“A Sparrow has been vexed”

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

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

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

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


Dear Bailey,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letter #29: To Benjamin Haydon, 28 September 1817

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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