Letter #106: To Richard Woodhouse, 18 December 1818

A fascinating letter from Keats to Woodhouse, not so much for the content of the letter as for the context it alludes to. Some background, then. Woodhouse had a cousin named Mary Frogley, whom the Keats brothers had known through their friendship with George Felton Mathew (and his cousins, Ann and Caroline). Earlier in 1818 Frogley had borrowed Woodhouse’s copy of Endymion. She and her future husband, Henry Neville, asked Woodhouse for more time with the book, explaining that their friends Jane Porter had seen the book on Neville’s table while visiting with him, and asked if she might borrow it from him. After she (and her sister Anna Maria) had read the poem and been pleased with it, the Porters asked if Neville knew the author and might be able to arrange an introduction with him. Through Woodhouse, Neville passed along a letter from Jane Porter in which she expressed this desire.

Keats’s letter to Woodhouse, then, is in response to Porter’s letter and Woodhouse’s offer of making the “introduction to a Class of society, from which you may possible derive advantage as well as gratification, if you think proper to avail yourself of it.” The Porter sisters were already well-established authors, each of them having published several books by this time in 1818. Keats, however, was not overly inclined to make new friends at the moment. We see an increasingly anti-social side of Keats over the next few months: he writes to George and Georgiana in January 1819 of Woodhouse’s offer, and in that same letter he also expresses his frustration with Leigh Hunt and his social circle. So part of Keats’s hesitancy surely results from his desire for a bit of solitude. He writes to Woodhouse, “I have a new leaf to turn over–I must work–I must read–I must write–I am unable to affrod time for new acquaintances–I am scarcely able to do my duty to those I have.”

There is, however, another factor likely at play here. As we’ve seen in the past, and as we’ll see on multiple occasions again in 1819, Keats had an anxious relationship with women writers. One senses his condensation in his letter to Woodhouse: “I must needs feel flattered by making an impression on a set of Ladies–I should be content to do so in meretricious romance verse if they alone and not Men were to judge.” Keats elsewhere associates women’s writing with popularity as against the seriousness of male discourse. One imagines that Keats’s disdain for popularity is in part a result of not achieving it. An easy defense mechanism for the little-read poet is to dismiss more popular writing (in this case, by women) as less significant, less consequential, less serious.

Keats’s disdain comes across more fully when he copies Porter’s letter to George and Georgiana, after which he offers this gloss on the invitation: “Now I feel more obliged than flattered by this–so obliged that I will not at present give you an extravaganza of a Lady Romancer. I will be introduced to them if it be merely for the pleasure of writing to you about it.” One hopes that if Keats had met the Porter sisters, he would have changed his attitude about “Lady Romancers.” Surely he had a thing or two to learn from them if he would have been willing to know them genuinely, and not just as fodder for ridicule.

The letter can be read via Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition here. Below are images of Keats’s letter, as well as Woodhouse’s transcript of the letter from Jane Porter to Henry Neville (both courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library).

Image of Keats's letter to Woodhouse.
Keats’s 18 December 1818 letter to Richard Woodhouse. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.41). Houghton Library, Harvard University. Note the signature was at some point cut away.
Image of Jane Porter's letter to Henry Neville as copied by Woodhouse.
Woodhouse’s transcript of Jane Porter’s 4 December 1818 letter to Henry Neville. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Improper Time

Kamran Javadizadeh
Villanova University

RE: Keats’s 16 December 1818–4 January 1819 letter to George and Georgiana

Your brother has moved a great distance away—so far, in fact, that you can’t be sure you’ll ever see him again. You know that it will take a letter weeks to reach him, and yet you have news—urgent news—to report: your youngest brother, at whose sickbed you have been keeping vigil, has just died.

How might the letter that you write (for you decide to write) respond to its inevitable untimeliness, to the fact that your living brother won’t know of the death of the youngest for the several weeks it takes for a letter to arrive? How might your words take measure of the distance that separates you from the brother to whom they are addressed in light of the more radical distance that has opened up between both of you and the brother who is now gone?

If you were John Keats, whose brother George had recently moved to the American interior and whose brother Tom had just died, on the first of December, in London, of consumption, you would let more than two weeks pass before you began to write, and then you would write not briefly but at great length. Yes, you’d address the sad news in the letter’s first lines, but, rather than sealing that news in an envelope and starting it on its transatlantic journey as quickly as possible, you’d keep the letter for yourself and, over days that would turn into weeks (and indeed into the new year), you’d add sheet after sheet of cramped script to the one on which you’d first reported and reflected on the “last days of poor Tom” (II, 4). Those new pages would drift away from the grief of your original occasion and into the minutiae of your daily life, into gossip, into poetry.

The first page of Keats's letter, including his opening announcement of Tom's death.
The first page of Keats’s letter. Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University. MS Keats 1.45.

Why, when Tom died, did John write to his brother George (and to George’s wife, Georgiana) in this way? When he first set pen to paper, on 16 December 1818, he seemed to have known what he was doing. The letter’s very first line anticipates the outcome that its author’s dilatory process would as a matter of course produce: “You will have been prepared, before this reaches you for the worst news you could have, nay if Haslam’s letter arrives in proper time, I have a consolation in thinking the first shock will be past before you receive this” (II, 4). He understood, in other words, that his own letter would not, after all, deliver the news. It would not arrive “in proper time.”

Instead, for Keats, letters circulated in and helped to create a different kind of temporality—call it “improper time”—which afforded its own consolations. That temporality tended to manifest in the letter writer’s habit of projecting himself into a future perfect from a richly described indicative present. “The fire is at its last click,” Keats would write (again to George and Georgiana, two months later): “I am sitting with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet […] These are trifles—but I require nothing so much of you as that you will give me a like description of yourselves, however it may be when you are writing to me” (II, 73). A letter like this opens up an alternate temporality, one that connects an embodied writerly present to a readerly future in which that present, together with all the time that has intervened while the letter has been en route, will have become a shared past. The letter cleaves together sender and recipient in a time and place that exist, in their fullness, nowhere but in the letter—and in the improper time that an exchange of letters makes possible.

