Letter #184: To Fanny Keats, 6 February 1820

Just a few days after his serious hemorrhage, Keats writes to his sister to assure her that he is recovering well. His typical warmth and kindness towards her is on full display here. There is the first instance of what will become somewhat of a refrain over the next few weeks: here he tells her, “You must be careful always to wear warm clothing not only in frost but in a Thaw.” We also see Keats’s concern that George may at some point face a similar attack, but he hopes that “the sea air will be his Physician in case of illness–the air out at sea is always more temperate than on land.” When Keats is himself ailing, he thinks only of others and their health and happiness.

There’s also the small detail of Keats defending Fanny against a complaint from Richard Abbey (Fanny’s guardian), who seems to have complained to George that she was too often “moped and silent.” George writes to Fanny that she should “cheer up and look lively as nature made you.” Keats’s response is a bit different. Instead of chastising her to smile more (c’mon, George!), Keats defends his little sister by pointing out that “It is entirely the fault of his Manner.” Presumably this comment refers to Abbey’s manner, but it could also refer to George’s manner in addressing the topic and blaming Fanny for her behavior. Who wouldn’t mope while having to live apart from your brothers (one of whom is John Keats, no less) and in the company of the ever-practical and staid Richard Abbey? George really lost some points in our estimation of him…

Another interesting tidbit is brought up at the very end of the letter: the death of King George III on 29 January 1820. Keats notes, “The Papers I see are full of anecdotes of the late king: how he nodded to a Coal heaer and laugh’d with a Quaker and lik’d boil’d Leg of Mutton.” What a man of the people! One senses that Keats’s wry, cutting assessment is not borne of an overly fond view of the late King. However, there is a bit of room for human understanding that emerges from the letter’s final lines. Noting that Peter Pindar (John Wolcot, famous satirist of the King) had died just a year earlier, Keats wonders, “what will the old king and he say to each other? Perhaps the king may confess that Peter was in the right, and Peter maintain himself to have been wrong.” Everybody is in their own mess (as Keats wrote back in spring 1819), and here we see him extending a bit of imaginative grace between two lifelong foes, just as Keats finds himself in his most serious mess yet (health-wise, at least).

Today’s letter resides at the British Library, along with most of the letters to Fanny Keats. Text of the letter can be read via Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 edition of the Complete Works. Images below come from the same book, via HathiTrust.

Letter #183: To Fanny Brawne, 4 (?) Feb 1820

This first letter of February 1820 comes just one day after Keats’s pulmonary hemorrhage, which, according to Charles Brown, signaled to Keats that he would not ultimately recover from his illness. Brown claims that when Keats saw the color of the blood he had coughed up, he remarked: “I know the colour of that blood,–it is arterial blood–I cannot be deceived in that colour; that drop is my death-warrant. I must die” (as relayed in Milnes’ Life and Literary Remains). Keats would be confined to his room in Wentworth Place for much of the next month. Meanwhile, Fanny Brawne was living just on the other side of a wall from Keats. Because of his condition, and out of fear of passing his disease to Fanny, Keats primarily communicated to her via short messages written on small pieces of paper and delivered by hand to the other side of the house.

In the first of these approximately 15 letters from February 1820 (there may have been others now lost, and some dated to February may have been from slightly earlier or later), Keats sounds a somewhat optimistic note, predicting that while the doctors were saying he “must remain confined to this room for some time,” it would nonetheless be a “pleasant prison” because of Fanny’s presence: “The consciousness that you love me will make a pleasant prison of the house next to yours.” As will be seen from future letters as the month goes on, the prison seems to have become less and less pleasant over time. One finds it difficult to imagine the particular kind of torment posed by the combination of nearness and absence that this situation enforced on the young couple. (Jane Campion’s depiction in Bright Star, however, does a pretty great job of depicting it–even if it becomes in her talented cinematic hands more deliciously sensual and full of devastating longing than it probably was in the reality of experiencing it. Then again, we’re talking about Keats here, and he’s pretty good at longing and devastation.)

All of the extant February letters to Fanny Brawne were included in Harry Buxton Forman’s edition of those letters, first published in 1878. For the most part his ordering of the letters matches the ordering of Hyder Edward Rollins (although there are a few small changes with the ordering of the last few letters of the month). Unlike most of these letters, though, today’s is no longer accounted for in manuscript form. It was sold at an auction of Frank J. Hogan’s collection of rare books and manuscripts in 1945. Since then, not sure! The letter was part of the original collection that Fanny Brawne’s son, Louis Lindon, sold to Forman after his mother’s death. Most of those letters were passed down from Forman to his son Maurice Buxton Forman, who sold many of the manuscripts in the 1930s. Rollins says that this particular letter was owned by Frederick Holland Day (one of the Bostonian Keatsians, the most famous of whom was Amy Lowell). Hogan likely acquired it from Day (or someone else) sometime around the time of Day’s death in 1933 and the sale in 1945. Whoever owns it now, lucky you!

Text of the letter can be accessed via the original form in which it was first published: Forman’s 1878 Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne. The letter is undated in that edition, but Forman estimates the date as 4 February in later editions, and as do other editors. (Images of the letter below are taken from the linked Hathitrust digital version of the book.)

The Misadventures of a Letter Sent Across the Atlantic in 1819; or, ‘Get me that Keats’

Brian Rejack
Illinois State University

RE: Keats’s 12 November 1819 letter to George Keats

I’ve been fascinated by this letter for several years now, despite it being a rather boring letter (sorry, Keats!). Of all the letters sent across the Atlantic to George and Georgiana Keats, it’s certainly the least remarkable. For most of the letter’s first two pages, Keats discusses nothing other than the two brothers’ poor financial straits. Keats regrets that he’s been unable to secure any significant funds for George. He asks George about the fate of his steamboat investment (a venture embarked upon with John James Audubon, and which turned out disastrously for them both). He also expresses a faint hope that Otho the Great might still lead to some cash on hand for its authors, Keats and Charles Brown (it would never be performed in Keats’s lifetime). And Keats even mentions another of Richard Abbey’s suggestions for a potential business idea, this time that Keats might “turn Bookseller” (earlier Abbey had urged the eldest Keats to become a hatter or a tea merchant). All of the financial worries clearly weighed heavily on Keats at this moment in late 1819, so much so that he offered this dismal assessment: “Nothing could have in all its circumstances fallen out worse for me than the last year has done, or could be more damping to my poetical talent.” This, from the guy who in that “last year” wrote basically all of his best poetry. If “To Autumn” was written under a dampened poetical talent, then what would a more fully ripened verse have looked like??

Now, there’s not that much else going on in the content of this letter. Sure, it’s got a bawdy little lyric from James Rice that Keats relays to George and Georgiana (“Between the two P—x’s I’ve lost every Lover, / But a difference I found ’twixt the great and the small: / For by the Small Pox I gott {pitted} all over / By the other I did not get {pittied} at all”), and it’s got an intriguing mention of Hazlitt and his recent lectures delivered at the Surrey Institution. But the real magic of this letter, and its source of fascination for me, has to do with what happened after Keats wrote it.

Let me set the stage for you. There was no real transatlantic postal system in 1819, so when Keats sent his letters abroad, he did so via commercial ships. Through his friend William Haslam, Keats had a connection to a merchant firm called “Capper and Haslewood.” When commercial ships moved between England and the U.S. (or elsewhere), there would typically be a post-bag amongst the cargo. As you can see below, Keats gave his letter to John Capper, who wrote on the outside of the letter, “Forwarded by the William / via New York. 22d Novem ’19 / John Capper.”

Pages 1 and 4 of Keats’s 12 November 1819 letter to George Keats. In addition to the address (written by Keats), there are four other inscriptions on what was the outside of the letter (when it was folded and sealed). Image courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Thanks to knowing the name of the ship, we can learn a good amount of detail about the letter’s travels to America. A shipping notice like the one pictured below can tell us, for instance, that the William took almost two months in transit. This notice also lists the names of merchants in New York who were receiving goods from the William, and it gives some information about the letters included in the cargo: “The letters by the William were put into the Post Office at Old Town, and have not yet reached town.” “Old Town” refers to Brooklyn, and “town” to Manhattan, so the notice clarifies that if anyone is expecting letters in the latter location, they’ll need to wait a bit to retrieve them. From the post office in Brooklyn, Keats’s letter would have traveled over land (probably some of the way via ship on the Ohio River) toward Kentucky and eventually arrived in Louisville.

Notice from the Mercantile Advertiser, 28 February 1820.

Ok, story over—pretty cool, huh? JUST KIDDING THERE IS SO MUCH MORE. If you look back at the shipping notice again, you’ll see that it lists some of the passengers who were on board. Of particular interest to the story of Keats’s letter is this information: “Passengers, Mrs. Ellis and family, and one servant, Mr. Threldeld.” I’ve not yet located any connection with Keats (and/or his letter) and “Mrs. Ellis,” but sharp-eyed readers of the manuscript image above might notice a connection to “Mr. Threldeld.” (Actually it’s Threlkeld.) On the outside of Keats’s letter, there is this additional inscription, along with the address and John Capper’s note (plus two more we’ll get to in a bit): “Lat. 40.23 N / Long. 72 W. / 16th February 1820 / Dane W. Threlkeld.”

Detail from Keats’s 12 November 1819 letter to George Keats. Image courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

A couple questions arise here. We know from the shipping notice that Threlkeld was traveling as a servant to Mrs. Ellis, but why would he have Keats’s letter? And furthermore, why would he write on the letter the coordinates for the William on 16 February? If you put 40.23 N, 72 W into google maps, you’ll see that it places the ship about 50 miles off the coast of Long Island. The ship was thus not too far from its destination—what reason could there have been for noting this detail, and why would Threlkeld note it on Keats’s letter?

The approximate location of the William on 16 February 1820, according to Threlkeld’s note.
The distance between the location of the William on 16 February and 23 February 1820, according to the inscriptions on the outside of Keats’s letter.

Well, one of those other inscriptions from the outside of the letter can provide a bit more guidance. It reads: “Edgartown Ms Feb 23                  Ship 27.” That’s a wholeweek after Threlkeld’s note with the coordinates. Edgartown, Massachusetts is on Martha’s Vineyard, which, you might notice, is sort of out of the way if you’re heading to New York City from the coordinates Threlkeld noted on 16 February. So what happened? Why go back to Edgartown? Hyder Edward Rollins, the editor of Keats’s letters, cites Willard B. Pope’s suggestion that “some emergency must have driven the ship back to Edgartown.” I’ve yet to find weather data for that part of the Atlantic in February 1820 (shameful, I know!), but that could potentially provide a clue. Still, the detour seems an odd one given that there could have been other ports of call where the emergency might have been addressed more quickly. In any case, whatever the cause, we still don’t know why Threlkeld and someone else (the note about Edgartown appears to be in a different hand) felt the need to note these facts on Keats’s letter. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say the notes were added to the letter in order to explain the delay in its delivery. But if that was the case, why not provide a bit more information? Was it just to frustrate me in my irritable reaching after the letter’s facts and reasons? Yes, I wager that it was.

Detail from Keats’s 12 November 1819 letter to George Keats. Image courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

But wait, there’s more! Remember that detail about the letters being left at the post office in Old Town aka Brooklyn? Thanks to Henry Reed Stiles’s A History of the City of Brooklyn (1867), I can tell you a bit about that. The post office in 1820 was at the intersection of Fulton Street and Front Street, which is now basically an empty lot underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Also in 1820, on the other side of the street lived the painter Francis Guy, and he loved the view from his studio so much that he painted the scene in several different versions. The yellow building on the right side of the painting is the post office, which was also a hardware store, both of which were run by Thomas Birdsall. Up close you can even see that the sign above the entrance to the building reads “Post Office / Thos W. Birdsall’s / Hardware Store.” While of course we’re way off in the realm of speculation here, it’s possible that as Guy was working on his painting of the post office in Brooklyn in 1820, Keats’s letter was among the many pieces of mail waiting to be delivered.

Francis Guy’s Winter Scene in Brooklyn (ca. 1819–20).Oil on canvas, 58 ⅜ × 74 9⁄16 inches (148.2 x 189.4 cm). (97.13; Brooklyn Museum, transferred from the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences to the Brooklyn Museum)

At some point the letter did arrive in Louisville, but we don’t know much about its fate between 1820 and 1869. However, there is one curious bit of information from the interval. As fans of negative capability will perhaps know, several of Keats’s letters stayed in America in the care of Georgiana Keats and her second husband John Jeffrey, whom she married after George’s death. In May 1845 Jeffrey saw a notice in a newspaper advertising the upcoming biography of Keats by Richard Monckton Milnes. Jeffrey wrote a letter to Milnes explaining that he had papers (poems and letters) that might be of interest to the biographer. After a reply from Milnes, Jeffrey agreed to transcribe the letters he had in his possession and send the transcripts over to Milnes. Jeffrey made transcripts of 15 letters, including the negative capability letter, one of 6 which still exist only via Jeffrey’s (unreliable and partial) transcripts. Curiously, though, he did not copy the 12 November 1819 letter. Was he simply bored so much by its contents that he deemed it unworthy of copying? Or was it possible that he didn’t actually have possession of it at that point?

The latter option seems rather unlikely, but it is possible that already in 1845 the letter was under the care of the Keats family member who would become the de facto guardian of the poet’s legacy: Emma Keats Speed. She was born to George and Georgiana in 1823, and at some point after Jeffrey made his copies of the letters in 1845, she took control over the majority of those materials. There are a few letters that we know she gave away, and the 12 November 1819 is one of those. The evidence for this one is pretty simple: the recipient explains as much on the outside of the letter. The inscription (in purple ink) reads as follows: “Given my by Mrs Philip Speed / the eldest daughter of Mr George Keats / to whom this letter was addressed, / by his brother John– / Louisville Ky– / February 1869 / Frank M. Etting.”

Detail from Keats’s 12 November 1819 letter to George Keats. Image courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Frank Marx Etting was a collector of rare books and manuscripts, and upon his death he bequeathed his massive collection to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. It appears he had kept Keats’s letter among his collection since receiving it as a gift from Emma Keats Speed in February 1869. However, the letter had never actually made it into print, despite the fact that by the end of the nineteenth century, almost all of the Keats letters now accounted for in some way or another had been found and ushered into the print record. Even after this letter arrived in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania around 1890, it would be another four decades before it was brought into print. It also happened thanks to a bit of luck and the order of letters in the alphabet.

As the KLP reported way back in 2016 about the fifth extant Keats letter, in 1932 the Melville scholar J. H. Birss was looking through a bibliography in Widener Library, when he opened to the Ks instead of the Ms. He happened to notice a listing for a Keats letter he’d never heard about before, which led him on his search that eventually finished at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and netted him the honor of first publishing not one but two Keats letters!

Ok, now is when things get really wild. A few years ago, I realized that the history of this letter was a fascinating one, so I figured it’d be worth getting an image of it to see if there might be anything else I could glean from it that wasn’t obvious to me from all the details provided about it via Rollins’s and other editions of the letters. I found the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s website, where I proceeded to sort through the digital scans of their old physical card catalog system to, first, make sure the letter was still there, and second, get the catalog information necessary to request a digital image of the letter. Here is one of those images from the card catalog system. Take note of the damage to the card. That’ll be important in a minute here.

Catalog card from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

I requested the image and soon thereafter I received the digital scan of a letter, but one which I quickly realized was not written by Keats. The penmanship was actually far worse (I think, anyway) than Keats’s neat hand, so that was my first clue. In quickly scanning the letter to see if I could figure out anything else, I noticed the name “Keats” at the bottom of the third page. I was intrigued. But what the heck did “Get me that Keats” mean?? Well, it took a second for me to realize it, but the line continues along the vertical axis of the fourth page, where the letter-writer completes the sentence: “Get me that Keats / autograph. I had a splendid Tennyson sent to me tother day by Tupper, written expressly / for this / individual / [signed] BM.” In other words, I’d come across a manuscript-hunter like myself.

Brantz Mayer to Frank Marx Etting, 18 March 1869. Image courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Detail of Mayer’s letter. Image courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The letter was from Brantz Mayer to Frank Marx Etting, written just a few weeks after Etting had received the 12 November 1819 letter in Louisville from Emma Keats Speed. Did Etting also receive a cut-out autograph to send along to Mayer? Did Etting promise to do so with the signature from the letter to George and Georgiana, only to change his mind later? But more importantly for our continuing story, why was I sent the scan of this other letter in the first place?

Enter the villains of the tale: Barry Landau and Jason Savedoff. In 2010 and 2011 Landau (the mastermind) and Savedoff (the young apprentice) carried out a months-long spree of cultural plunder from a score of libraries, museums, and archives across the US. By the time they were apprehended in July 2011, they’d stolen approximately ten thousand documents. One of those documents was Keats’s 12 November 1819 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. When the letter was returned to its archival home, it had simply been re-catalogued in a way that meant my information from the old card catalog system now led to a folder holding a different letter from the Etting Papers.

Once again we arrive at many, many questions. Why, and also how, did these two crooks steal so many documents from these cultural institutions? Why did they steal a Keats letter? Was it targeted, or was it just hoovered up in a more indiscriminate fashion? How’d they get caught, and what’s happened to all the stolen materials? And MOST importantly, how come no one made jokes about Savedoff’s mugshot, given that he’d previously had a modeling career, and that the pun “Blue Steal” is right there for the taking?? You know Keats would appreciate the wordplay, even if it would also require explaining Zoolander to him (and also other things, like photography, movies, modeling, the internet, etc.).

The mugshots of Savedoff (on the left with the ‘Blue Steal’ look) and Landau (on the right) after their arrests in Maryland in summer 2011.

