damned by the best!
To read the letter in full, you can head over to Forman’s 1895 edition (there dated 23 Mar, based on the postmark; Keats’s “Saturd–Morn,” at the letter’s opening, would have been 21 Mar). Or for the scripturally-inclined, feel free to read from the images of the MS, courtesy, as usual, of Harvard’s Houghton Library.
University of Notre Dame
Re: Keats’s 14 March 1818 letter to J. H. Reynolds
To JH Reynolds
Today I’m going to go to a sci-fi movie in the middle of the day. It’s about a zone where toxins speak in flowers. In that it’s like poetry.
Yesterday I watched a sci-fi movie about a robot who gives birth to a daughter. They find the mother’s bones buried in a box underground. They find the daughter in a bubble. One man is a robot, the other is human. Or the other way around. Or they’re both robots, both bounty hunters, both killers/lovers, both caught up in memories that may not be their own. They’re both foreigners, of course, immigrants. They don’t have soul, they don’t have children, their children are dead. Ditto 4 ditto 5. My point is: they walk up the stairs to the temple in which the daughter lives in a bubble and one of them dies on the stairs while the snow confetties down on him like poetry. While the other man enters the temple like in poetry.
One of them carries a little wooden horse in his memory.
The other carves a little wooden horse for his daughter.
Being a lover of antiquities, I imagined myself as both the man expiring in the snow and the man who gets to see his daughter – not speak to her mind you but to raise his hand and see her inside the bubble – and I imagined that they might be the same person, that the film couldn’t decide whether he would die or see his daughter. But then being a lover of antiquities, it seemed to me that they were indeed the same person and the daughter was dead and only by dying in the snow – which as I mentioned is like poetry – could the man see his daughter.
This science fiction and its sympathetic moisture: You have the sensation of betrayal.
You have the sensation of bleeding from the fingernails.
You have the sensation of ashes.
You have a small wooden horse of your own in science fiction.
Being a lover of antiquities, I imagine myself inside a science fiction as a kid of Betrayer. Inside the science fiction the green is beautiful as they say and pity it is that it is amphibious. I am amphibious inside the science fiction of flowers.
The science fiction of flowers: The Betrayer copies his fourth book and writes a preface. It’s all done. His mind is free for something new. For a little innocent bit of Metaphysic. He copies the fifth book from the Metaphysic of Innocence. He can’t find his money. His coins, his bills. He can’t find his daughter inside a temple that is like poetry: pretty cliffs, pretty Brooks, pretty Meadows, pretty trees. The green is amphibious in this science fiction film about poetry. The toxins killed his daughter. Or poetry killed his daughter. His daughter killed science fiction in my innocent head.
In a little innocent bit of Metaphysics in my head, in my temple of art, in my poem, in my science fiction film about memory, about snow (how it confetties, how it covers up my torso, which is bleeding from the fight, how it lands in my beard and on my lips), about a dead daughter inside a bubble, I’ll cut all sick people.
I’ll cut you.
I’ll go to the Theater and put a pebble in Your Mouth.
I’ll cut you.
I’ll cream you, I’ll clot you, I’ll sick-people you, I’ll tumble you, I’ll amphibian you, I’ll entertain you with cavalries sick people, I’ll dash you in your Country, I‘ll subject you to a sympathetic moisture, I’ll mouth you, I’ll harbor you in several houses, I’ll insult you at poor Jem Rice’s, I’ll look at you with a longing eye, I’ll forget to tell you that I’m a sweetheart, I’ll sweetheart you in the future, I’ll future you in Town, I’ll redress you with seasonable weather, I’ll direct you to Oxford, I’ll forget you in Oxford, I’ll summer you at the Bonnet Shop, I’ll weather you full of invention in the Bonnet Shop, I’ll write you a virgin and repent you, I’ll wing you and fly you to Nova Scotia, I’ll wish you to a favorite tune, I’ll know you have long taken it for granted, I’ll never you with speculations, I’ll nature you in places that I haunt the most, I’ll nature you in cavalries and clotted theaters, I’ll nature you with immense-other-nights, I’ll immense-other-night you with long letters, I’ll see you written in the air above you, I’ll remember you like an affectionate friend, I’ll john-keats you in Christ’s Hospital, London, March 14, 1818.
Laura R. Kremmel
South Dakota School of Mines & Technology
Re: Keats’s 14 March 1818 letter to Reynolds
In this letter, Keats playfully dodges the forces of nature (being “blown over and blown under”) but also harnesses those forces by evoking a name associated with one of the most controversial literatures of the time.
