Poetry as Labor; or, Keats Gets Down and Dirty

Deven Parker
University of Colorado, Boulder

Re: Keats’s 8 October letter to Benjamin Bailey

In his letter to Benjamin Bailey on October 8, 1817, Keats quantifies poetic fame: to be a great poet, he argues, one must write a poem of at least four-thousand lines. The passage, originally excerpted from a letter he wrote to his brother George the previous spring, documents his attempt to reach this goal by writing Endymion (1818), the famously bad “poetic romance” that garnered so much attention in the press. Keats writes:

The high Idea I have of poetical fame makes me think I see it towering high above me. At any rate I have no right to talk until Endymion is finished—it will be a test, a trial of my Powers of Imagination and chiefly of my invention which is a rare thing indeed—by which I must make 4000 Lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry; and when I consider that this is a great task, and that when done it will take me but a dozen paces towards the Temple of Fame—it makes me say—God forbid that I should be without such a task! [….] Did our great Poets ever write short Pieces? [….] I put on no Laurels till I shall have finished Endymion […].”

Besides his remarkable combination of audacity and anxiety—that he presumes to crown himself with laurels even before completing a poem that he knows will be difficult—Keats uses an unusual image to describe Endymion’s writing process: that he “must make 4000 Lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry.” In this odd turn of phrase, he envisions the work’s physical shape and formal structure paradoxically preexisting its composition: its four-thousand lines serve as a holding-vessel for its contents, the poem taking the shape of the mold into which he pours it. Like a sitcom writer working under required lengths and rhythms dictated by commercial breaks, Keats keenly feels the constraints under which he writes. In addition, his claim that he must “make” four thousand lines suggests something labor intensive about his poetic process: like a carpenter or metalworker, he must manually create his work of art.

Taking my cue from this letter, this response explores how, in Endymion, Keats casts poetic composition as manual labor and calls attention to the physical and formal constraints that mediate his process, inscribing the poem with the marks of its making. I also suggest that Endymion’s repeated references to its own creation and its existence in the world as a print object partly account for its bad reception (in addition to those many political and class factors that others have brought to light). The poem’s unabashed embrace of labor marks Keats as a middle-class poet, one who, according to his Tory critics, had no legitimate claim to laurels.

In Endymion’s preface, Keats brings the work’s material constraints to the fore, allowing his compositional process to intrude on the imaginative landscape of the poem. In an unusual move, he guarantees that readers will attend to these moments of transparent self-reflexivity when he explains that:

Knowing within myself the manner in which this Poem has been produced, it is not without a feeling of regret that I make it public. What manner I mean, will be quite clear to the reader, who must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished (Keats 147).

We might understand “the manner in which this Poem has been produced” to refer to any of constraints under which Keats worked, including the fixed length, deadline, or the fact that printers Taylor and Hessey were eager to publish his work. We are clued in from the start that Endymion is a physical object with a concrete history of making.

In the poem proper, Keats delineates Endymion as the written remediation of an oral myth. His first readers would have been familiar with the original tale of the shepherd-prince who falls in love with the goddess of the moon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and from classical handbooks like Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary and Tooke’s Pantheon (1809). Of course, Keats wasn’t the only one rewriting classical mythology, with Wordsworth taking up myth in book IV of The Excursion (1814) and Shelley using classical ideas in Alastor (1816). Unlike them, Keats depicts the poem’s poet-narrator as scribal rather than vocal: what is an “adventurous song” for Milton or a “solemn song” for Shelley is for Keats a written endeavor:

Therefore, ‘tis with full happiness that I
Will trace the story of Endymion.
The very music of the name has gone
Into my being, and each pleasant scene
Is growing fresh before me as the green
Of our own vallies: so I will begin
Now while I cannot hear the city’s din….
Many and many a verse I hope to write,
Before the daisies, vermeil rimm’d and white,
Hide in deep herbage; and ere yet the bees
Hum about globes of clover and sweet peas,
I must be near the middle of my story.
O may no wintry season, bare and hoary,
See it half finished: but let Autumn bold,
With universal tinge of sober gold,
Be all about me when I make an end (I: 34-40, 49-57)

The poet-narrator opens not with a sung invocation to the Muse, but what’s effectively an outline of his composition process. Instead of singing, he “traces” the story, evoking the act of putting pen to page. While the “music” of Endymion’s name inspires him, it pushes him to write rather than produce music in response. The noise of the outside world—“the city’s din”—juxtaposes the peaceful solitude of the writer’s mind as he sets a plan to write “many and many a verse” in the span of one year, using the changing seasons to mark his progress. Keats doesn’t elide the process of writing under the guise of song, but makes explicit the constraints under which he writes—his schedule for completion—as well as the bodily act of writing.

