Anne C. McCarthy
Penn State University
Re: Keats’s 5 or 12 Nov 1817 letter to the Dilkes
The following collection has been entitled Sibylline Leaves; in allusion to the fragmentary and widely scattered state in which they have been long suffered to remain.
The Cumaean Sybil, the one who is most closely associated with the prophecies written on oak leaves and scattered by winds through the cave, the figure who guides Aeneas through the underworld and sings the founding of Rome, had attracted the attention of Apollo in her youth. Ovid tells the story in the Metamorphoses. Apollo granted her a single wish—that she would live a thousand years, one for each of the grains of sand she held in her hand. But here, the foresight of the prophetess fails: she asks for life but not for youth to go along with it. And so, she shrinks and shrivels a little more each year, until her whole being is nothing more than a voice.
In her cave she was accustomed to inscribe on leaves gathered from the trees the names and fates of individuals. The leaves thus inscribed were arranged in her order within the cave, and might be consulted by her votaries. But if perchance at the opening of the door the wind rushed in and dispersed the leaves the Sibyl gave no aid to restoring them again, and the oracle was irreparably lost.
He didn’t even specify the date, John Keats, when he dashed off a mock-formal note to C. W. Dilke, his wife Maria, and his brother William, requesting that whoever gets this message first send him a copy of Coleridge’s new collection of old poems gathered together for posterity from the yellowing pages of old periodicals and earlier volumes. There were a handful of poems that had never been published before, and even some juvenilia. But much of the Sibylline Leaves—or, as Keats renders it, the “Sybilline Leaves”—is made up of the kinds of poems we associate with a younger Coleridge: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (published for the first time with the poet’s name attached and with his annotations), “The Eolian Harp,” “Fears in Solitude,” “Dejection: An Ode,” and many others. Sibylline Leaves was published the same year as the Biographia Literaria, and we know that Keats was reading both in the final months of 1817—absorbing the poetry and the philosophy, the willing suspension of disbelief and the supernatural strangeness of Coleridgean love, and—perhaps (as Richard Holmes intimates)—meditating on the song of the nightingale.
We could make out little by the dim light, but they seemed to contain prophecies, detailed relations of events but lately passed; names, now well known, but of modern date; and often exclamations of exultation or woe, of victory or defeat, were traced on their thin scant pages. This was certainly the Sibyl’s Cave …
Dilke and Charles Brown had built a house together. Brown lived on the “lesser” side, while Dilke, Maria, and their young son Wentworth occupied the other. “It was,” as a biographer of Dilke writes, “a modest dwelling … but the surroundings were quiet and peaceful, the grounds were rolling, the air was pure …” (Garrett 5-6). Dilke met Keats in early 1817, and the young poet became a frequent visitor at a house known for its hospitality and conversation. When Keats returned to London after his 1818 walking tour, he would often make the trip across Hampstead Heath to see the Dilkes after caring for his dying brother Tom. After Tom’s death, Keats moved in with Brown and would lodge there during most of his remaining time spent in London before departing for Italy late in 1820. Thus, Keats was living in Wentworth Place when he crossed paths with Coleridge in April 1819. They talked, and Keats doubled back after saying goodbye to shake the elder poet’s hand. This becomes the stuff of legend. “There is death in that hand,” Coleridge remarked to his companion (Holmes 497). They should have met again; if nothing else, they were both authors published by Taylor and Hessey. Wentworth Place is better known to us as the Keats House.
When in 1829 the Paris publisher Galignani produced a pirated anthology of three English poets, Coleridge was moved to discover that his work had been chosen alongside that of Keats and Shelley. He had become one of the young English poets again, and Keats had paid the long-delayed visit to Highgate after all.
The Sibylline leaves, stirred and scattered by the wind, remind us of the ways that our words are never entirely our own. They inhabit other temporalities, appear in places that we never visited, predict events that we cannot possibly foresee. Keats promises to his friends that he will remain “in duty bound” to their kindness in forwarding the volume—bound to a future both longer and shorter than the one he anticipates. Our inscriptions exceed and escape us, they take on inhuman lives of their own and render us posthumous observers of the future to come. But on “this Wednesday morning of Novr 1817,” all of that remains in the future, casting only the faintest of shadows on Keats’s present. What is contained in this vision—the fatefulness, the fatedness—continues to unfold across many other Wednesday mornings and through many other Novembers.
Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable; The Age of Chivalry; Legends of Charlemagne. T. Y. Crowell Company, 1913.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson, and Raimonda Modiano. Norton, 2004.
Garrett, William. Charles Wentworth Dilke. Twayne Publishers, 1982.
Holmes, Richard. Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834. Pantheon, 1999.
Ovid. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Trans. Mary McInnes. Penguin, 1955.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. The Last Man. Ed. Anne McWhir. Broadview, 1996.