All’s Well That Ends Well

Adam Cady
Illinois Wesleyan University

RE: Keats’s 21-27 September 1819 letter to George and Georgiana Keats

As I detailed in my introduction to this project and in my responses to earlier letters, Otho the Great played a leading role in Keats’s diligent-yet-destitute summer of 1819. Though economically motivated and precariously constructed, from dogcarts to secret marriages, the Tragedy served as dramatic catalyst for much of Keats’s thinking, behavior, and convoluted circumstances in this chaotic, creative time, and the poet’s summer correspondence—from July to September, with scattered mentions in the months thereafter—is littered with references to the ill-fated play. Yet for this preponderance of subliminal, referential, and thematic appearances, the language of Otho—explicitly quoted or otherwise reproduced—is astonishingly absent from the letters. Indeed, it is not until the very end of Keats’s lengthy journal letter to George and Georgiana Keats (17-27 September, 1819) that the freshman playwright quotes directly from his summer’s dramatic work: 

Not as a Swordsman would I pardon crave,
But as a Son: the bronz’d Centurion
Long-toil’d in foreign wars, and whose high deeds
Are shaded in a forest of tall spears,
Known only to his troop, hath greater plea
Of favour with my [Sire] than I can have—

The quotation moreover serves—with theatrical finality—as the six-line capstone to a letter in which the issue of leave-taking, the artful performance of a winning goodbye, is recurrently raised. In this entry, I’ll make evident Keats’s concern with leave-taking and then, drawing on other thematic elements from the letter, focus on the quotation itself, arguing that Keats’s attempt at a moving farewell—though loaded with striking imagery, implied themes, underlying desires, and potential wordplay—still concludes the letter in a way that seems awkward for us, and almost certainly was awkward for its original recipients, George and Georgiana, and then for John Jeffrey.

Keats’s letter provides at least three clear examples of successful, performative leave-taking. One involves Charles Brown’s departure for Chichester and Bedhampton—effectively, the conclusion of that pseudo-marital, homo-professional partnership which bred five acts of defective Tragedy: “…he left me,” writes Keats, with discernible melancholic longing. In bidding farewell to a summer love—a temporary and disposable “bride”—Brown, at least according to his partner’s account, made a slurring, stumbling spectacle of himself: 

Brown when he left me “Keats! Says he “my good fellow (staggering upon his left heel, and fetching an irregular pirouette with his right) Keats says he (depressing his left eyebrow and elevating his right on ((tho by the way, at the moment, I did not know which was the right one)) Keats says he (still in the same posture but furthermore both his hands in his waistcoat pockets and jutting out his stomach) “Keats—my—go-o-ood fell o-o-o-ooh! says he (interlarding his exclamation with certain ventriloquial parentheses)—

An intoxicatingly animated goodbye, Brown’s purportedly grand exit was—tragically—a farcical one, as Keats guiltily continues: “…no this is all a lie—He was as sober as a Judge when a judge happens to be sober.” From this confession, it remains unclear whether Brown is the liar, his drunkenness staged for a showy adieu, or whether Keats is really the brief scene’s author, having created the tale out of whole cloth for the much-needed entertainment of his brother and sister-in-law. In either case, Keats, as attentive poet/playwright, demonstrates his affinity for the dramatic art of leave-taking. If, in fact, the skit was Brown’s, Keats evidently admired the gesture, as he meticulously recorded its every irregular pirouette and ventriloquial parenthesis. If, on the other hand, Keats served as the exit’s singular dramaturg and choreographer, then his letter is evidence of experimentation with the flamboyant farewell as theatrical device.

Less ambiguously featured in another of the letter’s leave-taking episodes, Brown is also at the center of a similarly comic departure from C.W. Dilke’s—an amusing incident this time driven by Dilke’s chiding cries. At that mutual friend’s house in Westminster, Keats reports, Brown attended dinner with “some old people,” including “two old women” who “had known him [Brown] from a Child.” These previously acquainted elders were evidently enamored with Charles, as Keats explains, “Brown is very pleasant with old women, and on that day, it seems, behaved himself so winningly…they became hand and glove together and a little complimentary. Brown was obliged to depart early. He bid them good bye and pass’d into the passage—no sooner was his back turn’d than the old women began lauding him.” With this unassuming exit evidently complete, Dilke giddily heightened the moment’s humorous theatricality, “threw up the Window and call’d ‘Brown! Brown! They say you look younger than ever you did!’” Not content with a single comedic outburst, Dilke proceeded to the adjoining wall, followed Brown’s path around “the corner of Great Smith Street,” and “appeared at the back window crying “Brown! Brown! By God, they say you’re handsome!”” Apparently awestruck by the whole affair, Keats took diligent note of the story and could not help but recount the entire exquisitely acted scene to his misfortunate family in “the american world.” Again, Keats is captivated in his letter by an exceptional ending, thrilled by the dramatic art of leave-taking and all its potential to entertain.

Still more charming, the September letter to George and Georgiana additionally describes an episode in which J.H. Reynolds, hounded by the awkwardness of a deferred farewell, overcame his “predicament” with all the commendable, performative grace of a seasoned mimic. No stranger to the endearing powers of theatrical mimicry, Reynolds was in fact an accomplished—and (presumably) profiting—playwright, having recently “brought out a little piece at the Lyceum.” A one-act musical comedy, One, Two, Three, Four, Five; by Advertisement, Reynolds’s “little piece,” follows the crafty efforts of one Harry Alias, who yearns to marry his beloved Sophy Coupleton. As Sophy’s father, Old Coupleton, has just placed an advertisement in search of suitors, Harry resolves to make himself comparatively marriage-worthy by impersonating a litany of atrocious would-be husbands: a simple premise which serves—primarily—to showcase the mimicking abilities of the play’s young star, John Reeve. While Keats, “being out of Town the whole time it was in progress,” was unable to witness firsthand the comedy’s “complete success,” he, like Reynolds, was undoubtedly familiar with the popularity of such impressionists on the London “stage…loaded with mimics.” Reynolds, for his part, put this familiarity to use in flawlessly delivering what, as Keats describes, “was the best thing he ever said”:

You know at taking leave of a party at a door way, sometimes a Man dallies and foolishes and gets awkward, and does not know how to make off to advantage—Good bye—well—good-bye—and yet he does not—go—good bye and so on—well—good bless you—You know what I mean. Now Reynolds was in this predicament and got out of it in a very witty way. He was leaving us at Hampstead. He delay’d, and we were joking at him and even said, ‘be off’—at…which he put the tails of his coat between his legs, and sneak’d off as nigh like a spanial as could be. He went with flying colours: this is very clever—

Doggedly dallying through a too-long and ill-timed exit—that common scenario which Keats rightly acknowledges as “awkward”—Reynolds unexpectedly employed his skills as a mimic, his knowledge of the mimicking and leave-taking arts. Outshining even those memorable performances by Dilke and Brown, Reynolds’s theatrics, even after so many days, constitute a story that Keats “must tell.” This journal-letter testament, as well as the howling laughter which presumably followed Reynolds’s display, proves the effectiveness of that performative power which so thoroughly captivates Keats: the capacity of a well-executed goodbye to impress and delight an audience. 

Given Keats’s evident fascination with laudable leave-taking, then, one has to ask: what kind of goodbye is achieved in the closing quotation from Otho? Curiously, while the close of his protracted journal letter seems a fine and privileged position, Keats chooses for this place of leave-taking honor a passage that is, on its surface, relatively unassuming and strangely forgettable. Occupying lines 24-29 of Act I, scene three, the excerpt is far removed from Otho’s Tragic end—from the hectic onslaught of guilt ridden-suicide and melodramtic demise, and from Ludolph’s unmistakably Macbethian whisper of “To-morrow.” As Keats essentially conceived of this fifth and final act on his own, one might reasonably expect the headstrong poet to quote from the play’s most Keatsian scenes. Spoken by the play’s princely, traitorous protagonist, the selected lines are instead torn from the middle of a dialogue with Sigifred, an officer and friend of the royal turncoat; they don’t close an act, or even a scene. Rather, the explicative passage is unassumingly placed, serving—somewhat clumsily—as stated justification for Ludolph’s undisguised appearance before the Emperor, his father, in the wake of a failed rebellion. What reason, then, does Keats have to include these lines in his letter? What effect do they have as a finale, as an instance of performative leave-taking? Do they constitute, in the spirit of Reynolds or Brown, a winning end? Or is something else—something deeper, though perhaps less whimsical—at play in these half dozen lines of Tragedy?

