Re: Keats’s 30 November 1820 letter to Charles Brown
“Remember me to all friends,” wrote Keats to Charles Brown near the end of his last extant letter. One cannot help but think: those friends needed no reminder. Nor do we, assembled here 200 years after Keats’s epistolary goodbye via an “awkward bow” to Brown and to “all friends.” As Karen Swann writes in her essay for the occasion, when we engage with Keats’s letters and the letters written about him posthumously by family and friends, it “brings home the degree to which Keats’s reception, the attachment readers feel for this poet, is inflected by the work of love and mourning.” Now towards the end of 2020, looking back on the end of 1820 and the near end of Keats’s life, we endeavor to continue that labor, in all manner of ways and for so many reasons.
Although we’re calling this a “collective valediction,” it should not be read as a final word. The KLP will continue to correspond with Keats. But at this moment, we feel it just and fitting to offer a goodbye of sorts, awkward though it may be, and knowing that we will continue speaking well of, to, and with Keats beyond now. The letter written to Brown on 30 November 1820 may have been Keats’s last one, but it would not and could not be final, precisely because of “all friends” who’d remember him again and again.
The collaborative nature of the KLP has always been a core element of its appeal to us. We began at a conference (at a convivial gathering at a pub), and we’ve attempted always, like Keats, to make our work matter through sociality. Even this last letter, so intimate and personal, is still permeated with Keats’s concerns with and for his friends. Christopher Ricks—whose comments in Keats and Embarrassment surely count as among the most moving written on the last letter—notes the following:
What makes it so difficult for him to write is not only the pain and terror of his anguish and imminent death, but also the sheer embarrassment of it. How do you tell a friend that you are about to die, without the embarrassments of true fear or the embarrassments of false stoicism? True to the last, Keats makes his very last words ones which directly raise to Brown’s and to his own attention this awful awkwardness[.]
How staunch and imaginative it is of Keats that at the moment when he is indeed taking leave he can so perfectly accommodate his undisguisedly tragic suffering to a rich and simple solicitude for the embarrassment of others. “I always made an awkward bow. God bless you!” It must be the least awkward bow ever made, and this for the saddest, fearful final bow. There is no more to say of it than that it brings tears to the eyes. “The tears will come into your Eyes—let them.” (217, 219)
So let us now respond together, and we’ll let the tears come as they may, as we do what Keats asked from Brown and all friends: we remember.
Keats’s 30 November 1820 letter to Charles Brown. Via Google Books preview of Hyder Edward Rollins’s The Letters of John Keats. Click to enlarge.
The transcript of Keats’s letter from Charles Brown’s “Life of Keats” (1836-41). Images courtesy of Harvard University, Houghton Library. Click to enlarge.
California Polytechnic State University
“Yet I ride the little horse”
Written two weeks after arriving in Rome, Keats’s last letter emphasizes his physical and mental suffering in the presence of writing. The very things that he has devoted himself to and lived for—reading and writing—strike him now as a death sentence. And yet, Keats still has the capacity to pun! Keats’s “Yet I ride the little horse” makes light of the figure that he cuts while horseback riding (doctor’s orders) while also inviting Brown to imagine him one last time at his hobby-horse, letter writing. Keats recalls Tristram Shandy’s literal and figurative hobby-horses and the plight of Pastor Yorick and the narrator/author, Tristram Shandy/Laurence Sterne. Keats likens himself to Yorick—descendent of Hamlet’s court jester Yorick—riding his winded horse and to Tristram riding his horse to escape Death who has knocked at his door. In his last letter, Keats feels for his “posthumous existence,” riding the line between writing and no longer writing, irony and sentiment, laughter and death—all the way to his final, graceful “awkward bow.”
Read Brian Bates’s earlier KLP contribution, “Keats, Negative Capability, and the Pantomime.”
