Today’s letter is a rollicking pun-fest featuring the collaborative comedy team of Keats and Charles Brown. Brown had been visiting with Dilke’s parents during the Christmas season, and Keats joined them in Chichester on the 18th or 19th of January. The day before writing this letter together, Brown and Keats walked from Chichester to Bedhampton, where they stayed with John Snook (who was connected to the Dilkes through his marriage to Letitia Dilke, sister of Charles). Brown and Keats relay news concerning the Dilkes’ relatives as well as the goings-on in Chichester and Bedhampton. We can particularly relate to Brown’s comment that “Mrs Dilke [i.e. Charles’ mother] is remarkably well for Mrs Dilke in winter.” Curse you, winter!
The playful spirit of the letter comes across right from the opening. Brown first addresses Charles as such: “This letter is Wife, and if you are a Gentleman, you will deliver it to her, without reading one word further.” It appears that Brown then made a dotted line across the page underneath this section and then began his letter to Maria Dilke. We say “it appears” because it seems likely that the additional text above that dotted line was added later, given that it is squeezed in above the line rather tightly. Keats wrote here “‘read thou Squire,” which was then followed by Brown writing “There is a depending on this.” What that all means is not entirely to us, but Keats’s phrase does appear in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Perhaps the wager was simply whether Dilke would read the letter or behave like a gentleman and deliver it direct to his wife, or perhaps it had something to do with Keats’s allusion? We don’t know. Moving on!
There’s a decent amount of punning, but things really get out of control on the letter’s third page, where Keats takes over and unleashes a string of playful sentences. The jokes continue as Brown returns claiming, “This is abominable! I did but go up stairs to put on a clean & starched hand-kerchief, & that over weening rogue read my letter & scrawled over one of my sheets.” Brown and Keats–just a couple of jokers!
We’ll leave you with just one more bit of wordplay, which Keats adds cross-wise on the letter’s first page: “N. B. I beg leaf to withdraw all my Puns–they are all wash, an base uns–” Zing!
To read the rest of the letter you can find it in The Keats Letters, Papers, and Other Relics Forming the Dilke Bequest in the Hampstead Public Library. Those materials are now in possession of the Keats House Museum in Hampstead. Facsimile images of the manuscript come from the book linked above.