He writes, “for I am going among scenery whence I intend to tip you the Damosel Radcliffe—I’ll cavern you, and grotto you, and water-fall you, and wood you, and water you, and immense-rock you, and tremendous-sound you, and solitude you” (100).
The Romantic poets were of two minds about the Gothic: their opinions were inconsistent, and that inconsistency showed up in their poetry as much as in their criticism. The older Romantics, such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, were not shy in offering their disapproval of the trash lit of the day, which they claimed could be a dangerous influence on readers and a corrupting one on poetry. At the same time, they envied the popularity of the Gothic, all trying their hands at Gothic elements within their own work (though they would never admit it). The younger poets—Keats and Shelley, for example—were less cautious and mixed admiration with their frequent ridicule of what was—by its own admittance—an often-ridiculous literature. One Gothic writer who seemed to escape the mockery the rest of them faced was Ann Radcliffe, who championed rationality at the same time that her characters swooned over ghostly shadows and mysterious noises. Her work may have produced the same effects of supernatural tales, but they essentially warned of the dangers of superstition.
In “Superstition: An Ode,” a poem embedded in A Sicilian Romance (1809), Radcliffe writes:
Enthron’d amid the wild impending rocks,
Involv’d in clouds, and brooding future woe,
The demon Superstition Nature shocks,
And waves her Sceptre o’er the world below. (71)
Keats, then, gives Radcliffe an appropriate introduction, with a reference to being unable to “cosset your superstition.” This, after mentioning an accident dealing with parapets and falling objects (a “chimney-pot”). Both of these are classic, dangerous elements of the Gothic, particularly the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, in which a giant helmet falls from the sky and crushes a young man within the first chapter. When the Gothic wind is blowing, balconies and falling objects are no joke. Keats’s lively tone might seem antithetical to discussing the literature of the dead, but he keenly replicates the spirit of the Gothic tradition and its sinister flippancy, at once dire and disturbing, but also humorous and kitsch.
As the Gothic writers have a reputation—rightfully-earned, in some cases—for prioritizing content over quality, it makes perfect sense that Keats would select one of the writers most respected for her writing. While other Gothic writers might have been more innovative, they were far more erratic, to be admired with caution by one such as Keats. Radcliffe was one he could satirize and admire all at once, credited with both rationality and craft. In fact, he would later refer to her in a letter to George Keats on February 14, 1819: “In my packet I shall send you the Pot of Basil, St. Agnes eve, and if I should have finished it a little thing called ‘Eve of St. Mark’–you see what fine Mother Radcliffe names I have–it is not my fault–I did not search for them” (286). She was clearly an influence on his work.
The first thing to notice in Keats’s list of Radcliffean noun-verbs is the performative act of nature upon the reader by the writer. It’s a playful inundation of pastoral and passive objects that Radcliffe uses to such excess that they become active, sometimes taking over the narrative for both characters and readers. The natural, untouched by human corruption, influences the minds of Radcliffe’s heroines the most, calming them or oppressing them, often bolstering their grief and sensibilities. So, to do any of these natural forms to someone is to do quite a lot to them. And, in Radcliffe, part of the active force of these scenes is in the pain-staking (sometimes pain-ful) detail. Here’s a snippet from The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794):
The aspect of the country now began to change, and the travelers soon found themselves among mountains covered from their base nearly to their summits with forests of gloomy pine, except where a rock of granite shot up from the vale, and lost its snowy top in the clouds. The rivulet, which had hitherto accompanied them, now expanded into a river; and, flowing deeply and silently along, reflected as in a mirror, the blackness of the impending shades. Sometimes a cliff was seen lifting its bold head above the woods and the vapours, that floated mid-way down the mountains; and sometimes a face of perpendicular marble rose from the water’s edge, over which the larch threw his gigantic arms, here scathed with lightning, and there floating in luxuriant foliage. (38-39)
And so it goes on. Keats’s line in his letter refers to the many passages like this: dramatic but indistinct. Many of Keats’s words are appropriately generalized terms, particularly the hyphenated ones, and are easily seen in passages like the one above (wood, water, immense-rock, and, if I had continued, the next Radcliffe lines are of solitude). Yet, curiously, Jane Stabler claims that many of these words (grotto and waterfall, in particular) were never included in any of Radcliffe’s texts (she also cites “immense rock” and “tremendous sound,” but I don’t think Keats meant these in a specific sense) (187). How could Keats make such a mistake?
