To JH Reynolds

Johannes Göransson
University of Notre Dame

Re: Keats’s 14 March 1818 letter to J. H. Reynolds

To JH Reynolds

Today I’m going to go to a sci-fi movie in the middle of the day. It’s about a zone where toxins speak in flowers. In that it’s like poetry.

Yesterday I watched a sci-fi movie about a robot who gives birth to a daughter. They find the mother’s bones buried in a box underground. They find the daughter in a bubble. One man is a robot, the other is human. Or the other way around. Or they’re both robots, both bounty hunters, both killers/lovers, both caught up in memories that may not be their own. They’re both foreigners, of course, immigrants. They don’t have soul, they don’t have children, their children are dead. Ditto 4 ditto 5. My point is: they walk up the stairs to the temple in which the daughter lives in a bubble and one of them dies on the stairs while the snow confetties down on him like poetry. While the other man enters the temple like in poetry.

One of them carries a little wooden horse in his memory.
The other carves a little wooden horse for his daughter.

Being a lover of antiquities, I imagined myself as both the man expiring in the snow and the man who gets to see his daughter – not speak to her mind you but to raise his hand and see her inside the bubble – and I imagined that they might be the same person, that the film couldn’t decide whether he would die or see his daughter. But then being a lover of antiquities, it seemed to me that they were indeed the same person and the daughter was dead and only by dying in the snow – which as I mentioned is like poetry – could the man see his daughter.

This science fiction and its sympathetic moisture: You have the sensation of betrayal.

You have the sensation of bleeding from the fingernails.

You have the sensation of ashes.

You have a small wooden horse of your own in science fiction.

Being a lover of antiquities, I imagine myself inside a science fiction as a kid of Betrayer. Inside the science fiction the green is beautiful as they say and pity it is that it is amphibious. I am amphibious inside the science fiction of flowers.

The science fiction of flowers: The Betrayer copies his fourth book and writes a preface. It’s all done. His mind is free for something new. For a little innocent bit of Metaphysic. He copies the fifth book from the Metaphysic of Innocence. He can’t find his money. His coins, his bills. He can’t find his daughter inside a temple that is like poetry: pretty cliffs, pretty Brooks, pretty Meadows, pretty trees. The green is amphibious in this science fiction film about poetry. The toxins killed his daughter. Or poetry killed his daughter. His daughter killed science fiction in my innocent head.

In a little innocent bit of Metaphysics in my head, in my temple of art, in my poem, in my science fiction film about memory, about snow (how it confetties, how it covers up my torso, which is bleeding from the fight, how it lands in my beard and on my lips), about a dead daughter inside a bubble, I’ll cut all sick people.

I’ll cut you.

I’ll go to the Theater and put a pebble in Your Mouth.

I’ll cut you.

I’ll cream you, I’ll clot you, I’ll sick-people you, I’ll tumble you, I’ll amphibian you, I’ll entertain you with cavalries sick people, I’ll dash you in your Country, I‘ll subject you to a sympathetic moisture, I’ll mouth you, I’ll harbor you in several houses, I’ll insult you at poor Jem Rice’s, I’ll look at you with a longing eye, I’ll forget to tell you that I’m a sweetheart, I’ll sweetheart you in the future, I’ll future you in Town, I’ll redress you with seasonable weather, I’ll direct you to Oxford, I’ll forget you in Oxford, I’ll summer you at the Bonnet Shop, I’ll weather you full of invention in the Bonnet Shop, I’ll write you a virgin and repent you, I’ll wing you and fly you to Nova Scotia, I’ll wish you to a favorite tune, I’ll know you have long taken it for granted, I’ll never you with speculations, I’ll nature you in places that I haunt the most, I’ll nature you in cavalries and clotted theaters, I’ll nature you with immense-other-nights, I’ll immense-other-night you with long letters, I’ll see you written in the air above you, I’ll remember you like an affectionate friend, I’ll john-keats you in Christ’s Hospital, London, March 14, 1818.

Keats Goes Gothic

Laura R. Kremmel
South Dakota School of Mines & Technology

Re: Keats’s 14 March 1818 letter to Reynolds

In this letter, Keats playfully dodges the forces of nature (being “blown over and blown under”) but also harnesses those forces by evoking a name associated with one of the most controversial literatures of the time.

He writes, “for I am going among scenery whence I intend to tip you the Damosel Radcliffe—I’ll cavern you, and grotto you, and water-fall you, and wood you, and water you, and immense-rock you, and tremendous-sound you, and solitude you” (100).

The Romantic poets were of two minds about the Gothic: their opinions were inconsistent, and that inconsistency showed up in their poetry as much as in their criticism. The older Romantics, such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, were not shy in offering their disapproval of the trash lit of the day, which they claimed could be a dangerous influence on readers and a corrupting one on poetry. At the same time, they envied the popularity of the Gothic, all trying their hands at Gothic elements within their own work (though they would never admit it). The younger poets—Keats and Shelley, for example—were less cautious and mixed admiration with their frequent ridicule of what was—by its own admittance—an often-ridiculous literature. One Gothic writer who seemed to escape the mockery the rest of them faced was Ann Radcliffe, who championed rationality at the same time that her characters swooned over ghostly shadows and mysterious noises. Her work may have produced the same effects of supernatural tales, but they essentially warned of the dangers of superstition.