Certainly, after the labored reconstruction of so many memorable farewells (“You see,” Keats remarks to George and Georgiana, after recounting Brown’s heckled exit from Dilke’s, “what a many words it requires to give any identity to a thing I could have told you in half a minute.”), the poet must have been acutely conscious of his letter’s inevitable end, and presumably felt the quotation a clever and/or poignant means of taking his epistolary leave. With evident faith in the six-line excerpt, Keats is, it seems, especially proud of that underlined phrasing—his martial image of a proud Centurion, emphasized by italics in Rollins’s transcript, “whose high deeds / Are shaded in a forest of tall spears, / Known only to his troop.” Although this lethal thicket offers a somewhat striking vision, given Keats’s poetic prowess—including the stunning language of that same year’s romances and immortal odes—the conjuring of “tall spears” is hardly an exceptional or unprecedented accomplishment. Rather, Keats’s authorial pride—his particular (and arguably peculiar) selection of lines—may relate to the same letter’s commendation of “Pun-making,” which, the poet laments, is a sadly unprofitable venture: “As for Pun-making I wish it was as good a trade as pin-making—there is very little business of that sort going on now…. I wish one could get change for a pun in silver currency.” Despite the regrettably low returns of such witty wordplay, that proud Centurion’s trustworthy “troop,” may in truth double as the Tragedy’s imagined, review-crushing troupe. After all, Keats still clings in his letter to misplaced hope of a profitable staging for Otho, and precedes the quotation with optimistic anticipation of actor Edmund Kean’s return to London: “The report runs now more in favor of Kean stopping in England. If he smokes the hotblooded character of Ludolph—and he is the only actor that can do it—He will add to his own fame, and improve my fortune.” While Keats identifies with the mortally lovelorn Ludolph, Kean, with all the versatile personality of an accomplished actor, might choose to embody that prince’s imagined, more favorable officer. If—and only if—Kean should lead, like “the bronz’d Centurion,” a cast of West End players—a stalwart troupe—Keats’s misfortunes could be mercifully alleviated. Situationally subordinate to this fantasized knight and his troops/troupe, Keats is, like Ludolph before his imperial “Sire,” second to another, preferable man, whose favorability could resolve a mounting Tragedy.

Still, such dubious pun-making is hardly the leave-taking limit of the half-dozen lines’ potential for dramatic effect. Given the Keatses’ taxing parental deficit—their father’s untimely fall from horseback, which, through various convoluted means, still burdened the siblings via a “threatened chancery suit” (23 August, 1819, to John Taylor) and strained dealings with Richard Abbey—the quoted passage’s theme of sons and sires is striking, even if unintentional. In the context of Otho, Ludolph’s argumentative deployment of a “bronz’d Centurion” implies that an imagined, anonymous officer would have greater standing with his (abundantly forgiving) father than himself—a befuddling notion of father-son relations which may stem from Keats’s own lifelong lack of paternal affection. In addition, throughout the September letter, Keats returns to the settling complexities of fatherhood: from Joseph Severn’s uncertain siring of “a little Baby,” to Dilke’s relentless fretting over his son. With regard to this latter case, Keats references Dilke’s earlier reporting on the child, “so much oppress’d at Westminster,” and dismissively writes of the ongoing crisis, “Dilke is entirely swallowed up in his boy: ‘t is really lamentable to what a pitch he carries a sort of parental mania…. I suppose I told you some where that he lives in Westminster, and his boy goes to the School there. where he gets beaten, and every bruise he has and I dare say deserves is very bitter to Dilke.” 

Rudely disregarding these youthful troubles (Keats was, after all, a notorious schoolyard brawler), Keats’s heartlessly unsympathetic attitude toward the beaten and bullied boy may be contrasted with his anecdote about next-door neighbors: a pair of children and their parents, “an old Mjor [Major] and his youngish wife.” After laying out, in dramaturgical manner, the “dramatis Personae” and setting for his story, Keats details the confusion which followed an anonymous rapping at his door—a kind of playful “knock-knock ditching”—and he ends the domestic whodunnit thusly: “…I have discovered that a little girl in the house was the Rappee—I assure you she has nearly make me sneeze. If the Lady tells tits I shall put a very grave and moral face on the matter with the old Gentleman, and make his little Boy a present of a humming top.” While his opinion of the Major’s daughter remains somewhat sour, Keats’s promise of a gift for her brother conflicts with that stern approach to parenting advocated in his judgemental discussion of Dilke. George, too, was a new father, and John, near the end of his letter, relishes the “Idea of Proximity” to his “little niece” in America. Abandoning that earlier espousal of the need for cold, unattentive parenting, he asks—sweetly—of George and Georgiana, that wedded paradigm of settling “domestic cares” (25 July, 1819, to Fanny Brawne), “Kiss her for me.” As with (what I argue is) the complexly significant quotation from Otho, the larger September letter reveals Keats’s conception of a proper upbringing as transitive and confused; it lacks a firsthand framework or replicable real-world model, as George certainly would have known. In appealing to the issue of fatherhood, then, Keats’s choice of concluding quotation reflects certain broader, disoriented concerns and, keeping the intended audience in mind, resonantly calls upon a shared familial history with George.

Whether such a resonant reading of the letter was even possible for the recently emigrated Keatses remains doubtful, however. Amid the multifarious journal entries which comprise this letter, Keats acknowledges his wandering, unanchored writing style, and suggests that George and Georgiana consider the days-long epistolary project in its entirety: “If I say nothing decisive in anyone particular part of my Letter. you may glean the truth from the whole pretty correctly.” Yet to conclude—so definitively—the letter with “a half dozen lines…as a specimen” of Otho seems to undermine the lenient suggestion of surface-level reading. Inevitably, the excerpt, with its paramount leave-taking status, demands to be considered as an overarching frame—a reflective climactic or epilogical passage, from which the letter’s true intentions and meanings may be gleaned. When George and Georgiana received this dense piece of diaristic correspondence, neither had read Otho, and would hardly have known the intricate relations or machinations which define its convoluted plot. Devoid of all context, the quotation can hardly be said to speak for itself, and, aside from its evidently impressive imagery and potentially instructive pun, there is little to be said for the passage’s literary value. And without sufficient foreknowledge of Ludolph and Otho’s violently strained relationship—the years of alienation and the thwarted rebellion which precede the occasion of Ludolph’s quoted utterance—George likely failed to surmise the excerpt’s connection to a central, preoccupying theme of fathers and sons. What exactly is the couple reading, then? What possible message could George and Georgiana take from such an uncontextualized fragment of unimpressive Tragedy? In truth, Keats, their “anxious and affectionate Brother,” regardless of any governing fascination with the dramatic act of leave-taking, seemingly underperformed—appears to have clumsily missed the mark—in constructing his goodbye. A near-certain flop with George and Georgiana, Keats’s ideally familiar and forgiving audience, the letter’s concluding lines are outshined by more accessible performances, by the “clever” mimicry of an amateur’s spaniel impression. 

Far more upsetting than the Keatses’ probable misreading or John’s botched attempt at inspired leave-taking, however, is the real conclusion of those diligent “dog-cart” labors and financial worries which bred Otho in the summer of 1819. Although the September letter is not the definitive end of Otho in Keats’s correspondence, this letter does mark the end of Keats’s creative engagement with the play; beyond the relative hopefulness of these collected journal entries, the Tragedy becomes a matter of business.  By the time the warm days had finally ceased and given way to that season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Drury Lane and Covent Garden had both definitively refused to stage Otho. Edmund Kean never took the role of Ludolph, and, without a worthy troupe or consenting theater, the Tragedy was doomed to wallow—unperformed, unconsummated—in futilely penned manuscript. 

Ensuring the perpetuation of this unfortunate state, John Jeffrey’s transcript of the September letter to George and Georgiana—for decades, the principle, accessible version of this massive and multifaceted letter—radically reconstructs and reorganizes Keats’s original.  Though he was a woefully undisciplined, unscholarly transcriber of the poet’s actual words, Keatsians admittedly owe an unpayable debt to Jeffrey (Georgiana’s husband after George’s death in 1841) for his prescient recognition of the letters’ historical and literary value. Still, in the first volume of The Letters of John Keats, Rollins uses the September letter as a particularly egregious example of Jeffrey’s shortcomings as an amanuensis. Whereas the corrected transcription in Rollins’s second volume spans over thirty printed pages, Jeffrey reduces it to about two-and-a-half, omitting whole pages, paragraphs, and poems. Perhaps for the sake of protecting Georgiana, Jeffrey also extends Keats’s theme of willful, performative optimism by eliminating anything which might reflect poorly on the poet and noticeably lightening the letter’s mood. For instance, Keats’s suggestion that Dilke’s tormented son actually “deserves” his mistreatment is removed from the transcription of that same passage, while necessary talk of faltering finances is noticeably trimmed. Most incredibly, Otho the Great is completely absent from Jeffrey’s version of the letter. There is no talk of Kean or Covent Garden, no misplaced hope in the Tragedy’s profitability, and—astoundingly—no six-line quotation. Whether these omissions are attributable to laziness, concern for Georgiana’s delicate sensibilities, or a desire to whitewash Keats’s legacy (Otho, after all, represents a singularly disastrous endeavor in the midst of an otherwise breathtaking career), Jeffrey’s outright dismissal of the Tragedy saturates—naturally—those numerous explorations of Keats’s biography and epistolary practice which have readily disregarded the play as unimportant or undeserving of serious attention. Jeffrey’s initial careless—perhaps even contemptuous—treatment of the “Tragedy in 5 Acts” has been echoed in longstanding popular neglect of Otho the Great. Even with access to greater, more reliable transcriptions, the place of Otho in Keats’s letters has—until now—remained virtually unstudied, and therefore unrecognized for what it is: one of the many “awkward bow[s]” Keats will acknowledge having taken in his final extant letter.