And yet, his attribution of these words to an origin in which they never existed (a Radcliffe text) is pure Gothic. The Gothic is full of ghosts, but rather than ghosts with a strong sense of their own pasts, these are ghosts whose pasts never existed: they are hollow, insubstantial, copies of copies without origin. Jerrold Hogle famously called such an idea the “ghost of the counterfeit,” locating it first in The Castle of Otranto but tracing it in many other texts, as well. The idea is, simply, that those ideas that seem most firmly set are, in the end, proven to be fakes. And this makes them performative and unstable. For example, the Castle of Otranto is tyrannized by Manfred, a man who believes himself to be the lord of the castle but who turns out to be the descendent of a man of no nobility who murdered the real lord of Otranto. Thus, Manfred’s claim to power stems from a noble origin that never existed. The phrase, “ghost of the counterfeit” comes from the ghost of a painting of Manfred’s grandfather: the ghost of the copy (painting) of the false copy (feigned lord) without origin (no nobility). We see the same idea in every text claiming to be a “found manuscript.” In these hollow copies, Hogle claims, are buried anxieties about illegitimacy and nothingness. Yet, as I think the Gothic demonstrates, this fakery puts on a good show, one that proves itself to be meaningful, if not solid. Keats may not use Radcliffe’s exact words, but he builds a scene that conjures her (or perhaps her ghost) from out of the pages and into the world around him.
Other elements in the letter are appropriate juxtapositions to the Gothic: the oppression and confinement of the rain, a picnic that mixes both distress and recreation, a passing mention of the theater, and a literary character (Lydia Languish), who is “subject to sympathetic moisture,” a characteristic for which Radcliffe’s heroines are also known (fainting and weeping). This is absolutely a letter that Radcliffes us!
Laura R. Kremmel is an assistant professor in the Humanities Department at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. She writes about the Gothic, British Romanticism, History of Medicine, Disability Studies, and horror movies. She is currently co-editing The Handbook to Horror Literature, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan.
Hogle, Jerrold E. “The Ghost of the Counterfeit in the Genesis of the Gothic.” Gothick Origins and Innovations, edited by Allan Lloyd Smith and Victor Sage, Rodopi, 1994, 23-33.
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Edited by Hyder Edward Rollins, Harvard University Press, 1958.
Radcliffe, Ann. A Sicilian Romance. Oxford University Press, 2008.
—. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Penguin Books, 2001.
Stabler, Jane. “Ann Radcliffe’s Poetry: The Poetics of Refrain and Inventory.” Ann Radcliffe, Romanticism, and the Gothic, edited by Dale Townshend and Angela Wright, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 185-202.
Reading today’s letter to Reynolds, one can’t help but wish that Keats had written a long prose work in the comic tradition of Sterne and Smollett. We daresay Keats had the chops to rival Tristram Shandy, a work which he seems to have in mind as he playfully (à la Toby) trots out a variety of military terms (glacis, small-shot, cannondale, cavalry, etc.). This letter deserves the kind of treatment Keats says we ought to devote to a “Page of full Poesy or distilled Prose.” So spend some time with, wander with it, muse upon it, bring home to it, prophesy upon it–whatever it takes! Read this letter and glory in Keats’s humor.
He addresses some of the same issues from yesterday’s letter to Bailey, in particular the weather that has kept him indoors and apparently led to a bit of stir-craziness. Here’s a sample: “The green is beautiful, as they say, and pity it is that it is amphibious–mais! but alas! the flowers here wait as naturally for the rain twice a day as the Muscles do for the Tide.” We also hear about Keats’s plan to “cut sickness–a fellow to whom I have a complete aversion.” On a grim note, the list of friends acquainted with this fellow includes Tom, who would only worsen from this point forward (“he [sickness] is sitting now quite impudent between me and Tom”). But the melancholy turn doesn’t last for long, as Keats proceeds to tell Reynolds of a recent visit to the theatre at which Keats “got insulted.” He explains that he “forgot to tell George,” and that he “ought to remember to forget to tell any Body,” given that he “did not fight, and as yet have had no redress.”
