Keats’s Vexed Creative Relationship with Scotland

Kerri Andrews
Edge Hill University

Re: Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats

This composite letter to Keats’s brother Tom, written over a period of five days, covers a great deal of ground both literally and imaginatively. At the beginning Keats is in the far south west of Scotland having not long returned from a short visit to Ireland. By the end of the letter Keats was in Glasgow, Scotland’s industrial heart and not long after to become the country’s largest city. In those five days Keats and his walking companion Charles Brown had made a journey of over ninety miles along the south west coast, beginning in verdant glens that, much to Keats’s delight, were “eternally varying,” but ending surrounded by Glasgow’s “Stone” and solidity, where Keats was greeted in a manner still recognisable to visitors to Glasgow city centre: by an overly-familiar drunken man.

Whilst Keats and Brown physically covered a great deal of ground between 10-14 July, Keats also seems to have moved imaginatively in his creative relationship with Scotland. The letter to his brother Tom opens with an attempt at a folk ballad about a wedding, but the poem fails to hit its mark, instead landing awkwardly between pastiche and homage. Its characters, “Willie,” “Marie,” “Rab” and especially “Tam,” could have come from one of a hundred Scottish stories, and their names hint at unacknowledged debts to Walter Scott and Robert Burns. Yet there is a sincerity in Keats’s attempts to mimic (albeit not entirely successfully) the speech patterns of the ‘ordinary’ people he has encountered – despite travelling in Scotland for a time Keats knows “nothing of the higher Classes,” so it is everyday language that is transfigured into poetry. Just three days later, though, Keats was complaining about the impenetrability of that self-same language, lamenting that in conversation with “an old Man who knew Burns” it “was impossible for a Southren to understand above 5 words in a hundred.”

Such oscillations between affection and dislike of southern Scottish language use are evidence perhaps of a larger issue – a vexed relationship between the young English poet and his sense of poetic inheritance and literary convention. Keats includes in this letter the texts of two poems – his partially successful story of a Scottish wedding and a sonnet on Ailsa Craig, a dramatic and rocky island prominent all along Keats’s coastal walk – but he mentions a third. This is another sonnet, composed in the cottage where Robert Burns was born in Alloway, about half way between Portpatrick and Glasgow. Keats writes that he was “determined” to write the poem in the cottage itself, but the result is a sad disappointment – it is, he writes to his brother, “so bad I cannot venture it here.” Keats’s arrival in Alloway, birthplace of Scotland’s bard and setting for one of Burns’s most famous poems, “Tam O’Shanter,” is the intellectual climax of this part of his tour. Keats and Brown tour the sights mentioned in the poem, including the Brig O’Doon where, in Burns’s poem, Tam finally reaches safety from the witches and devils chasing him, though not before his horse has her tail ripped from her rump. At the keystone, where the magic of the running water of the River Doon at last protects Tam from his demented pursuers, Keats and Brown stand for “some time” contemplating Tam’s flight, and take a “pinch of snuff on the key stone” itself. Creatively, though, Keats gains almost nothing from his visit to one of Scottish literature’s holiest places. He cannot understand the speech of those who knew Burns personally, and the only poetry that comes to him here is so poor that he cannot even show it to his brother. Instead of finding poetic inspiration, Keats is reduced to the role of picturesque tourist, commenting half-heartedly on Alloway’s woodland and sea views. It is perhaps significant that in closing his letter to Tom in Glasgow, Keats notes that “there are a thousand things I cannot write.”

Dr Kerri Andrews has just completed a monograph on women walkers from the eighteenth century to the modern day, and is also lead editor of The Hannah More Letters: A Digital Edition (http://hannahmoreletters.co.uk/Letters/), which seeks to make digitally accessible all 1800 of More’s surviving letters. She has published widely on eighteenth-century literature, poetry, and women’s writing.