I can provide you with a few answers, all of which come from the public media reports about the thefts or from my interview with Lee Arnold, the Senior Director of the Library and Collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. First there is the why. Landau had made a name for himself as a collector and self-proclaimed scholar, particularly of things related to presidential history (he also worked as an event organizer for every presidential administration from Nixon to George W. Bush). It seems his motivation was two-fold: to add even more pieces to his already massive collection, and to make some money by selling some of the stolen items. Before they were caught, Landau and Savedoff had successfully sold four stolen items. (Arnold believes that Landau was just in it for the collecting, and that Savedoff was the one who came up with the idea to steal things they could try to sell.)

The motivation for Savedoff is less clear. According to Lee Arnold, it was clear to him and his staff that Savedoff had little to no experience doing archival work. They were suspicious of his presence, but they eventually assumed he was simply acting as Landau’s assistant without actually having much expertise related to the work. And by “the work” I mean actual archival research, which is how the operation was run. Landau and Savedoff purported to be doing actual archival research, requesting lots of materials, having them delivered by staff, and then returning them once they were finished consulting the materials.

The “how” of the theft is that they sometimes simply skipped this last step by instead pocketing the materials. And they literally pocketed them: Savedoff would put them in a specially altered coat with extra-large pockets sewn into the lining (a la Marge Simpson at the Springfield Candy Convention in the episode “Homer Badman”). In order to help prevent detection, the thieves would take corresponding card catalog records along with the items they stole: hence the damage to the card associated with the Keats letter. To check that they covered their tracks, Landau and/or Savedoff would later anonymously phone the institutions to inquire about a stolen item: when the staff checked the card catalog for a record of the item, they would not find anything and thus inform the thieves that what they were looking for was not held in the archive. On one occasion when Savedoff was nearly caught smuggling out one of the cards, he allegedly ate the card instead of being discovered. Good thing he didn’t eat Keats’s letter!

Why they stole the Keats letter remains a mystery to me, but I suspect it was simply caught up in the dragnet. The Etting Collection included thousands of autograph manuscript materials (many of which included signatures), so I suspect that collection was a target, and it just so happened to include Keats’s letter among the holdings. The 9 October 1816 letter to Charles Cowden Clarke was not stolen, perhaps because it was not in the Etting Collection. In any case, the theft of one Keats letter but not another right there for the taking seems to suggest that it wasn’t Keats that they were after.

According to Lee Arnold, the manuscript thieves aroused suspicions at many of the institutions they visited, but they were not caught until the staff at the Maryland Historical Society got them in the act. From that point law enforcement was called in, and because one of the institutions they stole from was the Library of Congress, federal agents (including special detectives from the National Archives) were tasked with supervising the arduous work of sorting through thousands of documents, figuring out to whom they belonged, and then returning the documents to their rightful owners. The documents were taken to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland where agents and archivists worked to inventory and eventually return all of the materials, and to care for them with proper archival standards during the interval. Unsurprisingly given the scale of the thefts, it took several years before all the stolen materials were returned (including the four items that had been sold before the thieves were caught).

One of the details that struck me in my conversation with Lee Arnold was the way the documents were returned. It sounded to me like a ritual ceremony, the gravity of which I think points toward a significant takeaway from this story (which, I promise, I’m starting to wrap up here). The federal authorities brought the documents to the Historical Society, along with their ledger cataloging all the items. A federal agent would read aloud the details for each item as another person would physically hand the document, each one in an individual folder, to Arnold; upon physical receipt another HSP staff member would read back the catalog info as the document was refiled appropriately. The emphasis on the necessity of physical touch—that the folder had to be handed from the federal agents to a representative of the institution—points at the material insistence of archival work in an era when it’s all too easy to assume that digital reproduction will displace and replace the need for original documents themselves.

So what are my takeaways? With respect to the last part of this letter’s story—that is, its theft and eventual recovery—I would stress the importance of physical archives and the people who make them work. It’s tempting to just assume that once material like a Keats letter makes its way into an archive, it’ll be there forever and not really require much attention. Obviously theft is an extreme version of changed circumstances, but archives are living institutions in all sorts of other ways, and they require constant labor and vigilance to continue doing what they do. I spoke with Lee Arnold more than five years after Landau and Savedoff were caught, but Arnold acknowledged that he was still angry. The acts of theft were a fundamental betrayal of the trust that institutions like the Historical Society of Pennsylvania cultivate and rely upon. Archives trust that their patrons will respect the work that they do, and we trust that they will in turn act as effective cultural stewards. Archives are also affective as much as they are anything, and Arnold’s anger persisted in part because the thefts struck at the affective bonds—between institution and public, between institution and its staff, between people and the objects in the archives—that animate, among other things, work like what we do here at the KLP. The stories of Keats’s letters are rooted in feeling and desire, and those stories continue to unfold. Archival institutions are crucial actors in ensuring that those stories can keep being told, transformed, and transmitted.

As for the earlier parts of this letter’s story, the broadest point to make is that the meanings of epistolary texts like Keats’s are inextricably tied up with the histories of their movements. Even for a poet who only ever left Britain to go die in Italy, his textual production and reception were and are global. While it’s easy to think of Keats’s letters as provincial in their concerns and movements, there are also ways, as with this letter, that they become deeply entangled with a broader contexts like that of empire, transatlantic commerce, and, especially with Keats’s American letters, slavery and white supremacy. In part, Keats’s legacy was fostered by and has endured because a significant portion of his letters and manuscripts were cared for by his brother George, who became a prominent citizen in Louisville as his sawmill profited off of the labor of enslaved people, and later by his niece Emma, who married into the Speed family, owners of the Farmington Plantation, where enslavement remained the norm even as the Speed brothers empathized with their friend Abraham Lincoln’s position of abolition.

From the beginning I’ve been telling a story of desire. I love Keats, that much should be clear, and I love his letters. It’s part of what impels me to track the movements of a single letter like this one, as if it were a sort of talismanic object capable of bestowing magic on whoever knows it most fully. Well, to love Keats and to love his letters means also recognizing how they come to us. While it’s true that basically any text of the nineteenth century is entangled in some way with slavery, empire, and whiteness, it also matters what are the specific entanglements of a particular text. So many stories about Keats’s letters have been told before, but as I hope I’ve demonstrated with this one letter, plenty more remain to tell.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Adam Cady
Illinois Wesleyan University

RE: Keats’s 21-27 September 1819 letter to George and Georgiana Keats

As I detailed in my introduction to this project and in my responses to earlier letters, Otho the Great played a leading role in Keats’s diligent-yet-destitute summer of 1819. Though economically motivated and precariously constructed, from dogcarts to secret marriages, the Tragedy served as dramatic catalyst for much of Keats’s thinking, behavior, and convoluted circumstances in this chaotic, creative time, and the poet’s summer correspondence—from July to September, with scattered mentions in the months thereafter—is littered with references to the ill-fated play. Yet for this preponderance of subliminal, referential, and thematic appearances, the language of Otho—explicitly quoted or otherwise reproduced—is astonishingly absent from the letters. Indeed, it is not until the very end of Keats’s lengthy journal letter to George and Georgiana Keats (17-27 September, 1819) that the freshman playwright quotes directly from his summer’s dramatic work: 

Not as a Swordsman would I pardon crave,
But as a Son: the bronz’d Centurion
Long-toil’d in foreign wars, and whose high deeds
Are shaded in a forest of tall spears,
Known only to his troop, hath greater plea
Of favour with my [Sire] than I can have—

The quotation moreover serves—with theatrical finality—as the six-line capstone to a letter in which the issue of leave-taking, the artful performance of a winning goodbye, is recurrently raised. In this entry, I’ll make evident Keats’s concern with leave-taking and then, drawing on other thematic elements from the letter, focus on the quotation itself, arguing that Keats’s attempt at a moving farewell—though loaded with striking imagery, implied themes, underlying desires, and potential wordplay—still concludes the letter in a way that seems awkward for us, and almost certainly was awkward for its original recipients, George and Georgiana, and then for John Jeffrey.

Keats’s letter provides at least three clear examples of successful, performative leave-taking. One involves Charles Brown’s departure for Chichester and Bedhampton—effectively, the conclusion of that pseudo-marital, homo-professional partnership which bred five acts of defective Tragedy: “…he left me,” writes Keats, with discernible melancholic longing. In bidding farewell to a summer love—a temporary and disposable “bride”—Brown, at least according to his partner’s account, made a slurring, stumbling spectacle of himself: 

Brown when he left me “Keats! Says he “my good fellow (staggering upon his left heel, and fetching an irregular pirouette with his right) Keats says he (depressing his left eyebrow and elevating his right on ((tho by the way, at the moment, I did not know which was the right one)) Keats says he (still in the same posture but furthermore both his hands in his waistcoat pockets and jutting out his stomach) “Keats—my—go-o-ood fell o-o-o-ooh! says he (interlarding his exclamation with certain ventriloquial parentheses)—

An intoxicatingly animated goodbye, Brown’s purportedly grand exit was—tragically—a farcical one, as Keats guiltily continues: “…no this is all a lie—He was as sober as a Judge when a judge happens to be sober.” From this confession, it remains unclear whether Brown is the liar, his drunkenness staged for a showy adieu, or whether Keats is really the brief scene’s author, having created the tale out of whole cloth for the much-needed entertainment of his brother and sister-in-law. In either case, Keats, as attentive poet/playwright, demonstrates his affinity for the dramatic art of leave-taking. If, in fact, the skit was Brown’s, Keats evidently admired the gesture, as he meticulously recorded its every irregular pirouette and ventriloquial parenthesis. If, on the other hand, Keats served as the exit’s singular dramaturg and choreographer, then his letter is evidence of experimentation with the flamboyant farewell as theatrical device.

Less ambiguously featured in another of the letter’s leave-taking episodes, Brown is also at the center of a similarly comic departure from C.W. Dilke’s—an amusing incident this time driven by Dilke’s chiding cries. At that mutual friend’s house in Westminster, Keats reports, Brown attended dinner with “some old people,” including “two old women” who “had known him [Brown] from a Child.” These previously acquainted elders were evidently enamored with Charles, as Keats explains, “Brown is very pleasant with old women, and on that day, it seems, behaved himself so winningly…they became hand and glove together and a little complimentary. Brown was obliged to depart early. He bid them good bye and pass’d into the passage—no sooner was his back turn’d than the old women began lauding him.” With this unassuming exit evidently complete, Dilke giddily heightened the moment’s humorous theatricality, “threw up the Window and call’d ‘Brown! Brown! They say you look younger than ever you did!’” Not content with a single comedic outburst, Dilke proceeded to the adjoining wall, followed Brown’s path around “the corner of Great Smith Street,” and “appeared at the back window crying “Brown! Brown! By God, they say you’re handsome!”” Apparently awestruck by the whole affair, Keats took diligent note of the story and could not help but recount the entire exquisitely acted scene to his misfortunate family in “the american world.” Again, Keats is captivated in his letter by an exceptional ending, thrilled by the dramatic art of leave-taking and all its potential to entertain.

Still more charming, the September letter to George and Georgiana additionally describes an episode in which J.H. Reynolds, hounded by the awkwardness of a deferred farewell, overcame his “predicament” with all the commendable, performative grace of a seasoned mimic. No stranger to the endearing powers of theatrical mimicry, Reynolds was in fact an accomplished—and (presumably) profiting—playwright, having recently “brought out a little piece at the Lyceum.” A one-act musical comedy, One, Two, Three, Four, Five; by Advertisement, Reynolds’s “little piece,” follows the crafty efforts of one Harry Alias, who yearns to marry his beloved Sophy Coupleton. As Sophy’s father, Old Coupleton, has just placed an advertisement in search of suitors, Harry resolves to make himself comparatively marriage-worthy by impersonating a litany of atrocious would-be husbands: a simple premise which serves—primarily—to showcase the mimicking abilities of the play’s young star, John Reeve. While Keats, “being out of Town the whole time it was in progress,” was unable to witness firsthand the comedy’s “complete success,” he, like Reynolds, was undoubtedly familiar with the popularity of such impressionists on the London “stage…loaded with mimics.” Reynolds, for his part, put this familiarity to use in flawlessly delivering what, as Keats describes, “was the best thing he ever said”:

You know at taking leave of a party at a door way, sometimes a Man dallies and foolishes and gets awkward, and does not know how to make off to advantage—Good bye—well—good-bye—and yet he does not—go—good bye and so on—well—good bless you—You know what I mean. Now Reynolds was in this predicament and got out of it in a very witty way. He was leaving us at Hampstead. He delay’d, and we were joking at him and even said, ‘be off’—at…which he put the tails of his coat between his legs, and sneak’d off as nigh like a spanial as could be. He went with flying colours: this is very clever—

Doggedly dallying through a too-long and ill-timed exit—that common scenario which Keats rightly acknowledges as “awkward”—Reynolds unexpectedly employed his skills as a mimic, his knowledge of the mimicking and leave-taking arts. Outshining even those memorable performances by Dilke and Brown, Reynolds’s theatrics, even after so many days, constitute a story that Keats “must tell.” This journal-letter testament, as well as the howling laughter which presumably followed Reynolds’s display, proves the effectiveness of that performative power which so thoroughly captivates Keats: the capacity of a well-executed goodbye to impress and delight an audience. 

Given Keats’s evident fascination with laudable leave-taking, then, one has to ask: what kind of goodbye is achieved in the closing quotation from Otho? Curiously, while the close of his protracted journal letter seems a fine and privileged position, Keats chooses for this place of leave-taking honor a passage that is, on its surface, relatively unassuming and strangely forgettable. Occupying lines 24-29 of Act I, scene three, the excerpt is far removed from Otho’s Tragic end—from the hectic onslaught of guilt ridden-suicide and melodramtic demise, and from Ludolph’s unmistakably Macbethian whisper of “To-morrow.” As Keats essentially conceived of this fifth and final act on his own, one might reasonably expect the headstrong poet to quote from the play’s most Keatsian scenes. Spoken by the play’s princely, traitorous protagonist, the selected lines are instead torn from the middle of a dialogue with Sigifred, an officer and friend of the royal turncoat; they don’t close an act, or even a scene. Rather, the explicative passage is unassumingly placed, serving—somewhat clumsily—as stated justification for Ludolph’s undisguised appearance before the Emperor, his father, in the wake of a failed rebellion. What reason, then, does Keats have to include these lines in his letter? What effect do they have as a finale, as an instance of performative leave-taking? Do they constitute, in the spirit of Reynolds or Brown, a winning end? Or is something else—something deeper, though perhaps less whimsical—at play in these half dozen lines of Tragedy?

Certainly, after the labored reconstruction of so many memorable farewells (“You see,” Keats remarks to George and Georgiana, after recounting Brown’s heckled exit from Dilke’s, “what a many words it requires to give any identity to a thing I could have told you in half a minute.”), the poet must have been acutely conscious of his letter’s inevitable end, and presumably felt the quotation a clever and/or poignant means of taking his epistolary leave. With evident faith in the six-line excerpt, Keats is, it seems, especially proud of that underlined phrasing—his martial image of a proud Centurion, emphasized by italics in Rollins’s transcript, “whose high deeds / Are shaded in a forest of tall spears, / Known only to his troop.” Although this lethal thicket offers a somewhat striking vision, given Keats’s poetic prowess—including the stunning language of that same year’s romances and immortal odes—the conjuring of “tall spears” is hardly an exceptional or unprecedented accomplishment. Rather, Keats’s authorial pride—his particular (and arguably peculiar) selection of lines—may relate to the same letter’s commendation of “Pun-making,” which, the poet laments, is a sadly unprofitable venture: “As for Pun-making I wish it was as good a trade as pin-making—there is very little business of that sort going on now…. I wish one could get change for a pun in silver currency.” Despite the regrettably low returns of such witty wordplay, that proud Centurion’s trustworthy “troop,” may in truth double as the Tragedy’s imagined, review-crushing troupe. After all, Keats still clings in his letter to misplaced hope of a profitable staging for Otho, and precedes the quotation with optimistic anticipation of actor Edmund Kean’s return to London: “The report runs now more in favor of Kean stopping in England. If he smokes the hotblooded character of Ludolph—and he is the only actor that can do it—He will add to his own fame, and improve my fortune.” While Keats identifies with the mortally lovelorn Ludolph, Kean, with all the versatile personality of an accomplished actor, might choose to embody that prince’s imagined, more favorable officer. If—and only if—Kean should lead, like “the bronz’d Centurion,” a cast of West End players—a stalwart troupe—Keats’s misfortunes could be mercifully alleviated. Situationally subordinate to this fantasized knight and his troops/troupe, Keats is, like Ludolph before his imperial “Sire,” second to another, preferable man, whose favorability could resolve a mounting Tragedy.

Still, such dubious pun-making is hardly the leave-taking limit of the half-dozen lines’ potential for dramatic effect. Given the Keatses’ taxing parental deficit—their father’s untimely fall from horseback, which, through various convoluted means, still burdened the siblings via a “threatened chancery suit” (23 August, 1819, to John Taylor) and strained dealings with Richard Abbey—the quoted passage’s theme of sons and sires is striking, even if unintentional. In the context of Otho, Ludolph’s argumentative deployment of a “bronz’d Centurion” implies that an imagined, anonymous officer would have greater standing with his (abundantly forgiving) father than himself—a befuddling notion of father-son relations which may stem from Keats’s own lifelong lack of paternal affection. In addition, throughout the September letter, Keats returns to the settling complexities of fatherhood: from Joseph Severn’s uncertain siring of “a little Baby,” to Dilke’s relentless fretting over his son. With regard to this latter case, Keats references Dilke’s earlier reporting on the child, “so much oppress’d at Westminster,” and dismissively writes of the ongoing crisis, “Dilke is entirely swallowed up in his boy: ‘t is really lamentable to what a pitch he carries a sort of parental mania…. I suppose I told you some where that he lives in Westminster, and his boy goes to the School there. where he gets beaten, and every bruise he has and I dare say deserves is very bitter to Dilke.” 