G. Kim Blank
University of Victoria
It’s the fear. Keats’s pure fear of dying, and dying in such a horrible, merciless way. Keats knows he’s gone—gone “past,” as he says, his “real life.” He writes that he’s pained, weak, desperate; comfortless, in miseries; he’s terrified to even think of the past. While in quarantine in Naples a month earlier, and out of desperation, he summoned endless puns to smother what was smothering him; it’s what a disabled poetry might do. The world’s novelties now mean nothing. The two Fannys haunt him; so does Tom. What’s left to declare? That he’s sorry? Yes, Keats wants his faults forgiven; and he needs to tell his best friend, his “dear Brown,” that he loves him: they spent many nights under the same roof, and many nights lying beside each other in the damp, often smoky darkness during their northern trip. Yet, for the passing moment of this letter, Keats cannot suppress the negatively capable, camelion poet who remains his only self-salvation: he briefly thinks into the conflated contraries of feeling and knowing, of “light and shade,” with his rotted stomach the enemy preventing him from writing one final poem. But then again, in a way, we have it: Keats’s last letter.
Explore G. Kim Blank’s wonderful website, “Mapping Keats’s Progress”
University of South Carolina
Keats’s last letter closes with a heartbreaking line: “I always made an awkward bow.” It conveys his awareness of his own physical presence, its gracelessness, and its coming end. It can—I think—also scan, almost, as a line of verse composed of four iambs:
Ĭ álwăys máde ăn áwkwărd bów
The physicality that the line conveys can register as a metrical pattern, and if we hear that pattern, then the shared stress on the first syllable of “always” and “awkward” drives home his self-deprecation. (Any insecure teenager could easily identify with this feeling.) Nobody likes a goodbye, but Keats’s reluctance in the preceding line—“I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter”—achieves something unique and universal at once. In the final, metrical sentence, the written line of the letter merges with the physical component of sound. Keats does say good-bye, and he does so in a way that grants him the posthumous life of a poet whose immortal verse emerges from profound pain and the place where physical absence meets the written word.
Read Jeanne Britton’s earlier pieces for the KLP, “All the Vices of a Poet”: Keats to Haydon, 22 December 1818” and “‘To go on for ever’: Keats to Charles Brown.”
US Naval Academy
Keats in Entropy
The life of sensations and the life of thoughts—Keats had once desired, in a fit of antinomian inspiration, to have one over the other—but here, at the end, they are quite literally gut-checked to interdependence. The entire brief letter is (the pun-ster abides) an awkward bow tied in an awkward bow, the physical hampering expression, a sequence of incomplete or second-guessed gestures (“I will not speak,” “I cannot answer,” “I am afraid to look,” “I can scarcely bid”…) that could amount to a modernist poem. There is a dim echo of negative capability in his “knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem,” yet it now speaks not to great artists unembodying themselves in their work, but to his own, inescapable embodiment, a hindrance. If the life of the poet had once veered away from his nauseatingly material hospital life, now those two paths reconverge, and it’s no surprise to find Keats in this regression conjuring ghosts—not just Tom, but perhaps his father too (“I ride the little horse”). All of this is “torture” beyond bearing, with all its pained civilities, and I, perhaps like other Keatsians too, look away from this letter. The credits roll—or the encore plays—and I slip quietly away from the crowd feeling a little knot in my stomach too.
Read Noah Comet’s earlier piece for the KLP, “Keats, Confidence, and the October Spring.”
Florida State University
What strikes me about Keats’s final letter is not his famous claim to be “leading a posthumous existence” but rather the sentence following it: “God knows how it would have been—but it appears to me—however, I will not speak of that subject.” Keats imagines an unlived world between his dashes, signalling lost possibility and painful longing for Fanny Brawne and for more time. The incompleteness of his thought resists the syntactical containment pressing in from the dashes on either side. The dashes demarcate but also gesture toward ambiguity as in another famous Keats dash: “Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?”