In this sense the vicissitudes of the familiar letter’s channels of distribution (the postal service, transatlantic shipping lines, wagon routes into the American continent) occasion a set of tropes of intimacy that distinguish it from its twenty-first century digital equivalents: the text message, the tweet, even the email, all of which presume a more or less instantaneous transmission of a message. (Think of how the technology of instant messaging accommodates this aspect of its circulation: push notifications, read receipts, the pulsing ellipses that indicate your correspondent’s composition in real time.) Texting a distant friend or absent lover can give you the feeling that you are once again with them, but the grammar of texting and its allied technologies, grounded as they are more firmly in the present tense,tends to exchange the elasticity of epistolary time for something more literal.“Tends to,” I say, for surely digital correspondences borrow from their epistolary prehistory. Yet the very form of the text message insists: You are there, I am here, and though I may know how you feel (or, with a picture, what you see) right now, because that right now is so fixed in its time and place, I recognize it also as one in which we are apart.

Letters, by contrast, are always acknowledging, lamenting, and compensating for their belatedness, nowhere more characteristically than in their future perfect declarations. You will have been prepared, before this reaches you, for the worst news you could have. These lags and delays create the possibility of certain hazards (“crossed” letters, e.g.) and missed connection: when Emily Dickinson, for instance, writes from the family home in Amherst to her brother Austin at Harvard, she adds this postscript: “Mother is frying Doughnuts—I will give you a little platefull to have for your tea! Imaginary ones—how I’d love to send you real ones” (72). She can’t send the real ones because the donuts, for one thing, fresh from the fryer, wouldn’t survive the duration even of their brief journey, not without being transformed into some sadly diminished thing, drained of the heat that their mother’s attention (and fryer) had once imbued.

And yet, just as letters lament their insufficiencies, they call attention to their status as objects in themselves and thereby allow for triangulated intimacies that traverse both temporal and spatial separations. Though for Austin the donuts must remain imaginary, the letter is quite real, a physical object that was made in the same home in which those donuts were fried (and eaten) and that was then passed along through asocial network that began with his sister’s hands and ended with his. That same winter, writing to Austin’s wife, Susan, Dickinson described the network through which a letter passes as though it were itself a poem: “Yet, Susie,there will be romance in the letter’s ride to you—think of the hills and the dales, and the rivers it will pass over, and the drivers and conductors who will hurry it on to you; and wont that make a poem such as ne’er can be written?” (79). For Keats, too, the physicality of a letter was often a substitute for an absent body, the embodiment of a separation, and consolation for interpersonal distance. Six months after Tom’s death, he asked Fanny Brawne to “write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been” (II, 123). Two weeks later, he confessed that he had done more than kiss: “Do not call it folly, when I tell you I took your letter last night to bed with me” (II, 129). These deprecatory gestures (“at least,”“do not call it folly,” etc.) acknowledge the limits of the intimacies that they conjure even as they insist upon the desires that they name.

In the case of John’s letters to George and Georgiana in America, because the distance between sender and recipient had become so wide, because the route the letter would have to take so uncertain, and because the delays brooked by Keats’s diaristic method so much the greater,letters both strained the capacity for epistolary consolation and discovered new resources for redressing the pains of separation. When Tom died, that strain became still more palpable; Tom’s death and George’s move began to serve, in John’s writing, as ways of thinking each about the other. Here, first, was how Keats addressed his brother’s death:

The last days of poor Tom were of the most distressing nature; but his last moments were not so painful, and his very last was without a pang—I will not enter into any parsonic comments on death—yet the common observations of the commonest people on death are as true as their proverbs. I have scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature of other—neither had Tom. (II,4)

Just a few lines later, and with little more than a description of his plan to share lodging with Charles Brown as transition between the two topics, John had moved on to brooding over the distance that separated him from George:

The going[s] on of the world make me dizzy—there you are with Birkbeck—here I am with brown—sometimes I fancy an immense separation, and sometimes, as at present, a direct communication of spirit with you. That will be one of the grandeurs of immortality—there will be no space and consequently the only commerce between spirits will be by their intelligence of each other—when they will completely understand each other—while we in this world merely comp[r]ehend each other in different degrees (II, 5)

The certainty with which John imagined Tom’s “immortality” doubled as a balm for the pain that George’s absence provoked. That conflation allowed John to feel two things at once: impossibly removed from George, whose only presence in John’s immediate life was as a mere notion, a ghost like the one Tom had become, and, at the same time, because he knew George so well, a spirit of which he had, wherever George happened to be, immediate and complete intelligence.

Or was it the other way around? Had John’s understanding that George was simultaneously far and near provided, by implication, the assurance that Tom might be, too? In trying to write his way into copresence with one brother, was Keats trying to create a space in which he could feel close to the other? The kind of knowledge upon which John’s feeling of proximity to George depended was, as he went on to explain it, embodied:

I have been so little used to writing lately that I am affraid you will not smoke my meaning so I will give you an example—Suppose Brown or Haslam or any one whom I understand in the n{e}ther degree to what I do you, were in America, they would be so much the farth{er}from me in proportion as their identity was less impressed upon me. Now the reason why I do not feel at the present moment so far from you is that I rememb{er} your Ways and Manners and actions; I known you manner of thinking, you manner of feeling: I know what shape your joy or sorrow w{ou}ld take, I know the manner of you walking, standing, sauntering, sitting down, laugh{ing,} punning, and evey action so truly that you seem near to me. (II, 5)

According to Keats, the kind of fraternal knowledge he has of George has left an impression, one that can survive a separation. Earlier, while Tom was still alive, John had used similar language to describe the effects of their proximity: “I wish I could say Tom was any better. His identity presses upon me so all day that I am obliged to go out” (I, 368-369). Knowledge leaves a mark, and, whether it consoles or aggrieves, it is carried in the body of the knower. This is gestural knowledge, knowledge of “the manner of,” which means that though it is gained in proximity, it persists at a distance. John has been stamped with George’s gestures, and so, even with George in faraway Kentucky, he can be reanimated, “walking, standing, sauntering, sitting down, laugh{ing,} punning,” within John’s own somatic experience. And if John can do this with George, can they not both do the same with “poor Tom”? If one of the “grandeurs of immortality” is that “there will be no space,” might not another be that there will be no time?

