Keats writes to Fanny just a brief letter today, with the main goal of letting her know that he’s hoping to see her soon. The problem is that Keats finds it difficult to get to Walthamstow to visit her (because of his own “little Indisposition” as well as Tom’s more serious illness), and Fanny’s guardian Richard Abbey is not too keen on having Fanny go to Hampstead to visit them. Keats did manage to convince Abbey, though, and Fanny visited with John and Tom in Hampstead several times between the end of August and early October. Two things conspired to bring those visits to an end: Tom’s health continued to worsen after the first week of October, and Abbey decided that the influence of the Keats brothers and their friends were not good for Fanny. During one of her visits to Hampstead, Keats brought Fanny to see some of his friends (probably at Wentworth Place). Abbey essentially cut off the visits after that point, which also coincided with Tom’s more dire condition. Marie Adami, Fanny’s biographer, deduces that Fanny’s last visit with Tom “cannot have been later than the first few days of October.”
We’ll see plenty more of the conflict between Abbey and Keats. Today’s letter represents the clearest suggestion yet that Abbey will take actions to limit Fanny’s contact with her siblings. Not cool, Abbey. Not cool.
Lastly, we hear again about Keats’s intention to buy Fanny a flageolet as a present, which he says he’ll have ready for her by the time she visits Hampstead. So the big question is: did Fanny ever get her flageolet? And did she help to soothe Tom and John’s spirits by piping a few ditties while the three siblings sat together during those autumn days? One hopes so.
Text of the letter can be read via Forman’s 1895 edition. The manuscript, along with most of the letters to Fanny Keats, is at the British Library. We’ll try to get images eventually!
Keats arrived back in London on the evening of 18 August 1818, via the George, which departed Cromarty on 8 August. He arrived at the Dilkes’ at Wentworth Place looking, according to Mrs. Dilke, “as brown and as shabby as you can imagine; scarcely any shoes left, his jacket all torn at the back, a fur cap, a great plaid, and his knapsack.” Well, who can blame him. It’d been quite the journey!
At some point the next day he sat down to write of his return to his sister Fanny. He begins by apologizing for not answering her last letter, which she had sent on 12 June. Since the letter had to follow Keats around Scotland, it didn’t reach him in Inverness until the time he was about to depart for London. So we’ll let his delinquency slide this time. For the rest of 1818 Fanny will receive much more regular correspondence from her eldest brother. In part this is because of Tom’s continued decline and his death at the beginning of December. One suspects that Keats not only wanted to comfort his sister, but also would have himself needed the correspondence with her to help his grieving. After December, John and Fanny are the only two Keats siblings who are not separated by an ocean or by mortality.
In today’s letter it appears that Keats is mostly catching Fanny up on the latest. He tells her of the stories he’ll soon share with her about his travels. And he responds to a number of things she must have written to him in her last. He advises against playing the flageolet, but he says he’ll get one for her if she insists. He promises to get her a copy of Endymion, and another copy of his 1817 volume. He promises as well to speak with Richard Abbey (her guardian) about some situation at her school (“what you say concerning school”). And he notes, “I am sorry for your poor Canary.” Poor canary indeed! We hope Fanny got another pet to comfort her.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that Keats mentions his own health as well as Tom’s. He tells Fanny of the “bad sore throat” that led him to cut his trip short, and he also mentions “a confounded tooth ache” that is keeping him from doing much writing and from visiting her in Walthamstow. It’s tempting to see nothing but doom-and-gloom when it comes to Keats’s health from here on out. But let’s resist that temptation and remember that Keats isn’t quite at death’s door just yet. There’s plenty of vitality that he’ll display in the letters to come over the next two years, so we don’t want to overemphasize the significance of the “sore throat” too much just because we know how the story ends. Much remains possible as Keats embarks on his last phase of writing as 1818 begins to approach its end.
Text of the letter can be read via Forman’s 1895 edition. The manuscript, along with most of the letters to Fanny Keats, is at the British Library. No images for you yet–sorry!
[Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Voltage Poetry, a website devoted to analyzing great poetic turns. Theune, one of the editors at Voltage Poetry, has allowed us to republish it here. You can read the original here.]
When we go to Keats’s letters, we very often go in search of brilliant fragments: Men of Genius, the egotistical sublime, the camelion poet, the mansion of Many Apartments, the vale of Soul-making, Negative Capability, or (the best of them all) T wang dillo dee. These are the kinds of fragments for which one might hunt with the help of, for example, “Where Did Keats Say That?,” a section in The Cambridge Companion to Keats which offers, as the section’s subtitle promises, “Sources for some famous phrases and comments.” Of course, there is little wrong with this: Keats’s letters are—as Keats says of Shakespeare’s sonnets—full of fine things, and it is important to know where to find them.
However, this approach—which views the letters as having an easily extractable content—overlooks a vital characteristic of Keats’s correspondence: that Keats’s epistolary writing often is more accurately characterized as action rather than statement, and that action is, primarily, the turn.
In “Multiple Readers, Multiple Texts, Multiple Keats,” an essay in Romantic Complexity: Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, Jack Stillinger states that the “oscillation between seriousness and hilarity, which we find throughout the letters, is one of their chief attractions to readers.” This certainly is the case with what Stillinger argues, and I agree, is one of Keats’s greatest and funniest letters: his letter of 6 August 1818, to Mrs. James Wylie, the mother-in-law of Keats’s brother George.
George and his wife Georgiana have emigrated to the United States, leaving Mrs. Wylie bereft of their company, perhaps permanently—as Stillinger notes, “Emigration in those days was a serious disruption of family relationships—in most cases, the family members who stayed behind never again saw the ones who left.” Keats—who also was away, on a northern walking tour with his friend Charles Brown—writes a letter to Mrs. Wylie that begins in tones of utmost, even elegiac, seriousness about how he wishes that he could be a comfort to Mrs. Wylie in her loneliness. But, eventually, Keats acknowledges he cannot offer any legitimate assistance, and chooses instead to not attempt to argue Mrs. Wylie out of her sorrow, recognizing that it “is impossible to prove that black is white; it is impossible to make out that sorrow is joy or joy is sorrow.”
But then something amazing happens. As Stillinger notes, “It is at this point in the letter that, without any transition whatsoever, Keats launches into his account of the gentleman in the fur cap falling over a precipice in Kirkcudbrightshire.” Without any transition whatsoever is worth dwelling upon. There is nothing to point to here, no language that registers the massive shift taking place, no real content. Never will this vital maneuver be included in a list of the great things Keats said because here, at the key part of this letter, Keats does not say anything. Rather, he does something.
And what Keats does, of course, in the most sublime and hilarious way possible, is jump off a precipice. (Figuratively, of course, but still—) Immediately after stating that it is impossible “to prove that black is white” and “to make out that sorrow is joy or joy is sorrow,” Keats just decides to go for it. He will not prove or reinterpret anything. Instead, Keats leaps into the void, and simply does his damnedest to actually create joy—and he delivers a comedic tour de force.
Like any great comic routine, Keats’s is complex and multifaceted, a rich tapestry of structural maneuvers, of building set-ups and delivering punch lines, of subtle gambits and sudden blows. I love, for example, how Keats develops the “very romantic affair” that could be made from tumbling down a precipice into the sea. Women would be unable to resist him, especially if it was made clear—by Mrs. Wylie, whom Keats draws into his plot as his co-conspirator—that his falling was really a heroic chasing after “Jessy of Dumblane” (a reference to Robert Tannahill’s traditional song, “Jessie, The Flow’r o’ Dumblane”). Keats concludes his long, detailed story with a terrific act of comedic understatement, essentially: but, of course, Mrs. Wylie, even after I’ve told you the specific details that will work best, feel free to use your own discretion.
