Letter #42: To George and Tom Keats, 13/19 January 1818

Regular readers of the KLP will know that one of our frequent preoccupations is the sad fact that six of Keats’s letters come to us from just one source: the unreliable transcripts of John Jeffrey. The negative capability letter is the most famous of these, but this letter–begun on 13 January and completed almost a week later–is another of them. One would hope that someday some or all of these six letters would resurface, if only to show how many mistakes Jeffrey made in his transcripts (sorry, Jeffrey!). Alas, no luck so far.

Now, what follows is an extreme long shot, but it nonetheless shows that the search for known unknown Keats letters really ought to be undertaken in a concerted fashion. There’s plenty that we know about some of these manuscripts, and with what speculations and suppositions we can add to that certain knowledge, we have plenty of archival rocks under which to look. First, then, here’s what we know about this letter. Jeffrey made a transcript in summer 1845. He sent that transcript to Richard Monckton Milnes that fall, and Milnes published some of the letter based on that transcript in his 1848 Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats. Jeffrey misdated the letter as 21 April 1818–specifically Jeffrey writes at the letter’s opening, “Tuesday Hampstead 1818 / April 21.” In Jeffrey’s defense, 21 April and 13 January 1818 were both Tuesdays, so perhaps there’s some reasonable explanation for his mistake (since Keats finished writing the letter on 19 January, it’s possible that a postmark may have included “21” for the date of sending or receipt… as for the April for January bit, who knows). In any case, in Milnes’s 1848 and 1867 editions, the letter is dated as such. Milnes also excises a sizable portion of Jeffrey’s transcript, and for an understandable reason. In that portion Keats details infighting between members of the Keats/Hunt circle: namely, between John Hamilton Reynolds and Benjamin Robert Haydon, and between Leigh Hunt and Haydon. In 1848 Hunt was still alive, and Haydon had only recently died, so one can see why Milnes might want to keep the petty squabbles out of public notice.

After 1845 the letter likely remained under Jeffrey’s care for some time, eventually being passed on to Emma Keats Speed (1823-1883). EKS is known to have been the family steward of her uncle John’s letters and papers. In part we know this because there are examples of documents she presented to people as gifts. The most famous of these gifts was one presented to Oscar Wilde (in an 1886 essay for the Century Guild Hobby Horse Wilde tells the story of his encounter with EKS in Louisville in 1882). It seems likely that she also gave a letter (3-9 July 1818 to Tom) to James Freeman Clarke when he visited Louisville in 1873. Clarke was a friend of George Keats back in the 1830s, when Clarke lived in Louisville for a brief time. In his magazine The Western Messenger in 1836 he published two of Keats’s letters from his tour of Scotland in 1818 (we’ll get to those this June!). Unfortunately the manuscript of one of those two letters (25-27 June 1818 to Tom) is now lost, so the text from Clarke’s magazine is our only source for it. But the KLP does not think Clarke is responsible for its disappearance. He clearly returned to George the other letter (23, 26 July 1818 to Tom) since that MS still exists, and since it was copied by Jeffrey in 1845. Somehow that one made its way to England and ended up in the “Crewe Collection,” the materials assembled by Milnes and preserved by his family after his death. Ok, we’re getting in the weeds now–sorry!

There’s at least one other letter we know Emma Keats Speed gave away: the 12 November 1819 letter to George and Georgiana. In February 1869 she gave the manuscript to a Philadelphian collector named Frank Marx Etting (who, incidentally, had just recently married Alice Taney, daughter of Chief Justice Roger Taney, notorious for writing the Dred Scott decision–perhaps the newlyweds honeymooned in Louisville). Etting had a friend named Brantz Mayer who was also a collector of autographs and manuscripts. On 18 March 1869, when it seems Etting was still in Louisville, Mayer wrote to his friend and asked him, among other things: “GET ME THAT KEATS autograph.” (Since HTML won’t allow–as far as we can tell with our limited skills–a double underscore, we’re going with the small caps for the first part of the quotation.)