In the letter’s improper time, the three Keats brothers find themselves, once again, in the same room. Having reassured George about the ease with which he can conjure, even across the Atlantic, his brother’s living and being, John suggests an exercise that will allow George to do the same:

You will rem{em}ber me in the same manner—and the more when I tell you that I shall read a passage of Shakespeare every Sunday at ten o Clock—you read one {a}t the same time and we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room— (II, 5)

The dream here is one of simultaneity: Shakespeare functions as the triangulated object through which the distant brothers can connect. Like separated lovers who, while talking to each other on the phone, look to the night sky and see, at once and as though together, the same moon (the very same!), these brothers, John and George, will discover copresence by reading the same talismanic text, on the same day, at the same hour. The fact that that day and hour were customarily reserved for church going is all to the point: John was proposing a form of secular worship that would double as a form of fraternal communion.

And yet. With one brother in London and the other in Kentucky, what did “Sunday at ten o Clock” even mean? Surely John understood longitude well enough to know that his Sunday morning would not coincide with George’s. If, for that matter, the idea was to convene over the same passage from the same text, why had John not specified which passage of Shakespeare the brothers should read? One way to understand the imprecision of John’s plan is to consider the imperfection of its reward: “we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room.” How near was that? On the one hand, Keats is promising a thrilling kind of proximity: the ocean between them suddenly swept away, John and his brother find themselves within reach of the sound of each other’s breath, the heat of each other’s body. On the other hand, these bodies cannot touch. They cannot, after all, see. If they are blind, then to them the room is dark. And they are not described here as “brothers” or “men” or “souls”; they are, simply, “bodies.” Set against and dimly legible beneath the consolation of the imagined room in which John and George can sit together, in the elastic and alternate temporality this letter inaugurates, is another room in which the brothers might imagine being joined by Tom, whose cooling body John had lately left. Such a room would more properly be understood as a tomb, a darkened space within which the brothers might be rejoined, in a time that will have no end.

Contributor’s Note
Kamran Javadizadeh is assistant professor of English at Villanova University, where he works on twentieth-century poetry and the long history of poetry and poetics. He is the author of Institutionalized Lyric: American Poetry at Midcentury (forthcoming from Oxford University Press) and has written essays that have appeared or are forthcoming in PMLA, Modernism/modernity, Arizona Quarterly, and The Yale Review as well as in several edited volumes. With Robert Volpicelli, he is co-editor of “Poetry Networks,” a forthcoming special issue of the journal College Literature.

Works Cited
Dickinson, Emily. Selected Letters. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats: 1814-1821, Volume One: 1814-1818. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

—. The Letters of John Keats: 1814-1821, Volume Two: 1819-1821. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Letter #105: To Charlotte Reynolds (née Cox), 15 December 1818

It’s the holiday season, and you know what that means: awkward social interactions! We can certainly file today’s letter under that category. Here’s what happened. Keats initially thought he’d end up traveling to Chichester to spend Christmas with the Dilke family (and Charles Brown). Figuring as much, he appeared to have accepted two different invitations for Christmas dinner in London, one from the Reynoldses and one from the Brawnes. Hey, we’ve all been there. Someone asks if you want to do something, and to be polite and kind, you offer up some sort of non-committal, “oooh, that sounds lovely!” But then reality hits and you need to reckon with the impossibility of being in two places at once. Keats’s strategy for handling the situation appears not to have been all that wise.

He writes to Mrs. Reynolds (wife of George, mother of John Hamilton, Jane, Mariane, Eliza, and Charlotte) with this ill-conceived explanation: “When I left you yesterday, ‘t was with the conviction that you thought I had received no previous invitation for Christmas day: the truth is I had, and had accepted it under the conviction that I should be in Hampshire at the time: else believe me I should not have done so, but kept in Mind my old friends.” The problem is that it pits the Reynolds family against the Brawnes, and as we’ll see, the Reynolds sisters in particular ended up resenting Fanny Brawne as she and Keats became more and more entangled in each other’s lives. Keats himself also ended up seeing less and less of the Reynoldses, although his displeasure with them had already surfaced earlier. It’s possible, nay, likely, that Keats actually just preferred to spend Christmas with the Brawnes, and this letter was his attempt at making nice with the Reynoldses while also turning down their invitation. In any case, Keats does spend Christmas with the Brawnes, and, well, you know how things go from there! We’ll have plenty more to hear about young Miss Brawne in the coming months.

A quick note on the provenance of today’s letter. It appears that it remained in the Reynolds family for some time. The first printing of it was in Harry Buxton Forman’s 1883 edition, where he notes that he was personally in contact with the youngest sister, also Charlotte, who lived until 1884. Our best guess is that she still owned the letter in 1883 and lent it to Forman for use in his edition. Later the letter was owned by A. S. W. Rosenbach, a collector of rare books and manuscripts who owned a few other Keats items. One of his purchases–of a letter to Fanny Brawne–was memorialized in a cheeky poem by Christopher Morley.

From Chimneysmoke (1921), by Christopher Morley

But we do digress. Today’s letter was acquired by Robert H. Taylor, probably sometime around mid-century (perhaps after Rosenbach’s death in 1952). Taylor bequeathed his collection of materials to Princeton University (his alma mater), where it still resides. For a bit of info on Taylor’s collection and another of Keats’s letters housed within it, check out our post for Keats’s 15 April 1817 letter to George and Tom.

To read the text of the letter, we direct you to Forman’s 1883 edition, where, you’ll notice, he explains his knowledge of the letter coming directly from the younger Charlotte Reynolds.

Letter #104: To Fanny Keats, 30 November 1818

Today marks a sad day for the Keats family. On the morning of 1 December 1818, Tom Keats succumbed to the “family disease” (tuberculosis), which would also take John’s life a few years later, and George’s two decades after that. The only sibling to avoid the same fate was the recipient of today’s letter, Fanny Keats.

Tom’s illness had been progressively worsening since the summer, and Keats had been preparing his other siblings for the news. Back in October Keats wrote to George and Georgiana in America that “[Tom] is no better but much worse.” And his letters to Fanny during the autumn were likewise full of trepidation about their brother’s health. It’s unclear exactly when he wrote this last letter to Fanny before Tom’s death, but it seems clearly intended to prepare her for that eventual fate. He notes that “[Tom] is in a very dangerous state–I have scarce any hopes of him.”