Astray, sub rosa

Rebecca Ariel Porte
Brooklyn Institute for Social Research

RE: Keats’s 21-22 September 1819 letter to Richard Woodhouse

i.
Rat-traps

Even letters that find their destinations sometimes go astray. (Nonetheless, Auden: “Strike for the heart and have me there.”1) In his missive to J.H. Reynolds from 3 May 1818, Keats remarks that “some kind of letters are good squares others handsome ovals, and others some orbicular, others spheroid—and why should there not be another species with two rough edges like a Rat-trap?”2 Most of Keats’s letters, particularly the longer ones, are shaped like rat-traps. They ruminate, brux, anatomize, bat around or worry their substance as a mouth does a new and interesting taste, an unfamiliar fruit, a person you are learning to speak with or else to kiss for the first time. They are full of hungers, those letters, not always savory. Baited with sugar follies and poison studies, they dwell where the teeth meet. In the case of a rat-trap, which can mean a “ramshackle building” where all manner of pests might fester or else a device for catching vermin, this dwelling place is often in living flesh.3

One way a letter can go astray is literal: the writer does not know whether the higgledy-piggledy thing will make it to the addressee (return to sender?). Another fashion of straying has to do with composition: going on like a rat-trap, avid to seize but unsure what the letter will draw to its tortuous corridors; temporizing, playing for time. A third way of straying is when a letter arrives and arrives not. It finds the right hand but remains, for whatever reason, unopened: quotidian news or an intimate confidence unreceived, the pardon that would spare your life lost to careless haste.

Messenger: My lord, here are letters for you.
Hotspur: I cannot read them now.4

A fourth way of straying is when the letter is opened and read but with cursory attention or not much in the way of understanding, the object preserved, the meaning destroyed. (Sometimes directives like “in the event of my death, burn my letters,” are redundant.) Nominally, at least, even the most resolutely singular letter is social, assumes a particular reader or set of readers who may or may not be interested in writing back. Tempting, in light of this epistolary tendre-with-teeth—the critic Janet Gurkin Altman calls it “exchange-desire”5—to ask what Keats’s rat-traps—I mean letters—capture in the way of living flesh (this is the action of a trap, capturing or wanting to capture) and what this has to do with straying. If letters are evidence of anything (often, they aren’t), it might be of an exchange-desire, weakly or strongly expressed, that understands the self-cancelling bind that Nan Z. Da names “intransitivity,” exchanges “in which nothing is exchanged” or else (I embroider in the margins) something is exchanged in the wrong degree or kind or else it’s the wrong object that changes hands or else something is exchanged and the result is the same as if nothing had been exchanged.6 Imagine a cat laying a freshly killed tribute at your feet. You are unlikely to have asked for precisely this kind of offering. The death, you observe, has not been a clean one. Still, the gift has been worked at, worked for. It is not without its charms.

Keats’s letter of 21 and 22 September 1819 to Richard Woodhouse (friend, philologist, lawyer) is doubly rat-trappist in sensibility, trawling for miscellany, restless to capture. The letter, like its peripatetic writer, goes a progress through the poet’s travel from London to Winchester (reflecting on the sight of a virile, beef-eating Coachman, “[p]erhaps I eat to persuade myself I am somebody,” says slight Keats); puns passably in Virgilian Latin; fair copies the first two stanzas of the last of his odes of 1819, “To Autumn,” newly composed after a promenade on the banks of the Itchen; leaps from a poem of the season of falling to a few fragments of The Fall of Hyperion (the Miltonic description of the Temple of Saturn, the “induction”: “Fanatics have their dreams wherewith they weave a Paradise for a Sect…”); breaks, after despairing that Keats’s “Poetry will never be fit for any thing” because it doesn’t “cover its ground well”; resumes, the next day, by remembering that letters are written to particular people and often to several people at once; asks for opinions on George Soane’s adaptation of the fairy tale “Undine” and Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (“Powerful genius—accomplish’d horrors”); troubles the material conditions of the cash-strapped poet (“I will no longer live upon hopes—”); explains, not without bitterness, why he won’t publish the “too smokeable” Isabella, or the Pot of Basil in the (laughable) belief that “[i]t is possible to write fine things which cannot be laugh’d at in any way”; ends in a whimsical fantasia on Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker and a courteous inquiry about Woodhouse’s days—;—or nearly ends—there is a brief postscript after the closure, “Your sincere friend John Keats,”: “Hav’nt heard from Taylor” (John Taylor—publisher, friend).7

ii.
Straying sub rosa

Knowing this letter would fall to me (one among many belated interceptions), I had thought I might write about the subterranean fire of the Peterloo Massacre in “To Autumn” (and the smoky poetic load-and-bless over and above the magma of event) or else about the clammy softness of an epistemological limit, about how The Fall of Hyperion’s Temple of Saturn (a kind of rat-trap, as Keats depicts it) joins the god of wealth and melancholy’s “mingled heap” of rich, ritual instruments (“[r]obes, golden tongs, censer and chafing dish”) to a monumental peripteral “ending in Mist / Of Nothing,” about what it means for Poetry to cover its ground. Being in thrall to Paradise, I had thought I might write about a “Paradise for a Sect.”

I was wrong. Or else, astray to myself, only fractionally right: what I appear to be writing about is what it means to fail to get there, even when you seem to have gone where you intended to go, when you are betrayed in arrival, when the betrayal is effective, returns something, even if that something lies quite apart from intent. Make no mistake: this kind of error might draw forth peals of rueful laughter as easily as sighs of irritation or tears; there is, on occasion, a sort of sweetness in learning yourself the butt of a joke you didn’t even know you were telling, the witting unwitting. (Freud: “The behaviour of the speaker . . . certainly speaks against the conscious intention, and thus excludes wit.”8) “Education” and “seduction” share the same speaking etymology, the Latin for “bring up, bring out, lead forth”; a seduction, a leading astray, can be a form of education, though often falling for or exercising seduction leaves nobody the wiser. It would be possible to call this rat-trappist procedure of coming into an open secret—surely seductive, ambiguously educative—something like straying sub rosa—errantry under the rose.

iii.
A grammar of whimsy

In Keats, the yields of errantry under the rose are rarely comic (in the old sense of order restored), though they are sometimes humorous. The mechanism of this humor can be hard to suss out, because it involves making a judgement about an elusive kind of tone: the degree to which the straying is sincere in excess—in which case you might, if sentiment embarrasses you, be tempted to laugh at it—and the degree to which it ironizes its earnest flash to the point of dismissal—in which case, you might, if made comfortable by the mitigating postures of mild, conspiratorial contempt—so many of us are—laugh with it.

There is a third form of tonal clockwork, a half-way measure: when the straying text should register as emotion disproportionate to its object and seems, instead, merely adequately descriptive, so that you want to say “yes, it is like that” and also “I know, I know—it’s completely unreasonable to feel so much about so little, let alone to say so.” (Yvonne Ranier: “feelings are facts.”9) You don’t deny the enormous reality of the feeling but can’t shake the knowledge that it is, when all’s said and done, merely feeling; neither position is alkahest to the other. The collision of these impulses might or might not move you to laughter (but it really might). Ontologically, it’s a little like a debased (funnier?) version of Kant’s subjective universality, in which your non-rational feeling that something is beautiful is so powerful that in the moment of judgement, you believe (absurd!) that everyone else ought to feel the same way about the something you’re encountering, even though you know there’s no logical grounds for your pleasure in the object. (Have you been seduced?) In other words, you feel what you feel, you laugh at what you feel, and you think, for a moment, that it would be impossible for anyone else to deny the substance of the feeling or the substance of its hilarity.