Letter #83: To Tom Keats, 10-14 July 1818

Keats and Brown continue to cover lots of ground, making their way from Ballantrae on 10 July to Glasgow by the evening of the 13th. That’s about 70 miles over four days, so not too shabby! As we learned from yesterday’s letter and Daniel Cook’s response to it, that journey passed through the “Bardies Country,” where our travelers made a pilgrimage to Burns’s cottage and other sites connected with the poet. Today’s letter to Tom describes the visit in less detail, while also offering more thoughts on the surrounding country, the characters of the Irish and the Scottish people, and the experience of being greeted upon entering Glasgow by a drunk man who needs to be scared off with threats of alerting the authorities.

As Kerri Andrews details in her response, we can gather a good sense of Keats’s complicated relationship to Scotland from this letter to Tom. He opens the letter with an attempt at mimicking a folk ballad; he spends lots of time describing the natural environs (including his sonnet on Ailsa Rock); and, of course, he wrestles with his feelings about Burns’s legacy after the disappointing visit to Burns’s cottage and the disappointing sonnet Keats felt compelled to write there (but disliked it so much that he didn’t even both to copy it out for Tom).

There’s a bit of a break in Keats’s correspondence over the next few days: he begins his next letter to Tom on 17 July, and doesn’t send it until the 21st. Was there perhaps another letter written in the interval but which has not survived? Alas, the other letters do not provide any clues. But we do have today’s letter to Tom, which is held at the British Library, having made its way there via Benjamin Robert Haydon, who kept it in his diary along with several other Keats letters. The diary was purchased by Maurice Buxton Forman in 1932. He sold some of the letters that were in Haydon’s diary, but this letter to Tom he presented to the British Library in 1939. His father, Harry Buxton Forman, was the first to publish the Keats materials from Haydon’s diary, in his 1883 edition of Keats’s complete works. You can read today’s letter to Tom via the elder Forman’s 1895 edition here. Images of the letter come from the British Library, and can also be accessed here.

Page 1 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.

Page 2 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.

Page 3 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.

Page 4 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.

Keats at Burns’s Cottage

Daniel Cook
University of Dundee

Re: Keats’s 11, 13 July 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds

By the 11th of July 1818, Keats and Brown had reached Maybole in South Ayrshire, a small burgh of barony (a type of Scottish town) built on a sloping hillside overlooking the Southern Uplands, with the Firth of Clyde barely five miles to the west. Maybole Castle, a fine sixteenth-century building replete with a square tower and round turrets, still stands. Other sites of local interest might have attracted their attention–though poking around abbeys and ruins was more Reynolds’s thing, so Keats claimed at the end of the present letter. Along with its natural beauty, the burgh’s connections with one of Keats’s idols would have been of especial interest to the travellers. Maybole is situated barely six miles south of the birthplace of Robert Burns–roughly two hours by foot. In fact, Burns’s mother, Agnes Brown, hailed from Maybole itself. And it was there that Agnes met and married William Burnes, the poet’s father.

In his letter to Reynolds, though, Keats was in too much of a rush to record the fuller details of his journey to the burgh. He wanted to get to Burns’s Cottage. To record his journey, to “run over the Ground we have passed”, would be “merely as bad as telling a dream”. Like any dream, the recounting is not as interesting as the experience. Referencing the absurdities of the scheme of the inhabitants of Swift’s floating island, he should describe the present travels, he jokes, “in the manner of the Laputan printing press–that is I put down Mountains, Rivers Lakes, dells, glens, Rocks, and Clouds, With beautiful enchanting, gothic picturesque fine, delightful, enchancting, Grand, sublime—a few Blisters &c”. And now, he wraps up, “you have our journey thus far”. Burns is their firm focus–“I am approaching Burns’s Cottage very fast”. Since their pilgrimage to the tomb at Dumfries on the 1st of July, Keats explains, they had made “continual enquiries” about the whereabouts of the cottage and other sites of particular interest. In those conversations Keats notes the “great reputation” of the Ayrshire Bard among the locals, chiefly as a man who “wrote a good mony sensible things”. Keats doesn’t record anything beyond that, anything about Burns’s character, say, but he does categorically aver that “we need not think of his misery—that is all gone”. As with his prior pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon with Bailey, he is sure he will look on the visit “with unmixed pleasure”.