Rudely disregarding these youthful troubles (Keats was, after all, a notorious schoolyard brawler), Keats’s heartlessly unsympathetic attitude toward the beaten and bullied boy may be contrasted with his anecdote about next-door neighbors: a pair of children and their parents, “an old Mjor [Major] and his youngish wife.” After laying out, in dramaturgical manner, the “dramatis Personae” and setting for his story, Keats details the confusion which followed an anonymous rapping at his door—a kind of playful “knock-knock ditching”—and he ends the domestic whodunnit thusly: “…I have discovered that a little girl in the house was the Rappee—I assure you she has nearly make me sneeze. If the Lady tells tits I shall put a very grave and moral face on the matter with the old Gentleman, and make his little Boy a present of a humming top.” While his opinion of the Major’s daughter remains somewhat sour, Keats’s promise of a gift for her brother conflicts with that stern approach to parenting advocated in his judgemental discussion of Dilke. George, too, was a new father, and John, near the end of his letter, relishes the “Idea of Proximity” to his “little niece” in America. Abandoning that earlier espousal of the need for cold, unattentive parenting, he asks—sweetly—of George and Georgiana, that wedded paradigm of settling “domestic cares” (25 July, 1819, to Fanny Brawne), “Kiss her for me.” As with (what I argue is) the complexly significant quotation from Otho, the larger September letter reveals Keats’s conception of a proper upbringing as transitive and confused; it lacks a firsthand framework or replicable real-world model, as George certainly would have known. In appealing to the issue of fatherhood, then, Keats’s choice of concluding quotation reflects certain broader, disoriented concerns and, keeping the intended audience in mind, resonantly calls upon a shared familial history with George.

Whether such a resonant reading of the letter was even possible for the recently emigrated Keatses remains doubtful, however. Amid the multifarious journal entries which comprise this letter, Keats acknowledges his wandering, unanchored writing style, and suggests that George and Georgiana consider the days-long epistolary project in its entirety: “If I say nothing decisive in anyone particular part of my Letter. you may glean the truth from the whole pretty correctly.” Yet to conclude—so definitively—the letter with “a half dozen lines…as a specimen” of Otho seems to undermine the lenient suggestion of surface-level reading. Inevitably, the excerpt, with its paramount leave-taking status, demands to be considered as an overarching frame—a reflective climactic or epilogical passage, from which the letter’s true intentions and meanings may be gleaned. When George and Georgiana received this dense piece of diaristic correspondence, neither had read Otho, and would hardly have known the intricate relations or machinations which define its convoluted plot. Devoid of all context, the quotation can hardly be said to speak for itself, and, aside from its evidently impressive imagery and potentially instructive pun, there is little to be said for the passage’s literary value. And without sufficient foreknowledge of Ludolph and Otho’s violently strained relationship—the years of alienation and the thwarted rebellion which precede the occasion of Ludolph’s quoted utterance—George likely failed to surmise the excerpt’s connection to a central, preoccupying theme of fathers and sons. What exactly is the couple reading, then? What possible message could George and Georgiana take from such an uncontextualized fragment of unimpressive Tragedy? In truth, Keats, their “anxious and affectionate Brother,” regardless of any governing fascination with the dramatic act of leave-taking, seemingly underperformed—appears to have clumsily missed the mark—in constructing his goodbye. A near-certain flop with George and Georgiana, Keats’s ideally familiar and forgiving audience, the letter’s concluding lines are outshined by more accessible performances, by the “clever” mimicry of an amateur’s spaniel impression. 

Far more upsetting than the Keatses’ probable misreading or John’s botched attempt at inspired leave-taking, however, is the real conclusion of those diligent “dog-cart” labors and financial worries which bred Otho in the summer of 1819. Although the September letter is not the definitive end of Otho in Keats’s correspondence, this letter does mark the end of Keats’s creative engagement with the play; beyond the relative hopefulness of these collected journal entries, the Tragedy becomes a matter of business.  By the time the warm days had finally ceased and given way to that season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Drury Lane and Covent Garden had both definitively refused to stage Otho. Edmund Kean never took the role of Ludolph, and, without a worthy troupe or consenting theater, the Tragedy was doomed to wallow—unperformed, unconsummated—in futilely penned manuscript. 

Ensuring the perpetuation of this unfortunate state, John Jeffrey’s transcript of the September letter to George and Georgiana—for decades, the principle, accessible version of this massive and multifaceted letter—radically reconstructs and reorganizes Keats’s original.  Though he was a woefully undisciplined, unscholarly transcriber of the poet’s actual words, Keatsians admittedly owe an unpayable debt to Jeffrey (Georgiana’s husband after George’s death in 1841) for his prescient recognition of the letters’ historical and literary value. Still, in the first volume of The Letters of John Keats, Rollins uses the September letter as a particularly egregious example of Jeffrey’s shortcomings as an amanuensis. Whereas the corrected transcription in Rollins’s second volume spans over thirty printed pages, Jeffrey reduces it to about two-and-a-half, omitting whole pages, paragraphs, and poems. Perhaps for the sake of protecting Georgiana, Jeffrey also extends Keats’s theme of willful, performative optimism by eliminating anything which might reflect poorly on the poet and noticeably lightening the letter’s mood. For instance, Keats’s suggestion that Dilke’s tormented son actually “deserves” his mistreatment is removed from the transcription of that same passage, while necessary talk of faltering finances is noticeably trimmed. Most incredibly, Otho the Great is completely absent from Jeffrey’s version of the letter. There is no talk of Kean or Covent Garden, no misplaced hope in the Tragedy’s profitability, and—astoundingly—no six-line quotation. Whether these omissions are attributable to laziness, concern for Georgiana’s delicate sensibilities, or a desire to whitewash Keats’s legacy (Otho, after all, represents a singularly disastrous endeavor in the midst of an otherwise breathtaking career), Jeffrey’s outright dismissal of the Tragedy saturates—naturally—those numerous explorations of Keats’s biography and epistolary practice which have readily disregarded the play as unimportant or undeserving of serious attention. Jeffrey’s initial careless—perhaps even contemptuous—treatment of the “Tragedy in 5 Acts” has been echoed in longstanding popular neglect of Otho the Great. Even with access to greater, more reliable transcriptions, the place of Otho in Keats’s letters has—until now—remained virtually unstudied, and therefore unrecognized for what it is: one of the many “awkward bow[s]” Keats will acknowledge having taken in his final extant letter.

Astray, sub rosa

Rebecca Ariel Porte
Brooklyn Institute for Social Research

RE: Keats’s 21-22 September 1819 letter to Richard Woodhouse


Even letters that find their destinations sometimes go astray. (Nonetheless, Auden: “Strike for the heart and have me there.”[efn_note]W.H. Auden, “What’s in your mind, my dove, my coney,” Collected Poems (ed. Edward Mendelson), 57.[/efn_note]) In his missive to J.H. Reynolds from 3 May 1818, Keats remarks that “some kind of letters are good squares others handsome ovals, and others some orbicular, others spheroid—and why should there not be another species with two rough edges like a Rat-trap?”[efn_note]The Letters of John Keats: Volume 1, 1814 – 1818 (ed. Hyder Edward Rollins), 279.[/efn_note] Most of Keats’s letters, particularly the longer ones, are shaped like rat-traps. They ruminate, brux, anatomize, bat around or worry their substance as a mouth does a new and interesting taste, an unfamiliar fruit, a person you are learning to speak with or else to kiss for the first time. They are full of hungers, those letters, not always savory. Baited with sugar follies and poison studies, they dwell where the teeth meet. In the case of a rat-trap, which can mean a “ramshackle building” where all manner of pests might fester or else a device for catching vermin, this dwelling place is often in living flesh.[efn_note] Oxford English Dictionary, “rat-trap” https://www-oed-com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/view/Entry/158579?redirectedFrom=rat-trap#eid 09/04/2019. [/efn_note]

One way a letter can go astray is literal: the writer does not know whether the higgledy-piggledy thing will make it to the addressee (return to sender?). Another fashion of straying has to do with composition: going on like a rat-trap, avid to seize but unsure what the letter will draw to its tortuous corridors; temporizing, playing for time. A third way of straying is when a letter arrives and arrives not. It finds the right hand but remains, for whatever reason, unopened: quotidian news or an intimate confidence unreceived, the pardon that would spare your life lost to careless haste.

Messenger: My lord, here are letters for you.
Hotspur: I cannot read them now.[efn_note]Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I, V.ii http://shakespeare.mit.edu/1henryiv/1henryiv.5.2.html 09/04/2019.[/efn_note]

A fourth way of straying is when the letter is opened and read but with cursory attention or not much in the way of understanding, the object preserved, the meaning destroyed. (Sometimes directives like “in the event of my death, burn my letters,” are redundant.) Nominally, at least, even the most resolutely singular letter is social, assumes a particular reader or set of readers who may or may not be interested in writing back. Tempting, in light of this epistolary tendre-with-teeth—the critic Janet Gurkin Altman calls it “exchange-desire”[efn_note]Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form, 89.[/efn_note]—to ask what Keats’s rat-traps—I mean letters—capture in the way of living flesh (this is the action of a trap, capturing or wanting to capture) and what this has to do with straying. If letters are evidence of anything (often, they aren’t), it might be of an exchange-desire, weakly or strongly expressed, that understands the self-cancelling bind that Nan Z. Da names “intransitivity,” exchanges “in which nothing is exchanged” or else (I embroider in the margins) something is exchanged in the wrong degree or kind or else it’s the wrong object that changes hands or else something is exchanged and the result is the same as if nothing had been exchanged.[efn_note]Intransitive Encounter, 2.[/efn_note] Imagine a cat laying a freshly killed tribute at your feet. You are unlikely to have asked for precisely this kind of offering. The death, you observe, has not been a clean one. Still, the gift has been worked at, worked for. It is not without its charms.

Keats’s letter of 21 and 22 September 1819 to Richard Woodhouse (friend, philologist, lawyer) is doubly rat-trappist in sensibility, trawling for miscellany, restless to capture. The letter, like its peripatetic writer, goes a progress through the poet’s travel from London to Winchester (reflecting on the sight of a virile, beef-eating Coachman, “[p]erhaps I eat to persuade myself I am somebody,” says slight Keats); puns passably in Virgilian Latin; fair copies the first two stanzas of the last of his odes of 1819, “To Autumn,” newly composed after a promenade on the banks of the Itchen; leaps from a poem of the season of falling to a few fragments of The Fall of Hyperion (the Miltonic description of the Temple of Saturn, the “induction”: “Fanatics have their dreams wherewith they weave a Paradise for a Sect…”); breaks, after despairing that Keats’s “Poetry will never be fit for any thing” because it doesn’t “cover its ground well”; resumes, the next day, by remembering that letters are written to particular people and often to several people at once; asks for opinions on George Soane’s adaptation of the fairy tale “Undine” and Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (“Powerful genius—accomplish’d horrors”); troubles the material conditions of the cash-strapped poet (“I will no longer live upon hopes—”); explains, not without bitterness, why he won’t publish the “too smokeable” Isabella, or the Pot of Basil in the (laughable) belief that “[i]t is possible to write fine things which cannot be laugh’d at in any way”; ends in a whimsical fantasia on Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker and a courteous inquiry about Woodhouse’s days—;—or nearly ends—there is a brief postscript after the closure, “Your sincere friend John Keats,”: “Hav’nt heard from Taylor” (John Taylor—publisher, friend).[efn_note]The Letters of John Keats: Volume 2, 1819–1821 (ed. Hyder Edward Rollins), 169–175.[/efn_note]

Straying sub rosa

Knowing this letter would fall to me (one among many belated interceptions), I had thought I might write about the subterranean fire of the Peterloo Massacre in “To Autumn” (and the smoky poetic load-and-bless over and above the magma of event) or else about the clammy softness of an epistemological limit, about how The Fall of Hyperion’s Temple of Saturn (a kind of rat-trap, as Keats depicts it) joins the god of wealth and melancholy’s “mingled heap” of rich, ritual instruments (“[r]obes, golden tongs, censer and chafing dish”) to a monumental peripteral “ending in Mist / Of Nothing,” about what it means for Poetry to cover its ground. Being in thrall to Paradise, I had thought I might write about a “Paradise for a Sect.”

I was wrong. Or else, astray to myself, only fractionally right: what I appear to be writing about is what it means to fail to get there, even when you seem to have gone where you intended to go, when you are betrayed in arrival, when the betrayal is effective, returns something, even if that something lies quite apart from intent. Make no mistake: this kind of error might draw forth peals of rueful laughter as easily as sighs of irritation or tears; there is, on occasion, a sort of sweetness in learning yourself the butt of a joke you didn’t even know you were telling, the witting unwitting. (Freud: “The behaviour of the speaker . . . certainly speaks against the conscious intention, and thus excludes wit.”[efn_note]The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, General Press https://books.google.com/books?id=FK9hDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&, 09/04/2019.[/efn_note]) “Education” and “seduction” share the same speaking etymology, the Latin for “bring up, bring out, lead forth”; a seduction, a leading astray, can be a form of education, though often falling for or exercising seduction leaves nobody the wiser. It would be possible to call this rat-trappist procedure of coming into an open secret—surely seductive, ambiguously educative—something like straying sub rosa—errantry under the rose.

A grammar of whimsy

In Keats, the yields of errantry under the rose are rarely comic (in the old sense of order restored), though they are sometimes humorous. The mechanism of this humor can be hard to suss out, because it involves making a judgement about an elusive kind of tone: the degree to which the straying is sincere in excess—in which case you might, if sentiment embarrasses you, be tempted to laugh at it—and the degree to which it ironizes its earnest flash to the point of dismissal—in which case, you might, if made comfortable by the mitigating postures of mild, conspiratorial contempt—so many of us are—laugh with it.

There is a third form of tonal clockwork, a half-way measure: when the straying text should register as emotion disproportionate to its object and seems, instead, merely adequately descriptive, so that you want to say “yes, it is like that” and also “I know, I know—it’s completely unreasonable to feel so much about so little, let alone to say so.” (Yvonne Ranier: “feelings are facts.”[efn_note]Feelings are Facts: A Life https://books.google.com/books?id=ryH0AAAAMAAJ&, 09/04/19[/efn_note]) You don’t deny the enormous reality of the feeling but can’t shake the knowledge that it is, when all’s said and done, merely feeling; neither position is alkahest to the other. The collision of these impulses might or might not move you to laughter (but it really might). Ontologically, it’s a little like a debased (funnier?) version of Kant’s subjective universality, in which your non-rational feeling that something is beautiful is so powerful that in the moment of judgement, you believe (absurd!) that everyone else ought to feel the same way about the something you’re encountering, even though you know there’s no logical grounds for your pleasure in the object. (Have you been seduced?) In other words, you feel what you feel, you laugh at what you feel, and you think, for a moment, that it would be impossible for anyone else to deny the substance of the feeling or the substance of its hilarity.

Call it an effect of whim, in several of the old etymological senses, which layer the skirling of “caprice” with less yielding associations of the rule-bound: “play on words” (word games operate according to rule) and “mechanical device.”[efn_note]“whim,” Oxford English Dictionary https://www-oed-com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/view/Entry/228353?rskey=F7m51y&result=1#eid, 09/04/2019.[/efn_note] Counterintuitively, whim is not entirely a matter of formless, free play. It reacts to constraint. Its levity resists the seriousness of laboring under a weight, though whimsy makes no promises (as irony sometimes does) of detachment, deflationary moral conditioning, or emotional catharsis.

Whimsy can be an effect of the impasses of trouble, incited by a sense of the precarious, a restless searching for some response to difficulty that’s neither the most embittered form of irony nor the spontaneous gush of cheap sentiment (though Keats was capable of both). As mild suspense (who knows where the whimsical will go next?), it can be practiced as an appeal to readerly attention. And still, it might also be a form of writing for your life. Nonetheless, I think I’d be the last to justify whimsy by arguing it’s secretly serious. (So little is justified by mere seriousness, secretly or otherwise, though I would say that, wouldn’t I?) Have I ever wanted anything so badly as to laugh with you one more time, near or far, to shock you into cachinnation, for always you resist the surprise of your broken reserve as if it were the betrayal of your human substance instead of one of its best proofs. Oh! For you are helpless against your laughter as a child! But this is by way of aside. Straying is a strategy of the whim.

This laughing grammar—would you call it Romantic whimsy (?)—is close kin to the reflexiveness of Romantic irony, in which the tenable form is a skepticism that springs from the knowledge that the absolute does not map onto the relative, that the maker is complicit in what’s made (though it’s irresponsible to generalize about Romantic irony, which comes to us from, among other places, the variousness of Schlegel’s fragments—but why be responsible now?). For Schlegel, to come into skepticism, the sustained awareness of Romantic irony, might even be equivalent to the action called “becom[ing] wise.”[efn_note]Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, ed. Peter Firchow, “Of the Nature of Friendship,” 133.[/efn_note] Then again, the fragment where he says so is a dialogue and characters in a dialogue, as gadflyish Socratic and Romantic ironists will tell you, whether or not you’ve asked them, are not to be trusted for truism or truth. So close kin—this Keatsian grammar of whimsy—but not the same as romantic irony; whimsy is more cowardly. It rejects the terms of the ideal and the real. It cannot even commit to the sophistication of the truly flip. Knowing yourself to be ridiculous does not necessarily put your experience into manageable perspective (manageable perspective is one form of wisdom). Many critics of romantic irony have derided it as “fundamentally unserious.” But what if “fundamentally unserious” were not a pejorative but an acknowledgement of capacity?