Call it an effect of whim, in several of the old etymological senses, which layer the skirling of “caprice” with less yielding associations of the rule-bound: “play on words” (word games operate according to rule) and “mechanical device.”10 Counterintuitively, whim is not entirely a matter of formless, free play. It reacts to constraint. Its levity resists the seriousness of laboring under a weight, though whimsy makes no promises (as irony sometimes does) of detachment, deflationary moral conditioning, or emotional catharsis.

Whimsy can be an effect of the impasses of trouble, incited by a sense of the precarious, a restless searching for some response to difficulty that’s neither the most embittered form of irony nor the spontaneous gush of cheap sentiment (though Keats was capable of both). As mild suspense (who knows where the whimsical will go next?), it can be practiced as an appeal to readerly attention. And still, it might also be a form of writing for your life. Nonetheless, I think I’d be the last to justify whimsy by arguing it’s secretly serious. (So little is justified by mere seriousness, secretly or otherwise, though I would say that, wouldn’t I?) Have I ever wanted anything so badly as to laugh with you one more time, near or far, to shock you into cachinnation, for always you resist the surprise of your broken reserve as if it were the betrayal of your human substance instead of one of its best proofs. Oh! For you are helpless against your laughter as a child! But this is by way of aside. Straying is a strategy of the whim.

This laughing grammar—would you call it Romantic whimsy (?)—is close kin to the reflexiveness of Romantic irony, in which the tenable form is a skepticism that springs from the knowledge that the absolute does not map onto the relative, that the maker is complicit in what’s made (though it’s irresponsible to generalize about Romantic irony, which comes to us from, among other places, the variousness of Schlegel’s fragments—but why be responsible now?). For Schlegel, to come into skepticism, the sustained awareness of Romantic irony, might even be equivalent to the action called “becom[ing] wise.”11 Then again, the fragment where he says so is a dialogue and characters in a dialogue, as gadflyish Socratic and Romantic ironists will tell you, whether or not you’ve asked them, are not to be trusted for truism or truth. So close kin—this Keatsian grammar of whimsy—but not the same as romantic irony; whimsy is more cowardly. It rejects the terms of the ideal and the real. It cannot even commit to the sophistication of the truly flip. Knowing yourself to be ridiculous does not necessarily put your experience into manageable perspective (manageable perspective is one form of wisdom). Many critics of romantic irony have derided it as “fundamentally unserious.” But what if “fundamentally unserious” were not a pejorative but an acknowledgement of capacity?

Another sister of Romantic whimsy is Coleridge’s fancy, always the second fiddle to the vital, creative imagination. In fancy, enfant terrible, memory willfully rebels against time and space, combining received images into eccentric ornament. Fancy “has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites.”12 Like fancy, whimsy is, in a way, impoverished: one motive for its sub rosa straying is an intuition of precarity and the need to make something useable—wondrous, even—out of that precarity, even if it’s only the idea that whim has accomplished itself or (daring greatly) that your reader, if the letter is so lucky as to find their hand, might laugh in the right places. Backed into a corner, whimsy gleans what it can from straightened resources, steals from rich garners of full ripened grain, invents Rube Goldberg machines, sets rat-traps in the air alongside castles, audaciously turns a coping-with into a flourish. It knows it has no other counters to play with. So do I, my dear, so do I.

Keats’s “La Belle Dame Merci,” for example, is laughable-withable in just this whimsical way. (It might be a lot funnier than you remember.) At close of poem, the lonely, palely loitering knight errant (literally errant) lingers on the cold hill side in the cruel optimist’s preposterous dawdling, longing for the merciless lady’s sway, knowing it leads, merely, to a place in the cortège of her starve-lipped victims. It’s a funny position to be in, that knight’s, after the fashion of Buridan’s Ass, hesitating between hay and water—or else the ever-ripe gag of Tantalus in Hades, caught below the rigged grapes and above the receding pool.

iv.
The interread

Sincere and self-satirical by turns, Keats’s letter to Woodhouse makes the most of this ridiculous position, the position of the tantalized, which is also to say a position of precarity. Its response to the Tantalus-gag—reaching towards material and affective resources that hold themselves just beyond the grasp—is to stray sub rosa, proliferate into the errant. “I see I have completely lost my direction,” says Keats, after a relentlessly orientational excerpt from The Fall of Hyperion (the north and the south and the east of the Temple of Saturn), “So I e’n make you pay double postage.” He knows his letter has lost its way even as it expands under his pen. As its contents stray into the remarkable, costly miscellany of whim, the writing reflects, more and more explicitly, Keats’s worry that his letters are going astray in other ways.

Keats and money, money and Keats—this was not the least of how his life was precarious. This errantry—the lengthening letter—will, literally, cost someone, although it will be the generous Woodhouse and not Keats. In 1819, it was the recipient of the letter—and not the writer—who paid the postage. And the further a letter had to travel and the larger it was, the more expensive it was to receive. If correspondence lingered in limbo, it was often because the recipient could not afford the weight of the message, the touch at a distance.13 Keats is also, at this moment, not half so fixed as a weathervane, fresh off his rattling journey, “embowell’d in Winchester.”14 He’s written two letters to Brown and he’s sure neither has found the mark: “Here’s the wonderful Man whose Letters wont go!” He pictures “infernal imaginary thunderstorms from the Post-office” beating down upon him, so that either “unpoeted” or “unposted” (the word in the manuscript is unclear) he writes. Surely “[s]ome curious body has detained [his] Letters!”15 He speculates that this curious body might even be intercepting and reading his mail. (He couldn’t possibly mean your curious body or mine, though we are among the curious bodies—you and I have arrived after the fact, as we so often do—we’re alike in this, if not in so many other ways.)  Again, there is a degree of tonal unclarity. Keats laughs at his own paranoia about letters dead and letters diverted, but, in a world where correspondence frequently fails its destination, waggish elaboration of the fear of misdirection doesn’t quite seem to dispel it. Whimsical he goes because in the teeth of whim. He bites as he is bitten.

But the other side of the despair of being frustrated or intercepted, overread by a curious body, is the sweet vision of being “interread.” As he writes to the sympathetic Woodhouse, John dreams of his words being received in concert by another friend, J.H. Reynolds (poet, critic, playwright), rather as he knows his sister-in-law and brother in Kentucky (George and Georgiana) share their missives from Keats. “[Y]ou two [Reynolds and Woodhouse],” John entreats, “must write me a letter apiece—for as I know you will interrread one another—I am still writing to Reynolds as well as yourself—As I say to George I am writing to you but at your Wife.”16 Keats conceives of his correspondence in a circuit of “interreading,” meant for someone besides the addressee of record, meant for Reynolds and Woodhouse as his letters to George are also meant for Georgiana, entries in conversations that go beyond a silent communion between reader and text, conversations among people to whom he is connected, conversations that take place without him. His letters make his proxy.

Keats’s correspondence frequently invents ways of being apart together (Cf. Kamran Javadizadeh on “improper time”). In some ways this is an obvious thing for a letter before the age of nearly instantaneous communication-at-a-distance (and after it?) to want to do. In other ways, Keats’s letters make of the necessities of uncertainty and distance a less apparent aesthetic possibility. If you fear your letter will go astray—literally or figuratively—envisioning interreading among your dear ones might also recuperate something from the possibility of straying, of falling out of the exchanges in which you desperately want to participate. Correspondence goes on, even if it goes on without you. Sometimes you live in the fringes of life. Sometimes even your truest and most amiable addressees misunderstand you. It might be salutary, in any case, to imagine them understanding one another over the flimsy pretext of something you’ve sent in the mail.

If you want to make your letter the kind of thing that will be read and interread in precarious conditions—if the sub rosa secret is that its probability of straying is high—you might go to some lengths (write at some length) to sustain your interreaders’ interest, you might resort to whimsy. (Rat-trap circumstance makes for ramshackle correspondence.) So this is Keats as entertainer, playing for Woodhouse “the waggan and trumpetour,” playing for time, juggling, clowning in the interests of homosocial bonding, having fun (yes, fun) though maybe a little afraid he won’t be read to the finish or read well, even as you can really only meander in the presence of a correspondent you trust.