Keats curtails the letter somewhat abruptly at this point, claiming that he will “fill this sheet for you in the Bardies Country”, namely when he reaches Ayr. Writing in Kingswells two days later, he recalls his surprise at finding the area to be “so beautiful”. He had in mind, he concedes, the desolate “rigs of Barley” mentioned in the Burns song ‘It was upon a Lammas night’ (often known as ‘Corn Rigs’ or ‘The Rigs o’ Barley’). (Desolate is Keats’s word–an odd choice to describe the scenery in a song in which “The sky was blue, the wind was still / The moon was shining clearly”.) He traces Burns’s literal and literary steps (the “bonny Doon” of the Bard’s ‘The Banks o’ Doon’ or the bridge that Tam o’ Shanter crossed). But he also follows his own poetic instincts. Overwhelmed by the new sights around him, Keats revels in the profound effect of the scene on his imagination (“I endeavour’d to drink in the Prospect, that I might spin it out to you as the silkworm makes silk from Mulbery leaves”).

When they arrive at Burns’s Cottage, though, Keats finds that he can only write (by his own estimation) a mediocre sonnet “for the mere sake of writing some lines under the roof—they are so bad I cannot transcribe them”. The whisky consumed and the company encountered won’t have helped. The keeper at the Cottage “was a great Bore with his Anecdotes—I hate the rascal”. Described in the letter as “a mahogany faced old Jackass who knew Burns”, the man, Keats insists, “ought to be kicked for having spoken to him [Burns]”. Keats’s pilgrimage to the Bardie’s country has taken an uncivil turn. But now he knows the man a little better, and knows his pain:

His Misery is a dead weight upon the nimbleness of one’s quill—I tried to forget it—to drink Toddy without any Care—to write a merry Sonnet—it wont do—he talked with Bitches—he drank with Blackguards, he was miserable—We can see horribly clear in the works of such a man his whole life, as if we were God’s spies.

Mindful of a similarly dissolute fate, Keats insists that he has much to live for, even if he considers his romantic prospects to be blank (his word). And so does Reynolds, he gleefully informs him: “I have more than once yearne’d for the time of your happiness to come”. Maybe it was the whisky talking.

Keats then returns, in the letter, to his imminent travel plans. The rain had impeded their progress, after a dozen or so miles, but he and Brown remained on track to reach Loch Lomond the day after tomorrow (the 15th). There they planned to climb Ben Lomond (on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond) and, after that, more than eighty miles to the north, Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain–no mean feats. After all, Skiddaw in the Lake District, the sixth-highest summit in England, had proven tricky. On average, by Keats’s own claim, they managed to walk twenty miles a day on average. As this and other letters written at the time suggest, Keats was deeply affected by his time in Scotland–often in wholly surprising ways. Burns’s Cottage, for one, proved to be a bore. But the countryside surrounding it caught Keats unawares with its natural charm. And much more was to be explored. They walked into Glasgow that evening.

Daniel Cook, University of Dundee
d.p.cook@dundee.ac.uk
School of Humanities, University of Dundee, Scotland DD1 4HN

Letter #82: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 11-13 July 1818

Keats’s encounters with the legacy of Robert Burns continue as he moves through “the Bardies Country.” He begins this letter to Reynolds by first holding back on the detailed descriptions he’s become accustomed to giving his other correspondents, and of which he ‘s grown tired of writing. Instead he gives the beginning of the journey in the manner of the “Laputan printing press”: a bunch of words stitched together, and now Reynolds has their “journey thus far”!

The main focus of today’s letter is the visit to Burns’s cottage, a visit which is not exactly what Keats had in mind, it seems. As Daniel Cook writes in response to the letter, even though Keats wasn’t pleased with the sonnet he wrote while at the cottage, he was nonetheless significantly affected by his travels through Scotland, and his time spent contemplating one of his poetic idols. So with that we’ll turn it over to Daniel Cook, who goes into much more detail about Keats, Burns, and “the Bardies Country.”