Years ago, I saw Keats’s deathbed at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. Like the letter, which comes to us indirectly by way of Brown’s Life of John Keats, Keats’s bed isn’t the original. The Italian authorities burned his bed along with other furnishings at 26 Piazza di Spagna after the poet’s death (Severn to Taylor, 6 March 1821). Yet Keats’s bed—or rather a bed—dominates a small room that now also houses his death mask and other relics. To modern eyes, the wooden sleigh bed is strikingly cramped, though its high headboard and footboard contain and, as it appeared to me, suspend the space of Keats’s life between them.
The view of Keats’s room at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. Image via the Keats-Shelley House twitter account. They’re great and you should follow them!
A Note on “Posthumous Existence”
“I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.” The sentence conveys Keats’s isolation and despair, his sense of being unmoored from earthly attachments while somehow living on. It also gestures at a literary afterlife, a “posthumous existence” in the survival of his works. But doesn’t this phrase capture something more profound in Keats’ poetry? Recall the marble urn, that mute remnant of a world gone by; or that goddess without a cult, undying though born “too late for antique vows.” In Hyperion, Keats’s great poem of political and historical aftermath, the Titans in retreat are “[s]carce images of life,” stony monuments to their own declining power. To live posthumously is to inhabit a world all in grey. As Hegel wrote in the months before Keats’s death, “[w]hen philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known.” Today, our form of life grows old, and even Hegel’s “grey in grey,” his figure for philosophy’s late-coming knowledge, seems to promise too much. So our question is, What comes after a posthumous existence?
University of California, Berkeley
Typing on a screen allows me the outrage of claiming to share with you “an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.” For some of us who have outlived you by twice as much as the too short a time you walked upon the Earth greeting its fellow creatures with your awkward bows, there is a sense that whatever little horses we were riding were frozen mid-prance in some strange version of the child’s game “un, deux, trois soleil!”—whatever pose we were in, whatever star predominated on that fateful evening in mid-March, they will hold from now on for good, so that even when the virus is brought under control and life goes back to the monstrously noncollective forms of living that pass for normalcy in late industrial capitalism, the best we can hope for is the “proing and conning” of books whose ledgers are closed except on the side of the dead. A narcissistic illusion no doubt! but perhaps less so with respect to the 6th mass extinction brought about by anthropogenic climate change: what puns would you summon to rhyme les transports en commun (the public transits) of a planet’s posthumous existence?
Lewis-Clark State College
As I open a webpage to read Keats’s last letter, I’m surprised by a pop-up ad for non-medical grade face masks. Even as Keats writes of his time in quarantine, here we are, 200 years later, in a worldwide pandemic, isolating from our friends and family, coping as best we know how through a liminal existence. Keats’s own coping mechanisms are too relatable. In this final letter, Keats is guarding himself against feeling too deeply. He cannot open Charles Brown’s letter again. He cannot bear to look at the handwriting. “Feeling for light and shade” is bad for his stomach. And yet, this contrast of emotions is “all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem.” Not only must Keats deny himself the comfort of a friend’s words, in seeking emotional calm, he must deny his intellectual or professional identity. Though he cannot engage philosophically, he reassures Brown that his wit is still sharp: in quarantine, he “summoned up more puns” in a single week than in a whole year of his life. And making a joke even to the end, Keats closes with his “awkward bow,” and, I imagine, a weak smile.
Read Renee Harris’s earlier piece for the KLP, “Three Things.”
At some point in my reading of his letters, I began to mark every time Keats complained of a sore throat. Usually made in passing, those complaints began as he wrote home from his walking tour of Scotland in the summer of 1818; they interrupted the long letter he sent to George and Georgiana after Tom’s death the next winter; just before the following Christmas, they were offered to his sister as explanation for his own absence. For the poet whose nightingale sang in “full-throated ease,” Keats himself seemed always to be asking readers to note the difficulty that singing, talking, and even swallowing would have caused him.
One of the things I love most about letters are their throat-clearing gestures, their ways of establishing contact with distant intimates by slipping the writer’s body into the picture. Keats’s complaints do this; his sore throat reminds his siblings of the grain of his voice, and of the body that has made that voice, even as his letters offer themselves in that body’s absence.