Brantz Mayer to Frank Marx Etting, 18 March 1869. Courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Mayer runs out of space and so writes “autograph” vertically on the facing leaf.

Perhaps Mayer wants Etting to show him the one letter we know he received from EKS. But the “GET ME”  seems to imply something other than merely “show me.” What if Etting left Louisville with not just one Keats letter (the 12 Nov 1819 letter which makes it to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania after Etting dies in 1890)… what if he left with TWO? More digging is to be done in order to ascertain where Mayer’s autograph collection went to. One contemporary source, An Essay on the Autographic Collections of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution (1889), claims that Mayer’s collection of autographs was sold at auction in November 1879, nine months after Mayer’s death. It’s certainly possible that among the items auctioned off was a bit of Keats memorabilia, even if just a cut-out signature, or perhaps a scrap of a poetic manuscript (Emma Keats Speed gave a cut-up piece of Otho the Great to Sallie M. Hunt, the wife of a business partner (A. D. Hunt) of her son George Keats Speed–complicated, we know). If today’s letter, or any of the letters for which we rely on Jeffrey’s transcripts, were to reappear, who knows what we might learn. It might be minor. Jeffrey often cuts just a sentence or two here or there, as opposed to cutting much longer sections (of course, in a few cases he does cut very big sections). But even if the original letter revealed just an additional sentence or two, it could still go a long way toward further refining what we know about Keats, his epistolary writing, and the many ideas and concerns he tackles therein.

Take the primary issue in today’s letter: the difficulty of seeing and valuing genuine human kindness when it coexists with instances of petty vindictiveness. What other nuances might we encounter were we to get a new sentence or two added to this letter? In some ways the question is a vain one. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that this letter will never be rediscovered. So while still holding out hope, let’s at least recognize the depth of thought on display in the letter as it comes to us via Jeffrey.

A remarkable thing happens at the beginning of this letter to his brothers: Keats essentially disavows his investment in “works of genius.” In a letter to Haydon a few days before he began this one, Keats had identified Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion, Haydon’s paintings, and William Hazlitt’s “depth of Taste” as “three things to rejoice at in this Age.” Now he repeats the remark to George and Tom, but then quickly denies that “works of genius were the first things in the world.” What, then, ranks more highly in Keats’s estimation? Turns out it’s the everyday goodness of human beings, exemplified in Keats’s mind by his friend Benjamin Bailey. He writes, “that sort of probity & disinterestedness which such men as Bailey possess, does hold & grasp the tip top of any spiritual honours, that can be paid to any thing in this world.”

Here we should emphasize again that these comments come amidst Keats’s growing frustration with the all-too-remembered acts of unkindness occurring between some of his friends. In typically Keatsian fashion, we see him vacillating from asserting that “there is nothing stable in the world—uproar’s your only musick,” to then claiming that he values good-hearted sociability above all else. The strength of the latter feeling, he notes, is what led him to begin this letter to his brothers: “And moreover having this feeling at this present come over me in its full force, I sat down to write to you with a grateful heart, in that I had not a Brother, who did not feel & credit me, for a deeper feeling & devotion for his uprightness, than for any marks of genius however splendid.” As much as we may engage with Keats’s life and work because of those “marks of genius,” it’s worth remembering as well how that spirit of genius emanates from a deeply-felt commitment to human connection. The letters often show Keats’s genius, but they are also remarkable for the traces of love, kindness, and goodness that they preserve and transmit to us.

At the same time, the letters also show the human failures which exist within the very structures of sociability that make possible expressions of “deeper feeling” and “uprightness.” And what are the grievous wrongs about which Keats’s pals were feuding? 1) John Hamilton Reynolds didn’t RSVP for Haydon’s dinner party, and 2) Haydon chastised Leigh Hunt and his wife for not returning borrowed silverware in a prompt enough manner. FOR SHAME! We venture here to say that Keats’s true “marks of genius” shine through most brightly precisely when he has insights about the smallness of human character. And that means not just the pettiness of squabbles related to etiquette. It’s also about the minor moments of beauty, of care, of friendship and love. It’s about the “spiritual yeast” contained within us and which “creates the ferment of existence,” as Keats will put it to Bailey in a letter a few days after finishing this one to his brothers. While we surely do not know all the dimensions of Keats’s thinking on these issues—especially considering that the Jeffrey transcript on which we rely contains, without a doubt, less than the original letter—we nonetheless see him articulate momentary clearings in the “Mist” of social being, and we hear his subtle melodies overtaking the uproar.