In “Superstition: An Ode,” a poem embedded in A Sicilian Romance (1809), Radcliffe writes:

Enthron’d amid the wild impending rocks,
Involv’d in clouds, and brooding future woe,
The demon Superstition Nature shocks,
And waves her Sceptre o’er the world below. (71)

Ann Radcliffe

Keats, then, gives Radcliffe an appropriate introduction, with a reference to being unable to “cosset your superstition.” This, after mentioning an accident dealing with parapets and falling objects (a “chimney-pot”). Both of these are classic, dangerous elements of the Gothic, particularly the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, in which a giant helmet falls from the sky and crushes a young man within the first chapter. When the Gothic wind is blowing, balconies and falling objects are no joke. Keats’s lively tone might seem antithetical to discussing the literature of the dead, but he keenly replicates the spirit of the Gothic tradition and its sinister flippancy, at once dire and disturbing, but also humorous and kitsch.

As the Gothic writers have a reputation—rightfully-earned, in some cases—for prioritizing content over quality, it makes perfect sense that Keats would select one of the writers most respected for her writing. While other Gothic writers might have been more innovative, they were far more erratic, to be admired with caution by one such as Keats. Radcliffe was one he could satirize and admire all at once, credited with both rationality and craft. In fact, he would later refer to her in a letter to George Keats on February 14, 1819: “In my packet I shall send you the Pot of Basil, St. Agnes eve, and if I should have finished it a little thing called ‘Eve of St. Mark’–you see what fine Mother Radcliffe names I have–it is not my fault–I did not search for them” (286). She was clearly an influence on his work.

The first thing to notice in Keats’s list of Radcliffean noun-verbs is the performative act of nature upon the reader by the writer. It’s a playful inundation of pastoral and passive objects that Radcliffe uses to such excess that they become active, sometimes taking over the narrative for both characters and readers. The natural, untouched by human corruption, influences the minds of Radcliffe’s heroines the most, calming them or oppressing them, often bolstering their grief and sensibilities. So, to do any of these natural forms to someone is to do quite a lot to them. And, in Radcliffe, part of the active force of these scenes is in the pain-staking (sometimes pain-ful) detail. Here’s a snippet from The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794):

The aspect of the country now began to change, and the travelers soon found themselves among mountains covered from their base nearly to their summits with forests of gloomy pine, except where a rock of granite shot up from the vale, and lost its snowy top in the clouds. The rivulet, which had hitherto accompanied them, now expanded into a river; and, flowing deeply and silently along, reflected as in a mirror, the blackness of the impending shades. Sometimes a cliff was seen lifting its bold head above the woods and the vapours, that floated mid-way down the mountains; and sometimes a face of perpendicular marble rose from the water’s edge, over which the larch threw his gigantic arms, here scathed with lightning, and there floating in luxuriant foliage. (38-39)

And so it goes on. Keats’s line in his letter refers to the many passages like this: dramatic but indistinct. Many of Keats’s words are appropriately generalized terms, particularly the hyphenated ones, and are easily seen in passages like the one above (wood, water, immense-rock, and, if I had continued, the next Radcliffe lines are of solitude). Yet, curiously, Jane Stabler claims that many of these words (grotto and waterfall, in particular) were never included in any of Radcliffe’s texts (she also cites “immense rock” and “tremendous sound,” but I don’t think Keats meant these in a specific sense) (187). How could Keats make such a mistake?

And yet, his attribution of these words to an origin in which they never existed (a Radcliffe text) is pure Gothic. The Gothic is full of ghosts, but rather than ghosts with a strong sense of their own pasts, these are ghosts whose pasts never existed: they are hollow, insubstantial, copies of copies without origin. Jerrold Hogle famously called such an idea the “ghost of the counterfeit,” locating it first in The Castle of Otranto but tracing it in many other texts, as well. The idea is, simply, that those ideas that seem most firmly set are, in the end, proven to be fakes. And this makes them performative and unstable. For example, the Castle of Otranto is tyrannized by Manfred, a man who believes himself to be the lord of the castle but who turns out to be the descendent of a man of no nobility who murdered the real lord of Otranto. Thus, Manfred’s claim to power stems from a noble origin that never existed. The phrase, “ghost of the counterfeit” comes from the ghost of a painting of Manfred’s grandfather: the ghost of the copy (painting) of the false copy (feigned lord) without origin (no nobility). We see the same idea in every text claiming to be a “found manuscript.” In these hollow copies, Hogle claims, are buried anxieties about illegitimacy and nothingness. Yet, as I think the Gothic demonstrates, this fakery puts on a good show, one that proves itself to be meaningful, if not solid. Keats may not use Radcliffe’s exact words, but he builds a scene that conjures her (or perhaps her ghost) from out of the pages and into the world around him.