We have TWO responses to today’s letter, since it is so filled to the brim with goodness. First up is Laura Kremmel’s “Keats Goes Gothic,” which focuses on the list of scenery descriptions Keats connects with “Damosel Radcliffe.” And tomorrow we will have Johannes Göransson’s phantasmagoric rewriting of the letter, taking Keats’s language and concerns and filtering them through a sort of dream-vision of 2018.
You can read the letter in Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition, and via the images below of Richard Woodhouse’s transcript of the letter (courtesy of Harvard).
Oklahoma State University
RE: Keats’s 13 Mar 1818 letter to Bailey
Keats begins his letter to Benjamin Bailey with sentiment similar to our contemporary, “Third time’s a charm”: “When a poor devil is drowning, it is said he comes thrice to the surface, ere he makes his final sink if however, even at the third rise he can manage to catch hold of a piece of weed or rock, he stands a fair chance,–as I hope I do now, of being saved.” Threes dominate this letter as Keats has three major movements in his structure: he transitions from a critique of Devonshire to a consideration of “thingness” (as I will call it), with a contemplation of the human impact on scenery in between. Staying true to theme, I will mimic the pattern of three in my response.
The 13 March letter to Benjamin Bailey can be read as an exploration of the mutual influence of humans and nature on each other. Keats opens the letter to Bailey with an explanation of his absence, how he came to Teignmouth to be with Tom instead of traveling to Oxford. Nicholas Roe records that Keats arrived in Teignmouth on March 6th after a wet and turbulent ride from London atop a postal carriage (219). For “these three last days,” Keats writes, he has been trapped indoors, seeing only Devonshire as “a splashy, rainy, misty snowy, foggy, haily floody, muddy slipshod County”. Dismissing the county for its weather and its “dwindled englishmen,” Keats explains that a countryside is made finer by its people. Whenever he goes into the countryside, he seeks people and the rich history they represent rather than the beauty and solitude of an untouched wilderness. He writes:
I like, I love England, I like its strong Men–Give me a “long brown plain” for my Morning so I may meet with some of Edmund Iron side’s descendants–Give me a barren mould, so I may meet with some shadowing of Alfred in the shape of a Gipsey, a Huntsman, or as Shepherd. Scenery is fine–but human nature is finer–The Sward is richer for the tread of a real, nervous, english foot–the eagles nest is finer for the Mountaineer has look’d into it.
Now, for the first of my three movements, let’s enjoy some Devonshire landscapes as we form our own opinions of scenery and the benefits of human intervention on nature.
A few years before Keats’s visit to Devonshire, J. M. W. Turner displayed this painting of the countryside:
Keats wrote, “the hills are very beautiful, when you get a sight of ‘em–the Primroses are out, but then you are in–the Cliffs are of a fine deep Colour, but then the Clouds are continually vieing with them.”
Unpopulated by the local men and women with whom Keats takes issue in his letter, this painting seems a model naturescape with rolling hills and foliage in fiery autumnal gold and red. The clouds wisp across a bright sky. Maybe if he’d seen this Devonshire landscape with its perfect weather, he would have a different attitude about the “slipshod County.”
Keats continues: “There are knotted oaks–there are lusty rivulets there are Meadows such as are not–there are vallies of femminine Climate–but there are no thews and sinews.”
This landscape is more idyllic than the first with a cooler color palette, clearer sky, and soft flowing river. But the countryside here has the addition of a bridge and cottage. The landscape bears the marks of human civilization. I dare say Keats might prefer this scenery to the last, and he might even find a “Gipsey, a Hunstman or as shepherd” to chat up while passing an hour along the rivulet.
And a third Devonshire landscape:
Here we return to the warm, fiery color palette. The blackness of the ships and trees in the right foreground are offset by the brightness of a golden sunset. We have people and animals and action in this painting. A woman corrals a two cows. A man works on a small boat. We see ships fully built and mid-build. People are here. Have been here. Have made a mark on the ecology. In better weather than Keats had in 1818, perhaps these locals would inspire thoughts of a grand English history.
I read Keats’s discussion of scenery and human intervention on nature as a prelude to the “thingness” passage in today’s letter. We elevate nature through imaginative or cognitive endowment. (This is very Wordsworthian of him, and Wordsworth gets two mentions in the letter.)
Here’s what I am calling Keats’s contemplation on “thingness”:
As Tradesmen say every thing is worth what it will fetch, so probably every mental pursuit take its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer–being in itself a nothing. Ethereal thing may at least be thus real, divided under three heads–Things real–things semi-real–and no things. Things real, such as existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakespeare–Things semireal such as Love, the Clouds &c which require a greeting of the Spirit to make them wholly exist–and Nothings which are made Great and dignified by an ardent pursuit–Which by the by stamps the burgundy mark on the bottles of our Minds, insomuch as they are able to “consec[r]ate whate’er they look upon.”