But how should a body take its leave? At the end of his final letter, Keats can’t quite do it. He says goodbye to his siblings through the intermediate figure of Brown: “Write to George as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess;—and also a note to my sister—who walks about my imagination like a ghost—she is so like Tom.” That last substitution, Tom’s ghostly presence in Fanny’s body, invites others. Even to Brown, “even in a letter,” Keats “can scarcely bid … good bye.” He lingers in the doorway, he makes “an awkward bow.” He is the lover who looks back. His awkwardness is the excess that survives his death.
Read Kamran Javadizadeh’s earlier piece for the KLP, “Improper Time.”
“Yet I ride the little horse”
The little horse is what you ride anyway, when there is no point. Yet! I ride the little horse.
That word, “yet,” is important to the little horse. One rides the little horse “yet,” “still,” and one rides it “yet,” “in spite of it all.”
That word, “little,” is important to the little horse. The little horse is stout as a barrel, warm-blooded and solid-sided—but it is little.
That word, “the,” is important to the little horse. There is only ever the one little horse, the known and given little horse.
The little horse must be hired by the day, at minor but accumulative expense.
Yet you ride the little horse.
At last, something swells into reality: a mulberry tree, or a double grave.
Remember to give up thought, and to wait for sensation—which, when it comes, will not be what you thought.
Don’t be frightened. Be firm. Thank god it has come.
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
At his worst, “even in Quarantine,” living “posthumously,” Keats “summon[s] up more puns” than any whole year had ever supplied him. Between the coughs, the carefully rationed sips of now-tasteless brandy; between England and Italy, living and dying, he seeks humor—and finds it in language.
If you see your own double, so the myth goes, you might die soon. He’ll die soon; he knows that, but the double he sees superimposed over the glossy wet ink is not his mirror-image. It’s his brother’s: that brother from whom he should have quarantined himself, were he far less human than he is.
There is nothing funny about this situation, just as there is nothing funny about our nine months of quarantine, loss, lockdown, mourning, and helplessly watching as other people go about their “posthumous existence” as if the air were safe to breathe. Looking back on what we did in the “before times,” we file that period as “real life.” If that’s what it was, then what is this? And which puns, what poetry, will help us to survive it?
Florida State University
In one of the most charming exits in literary history, Keats signed off what we know as his last surviving letter by expressing his reluctance to say good bye. “I always made an awkward bow,” he wrote to his friend Charles Brown. In the excellent Japanese translation by Einosuke Tamura, the sentence becomes Boku wa itsumo wakare no aisatsu ga heta datta ne, a sentence that translates back into English most naturally as “I was always bad at saying goodbye,” or more literally and clunkily as “I was always clumsy at parting salutations, wasn’t I.”
It’s interesting that the Japanese translation does not retain an equivalent to the word “bow,” even though Japanese people bow more routinely and repeatedly than did, presumably, the Englishman Keats. Outside of ticket barriers in Japanese train stations, families wave and bow to a departing loved one until that person disappears up an escalator or around a corner. The leave-taker, too, glances back, nodding and waving until he can no longer see those left behind. In Japanese, there’s an adjective that evokes a reluctance to depart—nagorioshii—a word that might be used to describe Keats’s wry valedictory sentence. We, too, are sad to see him go.
Rebecca Ariel Porte
Brooklyn Institute for Social Research
The dead know that last words are impossible: Keats, 30 November, 1820, just out of quarantine, far from home, dying and knows it. Believes himself to be leading, already, “a posthumous existence,” practices walking about the imagination like a ghost. This last letter is, like so many of the poet’s, populous with ghosts. The redactions of Charles Brown (the addressee) conjure more phantoms: xxx, xxxxx. So much less stoic is the sender than Brown’s Life of Keats will want him to be. He can “scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter.” How, when you are not yet finished with life, do you imagine the terms of a just farewell to a life that is finished with you? There are still, at least, the formalities, if time: say goodnight. Say, with that rare self-elegist, Tichborne: “And now I live, and now my life is done” (or don’t). Say, if I’m wrong, if I make it through xxxxx, we’ll laugh about the time I said goodbye for good—when I, who caught so many wingèd words in my small silver hour—found only a few spent conventions to round off my life with you… the dead know that an awkward bow is an art of living.
