“Keats’s Bawdry”

Ian Newman
University of Notre Dame

Re: Keats’s 5 January 1818 Letter to George and Tom Keats

When Keats wrote to his brothers George and Tom on 5 January 1818—his first letter to them since dining with Charles Lamb, William Wordsworth and others at Benjamin Haydon’s studio—“The Immortal Dinner” only gets a passing mention, in part because Keats was too busy making jokes about genitalia.

I was at a dance at Redhall’s and passed a pl[e]asant time enough—drank deep and won 10.6 at cutting for Half Guinies there was a younger Brother of the Squibs made himself very conspicuous after the Ladies had retired from the supper table by giving Mater Omnium—Mr Redhall said he did not understand anything but plain english—where at Rice egged the young fool on to say the World [sic] plainly out. After which there was an enquirey about the derivation of the Word C__t when while two parsons and Grammarians were setting together and settling the matter Wm Squibs interrupting them said a very good thing—‘Gentleman says he I have always understood it to be a Root and not a Derivative.’ (Rollins I, p. 200).

The host, George S. Reddell, was sword-cutler to the Prince Regent and the Dukes of Sussex and Cambridge, who resided at 236 Piccadilly near Haymarket, where Piccadilly Circus is now. He also provided surgical instruments to Guy’s Hospital, which is presumably how Keats knew him (Roe, p. 203). This exchange is typical of the kind of masculine banter that took place after dinner, “after the ladies retired” euphemistically indicating the moment when bawdy songs and crude jokes, often in the form of toasts, became the order of the day. Young Mr. Squib “gives”—that is, “offers a toast”—in Latin, “Mater Omnium” meaning literally “Mother of all,” clearly a slang term for vagina. The humor here lies in the contrast between sophisticated Latin expression and coarse content, a form of humor that was firmly established in masculine convivial circles of the early nineteenth century. The response by Reddell, who refuses any such sophistication, determinedly lays bare the crass nature of the toast, a refusal amplified by Rice, someone Keats had been spending much time with, and who introduces Keats to some of the cant terms most often associated with Pierce Egan and the Tom and Jerry craze, which would burst onto the London scene in 1819-20 following the serialized publication of Life in London. It is Rice who causes young Squib to blurt “C__t” out in plain English, to the amusement of all gathered.

But Keats’s account of the after-dinner conversation is not done yet. He continues his report: “On proceeding to the Pot in the Cupboard it soon became full on which the Court door was opened Frank Floodgate bawls out, Hoollo! here’s an opposition pot—Ay, says Rice in one you have a Yard for your pot, and in the other a pot for your Yard” (Rollins I: pp. 200-201). This is helpful evidence for those who have wondered how bathroom etiquette worked in the days before flushing toilets. Apparently, chamber Pots were kept in “cupboards” —a kind of commode—in the dining room, which could be expeditiously visited without causing an inconvenient break in conversation. The contents were then emptied out into the “yard.” Plans of taverns from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries show conspicuous outdoor “yards,” presumably included in the architecture with this purpose in mind. But, as Rollins points out, “yard” was also one of the most common literary words for penis, and so the puns here contrasting the pot and the yard, pick up on the previous comments concerning reproductive organs, developing the language of body parts (and it’s likely the “pot” here is another reference to female genitals) and layering over it a language of early nineteenth-century bathroom mechanics.

Richard Marggraf Turley has suggested that the censoring of the “enquirey” into the derivation of the word “C__t”–seen both in Keats’s refusal to report the details of the discussion and his reluctance to spell out the word itself–testifies to Keats’s uncertainty and indecision when it came to replicating ‘after-dinner’ modes of masculine address” (Marggraf Turley, p. 108). There is indeed something of the self-conscious “sniggering schoolboy” (Marggraf Turley’s phrase) in Keats’s representation of bawdy conversation, but what is surely more striking is just how far Keats goes. It perhaps not so much that the conversation is shocking itself, but Keats’s willingness to represent it raises an eyebrow. And it’s all the more notable just how much detail Keats goes into when compared to his account of the “Immortal Dinner,” for which Keats provides very little detail concerning the conversation.

“I forget whether I had written my last before my Sunday Evening at Haydon’s,” Keats scrawls, as if the thing is of no consequence. Then continues “—no I did n{o}t or I should have told you Tom of a y{oung} Man you met at Paris at Scott’s of the n{ame of} Richer” (Rollins I, p. 197-8). It’s a performance of absent-mindedness (genuine or feigned) that emphasizes the whirl of sociability—so many dinners, so much to report it’s hard to keep them all straight. And it’s a curious historiographical fact that when he introduces the subject of the Immortal Dinner, Keats’s emphasis is primarily on one of the lesser-lights in the firmament of Immortality, Joseph Ritchie (whom he calls “Richer” presumably mistakenly, but it could be another punning in-joke with his brothers) the surgeon and explorer who was about to set off on a government-sponsored expedition to Fezzan, in what is now southwest Libya. (Like many of the “immortals” Ritchie would die prematurely, in November 1820.) After mentioning Ritchie, Keats, in an exemplary humble brag, mentions the other dinner guests: “then there was Wordsworth, Lamb, Monkhouse, Landseer, Kingston and your humble Sarvant,” going on to relate briefly, how “Lamb got tipsey and blew up Kingston—proceeding so far as to take the Candle across the Room hold it to his face and show us wh-a-at-sort-fello he-waas I astonished Kingston at supper with a pertinacity in favour of drinking—keeping my two glasses at work in a knowing way.” Keats then suddenly departs from the dinner with a note about their sister, “I have seen Fanny twice lately,” urging the brothers to write to her (I: p. 198).