To me, it seems as though Keats would rank scenery among the semi-real. We imagine a (human) history of the land, and that gives the land real-ness and worth. The human Spirit turns a semi-real rivulet into Wordsworth’s Derwent. And similarly the people of Devonshire seem equally un-real. With the addition of a human Spirit (a Shakespearean imagination) the “dwindled englishmen” and women of Teignmouth could be Hamlets or Cordelias.
I will take leave of the scenery discussion now to examine the “thingness” theory in light of Keats’s previous letter to Benjamin Bailey from November 22: the Adam’s Dream Letter. Keats writes that “what the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth,” and so Adam awakes to find the truth (a real live woman!) that has laid claims on his imagination overnight. In the 13 March 1818 letter we have a revisitation of this theme in a new frame. A Nothing becomes real (a thing) via the addition of imagination or “ardent” attention to the concept.
Keats concludes this passage of the 22 November 1817 letter with the exclamation: “O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” All of this dances about in my head and makes me think of Keats’s medical journals and what he learned from his anatomical lectures about sensation and volition being intertwined and having a seemingly reciprocal relationship.
Contained in his Anatomical and Physiological Notebook (1934), Keats’s lecture notes from his years at Guy’s Hospital are full of contemporary scientific thought on the brain and nervous system from the foremost surgeons and anatomists such as Astley Cooper, John Abernethy, and Henry Cline. The majority of his anatomy notes are on the brain and nervous system, and even the discussions of muscles and bones appear secondary to related points on sensation and movement. Keats writes that the sympathetic nervous system has two main functions: sensation and volition. Keats learned that sensation begins at the extremities and tracks to the brain through the network of nerves. His notes read: ‘Volition is the contrary of Sensation it proceeds from the internal to external parts. It does not reside entirely in the Brain but partly in spinal Marrow which is seen in the Behaviour of a Frog after having been guilloteened’ (Keats 1934: Lecture 10, ninth page). Volition, then, as Keats understood it, is distributed beyond the brain through the spine. More strikingly, Keats records, ‘Volition is sometimes present while sensation is destroyed. In a Gentleman who had lost sensation and yet had powers of Volition it was observed that he could grasp and hold a substance which his whole attention was directed thereto, but on his turning to a fresh occupation the substance dropped’ (Keats 1934: Lecture 10, ninth page). Not only did early nineteenth-century medical science understand volition to be distributed along the sympathetic nervous system (an embodied cognition), these notes indicate a belief that volition can replace sensation. In the absence of sensation, concentrated attention can perform motor tasks thought to require input from external stimuli. In other words, something dead or inanimate, a Nothing, can become “real” because of concentrated attention and the workings of the human nervous system.
For my final movement: I try to marry these themes of thingness and human intervention under the guise of poetic meaning.
Maybe I should note as well that the notoriously self-conscious (and self-deprecating) eight-paragraph preface to Endymion, which he wrote six days later on the 19 March, picks up on many of the themes of today’s letter. He begins by saying readers should be aware that “as an individual in a ‘great nation’, Keats himself is ‘a nothing’” (Roe 220). Worried for the quality of his epic attempt, Keats’s seems to think himself a dwindled Englishman stuck in a slipshod County.
Roe notes the letter is “vexed by thoughts that a mental pursuit like poetry may be a ‘mere Jack a lantern’, taking ‘value and worth from the ardour of the pursuer’” (219). Is the poet passive or active? Is poetic meaning at the mercy of a reader? As in the debates on scenery’s worth and what can elevate the status of a “thing,” here we ultimately have a question of where and when a poem’s worth emerges. Does its meaning precede the attention of the reader, therefore emerging from the poet him or herself? A “Jack a lantern” will ultimately show some semblance of the artist’s design. Or is it enacted in the moment of reading, taking its worth from the attention of the reader? As we know, ultimately, the illumination of the lantern is a joint projection of reader and writer in combination at the site of the text (the carved pumpkin). But perhaps this doesn’t set a poet’s mind at ease when he’s looking upon the Devonshire locals as a potential reading public.
