Filling Up Space

Olivia Loksing Moy
City University of New York, Lehman College

Re: Keats’s 20-21 September 1818 letter to Charles Dilke

[See also Andrew Burkett’s response to the letter, which also reads Keats’s table as a sort of sonnet form]

How do you recognize a poem when you see one?[1] The table embedded in Keats’s September 21 letter to Dilke, ostensibly just a list of paper formats, is brimming with poetic devices. We see alliteration along the vertical and horizontal axes of the “table-sonnet” with “Folio” and “fools cap,” “Bath” and “Boarding schools,” and the trisyllabic list of “Projectors, Patentees, Presidents, Potatoe” growers. Trochaic patterns emerge in the parade of professionals (“Parsons, Lawyers, Statesmen, Physians”) and the two travel writers “Eustace—Thornton.” In the final lines, Keats gestures loosely towards a couplet (or triplet) with “Strip,” “Slip,” “Snip.” Through the verbal play of these near-redundant words, Keats truly seems to be just filling up spaces—especially since the last three words are not actual paper sizes, just informal units with rough measurements. (Foolscap in nineteenth-century England measured 17 x 13.5 in., but how long exactly is a strip, slip, or snip?)

This “table-sonnet” anticipates a playful category of metasonnets in which form takes precedence over content, where the poet purports to be penning lines merely to fulfill a poetic structure. Consider Billy Collins’ “Sonnet”:

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

In his letter, Keats elongates his table with “Strip,” “Slip,” and “Snip” not only to complete the fourteen lines of a sonnet, but to fill the physical page, reaching the bottom margin so that he can finally speak his mind on the verso: “Yet when I consider that a sheet of paper contains room only for three pages and a half, how can I do justice to such a pregnant subject?…I ‘with retractile claws’ draw this into the form of a table—whereby it will occupy merely the remainder of this first page—.”

The first page of Keats’s 20-21 Sept 1818 letter to Dilke. From The Keats Letters, Papers and Other Relics.

It soon becomes clear that Keats’s little “dissertation on letter writing” is in fact a ploy to delay broaching two painful topics. At the top of Page 2, he reveals the true “pregnant subject” of his letter: the unfavorable attack against the “Cockney School of Poetry” in the August 1818 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and the suffocating effects of Tom’s poor health. In each case, Keats does not confront the problem head on but withdraws from conflict, fading away into the background. In the first instance, we learn that “Hazlitt has on foot a prosecution against Blackwood.” But Keats’s protest is expressed through silent signals; his offense remains unspoken: “I dined with him a few days since at Hessey’s—there was not a word said about it.” In the second instance, Keats’s grief at the degradation of Tom’s health results in his own physical negation: “I wish I could say Tom was any better. His identity presses upon me so all day that I am obliged to go out.”

Keats, the chameleon poet, hides his pain in plain sight, using the shape of the page itself both cover and display, though tacitly, what wounds him most. Paper size and format are not merely blank material to fill lines; they enable Keats’s artful self-awareness. He exercises the skills of placement and self-positioning, opting for a restrained response that suits his character. His greatest sources of grief are all contained within the second page, bookended by the pleasantries on pages 1 and 3. Reading poetically, we might characterize the transition from page one to two as end-stopped rather than enjambed. His pen arrives at “Your sincere friend, John Keats” exactly at the bottom margin of the third page. Keats’s spatial planning, even of prose, may be lost in transcriptions of this letter, but through a reading of his handwriting in the manuscript – perfectly planned, meticulously measured –  we can read his “table-sonnet” about measurements of paper as reflecting the “measured” response of his reaction to the review and Tom’s illness.

Hazlitt might have opened his letter with a burst of indignant exclamations, positioning the review front and center. But Keats remains true to his own strategies of sequence and order: “in the simple process of eating radishes I never begin at the root but constantly dip the little green head in the salt— … in the Game of Whist if I have an ace I constantly play it first.”

[1] In Stanley Fish’s essay, “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One,” he describes tricking students from his Metaphysical Poetry seminar into close reading leftover blackboard markings from a previous linguistics class.

John Keats’s “Dissertation on Letter Writing”: On Poetry and Prose Composed on a Final Summer’s Day, 21 September 1818

Andrew Burkett
Union College

Re: Keats’s 20-21 September 1818 letter to Charles Dilke

At the autumnal equinox of 1818, John Keats was experimenting in both his poetry and his prose. This letter, which he completed on 21 September, reveals a range of ways in which the poet was trying out a number of new ideas concerning not only what a letter might convey but also how the very medium of correspondence opens up new possibilities for writing and thinking. Clearly conscious of the materiality of his correspondence, Keats begins four lines down the first page to announce in this letter to Charles Wentworth Dilke “in this forth [fourth] line” his plans for what will be “a dissertation on letter writing.” And by the end of this opening page, he creates a quite intricate table in fourteen lines (including his two lines of ellipses, after “Bath” and “Giltedge”) in what we might do well to consider as something like an experimental sonnet form, of sorts, concerned with the materiality of the page, the letter, and even the form of paper itself. He writes:

Detail of the first page of Keats’s 20-21 Sept 1818 letter to Dilke. From The Keats Letters, Papers and Other Relics.