To read the letter for yourself, you can check out Harry Buxton Forman’s 1889 edition. This was revised reissue of the 1883 edition, and one of the changes for 1889 was printing the entirety of Jeffrey’s transcript. It appears that at some point between 1883 and 1889 Forman got his hands on the transcript (perhaps he had better luck working with Milnes ancestors than with Milnes himself, who died in 1885). Images of Jeffrey’s transcript also included below.

Page 1 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 13/19 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 2 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 13/19 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 2 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 13/19 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).


Letter #41: To Benjamin Robert Haydon, 10 January 1818

In the introductory post for the first of today’s two letters, we noted that Keats devotes most of his space to apologizing in both of them. He has to excuse himself for not calling on his publisher John Taylor sooner because he hadn’t finished copying Book I of Endymion yet. And now to Haydon he has to apologize for bailing on the painter on multiple occasions. As a side note, we feel compelled to express sympathy for Keats’s predicament here. He begins his two letters today with “Several things have kept me from you lately” (to Taylor) and “I should have seen you ere this” (to Haydon). This humble KLP editor has been known to begin an email or two with a phrase like “Apologies for not getting back to you sooner.” Alas, we feel your pain, Keats.

But to the letter itself. As in the letter to Taylor, Keats here apologizes for being less available because of his busy dining-out schedule. He also notes that he’s had to call on his sister Fanny, it being the holiday season and all, and Fanny’s guardian Richard Abbey being an unpleasant, domineering sort who made it hard for the Keats brothers to see their sister on a more regular basis. We can detect some of Haydon’s pique about being snubbed in his reply to Keats sent on the next day, where he praises Keats and speaks confidently of what he believes will be an eternal friendship, but then also passive-aggressively suggests that Keats better give him notice if he ever plans to bail on Haydon. It comes off weirdly as a bit of a threat: “and now you know my peculiar feelings in wishing to have a notice when you cannot keep an engagement with me; there can never be as long as we live any ground of dispute between us.” In other words, “I really appreciate you as a friend so don’t give me any reasons to cut you loose!”

Also of interest at the end of today’s letter is Keats’s claim that “there are three things to rejoice at in this Age–The Excursion Your Pictures, and Hazlitt’s depth of Taste.” Even if Haydon was a bit miffed about Keats’s flexible social calendar, he clearly wasn’t bothered enough to turn down a compliment. And he returned the favor in his reply by noting “a fourth to be proud of–John Keats’ genius!” We concur, Haydon. We concur.

The text of the letter comes from the still extant manuscript, which Haydon preserved in his diary for decades. The diary was passed down through Haydon’s family for decades, until it was purchased by Maurice Buxton Forman in 1932. The Keats letters kept in the diary were purchased by Arthur Houghton and given to Harvard in 1952. For a reading text of the letter, we point you again to the 1895 volume edited by Harry Buxton Forman (father of Maurice). Images of the original manuscript below, courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library.