The letter, as with most letters to Reynolds, exists only via a Richard Woodhouse transcript, which you can view in the images below (courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library). A print version of the letter can be found here, in Forman’s 1895 edition.

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 11, 13 July 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 11, 13 July 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 11, 13 July 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 11, 13 July 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #81: To Tom Keats, 3-9 July 1818

The next entry in Keats’s journal to Tom covers nearly a week, and it finds Keats and Brown making their way briefly to Ireland via ship from Portpatrick. The letter begins while Keats is still writing his previous one to Fanny. He copies out to Tom the short ballad on Meg Merrilies which he had written for Fanny the day before (2 July). He next returns to Tom’s letter on the day he posts Fanny’s, 5 July, at Newton Stewart. We get the usual thoughts on the scenery (“very rich–very fine–and with a little of Devon”), as well as what becomes the main focus of the letter’s last two entries: the people Keats and Brown have been encountering.

A common thread throughout the tour is Keats’s ambivalence about scenery, and about writing about it. Several times he notes the greater importance he places on learning about the people who inhabit such scenes. This attitude predates the tour, as well. Recall that back on 13 March 1818 he wrote, “Scenery is fine–but human nature is finer.” In his previous journal letter to Tom, after Keats describes the scene of a “country dancing school,” he notes, “This is what I like better than scenery.” And in his entry for 7 July, Keats quickly moves away from scenery in order to discuss what he sees as the differences in the character of the Irish and the Scottish.

First he notes the similarity in “the dialect on the neighbouring shores of Scotland and Ireland,” but then draws a distinction based on his sense of what effects the Church of Scotland had produced on the national character: “I can perceive a great difference in the nations from the Chambermaid at this nate Inn kept by Mr Kelly–She is fair, kind and ready to laugh, because she is out of the horrible dominion of the Scotch kirk–A Scotch Girl stands in terrible awe of the Elders–poor little Susannas–They will scarcely laugh–they are greatly to be pitied and the kirk is greatly to be damn’d.” The KLP remains agnostic on the question of the Kirk’s moral reign over the people of Scotland, but it seems Keats remains agnostic too! He goes on to note the good that the Kirk has done in cultivating thriftiness and diligence: “such a thrifty army cannot fail to enrich their Country and give it a greater appearance of comfort than that of their poor irish neighbours.” As he returns to the negative side of the column, he focuses again on the limitation of joy, particularly as it relates to erotic desire: “These kirkmen … have banished puns and laughing and kissing (except in cases where the very danger and crime must make it very fine and gustful. I shall make a full stop at kissing for after that there should be a better parenTthesis:” [that’s our attempt at a small caps “T” for Keats’s double-underline]. In what must be one of Keats’s better puns, he suggests making a full stop at kissing in order to avoid a parent-thesis emerging, although he never does close that parenthesis, nor does he actually make a full stop at kissing. In any case, Keats’s concerns about the lack of punning and laughing and kissing in Scotland connects with another preoccupation he seems to dwell on during the tour: his feelings toward women.

We see Keats address the issue most directly in his letter to Benjamin Bailey later in the month (18, 22 July). It’s in that letter that Keats writes, “I am certain I have not a right feeling towards Women.” In today’s letter, though, his thinking about the lives of women under the “dominion of the kirk” is connected with a broader concern with social injustice. He expresses the matter like this: “Were the fingers made to squeeze a guinea or a white hand? Were the Lips made to hold a pen or a kiss? And yet in Cities Man is shut out from his fellows if he is poor, the Cottager must be dirty and very wretched if she be not thrifty–The present state of society demands this and this convinces me that the world is very young and in a verry ignorant state–We live in a barbarous age.” The tension between commerce and erotic desire should sound familiar to readers of Isabella. There is perhaps a strain of paternalism at work here (“let’s protect women from the horrors of employment!”), but it seems that the greater concern lies with the injustice inherent in work in an unequal society. The problem is that “out of suffrance there is no greatness, no dignity” and “in the most abstracted Pleasure there is no lasting happiness.” What the world presumably needs, then, is a social structure that allows for the pursuit of pleasure (punning, laughing, kissing) without the oppressive forces that deem such a pursuit immoral, and without the economic forces which deny pleasure to those not lucky enough to be born wealthy.