Other elements in the letter are appropriate juxtapositions to the Gothic: the oppression and confinement of the rain, a picnic that mixes both distress and recreation, a passing mention of the theater, and a literary character (Lydia Languish), who is “subject to sympathetic moisture,” a characteristic for which Radcliffe’s heroines are also known (fainting and weeping). This is absolutely a letter that Radcliffes us!

Laura R. Kremmel is an assistant professor in the Humanities Department at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. She writes about the Gothic, British Romanticism, History of Medicine, Disability Studies, and horror movies. She is currently co-editing The Handbook to Horror Literature, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan.



Hogle, Jerrold E. “The Ghost of the Counterfeit in the Genesis of the Gothic.” Gothick Origins and Innovations, edited by Allan Lloyd Smith and Victor Sage, Rodopi, 1994, 23-33.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Edited by Hyder Edward Rollins, Harvard University Press, 1958.

Radcliffe, Ann. A Sicilian Romance. Oxford University Press, 2008.

—. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Penguin Books, 2001.

Stabler, Jane. “Ann Radcliffe’s Poetry: The Poetics of Refrain and Inventory.” Ann Radcliffe,       Romanticism, and the Gothic, edited by Dale Townshend and Angela Wright, Cambridge         University Press, 2014, 185-202.

Letter #59: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 14 March 1818

Reading today’s letter to Reynolds, one can’t help but wish that Keats had written a long prose work in the comic tradition of Sterne and Smollett. We daresay Keats had the chops to rival Tristram Shandy, a work which he seems to have in mind as he playfully (à la Toby) trots out a variety of military terms (glacis, small-shot, cannondale, cavalry, etc.). This letter deserves the kind of treatment Keats says we ought to devote to a “Page of full Poesy or distilled Prose.” So spend some time with, wander with it, muse upon it, bring home to it, prophesy upon it–whatever it takes! Read this letter and glory in Keats’s humor.

He addresses some of the same issues from yesterday’s letter to Bailey, in particular the weather that has kept him indoors and apparently led to a bit of stir-craziness. Here’s a sample: “The green is beautiful, as they say, and pity it is that it is amphibious–mais! but alas! the flowers here wait as naturally for the rain twice a day as the Muscles do for the Tide.” We also hear about Keats’s plan to “cut sickness–a fellow to whom I have a complete aversion.” On a grim note, the list of friends acquainted with this fellow includes Tom, who would only worsen from this point forward (“he [sickness] is sitting now quite impudent between me and Tom”). But the melancholy turn doesn’t last for long, as Keats proceeds to tell Reynolds of a recent visit to the theatre at which Keats “got insulted.” He explains that he “forgot to tell George,” and that he “ought to remember to forget to tell any Body,” given that he “did not fight, and as yet have had no redress.”

We have TWO responses to today’s letter, since it is so filled to the brim with goodness. First up is Laura Kremmel’s “Keats Goes Gothic,” which focuses on the list of scenery descriptions Keats connects with “Damosel Radcliffe.” And tomorrow we will have Johannes Göransson’s phantasmagoric rewriting of the letter, taking Keats’s language and concerns and filtering them through a sort of dream-vision of 2018.

You can read the letter in Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition, and via the images below of Richard Woodhouse’s transcript of the letter (courtesy of Harvard).

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 14 March 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 14 March 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 14 March 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Three Things

Renee Harris
Oklahoma State University

RE: Keats’s 13 Mar 1818 letter to Bailey

Keats begins his letter to Benjamin Bailey with sentiment similar to our contemporary, “Third time’s a charm”: “When a poor devil is drowning, it is said he comes thrice to the surface, ere he makes his final sink if however, even at the third rise he can manage to catch hold of a piece of weed or rock, he stands a fair chance,–as I hope I do now, of being saved.” Threes dominate this letter as Keats has three major movements in his structure: he transitions from a critique of Devonshire to a consideration of “thingness” (as I will call it), with a contemplation of the human impact on scenery in between. Staying true to theme, I will mimic the pattern of three in my response.

The 13 March letter to Benjamin Bailey can be read as an exploration of the mutual influence of humans and nature on each other. Keats opens the letter to Bailey with an explanation of his absence, how he came to Teignmouth to be with Tom instead of traveling to Oxford. Nicholas Roe records that Keats arrived in Teignmouth on March 6th after a wet and turbulent ride from London atop a postal carriage (219). For “these three last days,” Keats writes, he has been trapped indoors, seeing only Devonshire as “a splashy, rainy, misty snowy, foggy, haily floody, muddy slipshod County”. Dismissing the county for its weather and its “dwindled englishmen,” Keats explains that a countryside is made finer by its people. Whenever he goes into the countryside, he seeks people and the rich history they represent rather than the beauty and solitude of an untouched wilderness. He writes:

I like, I love England, I like its strong Men–Give me a “long brown plain” for my Morning so I may meet with some of Edmund Iron side’s descendants–Give me a barren mould, so I may meet with some shadowing of Alfred in the shape of a Gipsey, a Huntsman, or as Shepherd. Scenery is fine–but human nature is finer–The Sward is richer for the tread of a real, nervous, english foot–the eagles nest is finer for the Mountaineer has look’d into it.