Throughout the remainder of the poem, Keats continually portrays the work as an epic of pen and paper rather than song and voice. During Endymion and Selena’s first sexual encounter in Book II, for instance, the poet-narrator conveniently interrupts by asking, “Who, who can write / Of these first minutes?” (II. 531-532) After being drawn in by the scene’s sensuous detail and evocative content, the line abruptly pulls us back into the writer’s present, preventing us from fully entering into the fictive setting. The scene of writing forcibly interrupts the story’s eroticism again in Book II:

They trembled to each other. – Helicon!
O fountain’d hill! Old Homer’s Helicon!
That thou wouldst spout a little streamlet o’er
These sorry pages; then the verse would soar
And sing above this gentle pair (II. 716-720)

The sudden invocation to Helicon, marked by an abrupt period and dash, interrupts the trembling couple, even as we learn that the sun god, a traditional source of epic inspiration, is nowhere to be found. With Helicon’s help, Keats’s verses might “soar / And sing,” but in his absence they merely consist of “sorry pages.” In these self-referential moves, Endymion draws attention to the object in the readers’ hands even in the midst of its sensuous eroticism.

Endymion makes transparent the process of poetic composition not only through explicit references to writing, pages, and pens but also through its notoriously convoluted heroic couplets. In what are usually seen as evidence of Keats’s unpracticed talent—what Jack Stillinger calls “faulty rhymes, faulty meter, and […] passages of physical and rhetorical extravagance” (xiii)—I read as Keats’s labor rising to the surface of his poem. In these moments, his couplets prove so unwieldy that they obscure the lines’ content and momentarily derail the narrative. Distracted by their artificiality, we’re unable to ignore the work’s feeling of being constructed. Especially evident in descriptions of natural imagery, Keats’s remarkably unnatural verses feel almost tongue-in-cheek:

Fountains grotesque, new trees, bespangled caves,
Echoing grottos, full of tumbling waves
And moonlight; aye, to all the mazy world
Of silvery enchantment! (I: 458-464).

Intricate wordplay and inconsistent line length distract from the images they mean to evoke. If a verse succeeds in conjuring one, another quickly replaces it. Before we can consider what “fountains grotesque” might possibly be, we’re abruptly faced with “new trees, bespangled caves / echoing grottos, full of tumbling waves.” Images and language pile up on one another until the line comes to an abrupt stop with “silvery enchantment!” Keats deploys natural imagery in heavily unnatural diction, emphasizing the texture of language instead of the images it means to convey.

In selecting excerpts of Endymion to mock, an anonymous reviewer in the British Critic pays special attention to stanzas that explicitly mention writing, including “many and many a verse I hope to write,” remarking that the poem’s “flimsy veil of words” (Cox 249) can’t hide its explicit immorality. The reviewer finds the work’s physical form only redeeming quality: “We do most solemnly assure our readers that this poem, containing 4047 lines, is printed on very nice hot-pressed paper, and sold for nine shillings by a very respectable London bookseller” (Cox 250). For this reviewer, the quality of Endymion’s medium overshadows its content—it’s “flimsy” language draws attention to the material that comprises it.

In the Quarterly Review, John Wilson Croker claims to have “painfully toiled” through Endymion’s “uncouth language” (Cox 277), which leave him unable to summarize it. He accuses Keats of playing “bout rimes” (Cox 278), a game that involves creating a poem out of a list of rhymed words, suggesting that formal constraints of rhymed couplets drive the poem forward and contribute to its incoherent narrative: “He seems to write a line at random, and then he follows not the thought excited by this line, but the rhyme with which it concludes. There is hardly a complete couplet inclosing a complete idea in the whole book. He wanders from one subject to another, from the association, not of ideas but of sounds” (Cox 278). Endymion’s formal artifice effaces the content proper. For Croker, good poetry is led on by ideas rather than language and poetic form provides an invisible structure that should support but not shape ideas.

Perhaps most telling of all, John Gibson Lockhart’s review in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Review calls Keats a “versifier” who writes “laboriously affected descriptions” (Cox 272)—perhaps suggesting that he notices the marks of labor in Endymion’s highly-wrought couplets—and claims that this kind of writing is characteristic of middle and laboring class poets. “Uneducated and flimsy striplings,” like Keats, who can’t produce “one original image” are part of the larger trend of “metromanie,” in which “our very footman compose tragedies, and there is scarcely a superannuated governess in the island that does not leave a roll of lyrics behind her in her bandbox” (Cox 272). Good poetry, Lockhart and Croker suggest, renders invisible the formal markers of its creation while the poetry of Keats and others of his class quite literally contains signs of their labor and position.


Works Cited

John Keats. The Letters of John Keats. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958). Print.