While Keats and Brown planned to spend longer in Ireland, they ended up returning to Scotland after just two days there (on 8 July). What Keats found in Ireland was the combination of high living expenses and extreme poverty. Keats seems despondent at the idea of “the improvement of the condition of such people,” not because of some inherent defects in their character, but rather because of the current social conditions. The sign which stands in for those conditions comes to Keats in the form of “that most disgusting of all noises” as they pass into Belfast: “the sound of the Shuttle.” In other words, the sonic reminder of economic conditions–specifically, the textile industry–fills Keats with “absolute despair” that things could change for the better. He probably wasn’t encouraged by the two laborers encountered between Belfast and Donaghadee, one of whom “took [Keats] for a Frenchman” (the horror!), and the other who “hinted at Bounty Money saying he was ready to take it.” Somehow Keats and Brown escaped, but before leaving the island, they had one more encounter which seems to have stuck with Keats:

On our return from Bellfast we met a Sadan–the Duchess of Dunghill–It is no laughing matter tho–Imagine the worse dog kennel you ever saw placed upon two poles from a mouldy fencing–In such a wretched thing sat a squalid old Woman squat like an ape half starved from a scarcity of Buiscuit in its passage from Madagascar to the cape,–with a pipe in her mouth and looking out with a round-eyed skinny lidded, inanity–with a sort of horizontal idiotic movement of her head–squab and lean she sat and puff’d out the smoke while two ragged tattered Girls carried her along–What a thing would be a history of her Life and sensations.

Now, it’s certainly true that this description could be kinder (perhaps an understatement, that??). But even after the long, demeaning description, Keats ends with an appeal towards empathy. Yes, he describes the woman as “idiotic” and “inane,” but he does so in the context of his condemnation of the broader social forces at work in creating and sustaining poverty. He also ultimately expresses his desire to know what this woman’s life was like. And not just her life, but her “sensations,” a key word in Keats’s vocabulary. He wants to recognize and understand her humanity, not just in terms of her thoughts, but in terms of the way she’s lived an embodied experience in a physical world governed by material circumstances which would have been largely out of her control.

We’ll hear more about Keats’s thoughts on his encounters with the common people of Ireland and Scotland as the tour continues. Certainly in this letter we get a nuanced–if also problematic–take on the relationship between social circumstances and individual lives.

You can read the letter in Forman’s 1895 edition here, although it’s based on a John Jeffrey transcript, so beware (note his reading of “nate inn” as “nate toone“–good try, Jeffrey!). The manuscript is at Harvard, but it was not used for editions of the letters until the second half of the 20th century (having been in the possession of James Freeman Clarke and his descendants until 1946–see here for more on Clarke). Images below.

Page 1 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #80: To Fanny Keats, 2-5 July 1818

In the course of chronicling all of Keats’s extant letters one by one, some intriguing realizations which might not otherwise rise to the level of consciousness do just that. Here’s one: this letter to Fanny Keats is only the second such letter. The first to Fanny was way back in September 1817, when her eldest brother John proposed that they “begin a regular question and answer–a little pro and con … this I feel as a necessity: for we ought to become intimately acquainted, in order that I may not only, as you grow up love your as my only Sister, but confide in you as my dearest friend.”  Keats ends the letter reiterating his opening message that they ought to keep a regular correspondence: “You will preserve all my Letters and I will secure yours–and thus in the course of time we shall each of us have a good Bundle.” So what happened between September 1817 and July 1818? Was Keats delinquent in his fraternal duties?

It seems unlikely that he was entirely delinquent, though he may have not kept up quite the level of regular correspondence he proposed in the September 1817 letter. In early October, having returned from his stay in Oxford with Benjamin Bailey, Keats writes back to Oxford asking Bailey to inquire for a letter which Fanny had sent there. He writes to George and Tom in January 1818 that he has “seen Fanny twice lately,” and he asks that they send her “a Co-partnership Letter.” Another mention of seeing her occurs in the 23-24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom, and Keats then mentions their guardian Richard Abbey discouraging such regular visits to Fanny (what a jerk!). Presumably when George was back in London for spring 1818 (while John and Tom stayed in Teignouth), he would have looked after their sister. And then by June 1818, one of her brothers is sick and not long for the world, another is on his way across the Atlantic, and John is on his Northern Tour.