Whimsy calibrated to its audience is whimsy at its most generous. (In this you are particularly gifted, though I doubt I’ll ever get to tell you that, watch the color flood into your face as I love to do, not that it makes a difference.) To receive the right flight of fancy, bespoke, can be like recalling rightly a lyric or a line of verse you’d known for years only as the one you could never summon up correctly, the Wittgensteinian click that wouldn’t sound—and then—mysteriously, accurately—does. (Proust: “But suddenly I remembered it, the irremediable asperities of an inhuman world vanished as if by magic; the syllables of the line at once filled up the requisite measure, and what there was in excess floated off with the ease, the dexterity of a bubble of air that rises to burst on the surface of the water. And after all, this excrescence with which I had been struggling consisted of only a single foot.”17) Whimsy as sheer self-indulgence may be, for the whimsical, a form of omphaloskeptic therapy, for the reader, a disastrous bore. Keats’s whimsy here, seems, for the most part, judged to its reader(s) inasmuch as it purposes to bring them together in its reception: it labors to gather its tutelary spirits in amity.

v.
Burn this letter

Unlike Keats’s letter, the epistolary envois (“sendings” or “send-offs”) of Jacques Derrida’s The Post Card, written in the late 1970s and designed to be interread as theoretical text, paradoxically wish for a form of pure correspondence that would only be legible for writer and addressee, encrypted against eavesdropping. The Post Card appeals to interreading in form, even as the content wards off this model of sociality. Juxtaposed, Derrida’s letters to an unnamed belovèd test out their antinomian epistolarity through practice. (What does it mean to write someone, to apostrophize, to slip a postcard into the mail, to consider it read or unread?). In this work, interreading becomes fused with overreading.

How? “I would like to write you simply, so simply, so simply,” says Derrida,

Without having anything ever catch the eye, excepting yours alone, and what is more while erasing all the traits, even the most inapparent ones, the ones that mark the tone, or the belonging to a genre (the letter for example, or the post card), so that above all the language remains self-evidently secret, as if it were burning immediately, as soon as any third party would set eyes on it (speaking of which, when will you agree that we effectively burn all this ourselves?)18

For Derrida, letters run on eros, eros flaming on the narrow band between the hand of the sender and the eye of the receiver. In The Post Card, all letters seem to be written on the model of the love letter that longs for a completely closed, dyadic circuit, even as they understand this aim to be ridiculous. The figure of private address to a loved one is a conceit: Derrida’s is a work of theory, intended for—as much as one particular recipient, crystallized by love—that odd abstraction, The Reader. (Reader, I…do not trust you as far as I can throw you. But you say such charming things…) What can be read can always be interread and overread, even if whatever the readings produce is always inequivalent. Lovers do not love in a vacuum. And yet, the envois long to invent a dialect so deeply coded that it is completely mysterious—“self-evidently secret” in its most profound substance—to any “third party,” to anyone who is not the belovèd, so that you and I, unentailed, unbelovèd readers of the envois (or are we?), effectively burn the true significance of the letter—which is to say the letter itself—as soon as we set eyes on it, merely because our eyes are not those of the apostrophized and cannot look at the letter in the same way. The jaws of the rat-trap close on air. The letter arrives and we set it astray before you can murmur (as I’m almost sure you would) “this message will self-destruct.”

The envois know this secret, perfectly transparent language is fantasy. The Post Card marks (not unwittingly) what goes missing when all letters become fetishes of a lost world of pure meaning rather than occasional, good-enough rat-traps, conveyances, in all their fraught materiality, of some unpredictable combination of significances intended and unintended, of eros, perhaps, but also of the many forms of attachment that eros, which was never the only kind of love,doesn’t comprehend. (Both the Freudian theory of sexual fetish and the Marxist concept of commodity fetish employ a logic of substitution. The former entails the exchange of the genitals as a focus of libidinal attachment for some other arbitrary object; the latter describes the trade of social relations for economic relations). In The Post Card, letters can only admit, narrowly speaking, to being love letters, regardless of how they invite the readings of those who neither love nor are belovèd in the terms of the envois. Under cover of the love letter, the gaze of others, even if secretly wanted, can only be courted by stand-in. The envois ask the reader to play the part of the interloper, looking in on the affair in progress. Their desire for you, Reader, is the will-to-interreading; their pose of ignorance (playful, sadistic?) is the will-to-overreading. They require you to be both confidante and eavesdropper, regardless of what you feel about the situation. Meanwhile, a letter designed to be interread, even if it is a love letter of a kind (Keats’s might be), is the sort that would die before admitting it. After all, the letter of interreading is happiest in motion among, not motion between—hand to hand to hand, voice to voice to voice, eye to eye to eye.

vi.
The letter that would not burn

Overreader or interreader, I am at least marginally sorry to disappoint you, Jacques, though please know it is for the sake of the fair unknown, for whom, though I cannot move the world, I will at least stop by the junk shop on the corner and set that dented tin globe a-spin in tribute so that Uranian marine warms to Persian blue in the temporary rotation and so returns earth to earth along with the shades of more distant planets. (Did you know a blue in motion enriches itself from within, like a person who has begun the heady study of some skill or language, nearly fragrant with a newfound lexicon swimming into ken? Well, it seems like that to me.). I’m sorry, but I’ll never agree that we effectively burn all this ourselves, not when you’ve called me here to eavesdrop, put me—put us—in this impossible position. (I am tired of impossible positions.) It is only your tyranny that makes of a strange little bonbon a live coal passed from mouth to mouth. What have we done to each other? I wish you would tell me. I’m sorry to have been so serious—

vii.
Trackless envoi

—god, these fleeting things. Well, they, too, have the dubious virtue of being not nothing. (Go away, Jacques, I’m no longer talking to you.) Something arrives, astray sub rosa, even when the specter intent flits off to haunt an elsewhere. We could laugh about that, I think. I would like to laugh about that with you, someday or other. There are still late plums in the open-air markets, lucent violet bubbles swaddled in their foamy trichome stoles, and some quality of September sun plumps the afternoon air with such viscous pillows of gold that it seems a betrayal of matter to lean against a tawny phantom tree, compact of rough dusts and refractions, visitor from the wood between the worlds, and tumble through it back into the given. Would you like to betray me this way? (That’s actually an invitation.) I think I would have—think I would—let you—a neat revenge for however I’ve failed you. (I’m certain I have—failed you—but what I really want to know is have I persuaded you to charge me with whimsy?) You will have your little joke. And still I send my letters without tracking if I can possibly get away with it (I like to get away with anything), perhaps because it is better to know less about how they will stray, how they will arrive and arrive not and what they will be if they do, into whose hands, sub rosa or super, they pass, who you’ll be when you hold those proxies (silver proxy) in yours, if this should be, if this should ever be.

That shadows (whatever Goethe thought) should be a single colorless color; that seasons succeed themselves, clumsy and sluggish, bewildered as people who do not know the etiquette for leaving and boarding a subway car; that bicyclists should lie against the asphalt at dawn, their necks at the dead swan angle, their elegant, fragile machines a failed origami at their sides; that social networks, luminous with dirty infrastructures, should judder with the febrile energy of those who need something, just something, just something, just anything, are always awake for you somewhere, even when you are asleep; that there should be approximately eight point seven billion species of living organisms extant and only about twenty-thousand of them bees; that the children are still in cages and life (if that’s what it is) persists in rote minuets around the jagged fact; that faces must be decked in brass circles to stop the algorithms reaping ripe names; that the trees, under stress of great, deliberate fire release long cries of smoke and day apes night in São Paulo; that the celosia—by some called coxcomb—is just come into its inflorescence and crests in paradise pink, in vermillion, in ripe, atomic tangerine and dares the lyrebird to sing its jealousy (though I wasn’t brave enough to buy any flowers today) and tame flora cannot really hurt you into anything except, perhaps, an unwillingness to turn your eye and how good that is, the dumb pleasure of it, despite everything; that all this is like that and like that at once, well, is it like that, is it really like that? And you might tell me sometime, if you think of it, if this finds you, if it finds you in time. I hope it does. I hope you will. And that is quite enough, if anything is. What hath the cat—oh, look—for he killed the Icneumon rat, very pernicious by land—and just sapped of all his electricity—oh, look—what hath—what hath the cat dragged—look—at this rat—dragged in?19

Yours—

Postscript—Dickinson: “Vesuivus don’t talk—Etna—dont— [Thy] one of them—said a syllable—a thousand years ago, and Pompeii heard it, and hid forever—She could’nt look the world in the face, afterward—I suppose—Bashfull Pompeii!”20 Partly because you’re not here—partly because ecstasy cracks you up—partly because I don’t have to tell you why—

Contributor Bio
Rebecca Ariel Porte is a member of the Core Faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is currently at work on a book about Paradise, Arcadia, and the Golden Age.