–. Keats’s Poetry and Prose, Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2009). Print.

Stillinger, Jack. “Introduction.” John Keats Poetry Manuscripts at Harvard (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990). Print.

Letter #30: To Benjamin Bailey, 8 October 1817

Keats is now back in London, after his productive stay at Oxford with Benjamin Bailey for all of September 1817. Keats completed Book III of Endymion while there. Over the coming weeks he’d finish the poem, then start getting to the work of copying and revising as he readied the poem for publication with his new publishers, John Taylor and James Augustus Hessey.

One remarkable thing to note about these fall months is how quickly he and Bailey became friends. They had barely just met when Bailey invited Keats to stay with him in Oxford, and after a month together, they were thick as thieves. Bailey becomes a regular interlocutor for the rest of 1817 and well into 1818, after which they seemed to grow apart. But for now, in October and November of 1817, Keats finds in Bailey an indispensable epistolary confidant. At this important moment in Keats’s poetic career (nearing the conclusion of Endymion and starting to contemplate his next steps—no rest for the weary!), Bailey is on the receiving end of some of Keats’s most sustained thinking about poetry, to this point, expressed in epistolary form.

Today’s letter is no exception. Keats opines at length about the thinking behind his undertaking of Endymion. And Deven Parker’s response to the letter for today uses the occasion to explore how in Endymion Keats “casts poetic composition as manual labor and calls attention to the physical and formal constraints that mediate his process, inscribing the poem with the marks of its making.” Before you head over to read her brilliant post, one final thing to note about the letter and its history.

We know that the letters we have are only a small fraction of the letters Keats wrote. Sad but true. In some cases we have some knowledge about those lost letters (we’ll call them the “known unknown” letters). Today’s letter to Bailey includes a long extract from a letter which Keats says he “wrote to George in the Spring.” Back in London with his brothers, Keats clearly had that letter (and others) at hand, ready for him to reread, rethink, and then repeat to Bailey with some new framing and insight. It’s a fascinating piece of evidence testifying to the correspondence’s status, even just weeks or months after the moment of first composition and circulation, as artefacts to be revisited and recirculated. Here at the KLP we’re undertaking a sustained sitting down to read Keats’s letters again, 200 years on, but it’s worth noting with today’s letter that Keats himself was doing a bit of rereading himself. The ongoing lives of the letters seem to, like the poetry of the earth, never die.

Images of the letter courtesy of Harvard, once again. And for a 19-century reading edition, our good pal Harry Buxton Forman, as per usual.

*Programming note: some members of the KLP editorial team were attending the 2017 Romantic Bicentennials Curran Symposium at Fordham University, the topic of which was Keats’s Emergence as a Poet. It was a great day! But that also means internet access while traveling home today is a bit spotty (this post has gone live courtesy of United Airlines wifi—currently providing access somewhere over Ohio maybe?). Deven Parker’s post will go live later today when this editor returns to the surface of the Earth and its more widely available internet connections. And images to the current post will be added later as well. Airline wifi can’t handle much, it seems…

**Ok, the KLP has now left the sky. Here are the images of the letter, as promised.

Page 1 of Keats’s 8 Oct 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.13). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 8 Oct 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.13). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 8 Oct 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.13). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 8 Oct 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.13). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

“A Sparrow has been vexed”

Brandi George, Jessica Guzman Alderman, Angela Ball, Chad Foret, Charlee Meiners, Todd Osborne, Jessica Ramer, Jon Riccio, Matthew Schmidt, Anastasia Stelse, and Zachary Williams
The University of Southern Mississippi

Re: Keats’s 28 September 1817 letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon (and Re: all other 1817 letters)

We present a special treat for you today, a collaborative creative response to today’s letter to Haydon. We all know the KLP plays with temporality, right? A couple days here, a century there. Still, this one’s a doozy: a sublime essence of Keats’s 1817 letters mixed up, rearranged, and massaged into new form to prickle and tickle your senses. Annus mirabilis?–more like annus mashupalis.

We present to you a poetic mash-up of Keats correspondence for the year 1817.  Last spring, Brandi George, then Visiting Assistant Professor of Poetry at the University of Southern Mississippi, developed an assignment for her graduate seminar in creative writing using the text of all of Keats’s letter from 1817. Her students then went through several different processes involving erasure and collaborative remixing to arrive at a final product: a poem based on Keats’s epistolary correspondence from 1817. We offer the poem as a response to the letter to Haydon form 28 September, but it would be more accurate to say that the poem distills Keats’s entire 1817 epistolary output and translates it into poetic form. Later this autumn we’ll publish an essay in which Brandi George describes the assignment, and reflects on creative collaboration and uncertainty. But now, without further ado, the fruits of collaborating with Keats:


Dear Bailey,

You need not do it all at once. Let it be a diary
of little time, which, hereafter strangely

altered, we may look upon
with pleasure. You must sense

beauty obliterates words about its being.
Monday you were out in the Sun.