So it seems likely that the extant correspondence from John to Fanny increases after summer 1818 for a few reasons. Being the only sibling left in physical proximity to Fanny, John likely felt more a greater sense of responsibility for her well-being. I also suspect that Fanny became more likely to preserve the letters. She had seen one brother die and another depart for America, so it seems likely that she would begin to more carefully preserve the familial connections that still remained. It’s also worth noting that in September 1817 when the first extant letter from Keats arrives, Fanny is just 14 years old. She was forced pretty quickly to mature over the next several years–by spring 1821, not yet 18 years old, she was essentially on her own.

But for now we still see the great love and affection that Keats felt towards his sister. Like many of the other letters to her, this one contains lots of good humor and kindness. He tells her of how he and Brown “have been taken for travelling Jewellers, Razor sellers and Spectacle venders because friend Brown wears a pair.” He relays the story of the “notorious tippler” he and Brown encountered at an Inn in Endmoor on 25 June, who stumbled over to Brown and asked, “with his nose right in Mr Browns face ‘Do– yo  u sell Spect–ta–cles?'” And he gets in this subtle jab at the dastardly Richard Abbey, never one to approve of anything undertaken by the Keats family: “Mr Abbey says we are Don Quixotes–tell him we are more generally taken for Pedlars.” (Incidentally, Abbey probably would have preferred that Keats find employment as a pedlar than as a poet.)

Keats also offers Fanny a pair of amusing poems for her entertainment. First is a little ballad composed on the subject of Meg Merrilies, a character from Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering, about whom Keats writes, “of whom I suppose–you have heard–.” Whether Fanny would have read the novel or not is unknown, but it is the case that Meg Merrilies became a popular figure apart from the novel. A stage version of the novel had been performed in early 1818 (at the same time Keats writing a pair of reviews in place of Reynolds for The Champion). Claire Lamont’s article “Meg the Gipsy in Scott and Keats” gives more context for understanding the ways in which Keats (and Fanny) might have understood this character and the broader type she represented.

The next day, 3 July, Keats returns to the letter and writes another poem,  which he refers to as “a song about myself.” It’s pretty fantastic stuff. We might go so far as to say it’s Keats’s best comic poem. You can read the whole thing here. And you should! And then go follow your nose to the north.

After the poem, Keats’s comic flourishes are not done yet. This part we have to quote in full:

My dear Fanny I am ashamed of writing you such stuff, nor would I if it were not for being tired after my days walking, and ready to tumble int{o bed} so fatigued that when I am asleep you might sew my nose to my great toe and trundle me round the town like a Hoop without waking me–Then I get so hungry–a Ham goes but a very little way and fowls are like Larks to me–A Batch of Bread I make nor more ado with than a sheet of parliament; and I can eat a Bull’s head as easily as I used to do Bull’s eyes–I take a whole string of Pork Sausages down as easily as a Pen’orth of Lady’s fingers–Oh dear I must soon be contented with an acre or two of oaten cake a hogshead of Milk and a Cloaths basket of Eggs morning noon and night when I get among the Highlanders.

If anyone out there wants to draw an image of a sleeping Keats tied head-to-toe rolling round town like a hoop, we will gladly feature it here. Also, seems like Keats is a bit hungry, no? And boy does he grow to hate the oat cake…

The letter closes with a brief message saying that Keats and Brown have walked sixty (!) miles since beginning the letter (on 2 July), which he now deposits at the post office in Newton Stewart on 5 July. And they still had another 15 miles to go to reach Glenluce where they lodged that night! Makes the legs hurt just thinking about it.