Now, for the first of my three movements, let’s enjoy some Devonshire landscapes as we form our own opinions of scenery and the benefits of human intervention on nature.

A few years before Keats’s visit to Devonshire, J. M. W. Turner displayed this painting of the countryside:

‘A Valley in Devonshire’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1813. © Leeds Museums and Galleries (City Art Gallery), UK/ courtesy Bridgeman Art Library

Keats wrote, “the hills are very beautiful, when you get a sight of ‘em–the Primroses are out, but then you are in–the Cliffs are of a fine deep Colour, but then the Clouds are continually vieing with them.”

Unpopulated by the local men and women with whom Keats takes issue in his letter, this painting seems a model naturescape with rolling hills and foliage in fiery autumnal gold and red. The clouds wisp across a bright sky. Maybe if he’d seen this Devonshire landscape with its perfect weather, he would have a different attitude about the “slipshod County.”

Keats continues: “There are knotted oaks–there are lusty rivulets there are Meadows such as are not–there are vallies of femminine Climate–but there are no thews and sinews.”

‘Devonshire Bridge with Cottage’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1813. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported).

This landscape is more idyllic than the first with a cooler color palette, clearer sky, and soft flowing river. But the countryside here has the addition of a bridge and cottage. The landscape bears the marks of human civilization. I dare say Keats might prefer this scenery to the last, and he might even find a “Gipsey, a Hunstman or as shepherd” to chat up while passing an hour along the rivulet.

And a third Devonshire landscape:

‘Teignmouth’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Exhibited 1812. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

Here we return to the warm, fiery color palette. The blackness of the ships and trees in the right foreground are offset by the brightness of a golden sunset. We have people and animals and action in this painting. A woman corrals a two cows. A man works on a small boat. We see ships fully built and mid-build. People are here. Have been here. Have made a mark on the ecology. In better weather than Keats had in 1818, perhaps these locals would inspire thoughts of a grand English history.

I read Keats’s discussion of scenery and human intervention on nature as a prelude to the “thingness” passage in today’s letter. We elevate nature through imaginative or cognitive endowment. (This is very Wordsworthian of him, and Wordsworth gets two mentions in the letter.)

Here’s what I am calling Keats’s contemplation on “thingness”:

As Tradesmen say every thing is worth what it will fetch, so probably every mental pursuit take its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer–being in itself a nothing. Ethereal thing may at least be thus real, divided under three heads–Things real–things semi-real–and no things. Things real, such as existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakespeare–Things semireal such as Love, the Clouds &c which require a greeting of the Spirit to make them wholly exist–and Nothings which are made Great and dignified by an ardent pursuit–Which by the by stamps the burgundy mark on the bottles of our Minds, insomuch as they are able to “consec[r]ate whate’er they look upon.”

To me, it seems as though Keats would rank scenery among the semi-real. We imagine a (human) history of the land, and that gives the land real-ness and worth. The human Spirit turns a semi-real rivulet into Wordsworth’s Derwent. And similarly the people of Devonshire seem equally un-real. With the addition of a human Spirit (a Shakespearean imagination) the “dwindled englishmen” and women of Teignmouth could be Hamlets or Cordelias.

I will take leave of the scenery discussion now to examine the “thingness” theory in light of Keats’s previous letter to Benjamin Bailey from November 22: the Adam’s Dream Letter. Keats writes that “what the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth,” and so Adam awakes to find the truth (a real live woman!) that has laid claims on his imagination overnight. In the 13 March 1818 letter we have a revisitation of this theme in a new frame. A Nothing becomes real (a thing) via the addition of imagination or “ardent” attention to the concept.

Keats concludes this passage of the 22 November 1817 letter with the exclamation: “O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” All of this dances about in my head and makes me think of Keats’s medical journals and what he learned from his anatomical lectures about sensation and volition being intertwined and having a seemingly reciprocal relationship.

Contained in his Anatomical and Physiological Notebook (1934), Keats’s lecture notes from his years at Guy’s Hospital are full of contemporary scientific thought on the brain and nervous system from the foremost surgeons and anatomists such as Astley Cooper, John Abernethy, and Henry Cline. The majority of his anatomy notes are on the brain and nervous system, and even the discussions of muscles and bones appear secondary to related points on sensation and movement. Keats writes that the sympathetic nervous system has two main functions: sensation and volition. Keats learned that sensation begins at the extremities and tracks to the brain through the network of nerves. His notes read: ‘Volition is the contrary of Sensation it proceeds from the internal to external parts. It does not reside entirely in the Brain but partly in spinal Marrow which is seen in the Behaviour of a Frog after having been guilloteened’ (Keats 1934: Lecture 10, ninth page). Volition, then, as Keats understood it, is distributed beyond the brain through the spine. More strikingly, Keats records, ‘Volition is sometimes present while sensation is destroyed. In a Gentleman who had lost sensation and yet had powers of Volition it was observed that he could grasp and hold a substance which his whole attention was directed thereto, but on his turning to a fresh occupation the substance dropped’ (Keats 1934: Lecture 10, ninth page). Not only did early nineteenth-century medical science understand volition to be distributed along the sympathetic nervous system (an embodied cognition), these notes indicate a belief that volition can replace sensation. In the absence of sensation, concentrated attention can perform motor tasks thought to require input from external stimuli. In other words, something dead or inanimate, a Nothing, can become “real” because of concentrated attention and the workings of the human nervous system.