Keats then leaves off joking to shift into even more fast and furious joking. In the context of being “very romantic,” Keats in fact is just the opposite, deflating romanticism time and again. Here, when one climbs up a mountain—the site of theophanies, of encounters with God, or at least, in Wordsworth’s account, with “Imagination!”—one also comes down again. (I love the subtle typographical wit here, the way in which the “B…N” of “Ben Nevis” turn into “N.B.,” signifying both nota bene but also the return from the mountain.) Here, when one leans “rather languishingly on a rock”—that is, VERY romantically—one may be in position to attract—as Keats had hoped to do with his tale of his romantically unsuccessful derring-do—or at least have visions of, “some famous Beauty,” a gorgeous Godiva on her “Palfrey.” This Beauty, however, does not just pass by, but stops, and approaches with her breasts…I mean, “her saddle-bags”! And then she gives Keats a kiss…I mean, “a dozen or two capital roastbeef Sandwiches”! This vision is a hilarious letdown for very romantic Keats, and it is a fulfillment of all he—having recently eaten many “oat cakes”—actually wants. And that it is both at the same time is what makes it genius.
Keats famously says that the Grecian Urn “dost tease us out of thought,” but this also is exactly what Keats attempts to do with this letter: tease Mrs. Wylie out of her own loneliness. We do not know whether or not the letter actually worked, but it’s hard to imagine Keats not succeeding in his endeavor at least to some extent. It’s hard to imagine Mrs. Wylie not smiling or laughing at Keats’s lovely, friendly buffoonery; it’s hard to imagine Mrs. Wylie not being transported, if only for a moment, from what one could only imagine to have been her real sorrow, to feel inspired, warmed and brightened—enlivened—by Keats’s conviviality, to feel—as we continue to feel—his presence.
The last extant letter from Keats’s northern tour is written to George Keats’s mother-in-law, Ann Amelia Wylie (neé Griffin). You’ll perhaps recall that the tour began at the same time that George and Georgiana Wylie Keats left for America. It’s no surprise, then, that Keats would want to keep in touch with Mrs. Wylie while she was cut off from communication with her daughter and new son-in-law. (It wasn’t until the middle of October that a letter from the Keatses sent from America arrived in London.) As he writes here, “I wish above all things, to say a word of Comfort to you.” As Keats is so often wont to do, he also recognizes the inherent limitations of the epistolary medium. Of his wish to “say a word of Comfort,” he adds that: “I know not how. It is impossible to prove that black is white, It is impossible to make out, that sorrow is joy or joy is sorrow.” And yet he proceeds to try to offer that comfort anyway.
His primary method of conveying comfort: humor! Today’s letter is Keats at his comedic best. And it’s really too bad that the only source we have for the letter is John Jeffrey. If you don’t find Keats funny here, then you should probably blame it on Jeffrey for not transcribing correctly. But if you do find it funny, well then Jeffrey did a fine job! Anyway, read the letter and see for yourself. And then go read the KLP’s own Michael Theune’s response to the letter. It was initially published on Voltage Poetry almost five years ago, which demonstrates that Theune has for a long time been an acolyte of comedic Keats. Enjoy!
You can read text of the letter from the original post as it appeared on Voltage Poetry, or you can find it here via Forman’s 1895 edition of the letters. Images below (from Jeffrey’s transcript) are courtesy Houghton Library at Harvard.
Page 1 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 6 August 1818 letter to Mrs. Wylie. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).
Page 2 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 6 August 1818 letter to Mrs. Wylie. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).
Page 3 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 6 August 1818 letter to Mrs. Wylie. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).
They will see us waving from such great heights Come down now, they’ll say But everything looks perfect from far away Come down now but we’ll stay
–-The Postal Service
Back in April (April 8, to be precise), writing to Haydon from Teignmouth, Keats had looked forward to the summer of 1818 as “Prologue to the Life I intend to pursue,” a life that would unite physical and poetic achievement:
I will clamber through the Clouds and exist. I will get such an accumulation of stupendous recollolections that as I walk through the suburbs of London I may not see them—I will stand on Mount Blanc and remember this coming Summer when I intend to straddle ben Lomond—with my Soul!