The letter is postmarked at noon on 1 December 1818, which was a few hours after Tom’s death. Fanny Keats’s biographer, Marie Adami, makes the supposition that Keats wrote the letter at some point during the night or early hours of the morning, and then posted the letter on his way to inform Charles Brown of Tom’s passing. Brown took it upon himself to do the difficult work of informing Keats’s friends of the news. He wrote to Richard Woodhouse soon after Keats arrived at Wentworth Place, noting that “Mr Keats requests me to inform you his brother Thomas died this morning at 8 o’Clock quietly & without pain.”

While it may seem odd that after Tom’s death Keats would mail a letter to Fanny indicating that he had “scarce any hopes” of Tom’s recovery. But as Adami points out, the letter demonstrates that amidst his own grief, Keats was thinking of how he might mitigate Fanny’s by preparing her for the worst and planning to break the news to her soon after in person: “Perhaps nowhere so much as in the last words of this letter … are the tenderness of his care for her …. Waiting in the inaction which the last hours of unconsciousness bring to the watcher, he looked beyond them to Fanny, foreseeing her coming grief, bracing her against it. He gave her something to do, he gave her something to hold. Found and set down as they were, it would be hard to imagine words more moving.” One suspects that after dispatching his letter, Keats would have made the trip to Walthamstow to see Fanny, thereby reinforcing his wish that she would “repose entirely in / Your affectionate Brother / John.”

Keats’s life takes a significant turn from this point on. Soon he’ll be living in Wentworth Place with Brown, and soon after that he will begin his relationship with Fanny Brawne. And, of course, let’s not forget the poetry he will write over the next year: the majority of the poems which establish his literary fame as the century proceeds. But for now let’s recall the loss that preceded all those other things, and the moment of kindness Keats showed to his sister, hoping to do at least something to help make her grieving process less painful.

Text of the letter comes from Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition (image below). Quick note on the dating of the letter: although Keats indicates “Tuesday morn,” which would have been 1 December, and although the postmark is also for that date, Rollins dates the letter as 30 November, following Adami’s suggestion that Keats wrote the letter the night before.



Letter #103: To Mrs. Burridge Davenport, November [?] 1818

This brief letter from Keats to the wife of Burridge Davenport (we’re unable to confirm her first name at this point) poses several tricky questions. First, as the question mark above suggests, there is the date. The letter appears to have been first published in the 1930s by Maurice Buxton Forman, but our access to some of those editions of Keats’s letters being now somewhat limited, we can’t say exactly when for sure. We take the date from Hyder Edward Rollins’s 1958 edition of the letters, where he makes an educated guess that the letter was written sometime in November 1818, given that Keats indicates Tom’s continuing ill health (“his Brother continues in the same state”). So we’ll go with that too.

Then there’s the question of who? That one’s a bit easier. Burridge Davenport (Rollins notes that he’s elsewhere referred to as “Benjamin” and “Burrage”) was a merchant who lived in Hampstead. In a letter from February 1820 to Fanny Keats, her brother mentions an invitation from “Mr. Davenport” and refers to him as “a gentleman of hampstead.” Keats clearly knew the Davenports by autumn 1818 when Mrs. Davenport had inquired about Tom’s health, thereby prompting Keats’s response with his letter.

What about the history of the letter itself? We lied up above when we said Rollins dates the letter November 1818 because of the context alone. There is also an endorsement, in “an unidentified hand,” which reads, “Nov 1818 / Jno Keats.” The letter appears to have been sent by messenger, since it has no postage marks on it. But we do not know anything else about who owned the letter after its initial delivery. (We will update after digging around some of the Forman editions from the early-20th century for more info.) According to Rollins in 1958, the letter was at the British Museum. It then follows that it should now be part of the British Library (which was part of the BM until 1973). However, as far as we can tell from searching the online catalogue, that does not appear to be the case. Where is the letter, then? We don’t know! We’d love to tell you more, but at this point it remains a mystery that needs further investigation.

Below is the letter as printed in Rollins’s edition. If you or anyone you know has any information about the current whereabouts of the letter, please drop us a line

The text of Keats's letter runs as follows: "Mr Keats's compliments to Mrs Daventorp and is sorry to say that his Brother continues in the same state. He and his Brother are extremely sensible of Mrs Davenport's kindness--"
From The Letters of John Keats, edited by Hyder Edward Rollins (Harvard UP, 1958).

Letter #102: To James Rice, 24 November 1818

In today’s letter to James Rice, we encounter a familiar topic of Keats’s correspondence: social awkwardness. The letter aims to clarify what Rice seems to have thought was a slight he aimed at Keats. We can gather from Keats’s response that the two had a bit of miscommunication. Keats dismisses its significance as such: “I am not at all sensible of any thing but that you were unfortunately engaged and I was unfortunately in a hurry.” The two likely had some sort of brief communication, and afterwards Rice reached out to Keats to apologize. Keats reassures his friend that it was nothing to worry about.

Also of interest here is that Keats takes the opportunity to reflect upon his own social failures with another friend (maybe two others?). Keats put the ol’ proverbial foot in his mouth by assuming in two different cases interested motives on the part of his interlocutor. In one case, Keats responded to a friend who noted plans to see the painter Joseph Severn, “‘Ah’ … ‘you want him to take your Portrait.'” In the other case, Keats responded to a question about when he’d next be in the city with the answer, “‘I will’ … ‘let you have the MSs next week.'” These “most unfortunate paralel slips” were, of course, minor matters, and Keats relays them to Rice in order to make his friend feel better about potentially having committed a similar slip with Keats. In short, Keats acknowledges his tendency to slip up now and then as a way to assure Rice that all is well. Pretty impressive–but not surprising–for Keats to think of Rice’s feelings amidst all that Keats himself was going through while caring for Tom.

The letter made its way from Rice to John Taylor (likely during the initial gathering of materials for a Keats biography soon after the poet’s death), and eventually to Harvard, via Amy Lowell, in the 1920s. Text of the letter can be accessed in Forman’s 1895 edition. Images below are courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library.

Page 1 of Keats’s 24 November 1818 letter to James Rice. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.40). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 2 of Keats’s 24 November 1818 letter to James Rice. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.40). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 3 of Keats’s 24 November 1818 letter to James Rice. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.40). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 4 of Keats’s 24 November 1818 letter to James Rice. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.40). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #101: To Fanny Keats, 5 November 1818

Like other letters to Fanny Keats from this period, today’s letter is a brief one explaining Keats’s ongoing dispute with Richard Abbey about visiting Fanny. (For other discussions of the topic, see these earlier posts.) Given what we know about Tom’s looming fate, it’s hard not to view Abbey in an even more villainous light than that in which he usually shines. As Tom’s health worsened throughout November 1818, the last month of his life, it became even harder for Keats to visit Fanny in Walthamstow. Not only was she kept from visiting her brothers at Well Walk; John could not come to her as well. At least we know that he kept his sister in mind and let her know of his solicitude via letter.