For my final movement: I try to marry these themes of thingness and human intervention under the guise of poetic meaning.

Maybe I should note as well that the notoriously self-conscious (and self-deprecating) eight-paragraph preface to Endymion, which he wrote six days later on the 19 March, picks up on many of the themes of today’s letter. He begins by saying readers should be aware that “as an individual in a ‘great nation’, Keats himself is ‘a nothing’” (Roe 220). Worried for the quality of his epic attempt, Keats’s seems to think himself a dwindled Englishman stuck in a slipshod County.

Roe notes the letter is “vexed by thoughts that a mental pursuit like poetry may be a ‘mere Jack a lantern’, taking ‘value and worth from the ardour of the pursuer’” (219). Is the poet passive or active? Is poetic meaning at the mercy of a reader? As in the debates on scenery’s worth and what can elevate the status of a “thing,” here we ultimately have a question of where and when a poem’s worth emerges. Does its meaning precede the attention of the reader, therefore emerging from the poet him or herself? A “Jack a lantern” will ultimately show some semblance of the artist’s design. Or is it enacted in the moment of reading, taking its worth from the attention of the reader? As we know, ultimately, the illumination of the lantern is a joint projection of reader and writer in combination at the site of the text (the carved pumpkin). But perhaps this doesn’t set a poet’s mind at ease when he’s looking upon the Devonshire locals as a potential reading public.

Poet and reader. Passivity and activity. Nature and human history. All of these seem interdependent, weaving together to form a beautiful truth. Like the human body taking cues from its environment and changing the environment in turn. Or like a vexed poet locked indoors for too long because of bad weather.

Renee Harris is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Oklahoma State University. She will be joining the faculty of Lewis-Clark State College in Fall 2018 as an Assistant Professor of the Long 18th Century. Her research examines the physiology of sympathy in the writer-reader relationship by placing eighteenth-century medical knowledge alongside the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. Renee seeks to understand how the circulation of affect is theorized and staged by Romantic narrative and how these poems become sites of shared feeling. She has published on materiality and social exchange in Romantic novels and has a forthcoming essay in the History of Distributed Cognition Volume (Edinburgh UP) on cognitive spaces of empathy in Keats’s Endymion.


Works Cited

Keats, John. John Keats’s Anatomical and Physiological Notebook: Printed From the Holograph in the Keats Museum Hampstead. Ed. Maurice Buxton Forman. Oxford UP, 1934.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. Yale UP, 2012.

‘A Valley in Devonshire’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1813. Accessed 6 Mar. 2018

‘Devonshire Bridge with Cottage’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1813. Accessed 6 Mar. 2018.

‘Teignmouth’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Exhibited 1812. Accessed 6 Mar. 2018.

Letter #58: To Benjamin Bailey, 13 March 1818

Today’s letter to Bailey includes a wealth of intriguing things–which our contributor Renee Harris picks up on and runs with by following Keats’s grouping of threes in the letter–and this should come as no surprise for regular readers. Keats seems to have a particular affinity for sharing lots of thoughts with Bailey. Three of the last four letters to Bailey (28-30 Oct 1817, 3 Nov 1817, and 22 Nov 1817) were at least in part crossed, and the one letter to Bailey that Keats did not cross (23 Jan 1818) was still filled to the brim. Nary a short letter to Bailey, it seems, for today’s letter is crossed on three of its four pages. Brian Rejack and Michael Theune discussed some theories about why Keats might find Bailey to be a receptive correspondent for extensive and speculative thoughts back in Episode 4 of This Week in Keats, but today we offer another possibility (if an admittedly a silly one).

Bailey had notoriously bad penmanship. Keats mentioned it back in Nov 1817, when he wrote to Reynolds, “Bailey writes so abominable a hand, to give his Letter a fair reading requires a little time.” Writing to Richard Monckton Milnes in October 1848 (to let Milnes know that he had erroneously killed off Bailey in Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats), Bailey himself owned up to the defects in his “Kaligraphy“:

I meditate drawing up a paper for your information, and if needful for your use in a future edition, upon poor Keats: and I will borrow my daughter’s hand to copy my Kaligraphy, to which, among my “good works,” I see you have given your imprimatur, on the authority of poor Keats, 30 years ago [i.e. Milnes’s edition included Keats’s “abominable hand” comment quoted above]. It required not that attestation of its badness: and I fear that “years which bring the philosophic mind” will not have mended my handwriting.

In a footnote to this letter from Bailey to Milnes, Hyder Edward Rollins expresses his displeasure with Bailey as well: “Bailey’s hand is exceptionally villainous in this letter.” We feel you, Rollins. Thank you for your assiduous attention to Bailey’s villainy, as painful as it may have been!