Page 1 of Keats’s 10 Jan 1818 letter to Haydon.
Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.18). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 10 Jan 1818 letter to Haydon.
Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.18). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #40: To John Taylor, 10 January 1818

Two letters from Keats on this day two hundred years ago: both brief ones, and both ones in which Keats has to apologize for his recipients. First up is the letter to John Taylor, Keats’s publisher. Keats had finished his draft of Endymion back at the end of November 1817, but by this point in early January 1818 he’d just barely begun to make progress in revising and making a fair copy of the poem. So, to Taylor, Keats has to apologize for dropping off the radar a bit. He comes up with a few excuses for his absence, including first, his “vow not to call again without [his] first book [of Endymion].” There’s also the tendency we’ve seen a lot of from material on the KLP over the past month and a half or so: Keats continues his active social life. He notes to Taylor that he had been “racketing too much” and as a result “[does] not feel over well.” It seems the effects of the Immortal Dinner, not to mention the Mortal Dinner (as the KLP has decided the George Reddell dinner ought to be called), had begun to catch up with the young gadabout.

The other excuse Keats offers is that Taylor “had got into a little hell, which [Keats] was not anxious to reconnoitre.” This “little hell,” according to Hyder Edward Rollins’s footnote, was a dispute Taylor and Hessey (Taylor’s business partner) had with Leigh Hunt over the transfer of profits from Hunt’s The Story of Rimini, which was first published by John Murray in 1816, and then reprinted in 1817 by Taylor and Hessey. We draw your attention to this detail because it continues with a theme we just began to see in late 1817 and which will recur frequently in the letters of 1818: Keats’s frustration with quarrels between members of his circle. The most direct statement of his discontent comes from the 8 October 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey, in which Keats claims, “I am quite disgusted with literary Men and will never know another except Wordsworth–no not even Byron–Here is an instance of the friendships of such.” He then goes on to detail a dispute between Haydon and Hunt. Well, we get just a hint of another such dispute here, and we’ll see more from Keats on this matter over the next year. Indeed, we see some of it on display in the next letter from today, written to none other than Haydon!

But before getting to that, you can read the text of Keats’s letter to Taylor in the one-volume Forman edition from 1895. The original letter is now lost, but it exists thanks to a transcript made by Richard Woodhouse, an image of which you can see below courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library.

Richard Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 10 January 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

“Keats’s Bawdry”

Ian Newman
University of Notre Dame

Re: Keats’s 5 January 1818 Letter to George and Tom Keats

When Keats wrote to his brothers George and Tom on 5 January 1818—his first letter to them since dining with Charles Lamb, William Wordsworth and others at Benjamin Haydon’s studio—“The Immortal Dinner” only gets a passing mention, in part because Keats was too busy making jokes about genitalia.

I was at a dance at Redhall’s and passed a pl[e]asant time enough—drank deep and won 10.6 at cutting for Half Guinies there was a younger Brother of the Squibs made himself very conspicuous after the Ladies had retired from the supper table by giving Mater Omnium—Mr Redhall said he did not understand anything but plain english—where at Rice egged the young fool on to say the World [sic] plainly out. After which there was an enquirey about the derivation of the Word C__t when while two parsons and Grammarians were setting together and settling the matter Wm Squibs interrupting them said a very good thing—‘Gentleman says he I have always understood it to be a Root and not a Derivative.’ (Rollins I, p. 200).

The host, George S. Reddell, was sword-cutler to the Prince Regent and the Dukes of Sussex and Cambridge, who resided at 236 Piccadilly near Haymarket, where Piccadilly Circus is now. He also provided surgical instruments to Guy’s Hospital, which is presumably how Keats knew him (Roe, p. 203). This exchange is typical of the kind of masculine banter that took place after dinner, “after the ladies retired” euphemistically indicating the moment when bawdy songs and crude jokes, often in the form of toasts, became the order of the day. Young Mr. Squib “gives”—that is, “offers a toast”—in Latin, “Mater Omnium” meaning literally “Mother of all,” clearly a slang term for vagina. The humor here lies in the contrast between sophisticated Latin expression and coarse content, a form of humor that was firmly established in masculine convivial circles of the early nineteenth century. The response by Reddell, who refuses any such sophistication, determinedly lays bare the crass nature of the toast, a refusal amplified by Rice, someone Keats had been spending much time with, and who introduces Keats to some of the cant terms most often associated with Pierce Egan and the Tom and Jerry craze, which would burst onto the London scene in 1819-20 following the serialized publication of Life in London. It is Rice who causes young Squib to blurt “C__t” out in plain English, to the amusement of all gathered.