You can read today’s letter in Forman’s 1895 edition of the letters. Along with most of the other extant letters to Fanny Keats, today’s resides at the British Library.

Keats’s 5 November 1818 letter to Fanny Keats. Via Forman’s 1895 single-volume edition.

Keats and Babies: ‘Child I’ve Found Thee!’

Ivana M. Krsmanović
Technical College Cacak

RE: Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana

Having been disconnected from George and Georgiana for several months since their departure for America in June 1818, John Keats was deeply hurt. One of the possible reasons to feel ‘a great deal of pain’ (p. 158) was the fact that Keats had received information of their safe arrival through his sister-in-law’s mother, Mrs Wylie. Not surprisingly, being too shy to admit that he was personally insulted by the fact that his beloved brother was closer to his mother-in-law than him, Keats decided to give this ‘mail malfunction’ incident an epistolary twist: he declared he was not sorry he hadn’t yet sent any letters across the sea, since the only news he could share was ominous: Tom was feeling extremely weak. Tragically, this was John’s last letter written to George during which the three brothers were all still alive.

Watching his younger brother die was devastating for the oversensitive Keats. He was emotionally drained and somewhat ill himself. He wrote long, intimate journal letters to his brother in America, in order to bridge the emotional gap created with his departure. In this deeply confessional letter, Keats elaborated on happiness and the importance of family ties at difficult times. Not yet fully estranged but already far away from his family in America, thinking about his legally ‘imprisoned’ sister Fanny, Keats realized he now fully belonged to a dysfunctional family, so he became rather explicit about his inner fears: ‘tears will come into your Eyes – let them – and embrace each other -‘ (p.159). The haunting idea of pain and suffering slowly overtaking his life was formulized in a well-known sentence in a letter to Benjamin Bailey in June 1818: “Life must be undergone’’ (p. 99). Still, he had to encounter more women and experience more pain.

In the meantime, disturbed by his inner struggles, overburdened with financial difficulties, Keats was writing a letter to his brother and sister-in-law, alone by the window. Impressed by the picturesque scenery that was occupying his senses, he wrote down: ‘’the Moon is now shining full and brilliant – she is the same to me in Matter, what you are to me in Spirit’’ (p.159). This fearless declaration of love to Georgiana did not end there. Having been truly fascinated with his sister-in-law’s disinterestedness and intelligence, Keats wrote a full paragraph in sincere admiration to Georgiana only, although he knew his brother was a (simultaneous) letter recipient. Moreover, comparing Georgiana to his sister Fanny brought some unexpected discoveries: he admitted he did not feel for Fanny as he did for Georgiana. The statement of the undivided love would not have been that unusual if it were not for the fact that Keats had barely met Georgiana once.

What made Keats feel such strong affection for a woman who was a mere acquaintance? The emotional attachment to his sister-in-law probably came from the fact that Georgiana was the only woman who came to the family to stay. While Keats’s mostly women-constituted family became dysfunctional with multiple female departures (his mother left the family more than once for various reasons, his sister was under legal custody, his granny lived in a separate household), Georgiana was the first woman who did something totally opposite from abandonment: she was there to stay. Needless to say, Georgiana was about to complete the range of females Keats was not familiar with before: although previously emotionally connected to family-related women only, at this stage of his life meeting Georgiana, mysteriously veiled under her marital status, meant re-defining his knowledge of females and getting to know some women outside his family.

Being almost 23 by this point, Keats craved for tenderness and passion. Yet, he cunningly tried to mask this inner urge by what looked like just a regular letter-blabbing to his brother. However, abundant mentions of non-related females throughout the letter obviously meant newly found interest in various ladies. He mentioned frequent acquaintances with females living nearby, firstly as toponymic determinants, not identities: Mrs Millar’s was where he and Haslam had a cup of tea; then Miss Keasle, ‘the good-natured’ Miss Waldegrave, Mrs Millar’s daughter, Mrs Dilke. All of them might have been a suitable reminder of a life he would have liked for himself: being married with children. Or would he have?

The idea of having a family with a disinterested, passionate wife similar to Georgiana, frequently collided with the urge to realize his poetic ambitions. This particular letter demonstrated that the emotional rupture provoked by such thoughts was gigantic; he quickly wanted to replace the exciting but frightening mental picture of himself being a husband and a father with something more suitable for the occasion, so he decided to change the topic of his letter. He proudly boasted of the two positive reviews of his work published in the Chronicle and the other in the Examiner. Although one of the reviewers was a close friend of his, Reynolds, who would have written a praising review at all events, the second review being written by an unknown critic led Keats to say that it was just a matter of time when he would secure a place ‘’among the English Poets ‘’after his death.

Yet, he didn’t feel like chit-chatting about poetic fame any more. After briefly mentioning ‘the utterly boring’ Miss Reynoldses, Keats’s mind was fully focusing on erotic pleasures, leaving discussion on his promising career plans for some other time. Openly blunt about his sexual experiences, he started elaborating on Jane Cox – one of the most intriguing females in his life. In a long, intimate account on the charms of this femme fatale, a reader (in this case, George and Georgiana) could easily detect Keats’s explosive attraction to a woman who was ‘not without faults’ (p.162). A daring lexical juxtaposition ‘I should like her to ruin me, and I should like you to save me’ (p.163) basically placed Georgiana in a role of a marital messiah to Keats, but just after the provisional devastation of a sexual liaison with Jane Cox had happened. Why does Keats write details on making out with Jane Cox so bluntly? Is exposing Georgiana to the perverse account of his intimacy with Jane (without Georgiana’s consent in the first place) just Keats’s voyeuristic exhibitionism? What kind of reception on her behalf did he expect? ’A women is visible only when compared to the other’ claims Kristeva (p. 378). It looks like Keats proved that ‘love relationships are based on narcissist pleasure from the one side and the idealisation from the other’ (Kristeva, p. 400), polarising his fixation on chaste Georgiana and lustful Jane.