You promised Sunday. It struck me
with irritable reaching: verisimilitude, mystery.

Volumes are perhaps a Shadow of reality,
a delicious voice, auxiliary happiness, wings

of an imperious feeling. The Heart
acquainted with my innermost breast

is the unrelenting scroll. My dear, we are but monstrous
and middling. A word at the end: I am your Poem.

I was at the altar anxious to know power.
I’ll do everything to feel the ever. Brains clear

as a bell, things are pleasant for young
jackdaws. At their mercy, what could I have done?

Some Charity? Your criticism affects me—
you mention happiness—the new Tragedy—I may deceive.


Expect to be shot for Juliet. I know you
love to fish. I shall always have you for a few

days. My head is the Sword that will attack
time. Angel nettle, measure madman, Mary Queen of Pluck—

are all alike? Mannerism with company
pantomimes on various subjects; several dovetailed. Quality

epitaphs pit the Heart’s affections: what the Imagination seizes
as Beauty must be truth. The same Idea:

you bathe. I recommend the morning.
Don’t you think there is something

after sunset when a few white stars water the Mystery,
this state of things? I am glad you left alive. Flying

Medicine, a Ghost at the Circus:
it’s been forty nights without a candle since

I left you on a fisher-woman’s toe. I hope you will pardon
this shabby future, souls grown upon our tombs:

Masters and Madonnas, Dolphins of Theatre, Abominations
among the plenty of Muses and Snuff. I crave obsoletion.


It was a picture: ago. The triangular prism
would have made precious havoc, eaten

the looking glass. And gone to bed, I am writing
to you, my dear friend and delight. Looking

down, the eye must bend as at a feast. I love you, your hay faith
a shock, surprise, or principle. I am certain

of the authenticity of the Imagination, the holiness
of an immense wharf stretching to you, Ghost Bailey, a dear friend

in passing. I must say: Humility,
Genius, Chemicals, Mass, Yearning

worthy of the old birds. Amen. Now let us believe
you are part of the World, great sky throne, playing the evil

I am. I have found the voice of a tree, I hope.
Walk the seaside, bathe between shallows,

say how beautiful the resemblances
of camels and waves. Sublunary creatures, these.

What an occasion: two Minds meet and do not understand each other!
I will get over this soon—the affair, Man of nature

cutting the grass of Imagination, running away from the subject:
Worldly Happiness. A Sparrow has been vexed.


You are such a foreign age and astonish
the tongue. I would like those honeycombs

only to tease you for a little love. I sincerely
believe in her, the finest Creature: Pandemonium.

Fame tower, tomb think, prime labor: Eros works, yet
doth he sit in his Palace, tyrannical and indolent.

At present I am just arrived. I should have
been here a day sooner. I should not deceive you.

A young lady is the finest thing by God,
and mice deserve their language. All you have said

another will take. Speculation will bury the picture
larger than Christ. I dined with two Brothers Superior.

Wit? Enjoyment? Without. They honeycombed,
could not pass petition, begged pardon

by eleven o’clock. We shall
till eyebal avail, beggar scrall.


Stations and Grandeurs, wrongs within. The pale
avail 800 stummed fossils

of Love, the sublime, essential Beauty—in a Word,
Speculation. The greatest Philosopher,

a handsome shepherd, carried her to the top of Latmus.
She dated Paris, a mistake, suffocation of accidents.

O, for a recourse somewhat human.
A spice: sensations, a noble lion.

My only sister was falling
in love with this contemplative person, living solitary

among the trees. Little thinking, in the Isle of Lions
I saw hedges, heath Comfort, fame

diffusing ethereal power, cormorant breath, money.
Kick the Devil, make him drunk. The spy

need only judge your mind of modest ventures.
Thee thy sword favor, heart taylor.

Death, meet the song I enclosed. I will do it some day—
offer a poem on Nymphs written against tomorrow.

Letter #29: To Benjamin Haydon, 28 September 1817

Keats’s Oxford stay is nearing its end, as he’ll be heading back to London in early October. But we have one final letter written during the trip: today’s is to Benjamin Robert Haydon, about whom we last heard back in August (check out the episode of This Week in Keats inspired by that letter). The primary topic of today’s letter is a young man named Charles Cripps. Haydon had asked Keats to inquire about Cripps (who was apparently studying at Magdalen College at the time) and to gauge Cripps’ interest in training as a painter under Haydon’s tutelage. Keats did so, and in this letter he reports back. He also offers some of his own thoughts on Cripps’ potential as a painter (“I have a great Idea that he will be a tolerable neat brush”).