Another sister of Romantic whimsy is Coleridge’s fancy, always the second fiddle to the vital, creative imagination. In fancy, enfant terrible, memory willfully rebels against time and space, combining received images into eccentric ornament. Fancy “has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites.”[efn_note]Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIII http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6081/6081-h/6081-h.htm, 09/04/2019[/efn_note] Like fancy, whimsy is, in a way, impoverished: one motive for its sub rosa straying is an intuition of precarity and the need to make something useable—wondrous, even—out of that precarity, even if it’s only the idea that whim has accomplished itself or (daring greatly) that your reader, if the letter is so lucky as to find their hand, might laugh in the right places. Backed into a corner, whimsy gleans what it can from straightened resources, steals from rich garners of full ripened grain, invents Rube Goldberg machines, sets rat-traps in the air alongside castles, audaciously turns a coping-with into a flourish. It knows it has no other counters to play with. So do I, my dear, so do I.

Keats’s “La Belle Dame Merci,” for example, is laughable-withable in just this whimsical way. (It might be a lot funnier than you remember.) At close of poem, the lonely, palely loitering knight errant (literally errant) lingers on the cold hill side in the cruel optimist’s preposterous dawdling, longing for the merciless lady’s sway, knowing it leads, merely, to a place in the cortège of her starve-lipped victims. It’s a funny position to be in, that knight’s, after the fashion of Buridan’s Ass, hesitating between hay and water—or else the ever-ripe gag of Tantalus in Hades, caught below the rigged grapes and above the receding pool.

The interread

Sincere and self-satirical by turns, Keats’s letter to Woodhouse makes the most of this ridiculous position, the position of the tantalized, which is also to say a position of precarity. Its response to the Tantalus-gag—reaching towards material and affective resources that hold themselves just beyond the grasp—is to stray sub rosa, proliferate into the errant. “I see I have completely lost my direction,” says Keats, after a relentlessly orientational excerpt from The Fall of Hyperion (the north and the south and the east of the Temple of Saturn), “So I e’n make you pay double postage.” He knows his letter has lost its way even as it expands under his pen. As its contents stray into the remarkable, costly miscellany of whim, the writing reflects, more and more explicitly, Keats’s worry that his letters are going astray in other ways.

Keats and money, money and Keats—this was not the least of how his life was precarious. This errantry—the lengthening letter—will, literally, cost someone, although it will be the generous Woodhouse and not Keats. In 1819, it was the recipient of the letter—and not the writer—who paid the postage. And the further a letter had to travel and the larger it was, the more expensive it was to receive. If correspondence lingered in limbo, it was often because the recipient could not afford the weight of the message, the touch at a distance.[efn_note]Rowland Hill’s Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability (1837) gives a broad survey of the quirks of the English circulation of mail before the establishment of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840 https://books.google.com/books?id=fHdbAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&, 09/04/19.[/efn_note] Keats is also, at this moment, not half so fixed as a weathervane, fresh off his rattling journey, “embowell’d in Winchester.”[efn_note]The Letters of John Keats, Volume 2, 173.[/efn_note] He’s written two letters to Brown and he’s sure neither has found the mark: “Here’s the wonderful Man whose Letters wont go!” He pictures “infernal imaginary thunderstorms from the Post-office” beating down upon him, so that either “unpoeted” or “unposted” (the word in the manuscript is unclear) he writes. Surely “[s]ome curious body has detained [his] Letters!”[efn_note]Ibid. 173[/efn_note] He speculates that this curious body might even be intercepting and reading his mail. (He couldn’t possibly mean your curious body or mine, though we are among the curious bodies—you and I have arrived after the fact, as we so often do—we’re alike in this, if not in so many other ways.)  Again, there is a degree of tonal unclarity. Keats laughs at his own paranoia about letters dead and letters diverted, but, in a world where correspondence frequently fails its destination, waggish elaboration of the fear of misdirection doesn’t quite seem to dispel it. Whimsical he goes because in the teeth of whim. He bites as he is bitten.

But the other side of the despair of being frustrated or intercepted, overread by a curious body, is the sweet vision of being “interread.” As he writes to the sympathetic Woodhouse, John dreams of his words being received in concert by another friend, J.H. Reynolds (poet, critic, playwright), rather as he knows his sister-in-law and brother in Kentucky (George and Georgiana) share their missives from Keats. “[Y]ou two [Reynolds and Woodhouse],” John entreats, “must write me a letter apiece—for as I know you will interrread one another—I am still writing to Reynolds as well as yourself—As I say to George I am writing to you but at your Wife.”[efn_note]Ibid. 173[/efn_note] Keats conceives of his correspondence in a circuit of “interreading,” meant for someone besides the addressee of record, meant for Reynolds and Woodhouse as his letters to George are also meant for Georgiana, entries in conversations that go beyond a silent communion between reader and text, conversations among people to whom he is connected, conversations that take place without him. His letters make his proxy.

Keats’s correspondence frequently invents ways of being apart together (Cf. Kamran Javadizadeh on “improper time”). In some ways this is an obvious thing for a letter before the age of nearly instantaneous communication-at-a-distance (and after it?) to want to do. In other ways, Keats’s letters make of the necessities of uncertainty and distance a less apparent aesthetic possibility. If you fear your letter will go astray—literally or figuratively—envisioning interreading among your dear ones might also recuperate something from the possibility of straying, of falling out of the exchanges in which you desperately want to participate. Correspondence goes on, even if it goes on without you. Sometimes you live in the fringes of life. Sometimes even your truest and most amiable addressees misunderstand you. It might be salutary, in any case, to imagine them understanding one another over the flimsy pretext of something you’ve sent in the mail.

If you want to make your letter the kind of thing that will be read and interread in precarious conditions—if the sub rosa secret is that its probability of straying is high—you might go to some lengths (write at some length) to sustain your interreaders’ interest, you might resort to whimsy. (Rat-trap circumstance makes for ramshackle correspondence.) So this is Keats as entertainer, playing for Woodhouse “the waggan and trumpetour,” playing for time, juggling, clowning in the interests of homosocial bonding, having fun (yes, fun) though maybe a little afraid he won’t be read to the finish or read well, even as you can really only meander in the presence of a correspondent you trust.

Whimsy calibrated to its audience is whimsy at its most generous. (In this you are particularly gifted, though I doubt I’ll ever get to tell you that, watch the color flood into your face as I love to do, not that it makes a difference.) To receive the right flight of fancy, bespoke, can be like recalling rightly a lyric or a line of verse you’d known for years only as the one you could never summon up correctly, the Wittgensteinian click that wouldn’t sound—and then—mysteriously, accurately—does. (Proust: “But suddenly I remembered it, the irremediable asperities of an inhuman world vanished as if by magic; the syllables of the line at once filled up the requisite measure, and what there was in excess floated off with the ease, the dexterity of a bubble of air that rises to burst on the surface of the water. And after all, this excrescence with which I had been struggling consisted of only a single foot.”[efn_note]The Guermantes Way (trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright), 42.[/efn_note]) Whimsy as sheer self-indulgence may be, for the whimsical, a form of omphaloskeptic therapy, for the reader, a disastrous bore. Keats’s whimsy here, seems, for the most part, judged to its reader(s) inasmuch as it purposes to bring them together in its reception: it labors to gather its tutelary spirits in amity.

Burn this letter

Unlike Keats’s letter, the epistolary envois (“sendings” or “send-offs”) of Jacques Derrida’s The Post Card, written in the late 1970s and designed to be interread as theoretical text, paradoxically wish for a form of pure correspondence that would only be legible for writer and addressee, encrypted against eavesdropping. The Post Card appeals to interreading in form, even as the content wards off this model of sociality. Juxtaposed, Derrida’s letters to an unnamed belovèd test out their antinomian epistolarity through practice. (What does it mean to write someone, to apostrophize, to slip a postcard into the mail, to consider it read or unread?). In this work, interreading becomes fused with overreading.

How? “I would like to write you simply, so simply, so simply,” says Derrida,

Without having anything ever catch the eye, excepting yours alone, and what is more while erasing all the traits, even the most inapparent ones, the ones that mark the tone, or the belonging to a genre (the letter for example, or the post card), so that above all the language remains self-evidently secret, as if it were burning immediately, as soon as any third party would set eyes on it (speaking of which, when will you agree that we effectively burn all this ourselves?)[efn_note]The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (trans. Alan Bass), 11.[/efn_note]

For Derrida, letters run on eros, eros flaming on the narrow band between the hand of the sender and the eye of the receiver. In The Post Card, all letters seem to be written on the model of the love letter that longs for a completely closed, dyadic circuit, even as they understand this aim to be ridiculous. The figure of private address to a loved one is a conceit: Derrida’s is a work of theory, intended for—as much as one particular recipient, crystallized by love—that odd abstraction, The Reader. (Reader, I…do not trust you as far as I can throw you. But you say such charming things…) What can be read can always be interread and overread, even if whatever the readings produce is always inequivalent. Lovers do not love in a vacuum. And yet, the envois long to invent a dialect so deeply coded that it is completely mysterious—“self-evidently secret” in its most profound substance—to any “third party,” to anyone who is not the belovèd, so that you and I, unentailed, unbelovèd readers of the envois (or are we?), effectively burn the true significance of the letter—which is to say the letter itself—as soon as we set eyes on it, merely because our eyes are not those of the apostrophized and cannot look at the letter in the same way. The jaws of the rat-trap close on air. The letter arrives and we set it astray before you can murmur (as I’m almost sure you would) “this message will self-destruct.”

The envois know this secret, perfectly transparent language is fantasy. The Post Card marks (not unwittingly) what goes missing when all letters become fetishes of a lost world of pure meaning rather than occasional, good-enough rat-traps, conveyances, in all their fraught materiality, of some unpredictable combination of significances intended and unintended, of eros, perhaps, but also of the many forms of attachment that eros, which was never the only kind of love,doesn’t comprehend. (Both the Freudian theory of sexual fetish and the Marxist concept of commodity fetish employ a logic of substitution. The former entails the exchange of the genitals as a focus of libidinal attachment for some other arbitrary object; the latter describes the trade of social relations for economic relations). In The Post Card, letters can only admit, narrowly speaking, to being love letters, regardless of how they invite the readings of those who neither love nor are belovèd in the terms of the envois. Under cover of the love letter, the gaze of others, even if secretly wanted, can only be courted by stand-in. The envois ask the reader to play the part of the interloper, looking in on the affair in progress. Their desire for you, Reader, is the will-to-interreading; their pose of ignorance (playful, sadistic?) is the will-to-overreading. They require you to be both confidante and eavesdropper, regardless of what you feel about the situation. Meanwhile, a letter designed to be interread, even if it is a love letter of a kind (Keats’s might be), is the sort that would die before admitting it. After all, the letter of interreading is happiest in motion among, not motion between—hand to hand to hand, voice to voice to voice, eye to eye to eye.

The letter that would not burn

Overreader or interreader, I am at least marginally sorry to disappoint you, Jacques, though please know it is for the sake of the fair unknown, for whom, though I cannot move the world, I will at least stop by the junk shop on the corner and set that dented tin globe a-spin in tribute so that Uranian marine warms to Persian blue in the temporary rotation and so returns earth to earth along with the shades of more distant planets. (Did you know a blue in motion enriches itself from within, like a person who has begun the heady study of some skill or language, nearly fragrant with a newfound lexicon swimming into ken? Well, it seems like that to me.). I’m sorry, but I’ll never agree that we effectively burn all this ourselves, not when you’ve called me here to eavesdrop, put me—put us—in this impossible position. (I am tired of impossible positions.) It is only your tyranny that makes of a strange little bonbon a live coal passed from mouth to mouth. What have we done to each other? I wish you would tell me. I’m sorry to have been so serious—

Trackless envoi

—god, these fleeting things. Well, they, too, have the dubious virtue of being not nothing. (Go away, Jacques, I’m no longer talking to you.) Something arrives, astray sub rosa, even when the specter intent flits off to haunt an elsewhere. We could laugh about that, I think. I would like to laugh about that with you, someday or other. There are still late plums in the open-air markets, lucent violet bubbles swaddled in their foamy trichome stoles, and some quality of September sun plumps the afternoon air with such viscous pillows of gold that it seems a betrayal of matter to lean against a tawny phantom tree, compact of rough dusts and refractions, visitor from the wood between the worlds, and tumble through it back into the given. Would you like to betray me this way? (That’s actually an invitation.) I think I would have—think I would—let you—a neat revenge for however I’ve failed you. (I’m certain I have—failed you—but what I really want to know is have I persuaded you to charge me with whimsy?) You will have your little joke. And still I send my letters without tracking if I can possibly get away with it (I like to get away with anything), perhaps because it is better to know less about how they will stray, how they will arrive and arrive not and what they will be if they do, into whose hands, sub rosa or super, they pass, who you’ll be when you hold those proxies (silver proxy) in yours, if this should be, if this should ever be.

That shadows (whatever Goethe thought) should be a single colorless color; that seasons succeed themselves, clumsy and sluggish, bewildered as people who do not know the etiquette for leaving and boarding a subway car; that bicyclists should lie against the asphalt at dawn, their necks at the dead swan angle, their elegant, fragile machines a failed origami at their sides; that social networks, luminous with dirty infrastructures, should judder with the febrile energy of those who need something, just something, just something, just anything, are always awake for you somewhere, even when you are asleep; that there should be approximately eight point seven billion species of living organisms extant and only about twenty-thousand of them bees; that the children are still in cages and life (if that’s what it is) persists in rote minuets around the jagged fact; that faces must be decked in brass circles to stop the algorithms reaping ripe names; that the trees, under stress of great, deliberate fire release long cries of smoke and day apes night in São Paulo; that the celosia—by some called coxcomb—is just come into its inflorescence and crests in paradise pink, in vermillion, in ripe, atomic tangerine and dares the lyrebird to sing its jealousy (though I wasn’t brave enough to buy any flowers today) and tame flora cannot really hurt you into anything except, perhaps, an unwillingness to turn your eye and how good that is, the dumb pleasure of it, despite everything; that all this is like that and like that at once, well, is it like that, is it really like that? And you might tell me sometime, if you think of it, if this finds you, if it finds you in time. I hope it does. I hope you will. And that is quite enough, if anything is. What hath the cat—oh, look—for he killed the Icneumon rat, very pernicious by land—and just sapped of all his electricity—oh, look—what hath—what hath the cat dragged—look—at this rat—dragged in?[efn_note]Jubilate Agno, Christopher Smart, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45173/jubilate-agno, 09/04/2019.[/efn_note]


Postscript—Dickinson: “Vesuivus don’t talk—Etna—dont— [Thy] one of them—said a syllable—a thousand years ago, and Pompeii heard it, and hid forever—She could’nt look the world in the face, afterward—I suppose—Bashfull Pompeii!”[efn_note]Emily Dickinson, “Letter 233,” (To recipient unknown, about 1861) in Selected Letters (ed. Thomas H. Johnson), 159.[/efn_note] Partly because you’re not here—partly because ecstasy cracks you up—partly because I don’t have to tell you why—

Contributor Bio
Rebecca Ariel Porte is a member of the Core Faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is currently at work on a book about Paradise, Arcadia, and the Golden Age.


‘You must choose a spot’

Heidi Thomson
Victoria University of Wellington

RE: Keats’s 5 September 1819 letter to John Taylor


August 2018. I’m in London, doing research in the Dr Williams’s Library (‘The Library of Protestant Dissent’) in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. Every morning I am admitted after ringing the bell, the sole reader during the whole week. It’s just the library staff, me, and the film crew. It turns out that the Library makes a bit of money by renting out the premises, and the shooting of a Led Zeppelin documentary (about themselves, naturally) is in progress. Jimmy Page passes through the corridor to the toilets. There is a mood of somewhat redundant secrecy in the air. The library closes during the lunchtime break, and I eat my Tesco sandwiches in the small park on Gordon Square. I need a break from London for the weekend, I want to be among more trees, inhale better air. I must choose a spot. A friend writes: ‘If the weather is good I’d recommend a day out in Winchester: off-peak day return from Waterloo is £36.40 (means you can take any train back). Takes around an hour each way. There’s the cathedral and grounds, bookshops, college, rivers, and you can walk across water meadows to St Cross, ‘a very interesting old place’ as Keats called it’ (email, 23 August 2018).


Saturday 25 August 2018 was a glorious late summer day. The path to the Hospital of St. Cross starts behind the College, down the road from the house where Jane Austen died in 1817, and winds its way through water meadows, along blackberry patches and cows, to the charitable almshouse.[efn_note]http://hospitalofstcross.co.uk/ and https://www.visitwinchester.co.uk/listing/keats-trail/[/efn_note] ‘There are the most beautiful streams about I ever saw—full of Trout’ (KL 2.148), Keats writes to his sister Fanny on 28 August 1819. Winchester and the walk along the water meadows to the Hospital of St Cross was everything Keatsian I wanted it to be: a chosen spot of tranquil beauty. I took pictures, confirming and enshrining my ‘affective investment’ in Keats.[efn_note]Brian Rejack uses the term ‘affective investment’ in ‘The SRPR Review Essay: Taking Joy in Keats, the Comedian Poet.’ The Spoon River Poetry Review, vol. 43, no. 2, Winter 2018, pp. 104-23, p. 108.[/efn_note]

Between Winchester and the Hospital of St. Cross, 25 August 2018. Photos by the author.