Having felt he probably went too far with demonstrating his (somewhat partial) understanding of women, Keats continued his letter-writing by smoothly moving on to his thoughts about American political figures and the national character, which then leads him to suddenly propose, ‘If I had a prayer to make for any great good, next to Tom’s recovery, it should be that one of your Children should be the first American Poet’ (p.165). Not surprisingly, a poem which followed after such a bizarre wish got even a more unusual twist: it opens with a scene of the Moon and Stars all listening to a prophetic ‘song’ dedicated to a poet’s unborn nephew who becomes a poet himself. Further on, the poet narrates that he is aware of the prematurity of his lullaby since the ‘infant’ (denoted as a genderless child) has yet to come to the world (the woollen for the baby’s blanket is still ‘’on the sheep’’). With a strong contrast created by eliciting baby’s necessities such as cradle, blanket and linen on the one side and the stars above on the other, Keats exclaims: ‘Child! I see thee! Child I’ve found thee / Midst of the quiet all around thee!’ After having been miraculously born (without explicit details on it for readers), the baby metamorphoses from a child into a poet. The poem finalizes with a picture of a fearless infant who ‘dares what no one dares’ (and that is basically staring at the blaze of the candle) and thus becomes ‘a bard, a true poet.’ After a poetic climax, the letter breaks off.

Why does Keats compose a lullaby here? Lullaby is defined as a gentle song sung to make a child go to sleep (OED). It usually has a simple and repetitive structure meant to convey a feeling of peace and security, indicating an emotional and social connectedness between the two involved in the process. It is a type of communication established by touches, notes and calming words. Yet, Keats’s prophetic lullaby goes a bit awry. What is supposed to be a moving poetic picture of an adult and a baby connecting in a relaxing pre-sleep state when physical and emotional boundaries are blurred, turns out instead to be an arbitrary pastiche with a harsh vocabulary and irregular rhyme. It certainly doesn’t read like an effective way to lull a child to sleep. Keats’s Child, child! (resembling an invocation of a muse) sounds rather unconvincing when contrasted to a more conventional opening, like Sleep, little baby …. So, a reader gets in a serious dilemma: is the baby supposed to go to sleep or to wake up? Apart from the decorum of the genre which obviously went wrong, the picture of an unnamed child grabbing flames and thus mysteriously upgrading into a bard ‘completely / Sweetly, with dumb endeavour’ (lines 51,52), makes us think Keats had never seen either a baby or a poet before. Where was he drawing these images from? His own childhood was a paradigm of common family concepts in 18th century England (non)centered around children: when left without parental care, children usually got neglected in foster homes (like his sister Fanny), or were forced to live in poverty and financial uncertainty (himself). Although the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s pedagogical manuals which explored the importance of children’s upbringing were widely popular, the child-centered education was too progressive to be considered a regular educational practice at that time, so it was highly unlikely that a (random) baby’s future would even be a point of general interest, even if it were for the literary purposes only.

If not taken either from his personal experience or general social atmosphere of an epoch, was this baby episode an intentionally crafted poetic manoeuvre? Did the baby image emerge just as a paradigm of state-of-the art poetry? Historians agree that the 18th century was the period when the ‘discovery of childhood’ occurred and when the experience of childhood changed dramatically (Wierda Rowland, p.8). Pre-Romantic concepts of children were based on sentimental construction of childhood innocence and their innate perfection. However metaphorical it might be, the depiction of babies grabbing flames of glory collides with the images of the actual life of an English child at the time. Child labour was common in the factories and mines in England during the industrial revolution, so children represented a cheap and expendable workforce. They were usually exposed to outbursts of violence on the one side, and neglect on the other. The Romantic (and romanticised) images of naivety and freedom depicted in a savage child had a little to do with how children actually lived. Yet Keats’s baby, tucked with blankets of a secure cradle grabbing flames of glory, resonates as a socially and culturally odd construct derived from two sources: Keats’s personal childhood trauma he wanted to compensate for, and an artistic process of imagining a corrected vision of what childhood could be.

If we refer to Keats’s playful and self-deprecating autobiographical poem written in the summer of 1818, “There was a Naughty boy” (often anthologized as “A Song about Myself”), we will encounter a different child – a reckless boy who just wants to scribble poetry. Richard Marggraf Turley rightly argues that this nursery ‘subverted sublime subjectivity by infantilizing the viewing subject itself’ (p.74). Interestingly, the poem sets the focal point on the nature of the boy’s ’naughtiness’ which refers to childish activities only, usually undertaken in solitude. Obviously, the kid had to grow up and discover the world of sexual pleasures, so that ‘naughtiness’ could include more liberal projections of a poetic expression.

While demonstrating ignorance of dealing with babies, Keats shows no fear of fatherhood. In fact, he craves for transforming a general preconception of fatherhood to serve his personal needs: it was not merely about opening to the world by starting a family; it meant encountering a world of poetic fame. That process is not a devaluation of family values, but quite contrary, upgrading the system by liberating it from clichés. Not surprisingly, the change starts with the sexual. To demonstrate he is fit to be a father Keats juvenilely boasts that he had experienced le petite mort with females before and that he was a romance connoisseur. Keats had bought love from prostitutes and ‘openly considered himself a man of sufficient sexual experience’ (Motion p.198). But, is love a state of belonging or there is more to it? What strikes Keats the most is the fact that in becoming a father, similar to becoming a famous poet, one must engage in various physical and emotional processes of giving. But whereas one can write poetry in solitude, fighting only with one’s ‘private’ demons, the sexual activity necessary for conceiving a child traditionally includes two parties.

While leaving behind the child-centered constructs of childhood from “A Song about Myself” and ‘’A lullaby,’’ (with both poems interpolated in his letters), Keats uses child metaphors in his late poems differently, as a ‘fine excess’ (KL, p. 69) resonating his complex feelings for women and the dysfunctional family he originated from. In these poems the focus on the child is not directed from the parent’s point of view but quite the contrary: instead of talking of a step-mother or a step-father to a child, Keats emphasizes a child’s perspective of the relation, not the parents’, lexically labelling the direction of the social ties between the child and the parents.