Read Rebecca Ariel Porte’s earlier piece for the KLP, “Astray, sub rosa.”
University of Calgary
Keats’s last apostrophe: “you rogue, I put you to the torture.” It is true that Keats is putting Brown to the question: “but you must bring your philosophy to bear, as I do mine, really, or how should I be able to live?” (Letters 2: 360). Brown’s only possible way out is to confess his “philosophy” as a way to save his friend—the torturer here holds the knife to his own throat. The “but” would seem to indicate a way out: a question is posed to Brown as an alternative to his being put to the (same) question. Thus the question can wriggle free of its own clutches; yet it also means that Brown can best resist by acquiescing. A “philosophy” is being demanded, “or how should I be able to live?” Keats implies that he has learned how to live finally.
Derrida likes the word “rogue” for its Shakespearean resonances (93)—resonances all the stronger when uttered by someone leading a “posthumous existence” and demanding “your philosophy.” If Brown is roguishly to escape this torture it will require of him his “philosophy.” Not philosophy in general, “but” “your” philosophy, and not because it is a sound philosophy, but because it is “yours.” Keats and Brown must each exercise their own philosophy but bring it to bear in the manner or style of the other. The two philosophies will remain distinct but match in their ways of being borne: you must bring your philosophy to bear, as I do mine, or else I shall die. Keats makes clear that his death is nigh. “But” yet he may be “able to live” if Brown can bring his philosophy to bear, as I do mine. Brown must bring his philosophy to bear in Keats’s way—it is a moral obligation. But no rogue could meet such an obligation, as to pass the test of a friend’s “must” would disqualify one as a rogue. And thus a rogue can only bring their philosophy to bear in their own way.
Read David Sigler’s earlier pieces for the KLP, “‘So here goes—’: In which John Keats, feeling a little maidenish, endeavors to lose his Maidenhead, and so his publishers must pay” and “A Correspondence between David Sigler and Anna Shajirat.”
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Around the same time that Keats wrote his final letter, Shelley wrote to William Gifford, editor of the Quarterly Review. The idea that Keats’s death was caused, or at least hastened, by the Quarterly‘s derisive review of Endymion would become one of Romanticism’s most enduring legends. (Of course, it was later learned that the reviewer was John Wilson Croker, not Gifford.) Shelley tells Gifford: “Poor Keats was thrown into a dreadful state of mind by this review. . . . The agony of his sufferings at length produced the rupture of a blood vessel in the lungs & the usual process of consumption appears to have begun.”
Shelley continues: “He is coming to pay me a visit in Italy; but I fear that unless his mind can be kept tranquil, little is to be hoped from the mere influence of climate.” Perhaps hoping to help restore Keats’s tranquility, Shelley tried to redeem his reputation in the letter to Gifford. Rather than trying to convince Gifford of Keats’s genius, Shelley decided to let Keats’s poetry speak for itself. He says that he will send Gifford a copy of Keats’s recently published Lamia volume, calling the editor’s attention especially to “Hyperion,” which, he proclaims, “is surely in the very best style of poetry.” For all Shelley’s good intentions, the letter was never sent.