I decided to write on Keats’s letter of 5 September to John Taylor because, in a life characterized by ill health and financial worries, Keats was, in Winchester, momentarily, in a good spot, so good in fact that he tries to give his unwell friend some well-intentioned medical advice.

The significance of a spot always exceeds its mere location. Its characteristics extend into our state of being, enhancing or depressing physical and mental well-being. Medical topography was booming by the early decades of the nineteenth century, with increasingly detailed analyses of geography, geology, atmosphere, climate, weather patterns, the various forms of industrial or agricultural activity as determining factors of a population’s health.[efn_note]For a detailed example, see David H. Scott, “The Medical Topography of Cove.” The Dublin Journal of Medical Science, vol. 13, 1838, pp. 55-104.[/efn_note] Its boom coincided with the documented surge in ‘consumption’ in Britain, as cities and pollution grew, and levels of contagion increased accordingly. While the connection between contagion and living conditions was not made explicitly, it was obvious that well-aired, dry conditions depressed the consumptive symptoms and were conducive to fortifying people’s bodies and minds. Then, as now of course, the choice of a spot, any spot, was the prerogative of the privileged few who could afford to move around, who were not tied to the local labour that precariously sustained them.

The Hospital of St Cross, 25 August 2018. Photos by the author.

Winchester and Keats

As Nicholas Roe’s chapter in Keats’s Places tells us: Winchester ‘offered Keats beauty, antiquity, health, history, landscape and a seventh-century cathedral.’[efn_note]Nicholas Roe, ‘John Keats at Winchester’, Keats’s Places, ed. Richard Marggraf Turley (Springer, 2018), p. 226.[/efn_note] In this atmosphere of calm productivity he worked on The Fall of Hyperion, Otho the Great, Lamia, and composed ‘To Autumn’ around the September equinox. ‘It is the pleasantest Town I ever was in,’ he writes to sister Fanny on 28 August 1819, two weeks after his arrival in Winchester. It was certainly pleasanter than his previous abode, the seaside resort of Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, where his entire stay had been marred by the cold he caught on the Portsmouth coach (KL 2.125). Despite the dire financial straits he found himself in, Keats imbued his (and Brown’s) stay in Winchester with the declared intention of  creative well-being from the very start: ‘We removed to Winchester for the convenience of a Library and find it an exceeding pleasant Town, enriched with a beautiful Cathedrall [sic] and surrounded by a fresh-looking country’ (KL 2.139).

By contrast, Shanklin, despite the ‘very pleasant Cottage’ and the ‘beautiful hilly country’, was steeped in unease right away, with Fanny Brawne bearing the brunt of Keats’s mood in this letter of 1 July: ‘I have never known any unalloy’d Happiness for many days together: the death or sickness of some one has always spoilt my hours—and now when none such troubles oppress me, it is you much confess very hard that another sort of pain should ahunt me. Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom’ (KL 2.122-123). Winchester, however, in the early Autumn of 1819, at the tail end of the first real summer since the catastrophic 1815 Tambora eruption caused disastrous havoc with the weather globally, did produce many days of ‘unalloy’d happiness’ and contributed substantially to Keats’s final burst of concentrated creativity.

John Taylor and John Keats

As his publisher, John Taylor (1781-1864) played a prominent part in Keats’s mature life. Taylor and James Augustus Hessey set up their publishing business in 1806. Their bread and butter came from bestsellers like Ann Taylor’s Practical Hints To Young Females, on the Duties of a Wife, a Mother, and a Mistress of a Family originally published in 1814 and into its tenth edition by 1822, and their own version of a blank commonplace book, the Literary Diary; or Improved Common-place Book ((Blunden, 33-34).[efn_note]https://archive.org/details/practicalhintst00taylgoog/page/n11[/efn_note] The need to keep their target audience—young women and their parents—on their side explains to some extent Taylor and Hessey’s outrage and caution about Keats’s sexually explicit passages in The Eve of St Agnes. The stable income from the more popular conduct books also enabled them to publish new talent : between 1816 and 1826, they published, in addition to Keats, the works of Lamb, Hazlitt, Clare, De Quincey, Hood, Coleridge, Reynolds, Landor, Carlyle, George Borrow, and Henry Cary; ‘few publishers before or since, indeed, can have created a list as full of imaginative literature that was destined to survive its own age’ (Chilcott, vii). Taylor and Hessey had a keen interest in Keats’s creative life, and the sense of stability they provided was priceless: ‘By the end of April [1817], not only had the firm offered to take from Olliers all the unsold copies of the first volume and attempt to sell them, but they had also made a firm promise to keep Keats in funds for the first refusal of all his future works’ (Chilcott, 27).

But Taylor was much more than a publisher to Keats: he was his confidant, friend, champion (against the reviewers of Endymion), and, above all, unstinting financial supporter.[efn_note]For more about John Taylor, see Edmund Blunden, Keats’s Publisher: Memoir of John Taylor (1781-1864). 1936. Reprinted, Augustus M. Kelley Publishers 1975; Tim Chilcott, A Publisher and His Circle: The Life and Work of John Taylor, Keats’s Publisher. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972; Hyder Edward Rollins, ‘John Taylor and James Augustus Hessey’ in The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, vol. 1, Harvard UP, pp. 91-92; Hyder Edward Rollins, ‘John Taylor and James Augustus Hessey’ in The Keats Circle: Letters and Paper and More Letters and Poems of the Keats Circle, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Harvard UP, pp. cxxxviii-cxliv. John Taylor was an expert on money in his own right, publishing books about measures of value, currency, and banking from the 1820s until the 1850s (Blunden, 249-52).[/efn_note] Most letters between Keats and Taylor involve money, in one way or another, with Taylor generously lending sums to Keats who in turn, and to his own detriment, would pass on the borrowed money to other friends who asked for loans. Just 5 days before Keats’s September letter to Taylor, Richard Woodhouse wrote to Taylor about the request for a £50 loan: ‘I wish he could be cured of the vice of lending—for in a poor man, it is a vice’ (KL 2.51). Taylor’s money enabled Keats to find salubrious spots for writing, and it was Taylor who paid for Keats’s and Joseph Severn’s journey to Italy. The most graphic record we have of Keats’s suffering during his final months are Severn’s detailed letters to Taylor, a sure indication of the extent to which Severn felt he could unburden himself to Taylor (KC, letters nos. 85, 94, 107).

Taylor’s steadfast personal affection for Keats and his confidence in Keats’ creative genius was almost a source of bafflement to himself, as in this revealing letter to Sir James Mackintosh of 5 December 1818:

But whatever this Work is, its Author is a true poet—He is only 22, an Orphan at an early Age, & the oldest of 4 Children, one of whom, a Brother aged 19, died last Monday of Consumption,–another Brother has joined B. in America, & his Sister is a Girl at School. These are odd particulars to give, when I am introducing the Work & not the Man to you,–but if you knew him, you would also feel that strange personal Interest in all that concerns him.—Mr Gifford [of the Quarterly Review] forgot his own early life, when he tried to bear down this young Man. Happily it will not succeed. Keats will be the brightest Ornament of this Age. (KC 1.68-69)

The connection between Taylor and Keats was strong, and both expressed a sympathetic interest in the details of each other’s health. Even though Taylor & Hessey’s firm was based at 93 Fleet Street, central London was most definitely not Taylor’s preferred ‘spot’, and his letters vividly suggest how much his sense of loneliness and alienation was connected with city life.[efn_note]Barry Symonds, “Taylor, John (1781-1864), publisher and writer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. September 23, 2004. Oxford UP.[/efn_note] ‘I have the Headache & lowness of Spirits,’ Taylor admits to his brother James on 6 March 1805: ‘In this great town, as in a great pit full of People, to observe one scrambling over another, kicking, scratching, biting and all Sorts of unfair Tricks practised to raise each Man higher than his Neighbour is absolutely disgusting’ (quoted in Chilcott, 10). And, again to James, on 11 April 1813: ‘My Solitude seems more lonely then, when all I see around me are so gay, & apparently happy’ (quoted in Chilcott, 17). In 1813 Taylor leaves the crowded city for lodgings at The Spaniards Inn, next to Hampstead Heath, and his health improves dramatically: ‘You can’t think how pleasant it seems to me to go there after so long a confinement in London. I walk both Morning and Evening and the Distance is at least 5 miles from Fleet Street’ (quoted in Chilcott, 17). Taylor is remarkably forthcoming and articulate in descriptions of his state of well-being, a trait he shares with Keats who, early on in their acquaintance, already confided: ‘instead of Poetry I have a swimming in my head—And feel all the effects of a Mental Debauch—lowness of Spirits—anxiety to go on without the Power to do so which does not at all tend to my ultimate Progression’ (16 May 1817; KL 2.146).

‘You must choose a spot’

Work in Fleet Street took its toll on Taylor’s health, and he regularly escaped from London. Keats’s letter of 5 September was addressed to Taylor’s parental home in Retford, Nottinghamshire, where he was convalescing. After acknowledging receipt of a loan of £30, Keats launches straight into medical prescription mode: ‘You should no[t] have delay’d so long in fleet [sic] Street; leading an inactive life as you did was breathing poison: you will find the country air do more for you than you expect. But it must be proper country air; you must choose a spot’ (KL 2.155). Low-lying, water-logged, flood-prone Retford in Nottinghamshire would probably not have been the kind of spot Keats had in mind. Moving on from his own bad experience in Shanklin where ‘the air would for days together take on an unhealthy idiosyncrasy altogether enervating and weakening as a city Smoke—I felt it very much,’ he turns to the salubrious effect of Winchester: ‘Since I have been at Winchester I have been improving in health—it is not so confined—and there is on one side of the city a dry chalky down where the air is worth six pence a pint’ (KL 2.156). What follows, for the next 500 words or so, is probably the most extensive, sustained piece of health advice in the whole of Keats’s correspondence; it is also an unusually strange piece of hectoring rhetoric. The passage concludes with the firm advice that Taylor ‘should be on the slope of one of the dry barren hills in somersetshire [sic]. I am convinced there is as harmful Air to be breath’d in the country as in Town’ (KL 2.157). Along the way to this conclusion, Keats includes opinions about connections between health, air, and soil; various occupations and health (peasant and butcher); associations between habitation, disposition, and personality (flatland men and mountaineers); and a particularly racist observation on how the agricultural conditions and climate are ‘a great cause of the imbecillity of the Chinese’ (KL 2.156). Hyder Rollins’ footnote on this observation refers to H. E. Briggs’ 1944 article in PMLA which invokes William Robertson’s History of America (1777) and Hazlitt’s essay ‘On Manner’ in The Round Table (1817) (KL 2.156, n.3). Briggs attributes Keats’s statement to a conflation of ideas from Robertson and Hazlitt for the connection of agriculture with degeneracy and weakness (in the sense of ‘imbecillity’), compounded by the racist stereotype of the east as luxurious and lazy.[efn_note]H. E. Briggs, “Two Notes on Hazlitt and Keats.” PMLA, vol. 59, 1944, pp. 596-98.[/efn_note] The reference is a worthy of further examination, because Keats does not know much about China, and neither does he refer specifically to China in his own work. Hyder Rollins’ footnote (KL 2.156, n. 3) refers to Keats’s health and climate account in this letter as a ‘harangue’, a good word choice for what sounds, unusually so for Keats, like a ‘tirade’.[efn_note]“harangue, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/84094. Accessed 19 August 2019.[/efn_note]

‘The nature of air and soil’

Keats’s imperative to ‘find a spot’ is closely connected with deepening anxiety about his own precarious health. Considering there was no cure for consumption, finding the right spot to alleviate the symptoms greatly occupied Keats’s mind. Diagnostic and curative constructions of consumption revolved around identity and location, in varying degrees of preponderance. Damien Walford Davies’s chapter in John Keats and the Medical Imagination explains Keats’s speculation about ‘divergent contemporary theories of pulmonary tuberculosis’ and claims that ‘competing (and in some forms reconcilable) contemporary theories of tuberculosis as inherited, constitutional / behavioural  (or “essentialist”), environmentally triggered, and contagious presented Keats with highly serviceable, if always distressing, models through which he sought to understand his biological and literary place in the world and calibrate his proximity to others years before he received bloody proof on 3 February 1820 of his own pulmonary malady in the form of his first episode of haemoptysis.’[efn_note]“Keats’s Killing Breath: Paradigms of a Pathography.” John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe (Palgrave, 2017), pp. 207-242, pp. 209-210.[/efn_note] Alan Bewell’s chapter on ‘Keats and the Geography of Consumption’ in Romanticism and Colonial Disease (Johns Hopkins, 1999) spells out how ‘Keats’s letter [of 5 September 1819] belongs to a burgeoning literature that sought to provide medical advice to a growing number of invalids who were seeking to recover their health through a “change” of climate or air’ (162-163). Opinions differed greatly on this matter. Thomas Beddoes’ Essays on the Causes, Early Signs, and Prevention of Pulmonary Consumption for the Use of Parents and Preceptors (1799) argues in favour of sea voyages but does not believe that warmer climates (Italy, Portugal, Madeira are referred to) make a big difference.[efn_note]https://archive.org/details/essayoncausesear00bedd/page/n4[/efn_note] Davies refers to Beddoes’ text in the context of Keats’s reference to Butchers in his letter: Beddoes ‘devotes a whole chapter to “Butchers” as “class exempt” from consumption (along with catgut-makers, who also “pass much of their time amidst the stench of dead animal matters”)’ (230). ‘See the difference between a Peasant and a Butcher. I am convinced a great cause of it is the difference of the air they breathe,’ Keats writes in his letter, pointing to the argument that ‘[o]ur hea[l]th temperament and dispositions are taken more . . . from the air we breathe than is generally imagined’ (KL 2.156).

Taylor is not to consider his own intrinsic constitution as the sole source of his weakness: ‘So if you do not get better at Retford do not impute it to your own weakness before you have well considered the nature of the air and soil’ (KL 2.156). Keats’s medical topography goes beyond the landscape itself. It includes the ways in which humans interact with the landscape in their occupations: ‘The teeming damp that comes from the plough furrow is of great effect in taming the fierceness of a strong Man more than his labour—let him be moving furze upon a Mountain and at the days end his thoughts will run upon a withe axe if he ever handled one, let him leave the Plough and he will think qu[i]etly of his supper—Agriculture is the tamer of men; the steam from the earth is like drinking their mother’s milk—It enervates their natures’ (KL 2.156). All of a sudden we are guided along from a professed connection between constitutional health and occupation (labour on a mountain versus ploughing on flat land) towards an assertion of essential debility or weakness associated with a whole population in a particular area: ‘Agriculture is the tamer of men.’ As Keats’s rhetoric morphs into generic journalese the assertions are no longer about whether Retford stands comparison with Winchester as a salubrious spot;  the scale is now global and racial with this bomb shell: ‘This appears a great cause of the imbecillity of the Chinese’ (KL 2.156).

‘the imbecillity of the Chinese’

How can we read this statement? Even allowing for the contextual use of the word ‘imbecillity’ in the now obsolete medical sense of ‘infirmity’ or an ‘instance of weakness or feebleness’, without the demeaning connotation of intrinsic inferiority, this is a singular statement in Keats’s extant writing.[efn_note]See “imbecility, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/91685. Accessed 19 August 2019.[/efn_note] There isn’t much Keats criticism which refers to this passage at all, but there is large body of work, by Peter Kitson and others, about Romantic representations of China which point to the racializing of writing about environment and health.[efn_note]Many thanks to Peter Kitson for responding to my email inquiry on 30 July 2019, drawing my attention to the failed Amherst embassy to China of 1817. In addition to Damien Walford Davies and Alan Bewell, Porscha Fermanis also refers to Keats’s letter in John Keats and the Ideas of the Enlightenment (Edinburgh UP, 2009), p. 77. For racial and Romantic Constructions of China, see Peter J. Kitson, Romantic Literature, Race, and Colonial Encounter (Palgrave, 2007); Eric Hayot, The Hypothetical Mandarin: Sympathy, Modernity, and Chinese Pain (Oxford UP, 2009); Michael Keevak, Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (Princeton UP, 2011); Peter J. Kitson, Forging Romantic China: Sino-British Cultural Exchange 1760-1840 (Cambridge UP, 2013); Peter J. Kitson and Robert Markley, editors. Writing China: Essays on the Amherst Embassy (1816) and Sino-British Cultural Relations (Boydell and Brewer, 2016).[/efn_note] In Forging Romantic China Kitson writes about the satirically racist connections between the failed 1817 embassy to China (for Amherst’s refusal to kowtow), and the scandalous reputation of the reviled Prince Regent, later King George IV, who indulged in an expensive taste for luxurious chinoiserie artefacts.[efn_note] For a short biography of the Prince Regent, see Hibbert, Christopher. “George IV (1762–1830), king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and king of Hanover.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  January 03, 2008. Oxford University Press.[/efn_note] The connections between China and Regency England were satirized by the likes of  Leigh Hunt (e.g. his 1817 Examiner piece of the interior decorations of the Drury Lane theatre) and George Cruickshank, whose savage 1816 cartoon depicting ‘The Court at Brighton à la Chinese’ grafted racist, English versions of Chinese culture onto English political corruption (178-79, 226-28). These popular associations, in which racism and anti-Regency sentiments converge in a toxic blend, would have been at the forefront of Keats’s mind at the time, particularly since his arrival in Winchester coincided with the Peterloo Massacre of 16 August, a massacre based on the presumed inferiority of the working classes and for which the Prince had sanctioned the excessive crackdown authorized by the Manchester magistrates. At the moment when his people were being murdered by their own army, the Prince himself was sailing off the Isle of Wight at Cowes, a sight recorded by Keats in his letter to Fanny Brawne of 16 August (KL 2.142).