Endnotes

‘You must choose a spot’

Heidi Thomson
Victoria University of Wellington

RE: Keats’s 5 September 1819 letter to John Taylor

London

August 2018. I’m in London, doing research in the Dr Williams’s Library (‘The Library of Protestant Dissent’) in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. Every morning I am admitted after ringing the bell, the sole reader during the whole week. It’s just the library staff, me, and the film crew. It turns out that the Library makes a bit of money by renting out the premises, and the shooting of a Led Zeppelin documentary (about themselves, naturally) is in progress. Jimmy Page passes through the corridor to the toilets. There is a mood of somewhat redundant secrecy in the air. The library closes during the lunchtime break, and I eat my Tesco sandwiches in the small park on Gordon Square. I need a break from London for the weekend, I want to be among more trees, inhale better air. I must choose a spot. A friend writes: ‘If the weather is good I’d recommend a day out in Winchester: off-peak day return from Waterloo is £36.40 (means you can take any train back). Takes around an hour each way. There’s the cathedral and grounds, bookshops, college, rivers, and you can walk across water meadows to St Cross, ‘a very interesting old place’ as Keats called it’ (email, 23 August 2018).

Winchester

Saturday 25 August 2018 was a glorious late summer day. The path to the Hospital of St. Cross starts behind the College, down the road from the house where Jane Austen died in 1817, and winds its way through water meadows, along blackberry patches and cows, to the charitable almshouse.1 ‘There are the most beautiful streams about I ever saw—full of Trout’ (KL 2.148), Keats writes to his sister Fanny on 28 August 1819. Winchester and the walk along the water meadows to the Hospital of St Cross was everything Keatsian I wanted it to be: a chosen spot of tranquil beauty. I took pictures, confirming and enshrining my ‘affective investment’ in Keats.2

Between Winchester and the Hospital of St. Cross, 25 August 2018. Photos by the author.

I decided to write on Keats’s letter of 5 September to John Taylor because, in a life characterized by ill health and financial worries, Keats was, in Winchester, momentarily, in a good spot, so good in fact that he tries to give his unwell friend some well-intentioned medical advice.

The significance of a spot always exceeds its mere location. Its characteristics extend into our state of being, enhancing or depressing physical and mental well-being. Medical topography was booming by the early decades of the nineteenth century, with increasingly detailed analyses of geography, geology, atmosphere, climate, weather patterns, the various forms of industrial or agricultural activity as determining factors of a population’s health.3 Its boom coincided with the documented surge in ‘consumption’ in Britain, as cities and pollution grew, and levels of contagion increased accordingly. While the connection between contagion and living conditions was not made explicitly, it was obvious that well-aired, dry conditions depressed the consumptive symptoms and were conducive to fortifying people’s bodies and minds. Then, as now of course, the choice of a spot, any spot, was the prerogative of the privileged few who could afford to move around, who were not tied to the local labour that precariously sustained them.

The Hospital of St Cross, 25 August 2018. Photos by the author.

Winchester and Keats

As Nicholas Roe’s chapter in Keats’s Places tells us: Winchester ‘offered Keats beauty, antiquity, health, history, landscape and a seventh-century cathedral.’4 In this atmosphere of calm productivity he worked on The Fall of Hyperion, Otho the Great, Lamia, and composed ‘To Autumn’ around the September equinox. ‘It is the pleasantest Town I ever was in,’ he writes to sister Fanny on 28 August 1819, two weeks after his arrival in Winchester. It was certainly pleasanter than his previous abode, the seaside resort of Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, where his entire stay had been marred by the cold he caught on the Portsmouth coach (KL 2.125). Despite the dire financial straits he found himself in, Keats imbued his (and Brown’s) stay in Winchester with the declared intention of  creative well-being from the very start: ‘We removed to Winchester for the convenience of a Library and find it an exceeding pleasant Town, enriched with a beautiful Cathedrall [sic] and surrounded by a fresh-looking country’ (KL 2.139).

By contrast, Shanklin, despite the ‘very pleasant Cottage’ and the ‘beautiful hilly country’, was steeped in unease right away, with Fanny Brawne bearing the brunt of Keats’s mood in this letter of 1 July: ‘I have never known any unalloy’d Happiness for many days together: the death or sickness of some one has always spoilt my hours—and now when none such troubles oppress me, it is you much confess very hard that another sort of pain should ahunt me. Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom’ (KL 2.122-123). Winchester, however, in the early Autumn of 1819, at the tail end of the first real summer since the catastrophic 1815 Tambora eruption caused disastrous havoc with the weather globally, did produce many days of ‘unalloy’d happiness’ and contributed substantially to Keats’s final burst of concentrated creativity.

John Taylor and John Keats

As his publisher, John Taylor (1781-1864) played a prominent part in Keats’s mature life. Taylor and James Augustus Hessey set up their publishing business in 1806. Their bread and butter came from bestsellers like Ann Taylor’s Practical Hints To Young Females, on the Duties of a Wife, a Mother, and a Mistress of a Family originally published in 1814 and into its tenth edition by 1822, and their own version of a blank commonplace book, the Literary Diary; or Improved Common-place Book ((Blunden, 33-34).5 The need to keep their target audience—young women and their parents—on their side explains to some extent Taylor and Hessey’s outrage and caution about Keats’s sexually explicit passages in The Eve of St Agnes. The stable income from the more popular conduct books also enabled them to publish new talent : between 1816 and 1826, they published, in addition to Keats, the works of Lamb, Hazlitt, Clare, De Quincey, Hood, Coleridge, Reynolds, Landor, Carlyle, George Borrow, and Henry Cary; ‘few publishers before or since, indeed, can have created a list as full of imaginative literature that was destined to survive its own age’ (Chilcott, vii). Taylor and Hessey had a keen interest in Keats’s creative life, and the sense of stability they provided was priceless: ‘By the end of April [1817], not only had the firm offered to take from Olliers all the unsold copies of the first volume and attempt to sell them, but they had also made a firm promise to keep Keats in funds for the first refusal of all his future works’ (Chilcott, 27).

But Taylor was much more than a publisher to Keats: he was his confidant, friend, champion (against the reviewers of Endymion), and, above all, unstinting financial supporter.6 Most letters between Keats and Taylor involve money, in one way or another, with Taylor generously lending sums to Keats who in turn, and to his own detriment, would pass on the borrowed money to other friends who asked for loans. Just 5 days before Keats’s September letter to Taylor, Richard Woodhouse wrote to Taylor about the request for a £50 loan: ‘I wish he could be cured of the vice of lending—for in a poor man, it is a vice’ (KL 2.51). Taylor’s money enabled Keats to find salubrious spots for writing, and it was Taylor who paid for Keats’s and Joseph Severn’s journey to Italy. The most graphic record we have of Keats’s suffering during his final months are Severn’s detailed letters to Taylor, a sure indication of the extent to which Severn felt he could unburden himself to Taylor (KC, letters nos. 85, 94, 107).

Taylor’s steadfast personal affection for Keats and his confidence in Keats’ creative genius was almost a source of bafflement to himself, as in this revealing letter to Sir James Mackintosh of 5 December 1818:

But whatever this Work is, its Author is a true poet—He is only 22, an Orphan at an early Age, & the oldest of 4 Children, one of whom, a Brother aged 19, died last Monday of Consumption,–another Brother has joined B. in America, & his Sister is a Girl at School. These are odd particulars to give, when I am introducing the Work & not the Man to you,–but if you knew him, you would also feel that strange personal Interest in all that concerns him.—Mr Gifford [of the Quarterly Review] forgot his own early life, when he tried to bear down this young Man. Happily it will not succeed. Keats will be the brightest Ornament of this Age. (KC 1.68-69)

The connection between Taylor and Keats was strong, and both expressed a sympathetic interest in the details of each other’s health. Even though Taylor & Hessey’s firm was based at 93 Fleet Street, central London was most definitely not Taylor’s preferred ‘spot’, and his letters vividly suggest how much his sense of loneliness and alienation was connected with city life.7 ‘I have the Headache & lowness of Spirits,’ Taylor admits to his brother James on 6 March 1805: ‘In this great town, as in a great pit full of People, to observe one scrambling over another, kicking, scratching, biting and all Sorts of unfair Tricks practised to raise each Man higher than his Neighbour is absolutely disgusting’ (quoted in Chilcott, 10). And, again to James, on 11 April 1813: ‘My Solitude seems more lonely then, when all I see around me are so gay, & apparently happy’ (quoted in Chilcott, 17). In 1813 Taylor leaves the crowded city for lodgings at The Spaniards Inn, next to Hampstead Heath, and his health improves dramatically: ‘You can’t think how pleasant it seems to me to go there after so long a confinement in London. I walk both Morning and Evening and the Distance is at least 5 miles from Fleet Street’ (quoted in Chilcott, 17). Taylor is remarkably forthcoming and articulate in descriptions of his state of well-being, a trait he shares with Keats who, early on in their acquaintance, already confided: ‘instead of Poetry I have a swimming in my head—And feel all the effects of a Mental Debauch—lowness of Spirits—anxiety to go on without the Power to do so which does not at all tend to my ultimate Progression’ (16 May 1817; KL 2.146).