Poet and reader. Passivity and activity. Nature and human history. All of these seem interdependent, weaving together to form a beautiful truth. Like the human body taking cues from its environment and changing the environment in turn. Or like a vexed poet locked indoors for too long because of bad weather.
Renee Harris is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Oklahoma State University. She will be joining the faculty of Lewis-Clark State College in Fall 2018 as an Assistant Professor of the Long 18th Century. Her research examines the physiology of sympathy in the writer-reader relationship by placing eighteenth-century medical knowledge alongside the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. Renee seeks to understand how the circulation of affect is theorized and staged by Romantic narrative and how these poems become sites of shared feeling. She has published on materiality and social exchange in Romantic novels and has a forthcoming essay in the History of Distributed Cognition Volume (Edinburgh UP) on cognitive spaces of empathy in Keats’s Endymion.
Keats, John. John Keats’s Anatomical and Physiological Notebook: Printed From the Holograph in the Keats Museum Hampstead. Ed. Maurice Buxton Forman. Oxford UP, 1934.
Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. Yale UP, 2012.
‘A Valley in Devonshire’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1813. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-a-valley-in-devonshire-tw0313. Accessed 6 Mar. 2018
‘Devonshire Bridge with Cottage’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1813. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-devonshire-bridge-with-cottage-d09217. Accessed 6 Mar. 2018.
‘Teignmouth’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Exhibited 1812. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-teignmouth-t03882. Accessed 6 Mar. 2018.
Today’s letter to Bailey includes a wealth of intriguing things–which our contributor Renee Harris picks up on and runs with by following Keats’s grouping of threes in the letter–and this should come as no surprise for regular readers. Keats seems to have a particular affinity for sharing lots of thoughts with Bailey. Three of the last four letters to Bailey (28-30 Oct 1817, 3 Nov 1817, and 22 Nov 1817) were at least in part crossed, and the one letter to Bailey that Keats did not cross (23 Jan 1818) was still filled to the brim. Nary a short letter to Bailey, it seems, for today’s letter is crossed on three of its four pages. Brian Rejack and Michael Theune discussed some theories about why Keats might find Bailey to be a receptive correspondent for extensive and speculative thoughts back in Episode 4 of This Week in Keats, but today we offer another possibility (if an admittedly a silly one).
Bailey had notoriously bad penmanship. Keats mentioned it back in Nov 1817, when he wrote to Reynolds, “Bailey writes so abominable a hand, to give his Letter a fair reading requires a little time.” Writing to Richard Monckton Milnes in October 1848 (to let Milnes know that he had erroneously killed off Bailey in Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats), Bailey himself owned up to the defects in his “Kaligraphy“:
I meditate drawing up a paper for your information, and if needful for your use in a future edition, upon poor Keats: and I will borrow my daughter’s hand to copy my Kaligraphy, to which, among my “good works,” I see you have given your imprimatur, on the authority of poor Keats, 30 years ago [i.e. Milnes’s edition included Keats’s “abominable hand” comment quoted above]. It required not that attestation of its badness: and I fear that “years which bring the philosophic mind” will not have mended my handwriting.
In a footnote to this letter from Bailey to Milnes, Hyder Edward Rollins expresses his displeasure with Bailey as well: “Bailey’s hand is exceptionally villainous in this letter.” We feel you, Rollins. Thank you for your assiduous attention to Bailey’s villainy, as painful as it may have been!
So here is our theory: perhaps Keats, slowed down and a bit miffed by Bailey’s villainous handwriting, decided he would match Bailey penstroke for penstroke in the way he best could: by crossing his letters! Take that, Bailey! Keats’s hand, we venture to say, is actually quite neat, legible, and even downright pretty, despite what that dastardly John Jeffrey may have thought back in 1845–curse you, John Jeffrey! But also thanks for transcribing stuff, badly as you may have done it…. Apologies, we do digress. To return. Since Keats’s hand is so lovely, it’s rather difficult to transform it to villainous levels of illegibility. The best way to do so: cross the letter. Just look at the images below to get a sense of how difficult it is to read such a letter.
Of course we don’t actually think Keats intended to stymie Bailey’s efforts to read his letters in retaliation for Bailey inflicting that challenge on him… but then again, Keats does enjoy playing the trickster.
With that thought, then, we will leave you in the capable hands of Renee Harris, who deftly analyzes several of the topics Keats covers. Enjoy!
Text of the letter can be read in Forman’s 1895 edition via HathiTrust, or, for the optically adventurous, via the images below, courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library.