Keith Thomas’s recent In Pursuit of Civility (Yale UP, 2018) draws attention to the widespread eighteenth-century ideas of racial hierarchies, contrary to the Enlightenment concept of a single humanity. Thomas refers specifically to David Hume who included a footnote in his essay ‘Of National Characters’ that ‘there were four or five different species of men and that the nonwhites were “naturally inferior”. “There never was,” he added, “a civilized nation of any other complexion than white”’ (Thomas, 236). ‘My heart sank to find the humane and rational David Hume proclaiming this,’ writes Jenny Uglow in her NYRB review of Thomas’s book.[efn_note]‘Civility and Its Discontents,’ New York Review of Books, vol. 66, no 13, 2019, p. 53.[/efn_note] Aaron Garrett and Silvia Sebastiani, in their chapter about ‘David Hume on Race’, examine the fact that this footnote, in an attempt to exculpate Hume of racism, is often characterized as an ‘offhand comment’—after all, Hume has the reputation of a ‘secular saint’—and they contextualize the reasons why Hume upheld these ideas. They conclude that there is ‘a tendency when dealing with important philosophers to ignore or sideline their beliefs when we find them repellent and to trumpet them when they correspond to beliefs that we hold to be correct . . . This makes for bad apologist history and bad philosophy. For this reason alone, it is important to highlight the cases when undeniably great philosophers held considered beliefs that we hold to be morally repugnant . . .  It is also important to recognize that these positions have an afterlife due to the esteem in which these figures are rightly held.’[efn_note] Zack Naomi, Aaraon Garrett, and Silvia Sebastiani. “David Hume on Race.” The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race. Oxford UP, 2017. Online.[/efn_note]

The same idea applies to writers like Keats whose charisma not only affected his contemporaries, but extends into the present day.[efn_note] For an examination of books and ideas about ‘Keats love’, see Brian Rejack’s ‘The SRPR Review Essay: Taking Joy in Keats, the Comedian Poet’ in The Spoon River Poetry Review, vol. 43, no. 2, Winter 2018, pp. 104-23.[/efn_note] I don’t have an answer to the question as to why Keats invokes the Chinese in this way, or which specific source he may have had in mind (apart from Robertson and Hazlitt). There is, however, a satirical association between the Regency (and its political imbecility), with its penchant for luxurious consumption (including chinoiserie), and the racist characterisation of the Chinese. Already in the Examiner of 2 June 1811 Leigh Hunt, Keats’s friend and mentor, had explicitly referred to the ‘imbecility’ of both the Duke of York and Prince Regent, after the latter had reinstated the former as ‘Commander-in-Chief’. After referring to the Duke of York as ‘one of the most imbecile persons existing’ and alleging that the Prince Regent would have had ‘proofs without number of this imbecility since he was a boy’, Hunt attributed the reinstatement decision to the Prince Regent’s own ‘native imbecility—an inborn rickettiness of mind, which it is now too late to rectify.’ [efn_note]Danie [Leigh Hunt]. “The Political Examiner.” Examiner, no 179, 1811, pp. 337-40. [/efn_note] And if we keep that in mind, there may be some food for thought in the crossed section of the letter to Taylor.    


‘I will cross the letter with some lines from Lamia,’ Keats writes at the end of his address to Taylor (KL 2.157). We turn the page ninety degrees, and perpendicular on the advice to Taylor, Keats evokes the gilded cage Lamia finds herself in. Lycius has decided on a big, fat Corinthian wedding, and the included passage starts off with a description of the vulgarly magnificent banquet set-up, with Lamia famously floating in ‘pale contented sort of discontent’ (KL 2.158). Less than two weeks after including this passage Keats writes to George and Georgiana about Lamia that he is ‘certain there is that sort of fire in it which must take hold of people in some way—give them either pleasant or unpleasant sensation. What they want is a sensation of some sort’ (KL 2.189). And ‘sensation’ they get. The message to Taylor is the message to a publisher: the public will want this. They may not understand the extent to which they are reading a satirical portrayal of themselves as voyeuristic consumers, but they will lap it up. It’s an early nineteenth century reality-show, an experiment in disastrous coupling, combined with a touch of extreme make-over, in an resort-like setting, and with a crusty know-all, spoilsport judge (Apollonius) thrown in. The gawking crowd, whose ‘common eyes’ devour the set, can’t quite believe their luck that they’re actually invited, somehow, to this party. One could conceive of this passage as a Cruikshank cartoon—Inconveniences of a Crowded Drawing Room (1818) come to mind—satirizing the ‘herd’ who have elbowed their way in. The decorations include ‘jasper pannels’, which could refer to precious stones but also suggested the jasperware pottery invented by Wedgwood for which there was a strong appetite at the time.

How does the address to Taylor talk to this passage from Lamia, I wonder? Both show an underbelly of humanity, an ebullient darkness and vulgarity which we do not want to associate with our more etherial version of Keats. In the wake of the damning Endymion reviews he is keen to prove that he’s a Butcher rather than a Peasant, that he can’t be classified with the weak, that he too can pull out all the stops. The passage from Lamia in this letter to Taylor differs from all other versions by the inclusion of eighteen lines ‘subsequently discarded’.[efn_note]See Jack Stillinger, The Texts of Keats’s Poems (Harvard UP, 1974), pp. 254-57 for the textual history of Lamia: ‘There is an intermediate draft version of II.122-162 plus eighteen lines subsequently discarded, in Keats’s letter to Taylor of 5 September 1819 (MS at Harvard—text in Letters, II, 157-159, with facsimile of the first twenty-two lines facing II, 208; there is also a transcript by Woodhouse in his letterbook)’ (255).[/efn_note] And overall, this version is more extreme, with Lycius described as ‘Dolt! Fool! Madman! Lout!’ (KL 2.158).

‘saith Glutton “Mum!”’

The lines which were later omitted depict, in broadly humorous strokes, the merriment of the guests:

And, as the pleasant appetite entic’d,
Gush came the wine, and sheer the meats were slic’d.
Soft went the Music; the flat salver sang
Kiss’d by the emptied goblet,–and again it rang:
Swift bustled by the servants:–here’s a health
Cries one—another—then, as if by stealth,
A Glutton drains a cup of Helicon,
Too fast down, down his throat the brief delight is gone.
“Where is that Music?” cries a Lady fair.
“Aye, where is it my dear? Up in the air”?
Another whisphers ‘Poo!’ saith Glutton “Mum!”
Then makes his shiny mouth a <k>napking for his thumb. & & & – (KL 2. 159)

The arch-glutton at the time was of course the Prince Regent, portrayed as fat and gross in the cartoons of the period, and specifically referred to as the ‘fat Regent’ in Keats’s letter to Fanny Keats of 28 August 1819 (KL 2.149). Stylistically, this passage is the territory of Chaucer rather than Dryden, the avowed model for Lamia, with the final lines redolent of Nicholas and Alisoun’s prank on John the Carpenter in The Miller’s Tale. As Chaucer’s characters all hide in the mounted barrels supposedly awaiting the flood, they pronounce ‘clom’ (‘quiet’) in the same way as ‘poo’ and ‘mum’ are articulated in this passage. In addition, we also get a potential reference to Absolon’s itching mouth, before he ends up kissing Alisoun’s bottom.[efn_note]https://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/teachslf/milt-par.htm#TALE, see ll. 3638-3741 in particular.[/efn_note] These provocative lines from Lamia foreshadowed Keats’s letter to Taylor of 17 November when he professed that ‘Wonders are no wonders to me. I am more at home amongst Men and women. I would rather read Chaucer than Ariosto [which he was reading in September]’ (KL 2.234). By November Keats’s mind was fully set on satire, because that is what he was working on.

China Walk, Lambeth

According to the Electronic Concordance to Keats’s Poems the word ‘China’ is used in Keats’s poetry twice, both in humorous contexts.[efn_note] https://romantic-circles.org/reference/keatsconcordance/ch_chi.html [/efn_note] The first instance is uncapitalized and refers to the ‘china closet’ of Mrs. C. which she has abandoned in order to climb Ben Nevis (‘Upon my life, Sir Nevis, I am piqu’d’, CP 213, l. 14). The second instance connects directly with the crass consumerism and gluttony of the Regency, as depicted in the Lamia passage of the letter to Taylor. By the end of 1819 Keats was working on a poem which in Woodhouse’s transcript was entitled ‘The jealousies. A faery Tale, by Lucy Vaughan Lloyd of China Walk, Lambeth’ (Stillinger, Texts, 268). The poem is a satire on the disastrous marriage of the Prince Regent (Emperor Elfinan in the poem) and Princess Caroline of Brunswick (Bellanaine) through an account of Bellanaine’s procession from Brunswick to her unwilling groom-to-be in London, as narrated by Lucy. Her names, ‘Vaughan’ and ‘Lloyd’, are Welsh, and ‘China Walk, Lambeth, was the site of the first English commercial pottery factory’; as Christine Gallant puts it: ‘Keats’s “Lucy Vaughan Lloyd” probably came from rural Wales to become one of the hardworking, badly paid pottery workers of China Walk.’[efn_note]Keats and Romantic Celticism (Springer, 2005), p. 135.[/efn_note] The naïve star-struck narrator of The Jealousies is a ‘working-class Welsh migrant to Cockney London’ (135). In 1815 potter John Doulton invested his savings in the Vauxhall Walk pottery of Martha Jones, and together with her foreman John Watts, they became ‘Jones, Watts, and Doulton’.[efn_note] Desmond Eyles, Royal Doulton, 1816-1965: The Rise and Expansion of the Royal Doulton Potteries. Hutchinson, 1965.[/efn_note] ‘Lucy Vaughan Lloyd’ would have worked in a pottery (china-ware) factory amidst dust, she would have been exposed to lead and chemical dies, and she would probably have lived in close proximity to the factory in squalid, urban conditions. Already by the early nineteenth century the area was entirely filled up with ‘poor quality, working class housing’ and by the 1870s it was notorious for its ‘poverty and crime’.[efn_note] https://www.lambeth.gov.uk/sites/default/files/pl-Lambeth-Walk-and-China-Walk-CA-appraisal-2017.pdf[/efn_note]

‘a spot’

There is much more to be said about The Jealousies and its relationship to Lamia, but, for now, the letter to Taylor with its cancelled Chaucerian passage about a ridiculous Glutton bridges the worlds of tragedy and comedy. The ‘fat Regent’ holding court ‘à la Chinese’ may be a figure of fun for his ‘imbecility’, but the consequences of his luxurious misrule are dire for those who cannot afford to ‘choose a spot’, who must labour where they can find work. The Peterloo Massacre was a horrific example of entrapment in a spot. I still do not fully grasp the extent and ramifications of Keats’s observation about the ‘imbecillity of the Chinese’, but the vivid association with the crass stupidity of the Prince Regent suggests in itself that there is an ‘imbecility’ problem within England itself. The Chinese labourers in the fields and the Welsh workers in the china factories of Lambeth definitely had that in common: they could not choose a spot.

About the author
Heidi Thomson works primarily on topics in British Romanticism and has published widely on the life and works of Thomas Gray, Maria Edgeworth, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats. Her book Coleridge and the Romantic Newspaper: The Morning Post and the Road to Dejection appeared in 2016. She also has recent essays on Keats in the collections Keats’s Places (Palgrave, 2018) and John Keats in Context (Cambridge UP, 2017)


Keats, Settling

Adam Cady
Illinois Wesleyan University

RE: Keats’s 23 August 1819 letter to John Taylor

As I detailed in my earlier analysis of the 14 August letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats was passionately committed to solitary self-reliance, vehemently independent, and he dreaded the notion of settling—sedentary dependence on the binding affection of others, or the fixed prudentiality of “domestic cares” (25 July, 1819, to Fanny Brawne). Nevertheless, as the “dog-cart” labors of Keats’s diligent summer drew to a necessary close, so, too, did the poet’s accounts grow dangerously barren, making his paramount ideal of unsettled life increasingly unfeasible. Embroiled in the economically debilitating ordeal of an aunt’s “threatened chancery suit” (which promised to keep Keats’s inheritance out of his reach even longer than feared), his financial circumstances were dire, and, in his 23 August letter to John Taylor, Keats embarrassedly remarks, “I have been rather unfortunate lately in money concerns.” Thus, Keats was “forced by necessity” to rely on the goodwill and the sometimes questionable talents of his companions, as he begged for payment from Taylor and regrettably “engaged” with Brown in a Tragic collaboration. Amid financial desperation, the preferably unanchored and self-sufficient poet had no choice but to settle—and he did so in a spectacularly strange, domestic fashion, fraught with the humiliating echoes of traditional and repressive gender roles.

The first in a series of pitiful settlements, Keats’s 23 August letter to Taylor is written—primarily—with the admittedly “harsh, distant & indelicate” intention of settling—at the very least, alleviating—the poet’s worsening economic woes. Though he apologizes for the harshness of his “business manner of wording and proceeding,” Keats’s destitution was such that—beyond a mere “desire of order and regularity”—his very survival may have depended on this straightforward entreaty for funds. As their mutual companion Richard Woodhouse notes in his 31 August, 1819, letter to Taylor—who, alarmed by what he read in Keats’s request, had forwarded it to this common friend—Keats was inadvisably generous with friends, prone to the careless granting of unaffordable loans: “I wish he [Keats] could be cured of the vice of lending—for in a poor man, it is a vice.” Suddenly—excruciatingly—aware of this vice’s debilitating repercussions, Keats writes to Taylor that, in the unanticipated absence of other funds, his livelihood is regrettably contingent on the swift delivery of new and generous advances: “…I relied a little on some of my debts being paid—which are of a tolerable amount—but I have not had one pound refunded.” While understandable and fiscally responsible, Keats made such requests for repayment with problematic infrequency, and seems noticeably pained in his letter by the necessity of collection. His few, ineffectual appeals to outstanding debtors having failed, Keats—forced to settle and degradingly rely on the charitable impulses of his friend—now turned to Taylor for relief.

Still, no instance of Keats’s forced settling is quite so debasing or awkward as the financially necessary professional and personal relationship which Keats shared with Charles Brown. As I described in my introduction to this project, as well as in my response to the 31 July letter, Keats and Brown were woefully imperfect, imbalanced partners; and while Keats’s name now occupies a prime place amid the canonical catalog of English literary masters, the grave budgetary circumstances which motivated Otho the Great’s conception and creation effectively reduced Keats to the cheaply artistic position of an overqualified stenographer or poetic translator. Yet beyond the embarrassing inadequacies of this mechanical writing process, further, more pressing disparities—namely, Brown’s superior fortune—eventually left Keats the lesser, passive half of a bizarrely gendered dynamic: a strange kind of marriage which—in a predictably, though also ironically, heteronormative fashion—cast John Keats as the stereotypically subjugated bride and Charles Brown as his breadwinning groom.

With Otho’s tragic verse as the eventual defective offspring of their painstaking labors, the pair worked in close collaboration through much of the summer of 1819—were indeed united in a secret engagement, as Keats remarks to John Taylor: “We have together been engaged (this I should wish to remain secret) in a Tragedy which I have just finish’d.” Of course, both Keats and Brown were, around this time, additionally mired in the chaos of separate, secretive romances: Brown, with a possible clandestine marriage to his (perhaps illegitimately) impregnated Irish lover, Abigail O’Donohue, and Keats, with his disconcerting passions for Fanny Brawne. Nevertheless, the cozy cohabitation and single-minded laboring which birthed Otho constituted a similarly intimate (though noticeably less lustful) affair, especially given their couple-like conjoining of resources and sharing of financial burdens. It is difficult, then, even though the procession of romantic milestones is a little off (a proposal begins an engagement), to not read Keats’s next statement as a confirmation of their union: “Being thus far connected, Brown proposed to me, to stand with me…” Keats himself may have been swept up by his own figuration: he initially, mistakenly, calls his offered “Bill” a “Bond,” a financial and marital term.

Where Keats introduces the pretty concepts of proposal, bonds, and engagement, though, the marriage is really certified by Brown’s contribution to the letter. In yet another act of collaboration, Brown, on the letter’s doublings, finalizes and signs the contract. With no hemming, hawing, or “hammering” to be found, Brown’s is the husband’s contribution. His is the masculine, straightforward approach, and—all business—he is the one who knows that what he and Keats are creating is in fact a “Bill.” (Given the fact that there are no other crossed out words in Keats’s letter, one imagines that either Brown suggested the change after reading over what Keats wrote, or else that Keats recognized his error after having read Brown’s “Bill.” In either case, it was Brown who was in the know.) Acting, then, as a benevolent patriarch, Brown oversees the remedying of Keats’s destitution and past “vices,” and guarantees the soundness of Keats’s bill by bestowing upon his friend/betrothed that most traditional of marital offerings: his name: “…Keats especially would be uncomfortable at borrowing unless he gave all [he] in his power; [&] besides his own name to a Bill he has none to offer but mine, which I readily agree to…. It is therefore to be considered as a matter of right on your part to demand my name in conju[n]ction with his.”  Brown’s professionalism, however, is so front-facing—so over-emphasized—in the letter that he, too, is likely compensating for the strangeness of his implicitly gendered relationship with Keats. Most notably, right after stating that he will gladly add his name to any of Keats’s bills, Brown is sure to parenthetically underscore that he is “speaking in a business-like way,” perhaps registering some awareness of his gesture’s romantically inflected nature.