‘You must choose a spot’

Work in Fleet Street took its toll on Taylor’s health, and he regularly escaped from London. Keats’s letter of 5 September was addressed to Taylor’s parental home in Retford, Nottinghamshire, where he was convalescing. After acknowledging receipt of a loan of £30, Keats launches straight into medical prescription mode: ‘You should no[t] have delay’d so long in fleet [sic] Street; leading an inactive life as you did was breathing poison: you will find the country air do more for you than you expect. But it must be proper country air; you must choose a spot’ (KL 2.155). Low-lying, water-logged, flood-prone Retford in Nottinghamshire would probably not have been the kind of spot Keats had in mind. Moving on from his own bad experience in Shanklin where ‘the air would for days together take on an unhealthy idiosyncrasy altogether enervating and weakening as a city Smoke—I felt it very much,’ he turns to the salubrious effect of Winchester: ‘Since I have been at Winchester I have been improving in health—it is not so confined—and there is on one side of the city a dry chalky down where the air is worth six pence a pint’ (KL 2.156). What follows, for the next 500 words or so, is probably the most extensive, sustained piece of health advice in the whole of Keats’s correspondence; it is also an unusually strange piece of hectoring rhetoric. The passage concludes with the firm advice that Taylor ‘should be on the slope of one of the dry barren hills in somersetshire [sic]. I am convinced there is as harmful Air to be breath’d in the country as in Town’ (KL 2.157). Along the way to this conclusion, Keats includes opinions about connections between health, air, and soil; various occupations and health (peasant and butcher); associations between habitation, disposition, and personality (flatland men and mountaineers); and a particularly racist observation on how the agricultural conditions and climate are ‘a great cause of the imbecillity of the Chinese’ (KL 2.156). Hyder Rollins’ footnote on this observation refers to H. E. Briggs’ 1944 article in PMLA which invokes William Robertson’s History of America (1777) and Hazlitt’s essay ‘On Manner’ in The Round Table (1817) (KL 2.156, n.3). Briggs attributes Keats’s statement to a conflation of ideas from Robertson and Hazlitt for the connection of agriculture with degeneracy and weakness (in the sense of ‘imbecillity’), compounded by the racist stereotype of the east as luxurious and lazy.8 The reference is a worthy of further examination, because Keats does not know much about China, and neither does he refer specifically to China in his own work. Hyder Rollins’ footnote (KL 2.156, n. 3) refers to Keats’s health and climate account in this letter as a ‘harangue’, a good word choice for what sounds, unusually so for Keats, like a ‘tirade’.9

‘The nature of air and soil’

Keats’s imperative to ‘find a spot’ is closely connected with deepening anxiety about his own precarious health. Considering there was no cure for consumption, finding the right spot to alleviate the symptoms greatly occupied Keats’s mind. Diagnostic and curative constructions of consumption revolved around identity and location, in varying degrees of preponderance. Damien Walford Davies’s chapter in John Keats and the Medical Imagination explains Keats’s speculation about ‘divergent contemporary theories of pulmonary tuberculosis’ and claims that ‘competing (and in some forms reconcilable) contemporary theories of tuberculosis as inherited, constitutional / behavioural  (or “essentialist”), environmentally triggered, and contagious presented Keats with highly serviceable, if always distressing, models through which he sought to understand his biological and literary place in the world and calibrate his proximity to others years before he received bloody proof on 3 February 1820 of his own pulmonary malady in the form of his first episode of haemoptysis.’10 Alan Bewell’s chapter on ‘Keats and the Geography of Consumption’ in Romanticism and Colonial Disease (Johns Hopkins, 1999) spells out how ‘Keats’s letter [of 5 September 1819] belongs to a burgeoning literature that sought to provide medical advice to a growing number of invalids who were seeking to recover their health through a “change” of climate or air’ (162-163). Opinions differed greatly on this matter. Thomas Beddoes’ Essays on the Causes, Early Signs, and Prevention of Pulmonary Consumption for the Use of Parents and Preceptors (1799) argues in favour of sea voyages but does not believe that warmer climates (Italy, Portugal, Madeira are referred to) make a big difference.11 Davies refers to Beddoes’ text in the context of Keats’s reference to Butchers in his letter: Beddoes ‘devotes a whole chapter to “Butchers” as “class exempt” from consumption (along with catgut-makers, who also “pass much of their time amidst the stench of dead animal matters”)’ (230). ‘See the difference between a Peasant and a Butcher. I am convinced a great cause of it is the difference of the air they breathe,’ Keats writes in his letter, pointing to the argument that ‘[o]ur hea[l]th temperament and dispositions are taken more . . . from the air we breathe than is generally imagined’ (KL 2.156).

Taylor is not to consider his own intrinsic constitution as the sole source of his weakness: ‘So if you do not get better at Retford do not impute it to your own weakness before you have well considered the nature of the air and soil’ (KL 2.156). Keats’s medical topography goes beyond the landscape itself. It includes the ways in which humans interact with the landscape in their occupations: ‘The teeming damp that comes from the plough furrow is of great effect in taming the fierceness of a strong Man more than his labour—let him be moving furze upon a Mountain and at the days end his thoughts will run upon a withe axe if he ever handled one, let him leave the Plough and he will think qu[i]etly of his supper—Agriculture is the tamer of men; the steam from the earth is like drinking their mother’s milk—It enervates their natures’ (KL 2.156). All of a sudden we are guided along from a professed connection between constitutional health and occupation (labour on a mountain versus ploughing on flat land) towards an assertion of essential debility or weakness associated with a whole population in a particular area: ‘Agriculture is the tamer of men.’ As Keats’s rhetoric morphs into generic journalese the assertions are no longer about whether Retford stands comparison with Winchester as a salubrious spot;  the scale is now global and racial with this bomb shell: ‘This appears a great cause of the imbecillity of the Chinese’ (KL 2.156).

‘the imbecillity of the Chinese’

How can we read this statement? Even allowing for the contextual use of the word ‘imbecillity’ in the now obsolete medical sense of ‘infirmity’ or an ‘instance of weakness or feebleness’, without the demeaning connotation of intrinsic inferiority, this is a singular statement in Keats’s extant writing.12 There isn’t much Keats criticism which refers to this passage at all, but there is large body of work, by Peter Kitson and others, about Romantic representations of China which point to the racializing of writing about environment and health.13 In Forging Romantic China Kitson writes about the satirically racist connections between the failed 1817 embassy to China (for Amherst’s refusal to kowtow), and the scandalous reputation of the reviled Prince Regent, later King George IV, who indulged in an expensive taste for luxurious chinoiserie artefacts.14 The connections between China and Regency England were satirized by the likes of  Leigh Hunt (e.g. his 1817 Examiner piece of the interior decorations of the Drury Lane theatre) and George Cruickshank, whose savage 1816 cartoon depicting ‘The Court at Brighton à la Chinese’ grafted racist, English versions of Chinese culture onto English political corruption (178-79, 226-28). These popular associations, in which racism and anti-Regency sentiments converge in a toxic blend, would have been at the forefront of Keats’s mind at the time, particularly since his arrival in Winchester coincided with the Peterloo Massacre of 16 August, a massacre based on the presumed inferiority of the working classes and for which the Prince had sanctioned the excessive crackdown authorized by the Manchester magistrates. At the moment when his people were being murdered by their own army, the Prince himself was sailing off the Isle of Wight at Cowes, a sight recorded by Keats in his letter to Fanny Brawne of 16 August (KL 2.142).