From Hyder Edward Rollins’s The Letters of John Keats.

In this “form of a table,” which blurs the lines between prose and verse, Keats reveals his complex interests in the medium of the letter. With his references, for example, to “Bath,” a type of paper 8 x 14 inches (flat) and embossed at the top with that word, as well as his reference to “Fools cap” (or foolscap), the slightly larger paper type very popular during the Romantic period, Keats exposes his concerns with the materiality of the page, even noting his own preferences for paper type (“ut egomet” meaning “such as myself”). Also registered here in this “table” is the poet’s recurring fascination with British class and caste systems: we read at the start of these lines that “Parsons, Lawyers, Statesmen, [and] Physi[ci]ans,” prefer the larger “Folio” while “Milliners and Dressmakers” commonly use “Duodec,” or “duodecimo”—a smaller size of paper so called because of its being made by folding and cutting a single sheet into a dozen leaves. Keats’s brilliant little “sonnet table” holds riches to be mined, indeed.

And Keats was not only experimenting in the form and materiality of letters on 21 September. In fact, on that very same day he composed another sonnet type of sorts—the first fourteen lines of Hyperion:

Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,
Sat grey-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung above his head
Like cloud on cloud. No stir of air was there,
Not so much life as on a summer’s day
Robs not one light seed from the feathered grass,
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.
A stream went voiceless by, still deadened more
By reason of his fallen divinity
Spreading a shade: the Naiad ’mid her reeds
Press’d her cold finger closer to her lips. (i.1-14)

On this final “summer’s day” of 1818, Keats marks with these experimental lines his abandonment of Leigh Hunt’s run-on couplets in favor of Miltonic blank verse, and this sonnet announces his plans for an expansive epic narrative. Did letter writing—and, perhaps, letter theorizing—help Keats to launch Hyperion? And how might Keatsian correspondence, in general, shed new light on his poetry written during this period? While it is not fully clear to what degree Keats’s investigational interests in the medium and form of the letter helped to shape his turn to the blank verse sonnet form, the poet was certainly admitting in this letter to Dilke his desires “to write and plunge into abstract images.” Indeed, it seems that Keats found such abstractions in both his poetry and his prose composed on this day, two hundred years ago.

Letter #92: To Charles Dilke, 20-21 September 1818

Although the Dilkes figured largely in Keats’s life (among other things, they co-owned, with Charles Brown, the house that would eventually become the Keats House), there are surprisingly few extant letters that Keats sent to them. We saw back in November 1817 a very short note requesting a copy of Coleridge’s Sybilline Leaves. Today’s letter is the first one since then. It was sent to Charles Dilke, who was then staying at Bedhampton at the home of his brother-in-law John Snook. Incidentally, Keats and Joseph Severn would stay with the Snooks in that same home the night before they set sail for Italy just about two years later.

There is some amazing stuff in this letter to Dilke, not the least of which is his attempt at a “dissertation on letter writing.” It takes shape as a table of paper types/sizes matched with the kinds of people who write with them. It’s a bit difficult to render spatially in plain text with our limited HTML skills, so instead here is an image of that part of the letter, from the facsimile of it printed in The Keats Letters, Papers and Other Relics Forming the Dilke Bequest in the Hampstead Public Library (1914):

From the first page of Keats’s 20-21 Sept 1818 letter to Dilke

Ok, so it’s not the best image, but it is a screenshot of a scan of a collotype of a letter. Not too bad considering. Here’s how Rollins renders it in print:

From Hyder Edward Rollins’s The Letters of John Keats.

We could say more about this lovely exercise in epistolary theory, but we don’t need to do so, because we have two great contributions which focus on precisely this aspect of Keats’s letter. Tomorrow we will hear from Andrew Burkett (Union College), who argues that we can see Keats playing with the sonnet form with his table of paper types. And we’ll also hear from Olivia Moy (Lehman College, CUNY), who takes up Burkett’s sonnet idea and proposes some additional ways we might understand how Keats is experimenting and why. So stay tuned for those paired responses tomorrow!

In the meantime, you can read Keats’s letter and glory in his brief dissertation on letter writing. The text of the letter you can read in the aforementioned The Keats Letters, Papers and Other Relics, which includes a printed version of the letter along with the facsimile images. We’re experimenting by embedding the Google Books version below, which seems to be working?? (You can also click the link above if you prefer.)