When six months later Keats wrote Ode on a Grecian Urn, his deployment of child metaphors more subtly referred to a social context of fatherhood: ‘Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,/Thou foster-child of silence and slow time’(lines 1-2 ). Interestingly, the first lines of the Ode echo the lexis of the ‘lullaby poem’: a child found ‘midst of the quiet’ transformed into ‘a bride of quietness.’ In addition, carefully crafted play of the adverb still upgrades the meaning: the word STILL implies the forthcoming catastrophe the bride is about to experience: she is still untouched, however she is yet to be subdued in an act of dominion and love. Her not being yet experienced in love, places her in a position of a foster-child who ‘has no natural parents because the act of sex did not produce it’ (Alwes, p.127). Not only is she chaste, then–her parents’ sexual histories contextualize her identity as well. Thus a sexless bride from the beginning of one ode subtly transforms into the ‘mid-May’s eldest child’ of another (Ode to a Nightingale, line 48), a genderless toddler whose parents must have had multiple sexual encounters (since being the ‘eldest child’ implies having younger siblings).

For Keats, the sexual is a transformative force. Various acts of love, perceived as creative powers genetically inherited from our ancestors, re-shape individual experiences and contribute to the evolution of our unexplored selves. While seeing women as mostly enigmatic beings, Keats believed children’s advantage over adults lay in their being a tabula rasa with good chances to reach for the stars. The glorious future they might experience is not restrictive of their personal family histories, no matter how unusual or diverse they might be. By recognizing the significance of all types of families (matrifocal, nuclear or blended) and their role in shaping personal development of children, Keats anticipated diverse family models we know of today.

From a picture of a naive ‘naughty’ boy Keats moved to a depiction of a baby-poet grabbing flames, then embarking on a metaphor of a foster-child ‘of silence and slow time,’ to be able to finally reach a construct of ‘mid-May’s eldest child,’ thus successfully transforming the initial understanding of children into a more contextualized representation, unleashing his creative potential and exposing his vulnerability, while at the same time addressing his personal social alienation, emotional neglect and gloomy professional prospects.

A year later, in July 1819, Keats wrote to Dilke (whose parental dedication to his son he detested and often criticized): ‘I do not know how I should feel were I a father – but I hope I should strive with all my Power not to let the present trouble me‘ (p. 273). Keats wanted to be a dad, but he thought he wasn’t good enough: ‘The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window are my Children[ … ]I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds (p.170),’ [ … ] ‘I am fit for nothing but literature’’ (p. 302).

While we will never know what sort of father Keats would have made, given what we do know about his character and personal values, it’s hard not to imagine that he would have honed his lullaby skills and made for a great parent.

Contributor Bio:
Ivana M. Krsmanović (Technical College Cacak) is a Keats scholar, and Keats’s legacy has been a focus of her research for more than 10 years. After defending her MA thesis, Letters of John Keats: evolution of the author’s poetics in 2009, she earned her PhD with her dissertation, Female Archetypes in the Poetry of John Keats  (2016) at the University of Belgrade. Currently she explores babies, ageism and biopolitics, as well as violence and eroticism in Romantic poetry. She has published papers on British Romanticism, and her first book on Keats’s poetry is to be published in 2019.

Works cited
Alwes, Karla. Imagination Transformed: The Evolution of the Female Character in Keats’s Poetry. Southern Illinois UniversityPress, 1993.

Baldick, Chris. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Davis, R.A. (2011) ‘’Brilliance of a fire: innocence, experience and the theory of childhood.‘’ Journal of Philosophy of Education, 45 (2). pp. 379- 397, http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/52489/

Gittings, Robert (ed.). 1970. Letters of John Keats.Oxford University Press.

Kristeva, Julija. Ljubavne povesti. (Histoires d’amour). IK SremskiKarlovci, Novi Sad, 2011.

Rekkonen, Reijo. ‘’Lullabies of the World. Introduction.’’ 15 July 2018, http://lullabiesoftheworld.org/projekt.html.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.Emile, or Education. Translated into English by Barbara Foxley. London & Toronto: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1921; New York: E.P. Dutton, 1921, http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2256

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

Wierda Rowland, Ann. Romanticism and Childhood: The Infantilization of British Literary Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of The Rights of Women with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, 1792. http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/wollstonecraft1792.pdf

Wright, Paul (ed.). The Complete Poems of John Keats. Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994.

Letter #100: To George and Georgiana Keats, 14-31 October 1818

We’ve hit two milestones with our latest letter: number 100 (woo hoo!) and the first of the great journal letters sent to George and Georgiana in America. It wasn’t until early October that word from George and Georgiana had been received in London. As will be the case in most of the transatlantic letters, Keats comments in this one about the nature of that tenuous connection linking them by the post. We daresay it’s a remarkable feat that the letters ever arrived at their destinations!

Because of the great distance separating Keats from his brother and sister-in-law, he would typically write long letters over the space of weeks and months, as opposed to writing shorter letters every week or so. Reading these journal letters is thus a much different experience than reading the sort of letters we’re used to reading from Keats. Each letter spans more time, each letter covers more topical ground, and each letter allows for more extended ruminations. In the example from today, we cover just over two weeks, we learn of a variety of topics (current goings-on, Keats’s thoughts on American character, Tom’s ailing state), and we dive deeply into Keats’s attitudes toward women, matrimony and children. It’s on these last topics that our response for today focuses, from Ivana M. Krsmanović. Enjoy!

To read the letter, you can head over to H. B. Forman’s 1895 edition here. Or you can work your way through the many images below, courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library.

Page 1 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 5 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 6 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 7 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 8 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 9 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 10 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 11 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 12 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 13 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 14 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 15 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 16 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

The Feeling of Not Feeling: Keats, Woodhouse, and the Poetical Character

Yimon Lo
Durham University

RE: Keats’s 27 October 1818 letter to Richard Woodhouse

The end of this October marks the bicentenary of Keats’s iconic letter on the ‘poetical Character’. The letter of 27 October 1818, now one of the key sources of Keats’s poetic philosophy, emerged two hundred years ago from a period of distress and despair. Two months before the letter was written, Keats was sent home from Scotland to Tom’s failing condition. By ‘Sunday Evening Oct. 4. 1818’, Keats was deeply troubled by Tom’s predicament, circling the words ‘poor Tom’ along his reading of King Lear. Adding to the stress of nursing his dying brother are the hostile reviews of Blackwood’s and the Quarterly Review. Croker’s criticism of Endymion in the Quarterly upset Keats severely. Charles Cowden Clarke recalled, in his letter of 27 July 1821 to the Morning Chronicle, the sleepless night in early October 1818, when Keats ‘lain awake through the whole night talking with sensitive-bitterness of the unfair treatment he had experienced’.