The Scottish mountain was only supposed to be the beginning; indeed, it seemed to Keats in April that he could already imagine it as a memory on the way to the most sublime peak of them all. He would seek a higher consciousness, build up a reserve of “stupendous recollolections” capable of erasing the quotidian for good—and he would do it the hard way, the right way—John Keats, triumphant mountaineer, the very embodiment of the figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog who continues to grace roughly 90% of the covers of romantic literature textbooks.
Figure 1. Our intrepid wanderer, also from 1818. You can find this image by looking up “Romanticism” in Wikipedia.
This particular view of mountaineering was a relatively new phenomenon when Keats was making his plans, so it’s interesting that these peak experiences are given such emphasis in this stage of his poetic life. Of course, even in 1818, he was already treading in the hiking boots of Wordsworth and Coleridge, of Percy Shelley and Victor Frankenstein, to say nothing of the Continental writers and adventurers who had ennobled the work of ascent. (For more on this, see Cian Duffy’s Landscapes of the Sublime and Simon Bainbridge’s essay on romantic mountaineering.) As Keats’s April letter makes clear, it’s not just about having the physical ability to “clamber through the Clouds”; to elevate the body is nothing less than to elevate the imagination.
Figure 2. “I will stand on Mount Blanc and remember this coming Summer when I intend to straddle ben Lomond—with my Soul!”
The Keats of April 1818, anticipating Maria Von Trapp, intends to climb every mountain and then to keep to the “Heights which the soul is competent to gain,” as Wordsworth put it in The Excursion, even after his feet return to the streets of Hampstead. Keats is, in other words, fully on board with the idea that mountain climbers possess a certain moral authority and a romantic impatience with the crowdedness and inauthenticity of a world that is too much with us.
By the time Keats sits down to write to his brother Tom from Inverness in August, the lofty heights of travel planning have long given way to the realities of the walking tour; as our recent contributors have shown, for every mind-blowingly sublime vista there are plenty of oatcakes and overly-friendly drunkards. There’s the sore throat he can’t quite manage to shake off that’s going to mean cutting the trip short. London has already begun to creep in; Keats describes the experience as akin to “mounting 10 Saint Pauls without the convenience of Stair cases.” Though in April he’d been planning to straddle Ben Lomond, August finds him on Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Great Britain—“Skiddaw is no thing to it either in height or difficulty.”
In many ways, the account of the ascent of Ben Nevis is very much of a piece with the other letters Keats has sent from the walking tour: anticipated sublimes cleaved by material realities (loose rocks and the necessity of proceeding on all fours); poetry that doesn’t entirely rise to the occasion (in particular the bawdy and slightly cruel doggerel about one “Mrs Cameron of 50 years of age and the fattest woman in all inverness shire who got up this Mountain some few years ago—true she had her servants but then she had her self—She ought to have hired Sysiphus”); a careful accounting of whiskey consumed; the general play of the elevated and the mundane. But what I’ve always been struck by most forcefully in this letter is Keats’s description of Nevis’s “shattered heart or Core in itself,” made up of “Chasms … 1500 feel in depth … they turn one giddy if you choose to give way to it.” The play of cloud and mist both reveals and conceals, but there’s something about the vertigo of the image that lingers, even after reaching the top—maybe that’s why Keats has to stabilize himself by snickering at Mrs. Cameron behind his poetic sleeve.
And it’s the story of Mrs. Cameron, incidentally, that leads Keats to what’s arguably his most significant insight about mountaineering: “what surprises me above all is how this Lady got down again.” It’s a curious feature of most mountaineering literature that, while the ascent is described in all its character-building and mettle-testing detail, the descent is treated as more or less inevitable. To take only one example, the official account of the 1953 summiting of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay—The Ascent of Everest—virtually ends at the top, narrating the return to base camp in about two pages. While this might be understandable from a narrative perspective, it’s downright deadly in practice. Coleridge almost killed himself on Scafell in 1802 because, after reaching the top, he more or less stopped paying attention to what he was doing—not everyone who has followed him up has been that lucky. (Alan Vardy’s account of this escapade is fantastic.) Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air, which details what until recently was the deadliest climbing season on Everest, makes this point again and again—nearly everyone who dies does so after getting to the top.