Here at the KLP we often attend to the material details of Keats’s letters. One feature we have not yet discussed, however, is how the letters are sealed. Yes, we’ve discussed how the letters were folded (see here and here, for instance). But what about the wax seals? Well we have a nicely preserved one on today’s letter which gives us an occasion to discuss the matter a bit. It’s still a bit hard to make out in the image from Harvard, but you can sort of see the outlines of a head. That just so happens to be the head of Shakespeare, as designed by James Tassie (or William Tassie, James’s nephew who had taken over the business after his uncle’s death and who set up a fashionable shop on Leicester Square).

The seal from Keats’s 28 Sept 1817 letter to Haydon–an image of Shakespeare.

These “Tassie” gems were incredibly popular, and Keats owned several. In March 1819 he wrote to his sister Fanny about them, noting that he had recently passed through Leicester Square and thought about buying some for her (he did not, for fear of buying any she might already own).

Keats on Tassie gems in a 13 March 1819 letter to Fanny Keats.

Unsurprisingly, Keats enjoyed his Shakespeare seal. But perhaps his other favorite was the one depicting an image of a lyre, with the affixed motto, “Qui me néglige, me désole” (roughly, “whoever neglects me, saddens me”). The broken lyre will become, of course, an image associated with Keats after his death thanks to the gravestone design by Severn. But this particular lyre ought to serve as a reminder of how Keats’s thinking about classical culture was filtered through his own contemporary consumer culture. Psyche may have been “Too, too late for the fond believing lyre,” but Keats had plenty of lyres around him–they just happened to be markers of his own belatedness precisely because of their circulation as products of capitalist enterprise.

That’s all for now, but we’ll have more on Tassie gems in the future–always be on the lookout for those letters that feature well-preserved wax!

Images of the letter are courtesy of Houghton Library at Harvard. For a good reading edition, we direct you again to Forman’s 1895 one-volume edition. Enjoy!

Page 1 of Keats’s 28 Sept 1817 letter to Benjamin Haydon. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.12). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 28 Sept 1817 letter to Benjamin Haydon. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.12). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 28 Sept 1817 letter to Benjamin Haydon. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.12). Houghton Library, Harvard University. Yeah, it’s blank, but you might be interested in it anyway!

Page 4 of Keats’s 28 Sept 1817 letter to Benjamin Haydon. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.12). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

The Oxford Files; or, Mike and Brian Rock the Ox!

Brian Rejack (Illinois State University) and Mike Theune (Illinois Wesleyan University)
AKA: the hosts of This Week in Keats

Re: Keats’s September 1817 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds

A few weeks back, we promised a co-written poem–written in the style of Keats’s verses on Oxford–detailing our adventures while visiting Oxford in July 2015. It took us a while to perfect our comic genius, but we’re pretty confident that perfection has now been achieved.

For a bit of context, both of us spent time studying at Oxford in our earlier days (we’ll not specifying when exactly, in order to preserve mystery about our ages–vanity thy names are Rejack and Theune!). When we visited Oxford two years ago, it was the first time either of us had been back since our time spent there many years prior. So we did our best to visit some of our old haunts and relive the glory days. And without further ado, behold our poem!


When Mike beheld the Freud,
His heart was overjoyed,

For he fondly recalled nights spent tippling;

Ah! then the drinks were flowing,
The dance moves were glowing,

Although the booze’s effects were crippling.

Mike reminisces…

This time around, sadly,
The boys timed things badly,

And arrived before noon, too soon for cocktails.

Off they went to the pub,
Since they needed some grub–

Perhaps as well a pint or two of stock ales.

Too, too soon for fond cocktails!

Then Brian gazed north,
Where they soon ventured forth,

For Jude the Obscure a-beckoned to them.

No, not poor Jude the man,
Hardy’s luckless orphan,

But the tavern named by those who knew him.


There was plenty of beer,
And plenty of cheer,

And, for Brian and Mike, no reason to grouse.

Once they became sated,
As it had been fated,

Our heroes approached the Phoenix Picture House!

Watch Amy–it’s really sad…

As we and you see,
One movie was Amy.

But since they’d seen that tragic tear-jerker,

(Both wept a lot),
They fled the spot

And entered the Bridge to get berserk… er.

One of us *may* have once been thrown out of the Bridge after getting caught sneaking in via a backdoor…

Next day Mike left the shire,
Thanks to a cabby for hire,

And he sought the grounds of hallowed Guy’s—

Hospital, that is,
Where Johnny Keats spent his

Youth among sawbones and patients’ loud cries.

Bronzy Keats!

Where a bronzed statue sits,
For new, patient visits,

One might repose beside the young master.