The letter of 27 October 1818 was written as a reply to Richard Woodhouse’s rising concern for Keats’s declining poetic morale. Woodhouse’s concern rekindles Keats’s confidence in his poetic project and encourages a discussion on poetry and literary judgments, eliciting one of Keats’s most significant and precious letters on poetic practice and literary ideals. Woodhouse, having ‘met with that malicious, but weak & silly article on Endymion in the last Quarterly Review’, writes to Keats on 21 October:

I may have misconceived you,—but I understood you to say, you thought there was now nothing original to be written in poetry; that its riches were already exhausted, & all its beauties forestalled—& That you should, consequently, write no more: but continue increasing your knowledge, merely for your own gratification without any attempt to make use of your Stores.

Woodhouse expresses his anxiety as he recalls his ‘late conversation’ with Keats about the Blackwood’s criticism over dinner at Hessey’s on 14 September. As both a friend and advisor, Woodhouse fortifies Keats’s poetic ability and persuades him to continue his creative endeavours in his letter:

the true born Son of Genius, who creates for himself the world in which his own fancy ranges who culls from it fair forms of truth beauty & purity & apparels them in hues chosen by himself, should hold a different language—he need never fear that the treasury he draws on can be exhausted, nor despair of being always able to make an original selection.

Woodhouse’s argument reflects his admiration for Keats’s ‘original genius’ and ‘brilliancy’. Shortly after sending his letter to Keats, Woodhouse, in his letter dated 23 October to his cousin, Mary Frogley, asserts that Keats’s ‘poetical merits’ have ‘not appeared since Shakespeare and Milton’. Despite admitting the ‘great faults’ in Keats’s poetry, Woodhouse nonetheless ranks the poet ‘on a level with the best of the last or of the present generation; and after his death will take his place at their head’.

In his response to Woodhouse, Keats reflects on the limitations and powers of Wordsworth by distinguishing ‘the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime’ from his own ideal of ‘the poetical Character’. He celebrates the ‘camelion Poet’, a person who does not have an identity because its character ‘is not itself–it has no self–it is everything and nothing–It has no character–it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated–It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen’. Keats’s definition of the poetical character oscillates between claims and counter-thoughts. His character is developed from contradictions and paradoxes, from the simultaneous experiences of being itself and not itself. Keats’s reply corrects Woodhouse’s idea that poets should construct their own poetic world. He affirms instead that poets, even without fully abandoning the self, should have ‘no identity’ and ‘no nature’. Borrowing the notion of ‘gusto’ from Hazlitt’s 1816 essay, Keats speaks to Hazlitt’s account of Wordsworth’s self-absorption and his ‘intense intellectual egoism’. Keats confirms that great poets have gusto because their works are not impeded by their own created sense of identity or character, concluding that the ‘Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence’.

Keats’s poetical empathy and sympathetic imagination illuminated in the letter have extended his earlier reference to the ‘negative capability’ around 21-27 December, 1817 (a period that coincides with Keats’s first meeting with Wordsworth). The idea of ‘negative capability’ first occurred to Keats in a conversation with Charles Brown and Charles Wentworth Dilke while walking back from the Drury Lane Christmas pantomime. The theory was mentioned later in a letter to his brothers George and Tom, defining it as the condition ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. The imaginative potential of the negative qualities Keats ascribes to his poetical character in the 1818 letter – the importance of not being itself, of not having a self, and of not bearing a character – resonates with the poet’s former idea of the ‘passive capacity’ and adaptability. Keats locates and creates his greater character through the evasion of identity and consciousness. The complex question of self that the poet imposes sustains conflicts and diversity in life, as he relishes both ‘the dark side of things’ and ‘the bright one’. Keats’s celebration of feeling the unfelt confirms his recognition and awareness of an alternate aspect to human experiences.

On receiving Keats’s response, Woodhouse summarises and outlines his analysis of Keats’s concept of the poetical character in his correspondence to John Taylor on the same day.

his soul has no distinctive characteristic – it cannot be itself made the subject of poetry that is another person’s soul, cannot be thrown into the poet’s, for there is no identity (separatedness, distinctiveness) or personal impulse to be acted upon.

Woodhouse’s letter, with reference to Endymion, also points out the distinction Keats has drawn between himself and the Wordsworth school as well as other poets. The letter closes with his acclamation of Keats’s ‘full universality’ and a call for our belief in the truth of the poet’s ideas and feelings. Restoring Keats’s faith and confidence in himself, Woodhouse’s timely support in the bitter autumn of 1818 leads the poet to the creation of four new lyrics, and eventually, the odes of spring 1819. Woodhouse further shows his great admiration for Keats’s 1817 Poems and Endymion by taking up the responsibility to arrange the copyright transfers of the Poems, Endymion, and Lamia. More importantly, Woodhouse has devoted much time and effort to collecting and transcribing manuscripts of Keats’s poems and correspondences with his closest acquaintances. Their relationship is maintained after Keats’s death as Woodhouse carried on to preserve and edit any written records of the poet that he could possibly obtain. Alongside the transcripts of Keats’s unpublished works and variant copies of published materials, Woodhouse has provided critical annotations and interpretations, as well as included the poet’s biographical notes and facts in his collection of ‘Keatsiana’. The publication of the remarkable collection of ‘Keatsiana’, therefore, crystalises the significance of Woodhouse’s unfailing support and respect to the development and progression of Keats’s poetic career and reputation since the autumn of 1818.

Contributor Bio:
Yimon Lo is a PhD candidate in English Studies at Durham University, where she works under the supervision of Professor Michael O’Neill and Professor Mark Sandy. She works on the late-eighteenth to nineteenth century British literature, with a focus on the poetry and prose of William Wordsworth. Her doctoral thesis examines Wordsworth’s soundscape and auditory imagination through the disciplinary lens of musical aesthetics. Her research offers an extended study of Wordsworth’s sense of musicality in relation to the poet’s key philosophical and literary ideas on lyricism and poetic harmony.