Figure 3. “With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill. … The trick is to get back down alive.” –Everest guide Rob Hall, as quoted in Into Thin Air
“’T was the most vile descent—shook me all to pieces—”
Keats proves himself a mountaineer by remaining tight-lipped about the come-down. It provides him with no immediate poetic material, and it certainly doesn’t do any favors for his already unstable health. The account ends in a dash, picks up with a sonnet on the overleaf, and leaps forward to the stop in Inverness. Whatever happened on the way down, it’s not something that Keats can communicate to Tom.
Figure 4. Ben Nevis in the summertime. Mrs. Cameron not pictured.
Of course, despite—or because of—the mountaineer’s tradition of mystified (mist-ified?) descent, I keep coming back to this single line. The vile descent, the shaking to pieces: might there be, in this zone of the unwriteable, the cracking open of a certain reservoir of poetry—something that evokes, and will allow him to continue to evoke, the “shattered heart or Core” whose unveiling he witnessed on the way up? It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, of course. Going up was supposed to be the hard part. The path was supposed to lead to Mont Blanc, not to the fly on the wainscot. The jeering at Mrs. Cameron notwithstanding, I value this letter for its ability gaze into those Chasms, for the vertigo it doesn’t try to hide, and for the way it begins, or begins to begin, the process of letting go of the pursuit of the egotistical sublime that had gotten him there in the first place.
A brief coda, by way of full disclosure and a bit of shameless self-promotion. Some of what I’ve written here is loosely adapted from “Reading The Red Bull Sublime,” an essay I published last year in PMLA. There, I suggested that we see the aftereffects of this vile descent in the image of Hyperion, falling into history (though not, however, in “The Fall of Hyperion”). I wonder now whether I was too fatalistic in my sense of this journey’s effect on Keats, though, either poetically or biographically.
Bainbridge, Simon. “Romantic Writers and Mountaineering.” Romanticism, vol. 18, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-15.
Duffy, Cian. The Landscapes of the Sublime, 1700-1830: Classic Ground. Palgrave, 2013.
Hunt, John. The Ascent of Everest. Mountaineers, 1993.
Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. Anchor Books, 1999.
McCarthy, Anne C. “Reading the Red Bull Sublime.” PMLA, vol. 132, n0. 3, May 2017, pp. 543-57.
Vardy, Alan. “Coleridge on Broad Stand.” Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, vol. 61, Apr. 2012. http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/1018600ar
And so Keats comes to the end of his Northern Tour. It’s been quite the adventure. 600+ miles of walking over the course of about five weeks isn’t too shabby. Turns out some of the hardest miles came towards the end. Today’s letter to Tom focuses primarily on Keats and Brown’s ascent of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the British Isles. The description that “it is almost like a fly crawling up a wainscoat” pretty well captures the magnitude of the task. Despite the difficulty, Keats seems in good spirits recounting the climb. This letter is a regular laugh riot (as is another he writes to Mrs Wylie, the mother of Georgiana Keats, later in the day). So we’ll just let you get right to the letter! And then stay tuned for an essay from KLP co-founder Anne McCarthy on Keats’s relationship with “Ah mio Ben.”
“Ah mio Ben.” Looks like a walk in the park!
The manuscript of the letter resides at Harvard. Images courtesy of Houghton Library below. For a print version of the letter, head over to Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition.
Page 1 of Keats’s 3, 6 August 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.36). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 2 of Keats’s 3, 6 August 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.36). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 3 of Keats’s 3, 6 August 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.36). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 4 of Keats’s 3, 6 August 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.36). Houghton Library, Harvard University.