Thus in so placing his brain,
Mike felt a bit less pain,

And all the dark world seemed less a disaster.


While Mike went to London,
Brian got his flight on,

And soared on the viewless wings of a plane.

For he sat in coach,
And felt like a roach,

Nor could he escape like David Blaine.

Dude knows how to escape!

So he sat in his seat,
With some cardboard to eat,

While his airship sent him to the States.

He touched down in CO
(Short for Colorado),

And with great speed passed by all the gates.

Why this reason for haste,
From this young man of taste?

Well, fair reader, he was making a bee-line,

To two furry friends,
Upon whom he depends,

And, yes, they are of the genus feline.

George and Lady Georgiana

We must leave you here,
Our readers so dear,

For our poem’s gotten silly, weird, and long.

But the heroes got home,
After quite a great roam,

And brought you this gift: a duty-free song.

George assisted in the poem’s composition

Letter #28: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 21 September 1817

Lots of things of interest in this letter to Reynolds, all of which has been preserved in a transcript by Richard Woodhouse (unlike the earlier September letter to Reynolds from which we have only his comical verses on Oxford). Keats jokes about one of his favorite topics for comedy: debt. Faithful KLP readers will recall two earlier letters from 1817 which feature a primary focus on money issues: the 16 May letter to Taylor and Hessey, which we had illuminated for us by Alex Dick, and the 10 June letter to Taylor and Hessey, plumbed to its depths by David Sigler. Well, Keats keeps on honing his burgeoning stand-up routine on 19th-century money problems, starting off his letter to Reynolds with gems like “as I say to my Taylor send me Bills and I’ll never employ you more.” And there’s this amazing passage preceding that one-liner, which we feel compelled to quote in full:

So you are determined to be my mortal foe–draw a Sword at me, and I will forgive–Put a Bullet in my Brain, and I will shake it out as a dewdrop from the Lion’s Mane;–put me on a Gridiron and I will fry with great complancency–but, oh horror! to come upon me in the shape of a Dun!

Ah, good times. The KLP generally takes the position that if there is a chance Keats might be making a pun, then he’s definitely making a pun. So although the misspelling of “complacency” as “complancency” might be an error on the part of the transcriber and not Keats’s own, we choose to accept that Keats was indeed making a purposeful misspelling in order to lodge the sound of “complain” in “complacency,” thereby creating a new word, which really ought to exist in English, in order to name the phenomenon when someone claims to feel complacent about a situation while constantly (and perhaps passive aggressively) complaining about the very same situation. Even if you’re not convinced that Keats is punning, the image of frying with great complacency is quite lovely.

All that silly stuff aside, what this letter is perhaps best known for is one of Keats’s most forceful negative comments about women (describing the Bluestockings as “a set of Devils”), followed by his appreciation of the poetry of Katherine Philips. For a response to today’s letter, Rachel Schulkins offers a nuanced reading of Keats’s denouncing of the Bluestockings and the seemingly contradictory move of then expressing appreciation for Philips’s accomplishments. In Schulkins’s treatment, the two moments are less contradictory than they may at first seem.

For a public domain edition in which to read today’s letter, we direct you again to Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 one-volume collection of the letters. Also below are the images of Woodhouse’s transcript, courtesy once again of Harvard’s Houghton Library. Ah, but one other thing before we go! At the end of Keats’s letter, he writes “I have left the doublings for Bailey.” The “doublings” refer to the spaces on the top and bottom of the back side of the letter’s second leaf, where the paper was folded (creating a doubling) to conceal the text written on it and turn the paper into its own little envelope with blank space (in between the doublings) for writing an address (if that all sounds confusing, just go back and look at the letter to Jane Reynolds from last time). Anyway, the final image below shows what Bailey wrote on the doublings. Thanks to Woodhouse for transcribing that bit too!

Page 1 of Keats’s 21 September 1817 letter to Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 21 September 1817 letter to Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 21 September 1817 letter to Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 21 September 1817 letter to Reynolds (featuring Bailey’s message written on the doublings). Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

A Poet at the Bottom of the Sea

Rosie Whitcombe
Birmingham City University

Re: Keats’s 14 September 1817 letter to Jane and Mariane Reynolds

In his letters, Keats inscribes, and experiments with, multiple selves. His epistolary personae reflect both his masterful manipulation of the letter form, and his heavy dependence upon it. Keats’s letters of 1817 are some of his most playful and varied, written during a period of relative calm and creative prosperity. As a result, they exhibit a smooth succession of selves, and a careful, commanding ability to control correspondence. Writing to Jane and Marianne Reynolds on the 14th September 1817, Keats not only plays with the boundaries of self-making, but layers multiple characters and environments into his correspondence, cannibalising the work of other writers and amalgamating their literary worlds with his own. He teases the Reynolds sisters, challenging their reception of his language and imagery and refusing any sense of resolution or clarity. Purposefully dense and difficult to define, this letter leaves its recipients in an unstable space, lost in an epistolary thicket of alternate personae.