Whether or not Keats’s and Brown’s suggestive use of matrimonial terminology was entirely conscious (perhaps even a shared running joke), the consistent tonal seriousness of the 23 August letter, paired with some crucial symbolic shifts near the close of Keats’s contribution, suggests the genuine soberness with which Keats internalized his unwitting femininity. Although the letter begins as a businesslike request for payment, the repeated admittance of his pitiful economic state—his reliance on debtors and wifely ties to Brown—seems to weigh on Keats, who, in a presumably subconscious effort to compensate for his stereotypically ladylike condition, turns to more masculine symbols and subject matter. Even while inquiring after monetary scraps, Keats—sure of his own chameleonic literary skill—boastfully assures Taylor that, given certain artistic compromises, his writing could effortlessly charm the masses: “I feel every confidence that if I choose I may be a popular writer.” Obstinate in his adherence to high-minded artistic standards, however, Keats would rather solicit his friend—pitifully—for the means of his survival—quite possibly, would rather starve—than capitulate to the whims of the reading public: “Who would wish to be among the commonplace crowd of the little-famous–who[m] are each individually lost in a throng made up of themselfes? is this worth louting or playing the hypocrite for? To beg suffrages for a seat on the benches of a myriad aristocracy in Letters?” Delivered with a flair of braggadocious machismo, Keats’s hardline stance against so-called “popular writers” is particularly impactful here, given the poet’s regular association of popular and female authors: “the drawling of the blue stocking literary world” (14 August, 1819, to Benjamin Bailey).

Though Keats certainly disliked and disrespected a number of more marketable men in his field, the poet’s exceptional disdain for women contrasts sharply with his wifely relationship to, and financial dependence on, Brown—an emasculating predicament ineffectually offset by Keats’s proclamation of faith in the romanticized manliness of solitude and pride: “…‘How a solitary life engenders pride and egotism!’ True: I know it does but this Pride and egotism will enable me to write finer things than any thing else could—so I will indulge it.” Moreover, amid all this theoretically redeeming bravado, Keats not-so-subtly compensates by injecting his letter with a thoroughly masculine and militaristic metaphor: “Just so much as I am hu[m]bled by the genius above my grasp, am I exalted and look with hate and contempt upon the literary world—A Drummer boy who holds out his hand to a field marshall—that Drummer boy with me is the good word and favour of the public.”

Yet in spite of all his blustering chauvinism—despite presenting himself as the illustrious and dignified “field marshall”—Keats, in the context of Brown’s own words, still resembles that unremarkable, unknown, and powerless “Drummer boy,” if not some soldier’s downtrodden wife.  A visible instance of collaboration reminiscent of a co-written passage in the 31 July letter to C.W. Dilke, Brown actually writes his clarifying note to Taylor—his 23 August letter—on a portion of Keats’s entreaty for payment. Whereas, in the 31 July letter, Keats is driven to reclaim “possession” of his correspondence, now Brown’s intrusive manner of writing goes virtually unchecked by the now-destitute and dominated poet. Keats’s postscript serves mainly to confirm what Brown has written, though it also exceeds such propriety, concluding with Keats’s endeavor to uphold his reputation as unsettled. In reality, Keats asserts, he is a fickle companion: “Had I to borrow money from Brown and were in your house, I should request the use of your name in the same manner.”

With such weirdness permeating both Keats’s and Brown’s respective sections of the letter, it should come as no surprise that its initial recipient found the correspondence somewhat troubling. Having been forwarded the letter, Woodhouse, in his 31 August reply to Taylor, attempts “with [his] usual disposition to understand” the complex and irregular “terms” in Keats’s distracted request. Still, neither Woodhouse nor Taylor seems especially concerned with the secret and strictly gendered relationship in which their friends are evidently engaged. Whether they—somehow—failed to notice the peculiar couple’s pseudo-marital dynamic, or whether the issue was simply too bizarre—too taboo—to even address, is unclear, but Woodhouse’s letter dwells primarily on what likely was Taylor’s main concern: the tangentially related issue of Keats’s pride. Whereas Taylor, in his prior letter to Woodhouse, apparently expressed his discomfort with the young poet’s self-described and flaunted “Pride,” Woodhouse is generally unconcerned by Keats’s youthful (and deserved) cockiness, confident in Keats’s personal integrity, as well as his poetic prowess. For Woodhouse, Keats is describing “literary Pride,—that disposition which arises out of a Consciousness of superior & improving poetical Powers.” Offering to “spare £50” to aid in Taylor’s loan to Keats, Woodhouse is evidently willing to overlook—in fact, he aims, as much as possible, to sever, to cure—those temporary bonds and compensating sensations of Pride which accompany a symbolic marriage or financial desperation; prescient, observant, he recognizes the ability of Keats, under more favorable economic circumstances, to join the ranks of history’s greatest writers—to remain unsettled, ethereal, free: “Whatever people [say they] regret that they could not do for Shakespeare or Chatterton, because he did not live in their time, that I would embody into a Rational principle, and (with due regard to certain expediencies) do for Keats.”

Keats as a Lover of Fine Phrases

Adam Cady
Illinois Wesleyan University

RE: Keats’s 14 August 1819 letter to Benjamin Bailey

In his 14 August 1819 letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats again touts the diligent productivity of his summer on the Isle of Wight, and claims to have generated—by that time—some “1500 Lines” in “two Months.” Having subsequently “removed to Winchester for the convenience of a Library,” Keats’s creative efforts were ongoing, fruitful, and, despite any earlier idleness or creative differences between the poet and his dramatic collaborator, Charles Brown, Keats had completed “two Tales, one from Boccacio call’d the Pot of Basil; and another called St. Agnes’ Eve on a popular superstition.” He had moreover penned the first half of “Lamia” and “parts of [his] Hyperion,” as well as “4 Acts of a Tragedy,” Otho the Great. Excepting occasional walks on the island and outings with Brown, Keats was, by mid-August, totally immersed in—consumed by—this outpouring of poetic verse, reading and writing with quasi-maniacal fervor, and he passionately informs Bailey, “I look upon fine Phrases like a Lover.”

For the most part, readers of the 14 August letter have treated this spirited declaration—the notion of Keats as a Lover of fine phrases—as a charming affirmation of Keats’s affection for literature. Indeed, the statement’s immediate context bears this pleasant interpretation out, as Keats has just expressed his ever-growing wonder at the magnificence of “Shakespeare and the paradise Lost” and declared, “a fine writer is the most genuine Being in the World.” We know, too, that Keats—since his youth—was prone to fall in love with exceptional language, as the poet’s early friend Charles Cowden Clarke, in his Recollections of Writers, recalls  that Keats pored over Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene “‘as a young horse would through a spring meadow—ramping!’,” and furthermore, “he especially singled out epithets, for that felicity and power in which Spenser is so eminent” (126). Clarke also recollects “the teeming wonderment of [Keats’s] first introduction” to George Chapman’s translation of The Odyssey, which famously inspired the sonnetic outpouring of fine phrases “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (130). Moreover, Keats was a notorious mimic, often borrowing from the loveable phrases of other, emulatable writers—a fact to which the bulk of the footnotes in any critical edition of Keats’s poems and/or letters testifies. 

However, if we consider the preceding letter—his 5, 6 August letter to Fanny Brawne—the idea of Keats as a lover of anything becomes murkier and less appealing. In that earlier bit of fraught correspondence, the great Romantic declares his inability—likelier, his unwillingness—to pen “proper downright love-letters.” Additionally, though it may be tempting to imagine the extraordinary poet as some inhuman deity of the written word, Keats is painfully human, as he writes to Fanny, “I am not one of the Paladins of old who livd upon water grass and smiles for years together.” As a lover, Keats has material and selfish needs, which override romanticized notions of love as a pure or selfless endeavor. In fact, Keats tells Fanny precisely what kind of love theirs must be: one that is literally unsettling: 

…god forbid we should what people call, settle—turn into a pond, a stagnant Lethe—a vile crescent, row or buildings. Better be imprudent moveables than prudent fixtures—Open my Mouth at the Street door like the Lion’s head at Venice to receive hateful cards Letters messages. Go out an[d] wither at tea parties; freeze at dinners; bake at dance[s,] simmer at routs. No my love, trust yourself to me and I will find you nobler amusements; fortune favouring.

Unsatisfied with the “settled” condition of domesticity, Keats’s attachments to Fanny must never be debilitating. Though his passion for Brawne burns bright, personal preeminence is the poet’s primary concern; their love must not—in any way—interfere with Keats’s autonomy, his mobility, his capacity to control. 

Of course, in addition to describing an ideally unsettled romance with Fanny, Keats reveals—in that same 5, 6 August letter—exactly what kind of lover he is. At this time, Keats was mired in the writing Otho—his thoughts so thoroughly consumed by the Tragedy that he actually describes seeing Fanny “through the mist of Plots speeches, counterplots and counter speeches.” Eager to demonstrate the relative mildness of his emotions, though—his supposedly restrained passions for both Fanny and the written word—Keats assures her, “The Lover is madder than I am.” The “Lover” (with a capital “L,” as in the 14 August letter) here is meant to be Ludolph, the tragic protagonist and erratic prince whose betrayal and downfall comprise the central plot of Otho. And though Keats is reportedly less crazed than that passionate royal, Ludolph’s conception of love is so thoroughly corrupted that, when Keats compares himself to the prince, there is the conspicuous implication that—as a lover—Keats is still sufficiently mad. To begin, Ludolph’s affections are astoundingly fickle, as he readily abandons all tenderness for his former, supposedly disloyal fiancee,  Erminia—even naming her once as “Satan” (Act III, scene 2, line 78). In place of Erminia, the prince dotes over “fair Auranthe” and, “bewitched” by her, develops a severe and suicidal kind of love: “Soft beauty! by to-morrow I should die, / Wert thou not mine” (Act III, scene 2, lines 14-15). With either woman, Ludolph’s sense of love is also deeply possessive; even modest lapses are unforgivable, and he regularly refers to Auranthe as “mine,” an object to be owned and admired: “Auranthe I have! O, my bride, my love! / …All mine!” (Act III, scene 2, lines 6, 12). The central Lover in Otho, then, is no mere admirer of women, but is truly an obsessive and overbearing suitor. Love, in the preoccupying context of Keats’s Otho the Great, is a kind of problematic domination, contented by control.

When, in his next letter, Keats refers to himself as a “Lover” of fine phrases, he is still in the midst of writing Ludolph’s Tragedy, and likely maintains the maladjusted prince as a fictional template of love’s poisonous potential. If this is the case, Keats has conceded that, at least where language is concerned, he is really just as mad as Ludolph, and recognizes himself—his own love of fine phrases—as being similarly possessive and domineering. For example, in Otho, Keats—ever the chameleon—employs “over forty borrowings from seventeen of Shakespeare’s plays,” taking repeatedly from the Bard in what amounts to a pale imitation of grander tragic and historical dramas (Motion 422). Beyond paying homage to the canonical likes of King Lear and Macbeth, Otho the Great is so thoroughly Shakespearean that to claim the Tragedy as a wholly original work requires a significant degree of authorial gaslighting. In concluding the play with Erminia’s cry to “Take away that dagger” and Ludolph’s dying utterance of “To-morrow,” Keats does not refer or allude to, but rather takes possession of immortal Shakespearean soliloquies: Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” and, “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” Though “borrowing” from Shakespeare, Keats is never satisfied with the poetic polyamory of their shared language and must make these words—so many of the Bard’s fine phrases—his own. 

This kind of possessive repurposing—this affectionate thievery—is so often the case with Keats, who, from turning the Christian vale of tears into a “vale of Soul-making” (21 April, 1819, to the George Keatses) to remaking the nonsense phrase “T wang-dillo-dee” from The Beggar’s Opera into his own term of quasi-philosophical critique (13-28 January 1820, to Georgiana Keats), routinely reshapes that which attracts him into what he truly wants. Interestingly, this dynamic is also present in the 5, 6 August letter to Fanny, as, with playful blaspheming, Keats transforms Christian tradition into a carnal, paganistic exaltation of his beloved. Excited by the unholy potential of his move from Wight to Winchester (“a cathedral City”), Keats tells Fanny, “I shall have a pleasure always a great one to me when near a Cathedral, of reading them during the service up and down the Aisle.” Just before announcing his desire to remain unsettled, Keats likewise borrows from the Anglican liturgy to make his own profanation. Whereas the Book of Common Prayer states, “Beseech thee to hear us, O Lord God,” Keats takes possession of the reverent utterance and twists it to his irreverent liking, rebirthing the saying as a prayer to Venus, pagan embodiment of physical, erotic love: “Beseech thee to hear us O Goddess.”

I am hardly the first to note the complexity of Keats as a lover—of women or language. For instance, in his essay on “Women and Words in Keats (with an Instance from La Belle Dame sans Merci),” author Ronald Tetreault calls attention to much of the same difficulty in Keats’s life and work: 

Keats’s inclination to “look upon fine phrases like a Lover” is the key to a whole system of substitutions in his text which draws a likeness between loving and writing and treats woman as a trope for truth and language. When he wrote as he loved, his text was driven by an insatiable hunger for beauty and truth. That these might serve ends of their own quite apart from the satisfaction of his own desires seems unnerving to Keats; that women might have desires and that words might have powers beyond his control is a prospect he wants to deny because it brings his own power as a man and a poet into question. More than killing the things he loves, he fears being consumed by them. He locates a desire in woman and an energy in the word which threaten to overwhelm his own. Yet when he tries to fix women or words for his own purposes, he finds them slipping away into time. (67)

But it does seem to me as though this complexity should not—in light of reading the letters together and beside Otho the Great—seem surprising. Rather, it feels anticipated, announced, and confirmed. In fact, Keats’s fearful, unsettled notion of love is carried through the 5, 6 August letter to the conclusion of his 14 August letter, and then is picked up—yet again—as a theme in the 16 August letter to Fanny Brawne. Writing to his recently married friend Bailey—now, tragically, one in a pair of “prudent fixtures”—Keats is noticeably awkward and apprehensive in closing his letter: “you have been married and in congra[tu]lating you I wish you every continuance of them—Present my Respects to Mrs Bailey. This sounds oddly to me, and I dare say I do it awkwardly enough: but I suppose by this time it is nothing new to you.” Although Keats delays as long as possible, the subjects of contented love and marriage—of dangerously settled domesticity—must finally be broached (Keats was four months late in wishing the newlyweds well). Tagging on greetings from Brown and a reminder of their address in Winchester, Keats stumbles—flustered—to a hasty farewell. In his next letter, written (once more, “through a Mist”) to Fanny, Keats is no less callous or frightened by the notion of settling, and proceeds, “like so many strokes of a Hammer,” to coldly suffocate Fanny’s hopes for tender, amorous, “proper downright love-letters”: “I can no more use soothing words to you than if I were at this moment engaged in a charge of Cavalry—Then you will say I should not write at all—Should I not?” Though he remains—presumably—an admirer of fine phrases, love, marriage, and “domestic cares” (25 July, 1819, to Fanny Brawne) are such thoroughly terrifying prospects that even the most wonderful language is not enough to dissuade Keats from his avoidance of love and its imprisoning qualities: “I am not happy enough for silken Phrases, and silver sentences.”

Works Cited

Clarke, Charles Cowden and Mary Victoria Novello Clarke. Recollections of Writers. C. Scribner’s sons, 1878.

Motion, Andrew. Keats. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Tetreault, Ronald. “Women and Words in Keats (with an Instance from La Belle Dame sans Merci).” The Mind in Creation: Essays on English Romantic Literature in Honour of Ross G. Woodman, edited by Douglas Kneale, McGill-Queen’s Press, 1992, pp. 58-73.

Dog-carts, Elephants, and the Collaborative Effort of Otho the Great

Adam Cady
Illinois Wesleyan University

RE: Keats’s 31 July 1819 letter to Charles Dilke

Steeped in the writing of Otho the Great, Keats’s 31 July letter to Charles Dilke offers a revealing glimpse into the creative process and interpersonal dynamics which helped to produce “the Tragedy.” Having rid himself of the sickly James Rice—that dispiriting companion whom Keats feared was “in a dangerous state” of health—the poet’s own (mental and physical) condition improved considerably. In the 31 July letter, Keats reports seeing more of the Isle of Wight, offers friendly advice regarding Dilke’s son, celebrates Reynolds’s success, and playfully interacts with Brown at letter’s end. Noticeably free of that melancholic “idleness” which had temporarily hindered his ability to write, Keats is moreover diligent in his work—engaged, once again, in the arduous “Art of Poetry.” Acknowledging this dogged energy and seeming temperamental levity, I nevertheless wish to explore particular aspects of the letter—especially those that pertain to Otho—to inquire further into their meaning and tone. Doing so reveals this letter as darker and more foreboding than it might seem at first glance—a subliminal forecast of Otho’s failure and expression of the tense working relationship shared by the Tragedy’s mismatched co-creators, Keats and Brown, who were by now “well harnessed again to [their] dog-cart.”