But Keats’s account of the after-dinner conversation is not done yet. He continues his report: “On proceeding to the Pot in the Cupboard it soon became full on which the Court door was opened Frank Floodgate bawls out, Hoollo! here’s an opposition pot—Ay, says Rice in one you have a Yard for your pot, and in the other a pot for your Yard” (Rollins I: pp. 200-201). This is helpful evidence for those who have wondered how bathroom etiquette worked in the days before flushing toilets. Apparently, chamber Pots were kept in “cupboards” —a kind of commode—in the dining room, which could be expeditiously visited without causing an inconvenient break in conversation. The contents were then emptied out into the “yard.” Plans of taverns from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries show conspicuous outdoor “yards,” presumably included in the architecture with this purpose in mind. But, as Rollins points out, “yard” was also one of the most common literary words for penis, and so the puns here contrasting the pot and the yard, pick up on the previous comments concerning reproductive organs, developing the language of body parts (and it’s likely the “pot” here is another reference to female genitals) and layering over it a language of early nineteenth-century bathroom mechanics.

Richard Marggraf Turley has suggested that the censoring of the “enquirey” into the derivation of the word “C__t”–seen both in Keats’s refusal to report the details of the discussion and his reluctance to spell out the word itself–testifies to Keats’s uncertainty and indecision when it came to replicating ‘after-dinner’ modes of masculine address” (Marggraf Turley, p. 108). There is indeed something of the self-conscious “sniggering schoolboy” (Marggraf Turley’s phrase) in Keats’s representation of bawdy conversation, but what is surely more striking is just how far Keats goes. It perhaps not so much that the conversation is shocking itself, but Keats’s willingness to represent it raises an eyebrow. And it’s all the more notable just how much detail Keats goes into when compared to his account of the “Immortal Dinner,” for which Keats provides very little detail concerning the conversation.

“I forget whether I had written my last before my Sunday Evening at Haydon’s,” Keats scrawls, as if the thing is of no consequence. Then continues “—no I did n{o}t or I should have told you Tom of a y{oung} Man you met at Paris at Scott’s of the n{ame of} Richer” (Rollins I, p. 197-8). It’s a performance of absent-mindedness (genuine or feigned) that emphasizes the whirl of sociability—so many dinners, so much to report it’s hard to keep them all straight. And it’s a curious historiographical fact that when he introduces the subject of the Immortal Dinner, Keats’s emphasis is primarily on one of the lesser-lights in the firmament of Immortality, Joseph Ritchie (whom he calls “Richer” presumably mistakenly, but it could be another punning in-joke with his brothers) the surgeon and explorer who was about to set off on a government-sponsored expedition to Fezzan, in what is now southwest Libya. (Like many of the “immortals” Ritchie would die prematurely, in November 1820.) After mentioning Ritchie, Keats, in an exemplary humble brag, mentions the other dinner guests: “then there was Wordsworth, Lamb, Monkhouse, Landseer, Kingston and your humble Sarvant,” going on to relate briefly, how “Lamb got tipsey and blew up Kingston—proceeding so far as to take the Candle across the Room hold it to his face and show us wh-a-at-sort-fello he-waas I astonished Kingston at supper with a pertinacity in favour of drinking—keeping my two glasses at work in a knowing way.” Keats then suddenly departs from the dinner with a note about their sister, “I have seen Fanny twice lately,” urging the brothers to write to her (I: p. 198).

So much has been written about the “Immortal Dinner”—including two books dedicated to the subject in recent years (by Penelope Hughes-Hallett and Stanley Plumly)—that the brevity of the account is a little disarming. It has been billed as the legendary night when first and second generation Romantic poets gathered together for spirited literary conversation, laced with not a little wine. So familiar are the stories—of Kingston’s high-minded banality, asking Wordsworth whether he thought Milton and Newton geniuses; of the social awkwardness of the sober Wordsworth being confronted by his superior from the Stamp Office; of Haydon’s bravura in setting the dining table in front of his enormous painting Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, in which Keats, Lamb and Wordsworth were depicted in the crowd; and especially of Lamb’s hilariously drunken behavior, chanting Diddle idle don / My son John / Went to bed with his breeches on as serious subjects were broached, and asking to examine Kingston’s head whenever he uttered something mundane—that it is remarkable to find the occasion skipped over so lightly in Keats’s letter.