Directing the mind’s eye like a periscope, Keats guides his recipients through a series of abstract images adapted from the work of other writers: ‘the open Sky sits upon our senses like a sapphire Crown – the Air is our Robe of State – the Earth is our throne and the sea a mighty Minstrell playing before it’ (I. 158). In control of this artful, fluid space, Keats compacts the sky and air into tangible shapes. What Keats terms ‘the great Elements’ (I. 158) become items of royal dress; these images are difficult to perceive because Keats is forcing together the untouchable with the touchable, creating a space in which the distinction between the physical and ethereal is blurred. Keats borrows from Milton’s Comus to cement this ‘sapphire crown’ (Milton l. 26) in a tradition of magical, deep sea description. Yet, he adapts and distorts Milton’s image, having his crown sit ‘upon our senses.’ In the space of this letter, the sky can sit, and our senses can be sat upon. Keats breaks the confines of what is ethereal and sensory, forcing the ‘Sky’ and ‘our senses’ into unfamiliar, unnatural shapes. He goes on to borrow and distort the imagery of several other texts, such as the Book of Samuel 16:23, The Tempest, and Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’, to name just a few. By cannibalising the literary worlds of his forbears, Keats not only demonstrates to the Reynolds sisters the extent of his reading, but revels in his ability to reshape the works of other writers to suit his purpose, taking apart accepted language and form and reinventing it under his control.

Keats continues to destabilise the letter with a set of questions: ‘Which is the best of Shakespeare’s Plays? – I mean in what mood and with what accompaniment do you like the Sea best?’ (I. 158) The second sentence reads as though it will supplement the first; it should extend the discussion of Shakespeare’s plays, but it addresses the sea, destabilising what is expected within the letter by refusing logical continuation. Keats is challenging his recipient, drawing their attention and manipulating their reading process with his sporadic, nonsensical misdirection. By merging the two questions so closely, he forces his recipients to check themselves; to re-establish their attention within the letter. How do Jane and Marianne like the sea best? Once more, the letter becomes thick with literary reference, as Keats incorporates Oberon’s lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare Act 3, Scene 2, II. 398-9) and Spenser’s Epithalamion (Spenser, l. 282-3) to offer different descriptions of the sea. Would the Reynolds sisters like the sea best in the morning, ‘when the Sun “opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams/Turns into yellow gold his salt sea streams”’ (I. 158) Keats wonders. Or perhaps in the evening, ‘when the fair planet hastens – “to his home within the western foam”’ (I. 158). By bombarding his reader with ever more literary allusions, Keats continues to complicate his image of the sea, fuelled by the instability he is causing, until he finally inserts his own description: ‘but don’t you think there is something extremely fine after sunset when there are a few white Clouds about and a few stars blinking – when the waters are ebbing and the Horison a Mystery?’ (I. 158-9). For Keats, the sea is best after sunset, shrouded in a semi-gothic strangeness and the promise of a descent into total darkness. Compared to Shakespeare and Spenser, Keats’s description of the sea is quiet, lacklustre; sparsely dotted stars provide faint light in contrast to Shakespeare’s ‘blessed beams’ of ‘yellow gold.’ Keats chooses to succumb to the sublime mystery of the sea, the uncertainty of the horizon it ebbs towards. His own interpretation is muted next to the multitude of grandiose images populating the rest of the section, and this brings a new softness, a poignancy unfound in the rest of the letter. In this isolated moment, Keats stops performing the words of others, and offers an unguarded, unprovocative glimpse into his own thinking. Having teased his recipients and manipulated their reading process, Keats concludes his discussion of the sea with a nod towards the negative capability he would soon define. He leaves Jane and Marianne Reynolds doubting their reception of his imagery, contemplating the mysteries of the horizon, and the uncertain associations he has made. Keats’s alternative imagery is left hanging in the unresolved space of the letter.