Keats’s Last Letter and the Unwritten Time of Writing
As John Keats begins the ending of his final letter he tallies a spate of letters he has “not written.” These letters are all overdue, “delayed.” Intriguingly, the space he takes up to give voice to these belated missives assumes the largest swath of the letter that exists unbroken by any of the sixteen dashes that otherwise run throughout the rest of the entire document, all elsewhere severing his words from others and yet joining them to those other words at the very same time—and all by virtue of the power of nonverbal expression and communication conveyed not by written words but instead harbored within the symbol of a longer than ordinary horizontal line of ink. “I have not written to xxxxx yet … I will do … I shall write to xxx to-morrow, or next day. I will write to xxxxx in the middle of next week.” To these late letters Keats promises a future that never arrives but nonetheless they signify, they convey meaning, even as they were “not written.” These are letters that the poet feels he “will write,” he “shall write” “If [he] recover[s],” if he were not broken by that final unwritten dash that connects us to him and the rest of humankind.
Betsy Winakur Tontiplaphol
On Keats’s Last Letter
I always made an awkward bow.
It’s the prosody that moves me first: those four perfect iambs. The sentence folds in half and diagrams itself, marking its own transition from verb to object with a delicate—but dead-center—caesura. Like a nail in a lintel, that pause pins in place the string of alternating w– and d-sounds that garlands both halves of the line, and aurally the effect is old-fashioned, almost Anglo-Saxon in its consonantal (if not quite alliterative) patterning. More broadly, the effect is decorative, even Christmassy; the sentence evokes a doorway symmetrically festooned with woodsy greenery, the kind of pretty aperture in which an elegant gentleman might find himself framed as he bows out of a holiday gathering. As craft—that is, as something “made”—this last epistolary statement is all grace, no awkwardness. Yet Keats “can scarcely bid … good bye even in a letter,” and when I permit that truth to resonate, the refined ease of the final sentence collapses beneath the etymology of awkward, a term that, though often invoked as a synonym for “clumsy,” originally connoted perversity and wrongness—all that’s off in this wide world. After all, Christmas is still some weeks away, and Keats, neither old nor especially elegant, is ambivalent about leaving life’s party, despite the degree to which he suffers there. Poetry lends grace but can’t impart justice, and no amount of careful scansion can mitigate the awkwardness of this departure.
Read Betsy Winakur Tontiplaphol’s earlier piece for the KLP, “Something Different: Keats on Childhood and Truth.”
Richard Marggraf Turley
In this letter, thematically and structurally in dialogue with “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats gives us one, last, odic turn. Picking up his pen in the lowest of states—dull, sick for home, professing to abjure sorrowful thought itself—he tolls himself back to himself, confronting his fears, convincing us his philosophy has been proved on his pulse.
It’s both Keats’s last letter, and the one laden with the greatest finality, and most of that in that final self-assessment, the self-conscious, “I always made an awkward bow.”
It kills us, repeatedly.
What Keats fears will kill him, with as much lethality as failure of the lungs, is the “knowledge of contrast.” He tells Brown he won’t think even a single thought about “light and shade,” about “proing and conning”—the very things (the irony isn’t lost on Keats) that vivified his poetry.
And yet this paraliptic letter is all about contrast: mind and body (where the exercise of mind is pitched against the recovery of body); before (well) and now (ill); what is (loneliness, isolation) and what might have been (a life with Fanny Brawne); death and puns—more of them in a week than in a normal year. Not that any year was normal in Keats’s extraordinary life.
One last time, Keats brings his philosophy to bear.
Read Richard Marggraf Turley’s earlier piece for the KLP, “Keats Underway.”
University of Nottingham
When putting together an edition of letters, it is inevitable that one will come to the final letter. The last of a lifetime, written when the author may or may not know the end is near. For Jane Austen, her final letter was positive in tone, writing that her sister, Cassandra, “talks of making me quite well.” Despite this hopeful sentiment, Austen had written her will a month before. The Romantic poet Thomas Campbell—whose letters I’m currently editing—left behind final written words that were far more perfunctory: he discussed business with his publisher, and called for laxatives. In complete contrast, for John Keats, his final letter is a beautiful exploration of love and loss, as he contemplates his “posthumous existence.” Like Austen he is aware of the possibility of death and fears he and his brothers “shall all die young.” Self-consciously literary to the end, this letter is arguably more powerful than any of Keats’s poems. It is one of the few times his mask slips, as his feelings of dismay at his impending demise crescendo. This letter provides a fitting end to a short and ultimately tragic life, containing the raw yet constrained emotion to be expected of a wordsmith of Keats’s calibre.