So here is our theory: perhaps Keats, slowed down and a bit miffed by Bailey’s villainous handwriting, decided he would match Bailey penstroke for penstroke in the way he best could: by crossing his letters! Take that, Bailey! Keats’s hand, we venture to say, is actually quite neat, legible, and even downright pretty, despite what that dastardly John Jeffrey may have thought back in 1845–curse you, John Jeffrey! But also thanks for transcribing stuff, badly as you may have done it…. Apologies, we do digress. To return. Since Keats’s hand is so lovely, it’s rather difficult to transform it to villainous levels of illegibility. The best way to do so: cross the letter. Just look at the images below to get a sense of how difficult it is to read such a letter.

Of course we don’t actually think Keats intended to stymie Bailey’s efforts to read his letters in retaliation for Bailey inflicting that challenge on him… but then again, Keats does playing the trickster.

With that thought, then, we will leave you in the capable hands of Renee Harris, who deftly analyzes several of the topics Keats covers. Enjoy!

Text of the letter can be read in Forman’s 1895 edition via HathiTrust, or, for the optically adventurous, via the images below, courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library.

Page 1 of Keats’s 13 March 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.23). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 13 March 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.23). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 13 March 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.23). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 13 March 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.23). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #57: To John Taylor, 27 February 1818

Today’s letter to Taylor is a significant one, particularly for the “Axioms” in poetry which Keats shares with his publisher. It might not be the “FINEST LETTER of Keats Extant,” as “some enthusiast” (so deemed by Hyder Edward Rollins) wrote on the top of the manuscript. But it’s pretty dang good. What are these axioms, you say? Well hold on a sec. We’re getting there.

First it’s worth asking why Keats feels compelled to offer up these axioms in the first place. Of course, we don’t have Taylor’s letter to which Keats was responding. But Keats writes these sentences before getting to those axioms:

It is a sorry thing for me that any one should have to overcome Prejudices in reading my Verses–that affects me more than any hypercriticism on any particular Passage. In Endymion I have most likely but moved into the Go-cart from the leading strings. In Poetry I have a few Axioms, and you will see how far I am from their Centre.

In short, it seems Taylor attempted to politely dampen Keats’s expectations for the poem’s success by noting that it might not be exactly to the public’s taste. One thinks here of the rhetorical gymnastics performed by Wordsworth and Coleridge in the “Advertisement” to Lyrical Ballads, in which they 1) deny that critics know anything about poetry, 2) note that their poems are really just experiments (so NBD if they don’t work), 3) that readers might not even think they are poems at all, so don’t call them poems you jerks!–and 4) that readers should just erase their “pre-established codes of decision” and think only of whether these experimental not-poems give them pleasure or no. One imagines Taylor writing something like, “Keats, loving Endymion, my man. But, you know, it’s got some moments that people will probably find a bit, um, challenging? Because they just don’t get your genius like I do! Anyway, yeah–some turkeys who don’t know what’s what will probably feel a bit prejudiced against your poems because they are stuck in their old fuddy-duddy ways.” (Ok, Taylor probably didn’t write exactly like that.)

What Keats’s response shows is that he continues to be eager to move beyond Endymion. As he writes toward the end of this letter, he is ready to “get Endymion printed that I may forget it and proceed.” In his metaphors of the “go-Cart” and the “leading strings,” we see another indication of his judgment of the poem as a trial of invention that is merely a stepping-stone to something else. The “go-Cart” is what we would now call a baby walker; “leading strings” were devices used to help children learn to walk (essentially by having an adult hold strings attached to the infant). So, yes, Keats is but a child learning to “not trip up my Heels” in the realm of poetic walking. We’ll see a similar formulation in his Preface to Endymion, where he situates the poem as in between the imagination of a boy and of a man: “thence proceeds mawkishness.” Well we daresay that even in Endymion Keats was well beyond the baby-walker stage of managing poetic feet. Teenager overly excited about poetry and desire?? Yeah, that sounds about right. (Still, we maintain Francis Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review assessment of Endymion: “It is, in truth, at least as full of genius as of absurdity.”)

To the axioms, then. Here they are:

1st I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity–it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance–2nd Its touches of Beauty should never be half way therby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural natural too him–shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight–but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it–and this leads me on to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.

One thought on the poetry coming naturally as the leaves to the tree bit. I’ve–and here I’m breaking from the traditional KLP editoral we–Brian Rejack, here, hiya–long pushed back against this notion thinking that Keats is just being ideological. Of course Keats knows that poetry involve labor, study, time, revision, etc. But I had a realization while discussing this letter with my students today (beneath some trees that haven’t just yet begun budding, incidentally). Just because Keats claims that poetry should come as “naturally as the Leaves to a tree,” it doesn’t mean he intends that poetry must be instantaneous. Leaves actually take a good long while to fully come to the tree. And they require labor, patience, and devotion (albeit the devotion of sun to tree, water to soil, soil to root, etc.). So perhaps Keats merely intends that poetry requires careful cultivation by placing the poetic impulse in an environment in which poetry can thrive. That could still certainly mean intense labor and practice, working and reworking.