Recall just how excited Keats was to meet the artist just over a year earlier when he visited Haydon’s studio as Hazlitt was sitting for his portrait for Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem. So thrilled was he that he penned his sonnet “Great Spirits Now on Earth Are Sojourning,” which included Haydon along with Leigh Hunt and William Wordsworth as one of the thrilling intellects now regenerating the planet. A mere thirteen months and sixteen days later Keats was so used to hanging out with the great spirits of the age that they only get a passing mention, along with his theater reviews for the Champion, Tom’s illness, dinners with Wells and Severn and Haslam, the education in cant that Rice has given him (including the expression “hanging out”), the Covent Garden Pantomime, Shelley’s review of Godwin’s Mandeville, subscriptions for William Hone (whose trials for blasphemy were underway), the relative merits of Smollett and Walter Scott, dancing, Fanny’s request for a letter, and the derivation of the word C__t. Reading this letter it becomes clear how much is going on with Keats, and especially how much of it, in this Christmas season, involves socializing. This is an impression Keats is keen to give to his brothers. The characteristic punctuation is a series of dashes, producing a breathless forward motion, a non-sequential stream of thoughts scribbled down in haste, often blurring into one another.

Part of the absence of details about the Immortal Dinner, then, has to do with the particular character of his correspondence with his brothers, which is often playful, funny, punny and salacious. I’m struck by Brian Bates’s comments on how considering pantomime might help us come to terms with the comedic possibilities of negative capability, which has often been taken much too seriously. Part of the effect of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts,” Bates suggests, is one of leveling, so that Harlequin and Shakespeare can be taken equally seriously. What is striking about the 5 January follow-up to the negative capability letter is the effacement of the serious in favor of the low, essentially enacting an argument he makes in favor of Smollett over Scott in the same letter: “Scott endeavours to th[r]ow so interesting and ramantic a colouring into common and low Characters as to give them a touch of the Sublime—Smollet on the contrary pulls down and levels what with other Men would continue Romance. The Grand parts of Scott are within reach of more Minds that [sic] the finest humours in Humphrey Clinker—I forget whether that fine thing of the Sargeant is Fielding’s or Smollets but it gives me more pleasure that [sic] the whole Novel of Antiquary—you must remember what I mean. Some one says to the Sargeant “thats a non sequiter,” “if you come to that” replies the Sargeant “you’re another”” (Rollins I: p. 200). The “fine thing of the Sargeant” is in fact in Fielding’s Tom Jones, not Smollett, but regardless, Keats’s preference for the comic novelists of the eighteenth-century over Scott’s historical novels, however appealing they may be to Minds, is telling. The “leveling” principle in Keats involves not an elevation of the low, so much as a reduction of the high. Or to put that another way, Keats enjoys pointing out the absurdity of the pretentions of elite culture—at least in his letters to his brothers. So it makes sense that in this letter he should devote more time to Rice’s bawdry than Haydon’s elevated aspirations towards genius, or Wordsworth’s sagacity. It makes sense, too, that when it comes to recalling the Immortal Dinner, Keats’s emphasis should not be on the high-minded excellence of the conversation, which Haydon compared favorably to anything in Boswell (Plumly p.127), but to Lamb’s silliness. Of course, Keats could at times aspire to high-minded genius himself, but this letter suggests that we would do well to attend to the ways those aspirations are kept in check by a playful sense of the absurd and the vulgar.


Works Cited

Coleman, Julie, A History of Cant And Slang Dictionaries, Volume II 1785-858, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Brewer, David A., “The Moment of Tom and Jerry” ‘when Fistycuffs were the fashion’” https://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/fandom/praxis.fandom.2010.brewer.html.