As soon as it takes this quiet turn, however, the letter careers back to a roaring pitch. Keats pens a lengthy fantasy describing what his future landlady, Mrs. Dilke, would have experienced ‘had I remained in Hampstead.’  Keats would have: ‘made precious havoc with her house and furniture – drawn a great harrow over her garden – poisoned Boxer [her dog] – eaten her Cloathes pegs, – fried her Cabbages fricaceed (how is it spelt?) her radishes – ragouted her Onions – belaboured her beet root – outstripped her scarlet Runners – parlez vou’d with her french Beans – devoured her Mignon or Mignonette – metamorphosed her Bell handles – splintered her looking glasses – bullock’d at her cups and saucers – agonized her decanters – put old Philips [the gardener] to pickle in the Brine tub – disorganized her Piano – dislocated her Candlesticks – emptied her wine bins in a fit of despair – turned out her Maid to Grass and Astonished Brown – whose Letter to her on these events I would rather see than the original copy of the Book of Genesis’ (I. 159). Breathless, this irregular set of actions sees Keats complicating language and meaning to an even greater extent. In this alternate reality in which he ‘remained at Hampstead,’ Keats creates an alternate self, a destructive, comical force who writes to entertain and astonish. Keats couples each item in the list with an unconventional verb, creating a jarring series of images which impact the reader through sensory impression, rather than clear association. Firstly, this serves to dehumanise Keats’s alternate self; as a creature who eats clothes pegs and bullocks at cups he becomes a farm yard animal let loose in a domestic space.  Poisoning the dog and pickling the gardener see him running sadistic errands, while metamorphosing the bell handles – turning them into something else entirely – speaks of witchcraft. Keats’s alternate self is somewhere between the animal and the supernatural, denatured, comically absurd, and at liberty to upset domestic and linguistic order. Secondly, Keats personifies the household items; Mrs. Dilke’s decanters are ‘agonized,’ her candlesticks ‘dislocated.’ These objects become bodily, reimagined into a rhetoric of pain and disfigurement, anthropomorphised to heighten the absurdist tenor of this alternate Hampstead. Deftly designed to entertain, Keats creates a topsy-turvy space in which the human becomes animal – magical, even – and the inanimate object develops human characteristics. Keats pens destructive images in quick succession to entertain; but it also serves to plot a dialogue of broken conventions. Everything here is misshapen and reimagined: verbs and objects unnaturally forced together allow Keats to refigure the domestic, the linguistic, and the conventional approach to letter writing. By denaturing his own identity and performing the unreal parts of inanimate objects, Keats maintains control of this increasingly complicated space, generating comic confusion, and leaving his readership in even greater uncertainty.

The crescendo of this letter’s creative subversion comes at its close. Keats introduces a second speaker to address the Reynolds sisters: ‘Endymion and I are at the bottom of the Sea,’ (I. 160) Keats declares before introducing Endymion/Endymion as an authorial voice in the letter. ‘My dear Ladies … how ever my friend Keats may have teazed and vexed you believe me he loves you not the less’ (I. 160). In a bold turn, Keats personifies Endymion, who addresses the Reynolds sisters from the sea. Refiguring his authorial voice into new possibility, Keats is unclear whether this is the voice of Endymion the character or Endymion the poem now given centre stage. He plays on this ambiguity to obscure the close of his correspondence; speaking from the sea, this is a final subversion – and, indeed, a submersion – of the identity Keats assumes as letter writer. The personified Endymion/Endymion tells the Reynolds sisters he has a message for them from ‘John Keats,’ who ‘sends you moreover this little scroll’ (I. 160). This imagined scroll reads: My dear Girls, I send you per favor of Endymion the assurance of my esteem of you and my utmost wishes for you Health and Pleasure – being ever – Your affectionate Brother. John Keats’ (I. 160). It is almost impossible to conjecture who is signing off this letter, which of all the selves he creates has become the ‘John Keats’ who puts his name at its close. This final self, ‘John Keats,’ is communicating through an imagined scroll entrusted to Endymion/Endymion, the personified character or poem, by Keats, the letter writer. Leading his recipients on a wild goose chase through a series of brilliant, conflicting scenes and diverse selves, Keats upturns and challenges the letter form. This letter barely breathes, ‘hawling’ (I. 160) its recipients, much like the personified Endymion/Endymion claims Keats is ‘hawling’ him, or indeed it, through a sea of enchanting and uncertain images. Keats speaks through other writers; through a destructive, alternate self; becomes the poet at the bottom of the sea; the character Endymion; the poem Endymion; and, lastly, arrives at ‘John Keats.’ Creating and destabilising these personae, Keats disrupts the conventional, singular voice of the letter writer, making it impossible to trace one identity through the multiple layers of artifice. Bound to no single self, challenging and subverting the very rules of language and composition, dealing with illusion and magic: Keats assumes control by deliberately destabilising the form, demonstrating the unique epistolary prowess that characterises his letters of 1817.



The Letters of John Keats, ed. by Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Milton, John, ‘Comus’, Milton’s Comus with Introduction and Notes (London: Macmillan, 1891)

Shakespeare, William, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Cheltenham: Stanley Thornes, 1994)

Spenser, Edmund, Amoretti, and Epithalamion (UK: Dodo Press, 2010)