Read Amy Wilcockson’s earlier piece for the KLP, “‘I have accepted the assistance of a friend…’: Fanny, Fanny, and Keats.”
Contraries and the Stomach
In this heartbreaking letter, Keats’s stomach, once fundamental to his poetic identity, turns against his creative process. Metaphors of consumption were at the heart of so many of Keats’s poems and letters—his lengthy digression into the delicious taste of a nectarine (To Charles Dilke, 22 September 1819), his ravenous hunger for the work of other writers, such as Shakespeare and Milton (To John Hamilton Reynolds, 27 April 1818, among other places), and the visceral images conjured by references to food and drink in his poetry—his “purple-stained mouth” (“Ode to a Nightingale”). The stomach, indeed, played a central role in Keats’s identity—”Perhaps I eat to persuade myself I am somebody,” he wrote to Richard Woodhouse on 21 September 1819. In this final letter, it is his stomach that is at odds with his poetry: “the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade … great enemies to the recovery of the stomach.” The contrast of the beauty of Fanny, their relationship, and his illness, once a source of inspiration, now a source of agony.
Read Kacie Wills’s earlier piece for the KLP (with Erica Hayes), “Wherever the Unknown is Sown with Stars: Keats and the Creative Imagination.”
Susan J. Wolfson
pro and con
“Let us now begin a regular question and answer, a little pro and con,” Keats writes to his sister, “in a way befitting a brother” (10 September 1817; L 1: 153). It was not for girls only. On 24 May 1818, he enjoyed dinner with Hazlitt, Haydon, and a couple of other guys, at which “Wellington was very amusingly pro and con’d” (L 1: 288). Just returned to England, the Duke was now a confirmed Tory with a Government post and isolationist politics. Pro and con is Keats’s through-line in the world: “Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energiies displayed are fine,” he’d say the next spring (19 March 1819; L 2: 80). How poignant to hear him describe himself now too depressed, even physically “afraid to encounter the proing and conning of any thing interesting to me in England” (2: 230).
Yet for all this, Keats reflexively volleys his very words. In the next sentence, he writes of “my real life having past,” grimly doubling having past into having passed in a grammar of “posthumous existence.” It’s “an habitual feeling,” he says; but just as habitual is his instinct for lexical relay: “at my worst, even in Quarantine, [I] summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, than in any year of my life.” He closes the letter with a psychic grammar that conjures his early partner in pro and con: “my sister—who walks about my imagination like a ghost—she is so like Tom.” Fading from Brown, Keats mirrors himself. “I always made an awkward bow”: made not make, doubling himself into his past, in a formality of perfect iambic tetrameter.
Read Susan Wolfson’s earlier pieces for the KLP, “Keats Wrought Up to Writing,” “Keats to Shelley: Load every Rift,” and “Keats to Mrs. Brawne: ‘a Spirit in my brain … an intellect in splints.'”
Keats House, Rome
30 November 2020
In dream, two centuries after your last words
on paper, I stand at the window. Bed, chair,
placed by the curator; outside, birds
round the chattering barcaccia, where
penniless migrants sell single blooms
to scattered tourists in defiance
of lockdown. We visit shrines and tombs
to commend our finer feelings and embrace
the dead. Is that your “posthumous existence”?
You have no such thing, but your words tingle
over centuries, burning with insistent
power to devour us, to assume the spinal
impulse to possess, possess grotesquely
compelling us to live them most intensely.
Derrida, Jacques. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford UP, 2005.
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, edited by Hyder E. Rollins. 2 vols. Harvard UP, 1958.
Tamura Einosuke, Keats shijin no tegami [Keats: the poet’s letters]. Fuzambo, 1977.