Hughes-Hallett, Penelope, The Immortal Dinner: A Famous Evening of Genius and Laughter in Literary London, 1817, London: New Amsterdam Books, 2000.

Keats, John, The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder E. Rollins, 2 vols., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Marggraf Turley, Richard, Keats’s Boyish Imagination, London: Routledge, 2004.

Plumly, Stanley, The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb, New York: W.W. Norton, 2014.

Roe, Nicholas, John Keats: A New Life, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.


Letter #39: To George and Tom Keats, 5 January 1818

Happy New Year, Keats fans! As 1817 turned to 1818, Keats was up to much of the same as he’d been up to in December 1817: lots of eating, drinking, socializing, and “hanging out” (a Regency slang term Keats picks up from his friend James Rice and uses in today’s letter). One of the remarkable things about this letter, as KLP co-founder Ian Newman explains in his response, is that Keats spends very little time detailing the events of the “Immortal Dinner” (the dinner party of 28 Dec at Haydon’s which Keats attended among other luminaries including Charles Lamb and William Wordsworth), but quite a bit of time and detail on a rather more mortal dinner. This was an evening at George Reddell’s (or Redhall, as Keats has it), probably on 3 or 4 January.

As will become clear from Newman’s response, this other dinner involved quite a bit of bawdy conversation. Even though the Immortal Dinner featured fair amounts of silliness and rowdiness–notably Keats himself with his “pertinacity in favour of drinking–keeping [his] two glasses at work in a knowing way”–one imagines that some of the bawdy jokes and crude conversation at the dinner hosted by Reddell would have made Wordsworth even more uncomfortable than he’d been when his old friend Lamb got in his cups back at Haydon’s. Newman situates Keats’s retelling of the dinner and its conversation in two crucial contexts: the culture of male conviviality in Regency London, and Keats’s continued thinking on issues raised in the negative capability letter back at the end of December 1817. Drawing on Brian Bates’s recent post detailing the significance of the Christmas pantomime for the negative capability letter, Newman offers another astute analysis which reminds us of Keats’s frequent “leveling” of high and low, serious and absurd, sacred and profane.

One other detail to note about this letter and what insight it might provide about the original manuscript of the negative capability letter (we can’t quit you, negative capability!). Regular readers and negative capability acolytes will recall that the letter featuring Keats’s coinage comes to us not from the original MS (now lost or destroyed), but from an unreliable transcript by John Jeffrey (you can read more about Jeffrey and the MS here and here). Presumably, the negative capability letter (which we know was sent on 27 or 28 December 1817) was the last letter Keats sent his brothers until today’s letter (which was written and sent on 5 January 1818). We can infer as much because Keats begins the letter from today with this apology: “I ought to have written before, and you should have had a long Letter last week.”

As Rollins writes of this phrase, it is an “odd remark.” Did Keats not send them a letter just last week (if it was sent on 27 or 28 December)? Is he merely apologizing that the letter he did send wasn’t as long as he intended it to be? If so, the negative capability letter is not all that short–especially considering that Keats’s original manuscript most likely included a decent amount more than Jeffrey’s transcript–so it still seems a bit odd to apologize here. One other possibility, although we warn you that it’s a highly unlikely one, is that… wait for it… wait for it… what if Keats never actually sent the negative capability letter??

Ok, so here’s why that’s probably not the case. In today’s letter, he mentions that he “must … correct a little misconception of a part of my last Letter.” This he writes after he’s started mentioning “Your last Letter.” What’s happening basically looks like this: Keats sends the negative capability letter (“my last Letter”) and it arrives in Teignmouth around 29 December; Tom and George write a reply (“Your last Letter”) and send it by, say, 2 January; Keats receives it (maybe 3 January) and then writes his reply on 5 January. Since we don’t have the letter written by Tom and George, we don’t know exactly what they had to say about the negative capability letter or anything else they cared to share with their brother at the time. But Keats does say that “Your [Tom and George’s] last Letter” gave him “great Pleasure” because it suggested to him that Tom was “in a better spirit there along the Edge [i.e. on the seashore].” And then he gets to the misconception about which he wants to clarify matters for George.