Text of the letter comes from Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition (images below, link here). The MS is at the British Library, along with most of the letters to Fanny Keats. She kept them in her possession all of her long life. Two years after she died in 1889, her daughter Rosa Llanos-Keats presented them to the British Library through Forman, who had first published the letters in 1883 (thanks to help from Fanny (then Fanny Llanos-Keats) and her son, Juan Llanos-Keats).

Letter #79: To Tom Keats, 29 June to 2 July 1818

The journey continues as Keats and Brown make their way across the last days of June and first days of July from Keswick to Dumfries. We hear again about the failed attempt to visit Wordsworth (and the note left on the mantle piece), as well as the failed attempt to climb Helvellyn due to mist. But with an early morning (4 am!) start on 29 June 1818, they set off to climb Skiddaw, which they successfully scaled with a guide and two other hikers (“very good sort of fellows”). During their climb, the mist held off long enough for views of “the coast of Scotland; the Irish Sea; the hills beyond Lancaster; & nearly all the large ones of Cumberland & Westmoreland, particularly Helvellyn and Scawfell.” But by 6:30 the mist arrived. So if you have to wake up at 4 am to climb a mountain in cold, misty weather, why not take a bit of rum to warm you up? Keats writes, “I took two glasses going & one returning.” And all before breakfast!

One other detail about his account of the climb is worth mentioning. He compares the feeling of the cold air with “that same elevation, which a cold bath gives one,” and then adds that “I felt as if I were going to a Tournament.” There is a strain of romantic adventuring that persists through the tour, even as Keats and Brown both also view themselves in self-deprecating ways. The connection to romance is perhaps most clear and most intriguing in Keats’s final letter from the tour. But we do get ahead of ourselves! Just stay on the lookout for other gestures toward that particular poetic genre and all its associations.

On the last day of June, Keats and Brown stay at Carlisle, where they are treated to a traveling dance school and its performers. Keats has this lovely description of the dance (although we should be wary of trusting the words and spelling too closely, given that the letter comes solely from a John Jeffrey transcript): “they kickit & jumpit with mettle extraordinary, & whiskit, & fleckit, & toe’d it, & go’d it, & twirld it, & wheel’d it, & stampt it, & sweated it, tattooing the floor like mad.” Keats clearly took delight in the performance, noting that “there was as fine a row of boys & girls as you ever saw, some beautiful faces, & one exquisite mouth. I never felt so near the glory of Patriotism, the glory of making by any means a country happier.”

The next leg of the journey sees Keats and Brown arrive in Scotland, having taken the coach from Carlisle through Greta Green (which Brown describes as “a sad, ominous place for a young couple–poverty-struck and barren!”) and on to Dumfries. Keats marks their arrival in his account to Tom by copying his sonnet “On visiting the Tomb of Burns,” which they saw upon arriving in Dumfries on the afternoon of 1 July. As Keats himself noted, it’s a sonnet “written in a strange mood, half asleep.” We’ll see with the visit to Burns’s birthplace a similar disappointment at the lack of inspiration felt there. In the case of the tomb, “coldness” seems to be the key idea: “All is cold beauty.”

But there is another hint at warmth at the end of the letter when Keats notes that “We have now begun upon whiskey, called here whuskey very smart stuff it is–Mixed like our liquors with sugar & water tis called toddy, very pretty drink, & much praised by Burns.” We concur that it is indeed very smart stuff. The peatier the better. But Keats seems to have tired of it by 13 July, when he writes with extreme disdain for the “mahogany faced old Jackass who knew Burns” and with whom he and Brown share some whiskey at Burns’s cottage. For now, though, we’ll leave Keats with his very pretty toddy and wish him well on his search after sublimity.

As alluded to above, today’s letter comes to us from a John Jeffrey transcript, which means that we ought to view it skeptically when it comes to accuracy and comprehensiveness (more on Jeffrey here and here and here). Alas, that’s all we have. Below are images of Jeffrey’s transcript. Print version of the letter can be read in Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 text (including images of Derwent Water and Dumfries).

Page 1 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 29 June to 2 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 2 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 29 June to 2 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 3 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 29 June to 2 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 4 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 29 June to 2 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).