Keith Thomas’s recent In Pursuit of Civility (Yale UP, 2018) draws attention to the widespread eighteenth-century ideas of racial hierarchies, contrary to the Enlightenment concept of a single humanity. Thomas refers specifically to David Hume who included a footnote in his essay ‘Of National Characters’ that ‘there were four or five different species of men and that the nonwhites were “naturally inferior”. “There never was,” he added, “a civilized nation of any other complexion than white”’ (Thomas, 236). ‘My heart sank to find the humane and rational David Hume proclaiming this,’ writes Jenny Uglow in her NYRB review of Thomas’s book.15 Aaron Garrett and Silvia Sebastiani, in their chapter about ‘David Hume on Race’, examine the fact that this footnote, in an attempt to exculpate Hume of racism, is often characterized as an ‘offhand comment’—after all, Hume has the reputation of a ‘secular saint’—and they contextualize the reasons why Hume upheld these ideas. They conclude that there is ‘a tendency when dealing with important philosophers to ignore or sideline their beliefs when we find them repellent and to trumpet them when they correspond to beliefs that we hold to be correct . . . This makes for bad apologist history and bad philosophy. For this reason alone, it is important to highlight the cases when undeniably great philosophers held considered beliefs that we hold to be morally repugnant . . .  It is also important to recognize that these positions have an afterlife due to the esteem in which these figures are rightly held.’16

The same idea applies to writers like Keats whose charisma not only affected his contemporaries, but extends into the present day.17 I don’t have an answer to the question as to why Keats invokes the Chinese in this way, or which specific source he may have had in mind (apart from Robertson and Hazlitt). There is, however, a satirical association between the Regency (and its political imbecility), with its penchant for luxurious consumption (including chinoiserie), and the racist characterisation of the Chinese. Already in the Examiner of 2 June 1811 Leigh Hunt, Keats’s friend and mentor, had explicitly referred to the ‘imbecility’ of both the Duke of York and Prince Regent, after the latter had reinstated the former as ‘Commander-in-Chief’. After referring to the Duke of York as ‘one of the most imbecile persons existing’ and alleging that the Prince Regent would have had ‘proofs without number of this imbecility since he was a boy’, Hunt attributed the reinstatement decision to the Prince Regent’s own ‘native imbecility—an inborn rickettiness of mind, which it is now too late to rectify.’ 18 And if we keep that in mind, there may be some food for thought in the crossed section of the letter to Taylor.    

Lamia

‘I will cross the letter with some lines from Lamia,’ Keats writes at the end of his address to Taylor (KL 2.157). We turn the page ninety degrees, and perpendicular on the advice to Taylor, Keats evokes the gilded cage Lamia finds herself in. Lycius has decided on a big, fat Corinthian wedding, and the included passage starts off with a description of the vulgarly magnificent banquet set-up, with Lamia famously floating in ‘pale contented sort of discontent’ (KL 2.158). Less than two weeks after including this passage Keats writes to George and Georgiana about Lamia that he is ‘certain there is that sort of fire in it which must take hold of people in some way—give them either pleasant or unpleasant sensation. What they want is a sensation of some sort’ (KL 2.189). And ‘sensation’ they get. The message to Taylor is the message to a publisher: the public will want this. They may not understand the extent to which they are reading a satirical portrayal of themselves as voyeuristic consumers, but they will lap it up. It’s an early nineteenth century reality-show, an experiment in disastrous coupling, combined with a touch of extreme make-over, in an resort-like setting, and with a crusty know-all, spoilsport judge (Apollonius) thrown in. The gawking crowd, whose ‘common eyes’ devour the set, can’t quite believe their luck that they’re actually invited, somehow, to this party. One could conceive of this passage as a Cruikshank cartoon—Inconveniences of a Crowded Drawing Room (1818) come to mind—satirizing the ‘herd’ who have elbowed their way in. The decorations include ‘jasper pannels’, which could refer to precious stones but also suggested the jasperware pottery invented by Wedgwood for which there was a strong appetite at the time.

How does the address to Taylor talk to this passage from Lamia, I wonder? Both show an underbelly of humanity, an ebullient darkness and vulgarity which we do not want to associate with our more etherial version of Keats. In the wake of the damning Endymion reviews he is keen to prove that he’s a Butcher rather than a Peasant, that he can’t be classified with the weak, that he too can pull out all the stops. The passage from Lamia in this letter to Taylor differs from all other versions by the inclusion of eighteen lines ‘subsequently discarded’.19 And overall, this version is more extreme, with Lycius described as ‘Dolt! Fool! Madman! Lout!’ (KL 2.158).

‘saith Glutton “Mum!”’

The lines which were later omitted depict, in broadly humorous strokes, the merriment of the guests:

And, as the pleasant appetite entic’d,
Gush came the wine, and sheer the meats were slic’d.
Soft went the Music; the flat salver sang
Kiss’d by the emptied goblet,–and again it rang:
Swift bustled by the servants:–here’s a health
Cries one—another—then, as if by stealth,
A Glutton drains a cup of Helicon,
Too fast down, down his throat the brief delight is gone.
“Where is that Music?” cries a Lady fair.
“Aye, where is it my dear? Up in the air”?
Another whisphers ‘Poo!’ saith Glutton “Mum!”
Then makes his shiny mouth a <k>napking for his thumb. & & & – (KL 2. 159)

The arch-glutton at the time was of course the Prince Regent, portrayed as fat and gross in the cartoons of the period, and specifically referred to as the ‘fat Regent’ in Keats’s letter to Fanny Keats of 28 August 1819 (KL 2.149). Stylistically, this passage is the territory of Chaucer rather than Dryden, the avowed model for Lamia, with the final lines redolent of Nicholas and Alisoun’s prank on John the Carpenter in The Miller’s Tale. As Chaucer’s characters all hide in the mounted barrels supposedly awaiting the flood, they pronounce ‘clom’ (‘quiet’) in the same way as ‘poo’ and ‘mum’ are articulated in this passage. In addition, we also get a potential reference to Absolon’s itching mouth, before he ends up kissing Alisoun’s bottom.20 These provocative lines from Lamia foreshadowed Keats’s letter to Taylor of 17 November when he professed that ‘Wonders are no wonders to me. I am more at home amongst Men and women. I would rather read Chaucer than Ariosto [which he was reading in September]’ (KL 2.234). By November Keats’s mind was fully set on satire, because that is what he was working on.

China Walk, Lambeth

According to the Electronic Concordance to Keats’s Poems the word ‘China’ is used in Keats’s poetry twice, both in humorous contexts.21 The first instance is uncapitalized and refers to the ‘china closet’ of Mrs. C. which she has abandoned in order to climb Ben Nevis (‘Upon my life, Sir Nevis, I am piqu’d’, CP 213, l. 14). The second instance connects directly with the crass consumerism and gluttony of the Regency, as depicted in the Lamia passage of the letter to Taylor. By the end of 1819 Keats was working on a poem which in Woodhouse’s transcript was entitled ‘The jealousies. A faery Tale, by Lucy Vaughan Lloyd of China Walk, Lambeth’ (Stillinger, Texts, 268). The poem is a satire on the disastrous marriage of the Prince Regent (Emperor Elfinan in the poem) and Princess Caroline of Brunswick (Bellanaine) through an account of Bellanaine’s procession from Brunswick to her unwilling groom-to-be in London, as narrated by Lucy. Her names, ‘Vaughan’ and ‘Lloyd’, are Welsh, and ‘China Walk, Lambeth, was the site of the first English commercial pottery factory’; as Christine Gallant puts it: ‘Keats’s “Lucy Vaughan Lloyd” probably came from rural Wales to become one of the hardworking, badly paid pottery workers of China Walk.’22 The naïve star-struck narrator of The Jealousies is a ‘working-class Welsh migrant to Cockney London’ (135). In 1815 potter John Doulton invested his savings in the Vauxhall Walk pottery of Martha Jones, and together with her foreman John Watts, they became ‘Jones, Watts, and Doulton’.23 ‘Lucy Vaughan Lloyd’ would have worked in a pottery (china-ware) factory amidst dust, she would have been exposed to lead and chemical dies, and she would probably have lived in close proximity to the factory in squalid, urban conditions. Already by the early nineteenth century the area was entirely filled up with ‘poor quality, working class housing’ and by the 1870s it was notorious for its ‘poverty and crime’.24

‘a spot’

There is much more to be said about The Jealousies and its relationship to Lamia, but, for now, the letter to Taylor with its cancelled Chaucerian passage about a ridiculous Glutton bridges the worlds of tragedy and comedy. The ‘fat Regent’ holding court ‘à la Chinese’ may be a figure of fun for his ‘imbecility’, but the consequences of his luxurious misrule are dire for those who cannot afford to ‘choose a spot’, who must labour where they can find work. The Peterloo Massacre was a horrific example of entrapment in a spot. I still do not fully grasp the extent and ramifications of Keats’s observation about the ‘imbecillity of the Chinese’, but the vivid association with the crass stupidity of the Prince Regent suggests in itself that there is an ‘imbecility’ problem within England itself. The Chinese labourers in the fields and the Welsh workers in the china factories of Lambeth definitely had that in common: they could not choose a spot.

About the author
Heidi Thomson works primarily on topics in British Romanticism and has published widely on the life and works of Thomas Gray, Maria Edgeworth, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats. Her book Coleridge and the Romantic Newspaper: The Morning Post and the Road to Dejection appeared in 2016. She also has recent essays on Keats in the collections Keats’s Places (Palgrave, 2018) and John Keats in Context (Cambridge UP, 2017)

Notes