While the “dog-cart” may seem an innocuous—if somewhat perplexing to the modern reader—reference, this passing mention says a great deal about the difficult and doomed creation of Otho. A small horse-drawn vehicle and popular Victorian mode of transportation with two (or sometimes four) wheels, the dogcart was originally intended for use in shooting sports, and earlier iterations included a rear box for hunting dogs. Given Keats’s troubled history with horses—his father’s fall and the stormy carriage ride which triggered his most worrisome bout of illness to date—the cart is a potentially loaded symbol and harbinger of Otho’s disappointing flop. Presumably, since he and Brown are “harnessed,” Keats meant for them to be the cart’s horse, but since dogcarts were pulled by a single nag, this is a rather complicated and confounding image. As a closely working pair, united in the passions of their joint creative venture, the two may be metaphorically conjoined—toiling minds melded in the animalistic, horse-like march of creation. At the same time, Keats’s choice of a dogcart over a larger carriage is curious. Though not exactly “harnessed,” might Keats and Brown be associated with the cart’s boxed-in hounds, laboring animals with a singular purpose, confined to a coffin-like space? Or, in the less severely transmogrified state of human travelers, could the toiling duo be linked to certain dogcarts’ tandem riders—in close proximity but back-to-back, each blind to the other’s circumstance? Who, in this case, is the driver, and who is the passenger? Certainly, Keats’s symbolic deployment of the dogcart—this lesser vehicle—hints at some inadequacy in their work, an underlying smallness in the play’s financial motivations, or the impotency of Otho’s convoluted and derivative plot. With a single, easily overlooked phrase, Keats’s dogcart metaphor encapsulates the confusedness of Otho’s routine-yet-strained, financially driven, and ultimately fruitless creation.

Tandem-style dogcart, built for a driver and one passenger. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The loaded symbol of the dogcart, in addition to highlighting the general uneasiness which surrounded Otho, also sheds light on the tonal complexities of a subsequent passage, in which Keats discusses the possibility of their including an elephant in the play. “When Brown first mention’d this,” he writes, “I took it for a Joke.” Despite a theatrical history of live animals and puppetry making Brown’s spectacular suggestion plausible, the various negative implications of the dogcart (as well as the mocking tone with which Keats later belittles his partner’s written attempts at wit) undercut any friendly reference to Brown’s “plausible reasons” or eloquent discourse on the matter. Here, Keats’s seeming thoughtfulness and “serious consideration” stink with sarcasm, as—given the bitterness which I believe subtly permeates the larger letter—the poet likely never wavered in his assessment of the elephant as “a Joke,” and was never in need of “historical referance” to confirm the accuracy of a pachyderm in “Otho’s Menagerie.” Moreover, Keats’s suggestion that Brown’s and his artistic creations beyond the bounds of “the Art of Poetry”—in this case, both their composition of Otho and painting—“shall by next winter crush the Reviews and the royal Academy,” positioned in such close proximity to the elephantine conundrum, seems yet another dig at Brown’s eccentric suggestion. The degree of Keats’s faith in the Tragedy to become a smashing critical success is a matter of debate (complicated further by such puzzling lines as the questionably ironic suggestion in his 14 August letter to Benjamin Bailey that Otho might inspire “a revolution in modern dramatic writing”), but his subliminal linkage of the word “crush” to discussion of Brown’s elephant appears as a deeply Keatsian bit of chiding wordplay: he critiques Brown’s overbearing contributions to the collaboration, his palpable—and perhaps even pulpable—designs.

Regardless of Keats’s precise attitude toward dogcarts or elephants—or any of the poet’s specific, subconscious anxieties—both mentions hint at significant trouble in his working relationship with Brown, and that same tenseness which permeates these passages is evident near the end of the letter, when their collaboration is actually visible on the page. Whereas the process of writing Otho (described in greater detail in my introduction to this project) was largely mechanical, one imagines a more intimate occasion for this letter’s being penned. With the two temporarily unharnessed from their respective assembly-line assignments, Brown is no longer just the deliverer of outlines, and seems to lurk over Keats’s shoulder, waiting for his opportunity to add some quip or personal flair. And, when Keats gives gossipy mention of Brown’s affair with “one Jenny Jacobs,” insinuating that his collaborator’s risqué escapades will soon result in a child (“I am affraid thee [there] will be some more feet for little stockings”), Brown is quick to offer—in his own hand—a spirited reply: “—of Keats’ making. (I mean the feet.).” Of course, Keats was producing poetic feet at this time, and the reference to offspring may be part of a running joke which imagines their professional partnership as a kind of marriage—a domestic comedy dynamic explored more fully in Keats’s 23 August letter to John Taylor. Still, regardless of any clever (if intentional) double entendre, Brown’s interjection—namely, its clunky parenthetical to clarify that Keats will be making “the feet” and not the stockings—exemplifies Brown’s forced sense of humor. His failed “piece of Wit,” according to Keats, was painstakingly considered (“long a brewing”), though Brown rejects this as “a 2d lie.” When Keats responds with outstanding praise for his compatriot, his sarcasm is palpable and sharp: “Men should never despair—you see he has tried again and succeeded to a miracle.” In a handful of collaborative sentences, one can detect a hint of the antagonism that may exist between Keats and Brown—the underlying resentment which Keats, as a prodigious-yet-impoverished poet, may have felt toward the less-extraordinary half of Otho’s creative duo.

Immediately following this fraught exchange, Keats’s concluding message to Dilke is likewise biting and sardonic, indicative of the increasing possessiveness and individual verve with which Keats would write the concluding act of Otho. Keats largely ignored Brown’s outline for the fifth and final act of the Tragedy (perhaps the most redeemable bit of drama that the play has to offer), and proceeded to populate its dramatic verse almost exclusively with his own ideas. Thus, while not entirely reflective of Otho—this is, indeed, Keats’s letter, and he is merely reclaiming ownership of the text—the strict closing note indicates what may be the poet’s growing desire for authorial supremacy over Otho: “…as I have a right to an inside place in my own Letter—I take possession.” Having already undermined Brown’s strained contributions to the letter, Keats’s domineering farewell to Dilke further guarantees the poet’s textual dominance, and mirrors that petty assertion of creative authority which would similarly finish Otho. In this same resentful and precarious manner, it seems, the imbalanced pair proceeded with their “dog-cart” labors—that ill-fated endeavor of Otho the Great, which went on “sinkingly.”

Keats’s attunement to what would become the dynamics of making Otho and the contours of the final product stands in contrast to other moments in the letter where his sense of the interweaving of past, present, and future is less perspicacious. Keats is noticeably unable to foresee his life’s remaining tribulations, to reckon with or acknowledge the future as a profound and overwhelming force. Regarding Rice, Keats complains that he “cannot bear a sick person in a House especially alone,” though he would soon enough enter such a terminal and “dangerous state” of health—as Tom Keats had less than a year before. Likewise, in addressing the news that Dilke’s son is having trouble at school (“so much oppress’d at Westminster”), he dismisses the burdensome power of time to transmit such woes well into adulthood, suggesting, “His troubles will grow day by day less, as his age and strength increase.” For Keats, though, the youthful sorrows of orphandom, poverty, and chronic illness persisted to his untimely death. Composing and then producing Otho was meant to resolve at least one of these issues, and perhaps the closer relationship that would emerge as a result of collaboration with Brown might help to alleviate the loneliness caused, in part, by another. However, in this letter, though he dresses them in typical bravura, Keats intimates the desperate toll the future will demand of him. Despite his statement that if he were a father with concerns for a son he “would strive with all [his] Power not to let the present trouble [him],” the present already is troubling. Keats can feel the clouds of circumstance gathering.

“Consumption,” Desire, and the Refuge of Death in the 25 July 1819 letter to Fanny Brawne

John C. Leffel and Karla Alwes
SUNY Cortland

Re: Keats’s 25 July 1819 letter to Fanny Brawne

Keats’s letter of 25 July 1819 to Fanny Brawne makes a series of rhetorical and thematic moves which anticipate (and link the epistle to) other notable letters to Brawne as well as several of his poems. Most profoundly, the letter offers an early example of the intimate, vexed entanglement of disease, death, and desire that punctuates the late letters and poetic efforts. Though penned before he experienced the infamous hemorrhage from the lungs (3 February 1820) that offered to Keats the clearest signal of his serious illness and impending death, the letter reveals how a series of preoccupations and personal oppositions (sickness and health; “liberty” and constraint; love and death) were already centering around the capacious and slippery trope of “consumption” in the letters and poems well before the harrowing blood-spitting episode, described by Brown, offered the definitive sign of “consumption” that prompted the poet’s self-diagnosis.

Keats begins by expressing his “sorrow” over Brown’s recent account of Fanny Brawne’s “ill health.” What is striking here is how quickly Keats turns from solicitude over his beloved’s condition to a bluntly direct expression of his own dis-ease, tethering it to his impatience to be with her: “Brown to my sorrow confirms the account you give me of your ill health. You cannot conceive how I ache to be with you: how I would die for one hour—for what is in the world?” The “confirm[ation]” of Brawne’s reputed ill health prompts a melancholic focus on Keats’s own “ache[s],” which have been transmuted into expressions of his sexual frustration: he would willingly “die for one hour” with Brawne. But there is more going on here than merely the hyperbolic rhetoric of an impatient young poet in love.  

Indeed, in many of his letters to Fanny Brawne, Keats poses the question of a metaphoric death or dying, of the soul as well as the body. Further, “dying” is early seen as a gateway to the imagination. “I look upon fine Phrases like a Lover,” Keats writes to Benjamin Bailey a few weeks later, thereby associating the active, and often disappointing, imagination with love that also disappoints. The allusion to death as a part of the “luxury” of love and lovers is first seen in “Sleep and Poetry,” in which he asks to be able to “die a death of luxury” so that his youthful spirit may follow Apollo, at whose altar Keats notably begins and ends his writing career, “like a fresh sacrifice.” This notion of a willful “sacrifice,” of a “death of luxury,” which we encounter in Keats’s insistence that he would “die for one hour” with Brawne at the beginning of the 25 July 1819 letter, reemerges towards the end of the epistle when he writes, “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.” Like so many of the poems, this letter places death (or more specifically dying) at the center of a richness of delight: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die,” the speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale” tells us. The rich immediacy of the “now” of the nightingale ode becomes, in the letter to Brawne, “the hour of my death.” Along with her “Loveliness,” the precise moment of his death is one of the “two luxuries” over which the poet may “brood” in his walks, evincing most likely a mood similar to that which prompted the writing of the letter itself.

The letter further emphasizes the richness of the nexus between love and death when the writer asks to “take a sweet poison” from his lover’s lips, one that will send him out of the world, a world that “batters too much the wings of my self-will.” Interestingly, despite the emulation known to exist for Keats as to his predecessor Shakespeare—allegedly he would set up a portrait of Shakespeare on his writing table as a signet of inspiration, sometimes, as in April 1817, rearranging the décor of an inn to write under the watchful eye of his “Presider”—Hyder Rollins’s note to the allusion here suggests Pope’s “Still drink delicious poison from thy eye” (22), from “Eloisa to Abelard.” Notwithstanding that the “eye” is not the “lips” (which also played a role in Keats’s Endymion, serving as “slippery blisses”), the lines from the death scene in the final act of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet seem to have the stronger claim as source. When Juliet discovers the dead Romeo, she kisses him, believing the cup of poison she finds in his hand may still “hang on” his lips, to make her “die with a restorative” (V. iii. 164-66). The final kiss between the lovers becomes the “tonic” that cannot, unhappily, prove deadly to Juliet, who finds her true “restorative” in the phallic dagger instead. The sensuality with which the young Keats bathes his poetry thrives in his letters, thereby necessitating the prominent use of lips as portal to the “life of sensation” he seeks in his writings as well as in his own life. Immediately preceding his death with a kiss, Romeo ironically calls his lips “the doors of breath” (V.iii.65). The lovers have died “a death of luxury” in the hour of their deaths, the same that Keats broodingly seeks to possess for himself. In an earlier letter to Fanny Brawne (1 July 1819) he asks his lover to “write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been.” The too-empty cup from which Juliet tried to drink the poison becomes more sensual, with her lips “touching” Romeo’s in the same way Keats asks to “touch” the shadow of Fanny Brawne’s kiss through his own. While both Romeo and Juliet die with a kiss, the young Keats will succumb to his own death, in less than two years, with neither kiss nor love to comfort him.

“You absorb me,” Keats tells Brawne in the letter of July 25. He is “absorbed” in the same way he believes a poet to be. In a letter to Richard Woodhouse (27 October 1818), Keats tells him that the poet

has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character… A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body….When I am in a room with People,…then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated.

Fanny Brawne, who “absorbs” (he will use the same verb later, in the 13 October 1819 letter) Keats’s identity into her own, becomes, like the “fine Phrases” that Keats looks upon “like a Lover,” the object of his imagination and passion. In short, she becomes poetry to the poet whose identity is “in a very little time annihilated.” The poetry is fed by a sometimes recalcitrant imagination; a similar fear of losing her love is also made manifest in his letters to Brawne. She, and the imagination itself, too often become a “deceiving elf” for Keats, when the “fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is fam’d to do” (“Nightingale,” 73-74). The diminutive term “fancy” (for imagination) invokes what he believes to be a salubrious effort to separate the power of the imagination from the poet’s own—an attempt at denial?—and in this letter of 25 July the separation desired is from his propensity to allow himself to be “hurt” and “absorbed” through his love for Fanny. “I wrote myself your vassal,” he says to her, but “burnt the Letter as the very next time I saw you I thought you manifested some dislike to me.” He goes on to mention a part of a previous letter from her “which hurt me.” He has been absorbed by Fanny, but not so his pain.

In the 1 July letter Keats asks Brawne if she is not “very cruel” to him, a common antecedent to the melancholy that subsequently occurs in the later letters to her. He seeks a consoling letter from her, one that will be “rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me.” The metaphoric potion sought in this letter, like the potion Juliet hoped for, would take him away from the “sort of pain” that “should haunt him,” as does death, because of the perceived cruelty from the woman from whom he needs everything. As the Dreamer in “The Fall of Hyperion,” who quaffs “a cool vessel of transparent juice, / Sipp’d by the wander’d bee” and falls into a “cloudy swoon,” or the Demeter figure of “To Autumn,” who is “sound asleep, / Drows’d with the fume of poppies…”, the poet himself seeks the escape that only the “intoxication” he receives from Fanny Brawne may provide.

The prevailing emphasis on dis-ease and “pain”—or, more specifically, strategies for coping with or escaping from that pain—is precisely what links the 25 July letter to the poetry and to other epistles to Brawne. When Keats writes that “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute,” he stages a fantasy that he returns to several times in the late writings: to satisfy his frustrated sexual desire for Fanny (to “possess” her “Loveliness”) and to escape his mental and physical sufferings and illness through Death at the same “minute.” We see clear parallels here to notable passages from the poems, particularly the eroticized encounter with Death from stanza 6 of the nightingale ode: “Darkling I listen; and, for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death, / Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, / To take into the air my quiet breath” (l. 51-54). Ten days or so before the 25 July letter, in a letter which Rollins tentatively dates as 15 July 1819, Keats makes a similar move: complaining of his “irritable state of health,” he addresses Fanny as his “sweet Physician” before confessing that “you and pleasure take possession of me at the same moment. I am afraid you have been unwell. If through me illness have touched you (but it must be with a very gentle hand) I must be selfish enough to feel a little glad at it. Will you forgive me this?” As in the “Ode to a Nightingale,” illness, desire and death have become fascinatingly, even perversely, entangled.

Indeed, in his study Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture (1998), critic Jonathan Dollimore cites the 25 July letter in his analysis of what he calls “self-disidentification,” or the “pleasurable death of the self” in Western thought and culture (xxii). And given the centrality of Shakespeare in Keats’s critical and creative imagination, it is intriguing to note the significance of Hamlet to Dollimore’s account:

As Hamlet famously meditated, to die is a consummation devoutly to be wished. From the earliest times, death has held out the promise of a release not just from desire but from something inseparable from it, namely the pain of being individuated (separate, differentiated, alone) and the form of self-consciousness which goes with that—what philosophers like Schopenhauer call the principle of individuation (principium individuationis). In other words, death holds out the promise of a release from the very individuality whose formation would have been unthinkable without it. (xx-xxi)

Hamlet’s parsing of death as a “consummation” in this account—meaning, as Dollimore suggests, “both satisfying climax and being consumed or vanishing into nothing” (xxi)—drives right to the heart of the matter: Keats’s anxieties regarding the “entrammel[ment]” (1 July 1819) of his freedom and individuation and the “absorption” of his identity by means of his passionate, frustrated longing to fulfill his desire. In this light, the 25 July letter encapsulates the larger rhetorical moves and narrative economy of Keats’s controversial late letters as well as of his romances and late lyrics by representing desire as both impeded by and realized through the transmission of disease (and dis-ease), and most powerfully, through death itself, which he figures as the moment in which the longing for the fulfillment of desire and the longing to escape disease and suffering are both “consummated.” For Keats, illness and the subsequent inevitability of death become the condition through which his desire is translated and fulfilled, thus forming the solemnly eloquent relationship between the 25 July 1819 letter of melancholic brooding and the similar letters, above, that speak to the power of displacement, deferral, and unconsummated desire in the poet and his poetry.

Contributor Bios
John C. Leffel is Associate Professor of English at SUNY Cortland. Specializing in British literature and culture of the long eighteenth century, he has published articles on Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, and Elizabeth Hamilton, as well as on the Anglo-Indian marriage market. He is currently completing the chapter on Austen’s Juvenilia for the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Jane Austen, and received a 2019-2020 Huntington Library short-term research fellowship to prepare a critical edition of Edward Topham’s never-published farce of early British India, Bonds without Judgment; or, The Loves of Bengal (1787). 

Karla Alwes is Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at SUNY Cortland. She specializes in the British Romantic period, with emphasis on the works of Keats. She is the author of Imagination Transformed: The Evolution of the Female Character in Keats’s Poetry (Southern Illinois P, Carbondale, 1993), as well as numerous articles on Keats, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, and Katherine Mansfield.  

Works Cited
Dollimore, Jonathan. Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture. New York: Routledge, 1998.