We’ll have more about these axioms with a response to come later this week (or the next). But for now, some final things to say about the manuscript of this letter. Like many of the letters sent to Taylor, this one remained in his possession for a long time, and after his death remained in the family. In the 1840s he made his materials available to Richard Monckton Milnes for use in Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848; 2nd edition, 1867). The next significant editor of the letters was Harry Buxton Forman, who made a name for himself in 1878 by publishing, to great controversy, the letters Keats sent to Fanny Brawne. In 1883 Forman published a complete edition of Keats’s poetry and prose. In that edition, the letters to Taylor are typically (if not all–apologies for not checking all of them yet) based on Milnes’s text. Milnes was much more likely to excise sensitive passages than was Forman. One can witness this fact in the 1895 single-volume edition of the letters (the KLP’s favorite 19th-century edition of the letters). It appears that at some point between 1883 and 1895, Forman got his hands on the manuscripts in possession of Taylor’s family. And when he found in those manuscripts some of the naughty bits that Milnes left out, Forman obliged by printing them for all to see and enjoy.

Take, for instance, the 10 June 1817 letter to Taylor and Hessey (dated 10 July by Milnes and Forman). In Milnes (1848, 1867) and in Forman (1883, 1889), the first sentence is removed (“I must endeavor to lose my Maidenhead with respect to money Matters as soon as possible–and I will to–so here goes”–by the way, read David Sigler’s response to the letter, which is fantastic). In Forman’s 1895 edition, the first sentence appears! Conclusion: for his earlier editions Forman used Milnes’s text, and for the 1895 edition he must have had access to the letter. Now, this letter remains in the Taylor family and is sold in 1903 to Amy Lowell (through Bernard Quaritch). So that means Forman had access to the letter, and that the access was granted by the Taylor family, as opposed to some other owner of the letter. Some of the letters once owned by Taylor were sold prior to 1903, including the 23 Jan 1818 letter. That one was sold in New York in 1897, and since Forman’s 1895 version of the text is based not on the manuscript, but again on Milnes’s text, that letter must have left the Taylor family’s possession before Forman got access to those materials.

Ok, we’re in the weeds. But hang on. Back to today’s letter. Forman’s 1895 edition was clearly based on the manuscript, whereas his 1883 and 1889 editions were based on Milnes’s texts. But today’s letter was not sold at the Taylor family auction in 1903! (CAVEAT–WE’RE NOT ENTIRELY SURE YET THAT THIS FACT IS CORRECT. PRETTY SURE, THOUGH.) It was sold in 1912 by the firm of J. Pearson & Co. The buyer was J. Pierpont Morgan. What happened to this letter between 1895(ish) and 1903? We don’t yet know. But presumably it passed out of the Taylor family and into private hands who eventually led it back into the market in 1912. Those hands may well have been those of John Pearson or his partner Charles Edward Shepheard, both of whom actively sought out valuable letters and manuscripts. In any case, thanks to the catalogue for their sale in 1912, we have a facsimile of the MS to present to you. Sadly, it includes just two of the letter’s three pages. Still, better than nothing.

Now if you’re still here and want to read the entire letter, you know now that the text in Forman’s 1895 edition was based on the manuscript, so you can trust that one. And images below are from the 1912 catalogue for J. Pearson & Co. Stay tuned for more details on the letter’s provenance as it comes in!

Facsimile of page 1 of Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor. From the 1912 catalogue of items for sale by J. Pearson & Co.

The listing for Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor, from the 1912 catalogue for J. Pearson & Co.

The listing for Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor (featuring text of the letter), from the 1912 catalogue for J. Pearson & Co.

Facsimile of page 3 of Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor. From the 1912 catalogue of items for sale by J. Pearson & Co.

Letter #56: To George and Tom Keats, 21 February 1818

Today’s letter finds Keats getting encouragement from the “Thrushes and Blackbirds,” which “have been singing [him] into an idea it was spring.” Well, if you’re in the eastern part of the US today, you might be having a similar thought, given that it’s over 70 degrees throughout much of the Northeast and New England. And yes, it’s February 21st. The birds may have encouraged Keats to have spring in his mind, but the weather that day in 1818 certainly didn’t help the cause. Here’s what the Literary Gazette reported in the 28 February issue.

That drop from “30” to “6” would make you think it was not much of a spring-hearkening day, right? Well, that’s actually a printing error. For those of you with an interest in historical weather data from London in 1818, here’s a great resource for you: The Annals of Philosophy, published monthly, now available on Hathitrust, and with Luke Howard’s meteorological journal included at the end of each issue (about two months behind–so the data for February are in the April issue). You may know Luke Howard for devising the cloud classification still in use today. Go to paragraph 13 in this essay and you can learn a bit about him, and about how much Geothe loved him for coming up with the whole cloud thing. (Sorry for the shameless plug–the essay is by the KLP’s Brian Rejack, that dastardly braggart.) Anyway, here’s what Howard recorded for Feb 1818.

He had 45 degrees for a high on 21 February, recording his measurements in Tottenham. So the Literary Gazette must have just forgotten the “4” before that “6.” (Their measurements were from Edmonton, so let’s not rush to slag off anyone’s instruments–the temp could have been different in the two places, even if just a mile apart or so.) All of this comports with what Keats has to say about the weather: “The Weather, although boisterous to day has been very much milder.” Howard notes of 21 February, “Much wind, a.m. with clouds driving high and close,” so there’s your boisterousness. And the 34 degree morning was a few degrees warmer than the last two days, so we’ll give Keats the “much milder.” Incidentally, the weather in London today was pretty similar to this day 200 years ago. High of 44, low of 33, bit of wind. So obviously the climate is ok. Problem solved!