Here is where things get curious again. Keats writes following the bit about the misconception: “The Miss Reynolds have never said one word against me about you [presumably meaning against George to John], or by any means endeavoured to lessen you in my estimation. That is not what I refered to: but the manner and thoughts which I knew they internally had towards you–time will show.” However, nothing about the Reynolds sisters and their opinions of George appears in the negative capability letter! So if George is concerned about something his brother mentioned regarding the Reynolds sisters in a previous letter, it was either in another (unknown) letter, or it was part of the negative capability letter that John Jeffrey excised. Either way, today’s letter demonstrates yet again how much we simply do not know about the original letter in which Keats wrote one of his most famous phrases.

Of course, there is more to say on the matter, including the fact that Jeffrey also copied today’s letter, the MS of which still survives (now in the New York Public Library). It was acquired at some point by Carl Pforzheimer, Jr., who bequeathed it to the NYPL in 1986. Although Jeffrey transcribed the letter and sent it to Richard Monckton Milnes in 1845, Milnes did not include the letter in his 1848 biography of Keats (perhaps because of the letter’s more bawdy moments). The MS appears to have stayed in the Keats family, first with Emma Keats Speed, daughter of George and Georgiana Keats, and then with her son, John Gilmer Speed, who published an edition of Keats’s letters and poems in 1883. As far as the KLP can tell at this point, Gilmer Speed’s edition is the first time this particular letter was published. The KLP would like to tell you more about the provenance of the 5 January 1818 letter, but at this point we cannot! We’ll keep looking into it, as we are wont to do.

We point you toward Gilmer Speed’s edition for some of the letter, but he unsurprisingly excises the section including the more controversial bits. (His footnote to that part of the letter, however, reveals more than it probably attempts to conceal!) For the rest of the letter, we include the images below of the final paragraphs as printed in the Rollins edition.


Chance Promise

Todd Osborne
University of Southern Mississippi

Re: Keats’s 31 December 1817 letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon

So difficult, making engagements,
arranging things just so—the universe
tends toward dissolution in all things,

even plans made with friends. If
thoughtlessly is a word that can be applied
here, so is unerringly. Who can stop

the world from its course? There are stars
and sun—which one can be out in all day—
there are words to be said, meetings

missed and made, and yet even so
there are chance encounters, a walk
on a heath, intentional or not, can

become a conversation with a friend,
can become an all-day affair, or merely
something to be mentioned at the end

of a missive. A tossed-off fact about
the days that have passed. A way
to excuse one’s behavior, an apology.

Letter #38: To Benjamin Robert Haydon, 31 December 1817

The negative capability letter may have felt like a fitting conclusion to 1817/2017, and indeed it was! But it turns out there is one other letter Keats wrote before the year was quite out. The KLP prefers the showmanship of going out on a high note, so we’ve waited until a few days after the calendar has turned to get to the 31 Dec 1817 letter to Haydon. No, it was definitely NOT because holiday festivities took precedence over our being timely. Not a chance.

In any case we present to you the final letter of 1817 a few days into 2018. For Keats the final day of the year 1817 was perhaps a bit less exciting than the evening of 28 December, when he attended the so-called “Immortal Dinner.” But there is one small detail in today’s short note which deserves some notice: Keats tells Haydon, “I met Wordsworth on Hampstead Heath this Morning.” If Keats were living in 2017, one imagines he might have followed up with “NBD.” The thought of those two great spirits sojourning separately and just happening to bump into one another… it does put us out of breath.

The chance meeting with Wordsworth is part of the subject of our response to this letter: a poem from Todd Osborne. After reading the brief letter below, head over to the next post to enjoy the poem!

Keats’s 31 Dec 1817 letter to Haydon.