Now that we’ve given you far more background on Keats’s weather than you could have ever wished for, what else was he up to? He tells George and Tom that the immediate occasion for writing was a letter from one “Miss Wylie” intended for George, and which Keats enclosed in his letter. This is the first mention in the letters of Georgiana Wylie, who, experienced Keats devotees will already know, becomes Georgiana Keats. She and George actually wed not that far from the time of this letter exchange. They marry in June 1818, and then leave for America just weeks later. After that point Keats would never see Georgiana again, and he would see George again just for one month in January 1820 when George returned briefly to settle his financial affairs. And Poor Tom would not live to see either of them again.

But at this point, George is still just a bachelor receiving a note from his lady friend (or special lady, if you prefer). We say it all the time here at the KLP, but we so often encounter moments like this one when it’s revealed just how quickly and regularly the big, life-changing events in the story of the Keats family happen.

Keats touches on some other topics of interest: his visit to the British Gallery and some of the paintings he saw, the poor health of his friend Reynolds, his attendance at more of Hazlitt’s lectures, Shelley’s recent poem (Laon and Cythna, published Dec 1817; revised and republished because of controversy as The Revolt of Islam in Jan 1818) and its likely absence at the “Teignmouth Libraries,” and the egotism of Wordsworth. On this last topic Keats writes, “I am sorry Wordsworth has left a bad impression wherever he visited in Town–by his egotism, Vanity and bigotry–yet he is a great Poet if not a Philosopher.” This opinion of Wordsworth will continue to solidify as the year goes by, particularly in the summer when Keats attempts to visit Wordsworth at Rydal Mount and misses him because the elder poet is out campaigning for the Tory politician William Lowther, Earl of Lonsdale (Keats, doing his best Trump impression, writes, “Sad–sad–sad”).

Oh and the thrushes make a return! It’s rather lovely to have this moment of Keats melding the birdsong into the moment of his writing: “The Thrushes are singing now–af it [presumably “as if”] they would speak to the Winds because their big brother Jack, the spring was’nt far off.” Some confusion arises here regarding what species of birds Keats is actually referring to. Remember that first he mentions “Thrushes and Blackbirds.” So is this “big brother Jack” one of the blackbirds? Perhaps Keats has confused the common blackbird with the Jackdaw, which is indeed a black-colored bird (but actually part of the crow family). What seems more likely is that Keats has in mind this nursery rhyme: “Two little blackbirds sitting on a hill / One named Jack and one named Jill” (or similar variations thereof). We are no experts in the history of nursery rhymes, but given this one’s existence in books from the middle of the nineteenth century, it seems plausible that it would have been in circulation in 1818. The other hint here is the “big brother.” The Common Blackbird (like other old world blackbirds) is actually a kind of thrush, from the genus TurdusTurdus merula, the Common Blackbird, is bigger (~25 cm) than Turdus philomelos, the Song Thrush (~23 cm), which is probably what Keats had in mind with “thrush.” He could also have meant Turdus viscivorus, the Mistle Thrush, another common bird in the UK. Confusing things further, in 1818 the Song Thrush was still classified as Turdus musicus, which then later gets wrongly associated as a former name for Turdus iliacus (the Redwing). It did not acquire the Greek-mythology-inspired name philomelos until 1831 (and we won’t quibble about Philomela turning into a nightingale or a thrush or some other singing bird). So anyway–we don’t really know for sure what kind of birdsong Keats was hearing, but we know what he heard was getting him in the mood for spring. Now here are some pictures of birds and some recordings of their song for you to enjoy!

The Common Blackbird, enjoying a snack.

The Mistle Thrush. Probably not what Keats meant.

The Redwing. Almost definitely not what Keats meant. But still pretty.

And finally, Turdus philomelos, formerly known as Turdus musicus. Probably what Keats was hearing. You can call him Song Thrush. Or just thrush, or throstle, or mavis. They really have lots of names.

To hear some samples of their songs, head over to Royal Society for the Protection of Birds: Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Redwing, Song Thrush.

Oh, and if you’d like to read the letter, you can read a slightly truncated version of it in Forman’s 1895 edition (based on Milnes, from Jeffrey’s transcript). Or read the whole thing in Keats’s hand below. Interestingly, this manuscript was acquired by Arthur Houghton in 1951, and presented to Harvard some years later. The KLP does not know any more about its provenance, but we’re intrigued by a letter that was not in the possession of one of the typical Keats stewards until so late in the 20th century. We shall find out more when we have time.

Page 1 of Keats’s 21 February 1818 letter to George and Tom. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.22). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 21 February 1818 letter to George and Tom. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.22). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 21 February 1818 letter to George and Tom. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.22). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 21 February 1818 letter to George and Tom. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.22). Houghton Library, Harvard University.