So much has been written about the “Immortal Dinner”—including two books dedicated to the subject in recent years (by Penelope Hughes-Hallett and Stanley Plumly)—that the brevity of the account is a little disarming. It has been billed as the legendary night when first and second generation Romantic poets gathered together for spirited literary conversation, laced with not a little wine. So familiar are the stories—of Kingston’s high-minded banality, asking Wordsworth whether he thought Milton and Newton geniuses; of the social awkwardness of the sober Wordsworth being confronted by his superior from the Stamp Office; of Haydon’s bravura in setting the dining table in front of his enormous painting Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, in which Keats, Lamb and Wordsworth were depicted in the crowd; and especially of Lamb’s hilariously drunken behavior, chanting Diddle idle don / My son John / Went to bed with his breeches on as serious subjects were broached, and asking to examine Kingston’s head whenever he uttered something mundane—that it is remarkable to find the occasion skipped over so lightly in Keats’s letter.

Recall just how excited Keats was to meet the artist just over a year earlier when he visited Haydon’s studio as Hazlitt was sitting for his portrait for Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem. So thrilled was he that he penned his sonnet “Great Spirits Now on Earth Are Sojourning,” which included Haydon along with Leigh Hunt and William Wordsworth as one of the thrilling intellects now regenerating the planet. A mere thirteen months and sixteen days later Keats was so used to hanging out with the great spirits of the age that they only get a passing mention, along with his theater reviews for the Champion, Tom’s illness, dinners with Wells and Severn and Haslam, the education in cant that Rice has given him (including the expression “hanging out”), the Covent Garden Pantomime, Shelley’s review of Godwin’s Mandeville, subscriptions for William Hone (whose trials for blasphemy were underway), the relative merits of Smollett and Walter Scott, dancing, Fanny’s request for a letter, and the derivation of the word C__t. Reading this letter it becomes clear how much is going on with Keats, and especially how much of it, in this Christmas season, involves socializing. This is an impression Keats is keen to give to his brothers. The characteristic punctuation is a series of dashes, producing a breathless forward motion, a non-sequential stream of thoughts scribbled down in haste, often blurring into one another.

Part of the absence of details about the Immortal Dinner, then, has to do with the particular character of his correspondence with his brothers, which is often playful, funny, punny and salacious. I’m struck by Brian Bates’s comments on how considering pantomime might help us come to terms with the comedic possibilities of negative capability, which has often been taken much too seriously. Part of the effect of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts,” Bates suggests, is one of leveling, so that Harlequin and Shakespeare can be taken equally seriously. What is striking about the 5 January follow-up to the negative capability letter is the effacement of the serious in favor of the low, essentially enacting an argument he makes in favor of Smollett over Scott in the same letter: “Scott endeavours to th[r]ow so interesting and ramantic a colouring into common and low Characters as to give them a touch of the Sublime—Smollet on the contrary pulls down and levels what with other Men would continue Romance. The Grand parts of Scott are within reach of more Minds that [sic] the finest humours in Humphrey Clinker—I forget whether that fine thing of the Sargeant is Fielding’s or Smollets but it gives me more pleasure that [sic] the whole Novel of Antiquary—you must remember what I mean. Some one says to the Sargeant “thats a non sequiter,” “if you come to that” replies the Sargeant “you’re another”” (Rollins I: p. 200). The “fine thing of the Sargeant” is in fact in Fielding’s Tom Jones, not Smollett, but regardless, Keats’s preference for the comic novelists of the eighteenth-century over Scott’s historical novels, however appealing they may be to Minds, is telling. The “leveling” principle in Keats involves not an elevation of the low, so much as a reduction of the high. Or to put that another way, Keats enjoys pointing out the absurdity of the pretentions of elite culture—at least in his letters to his brothers. So it makes sense that in this letter he should devote more time to Rice’s bawdry than Haydon’s elevated aspirations towards genius, or Wordsworth’s sagacity. It makes sense, too, that when it comes to recalling the Immortal Dinner, Keats’s emphasis should not be on the high-minded excellence of the conversation, which Haydon compared favorably to anything in Boswell (Plumly p.127), but to Lamb’s silliness. Of course, Keats could at times aspire to high-minded genius himself, but this letter suggests that we would do well to attend to the ways those aspirations are kept in check by a playful sense of the absurd and the vulgar.


Works Cited

Coleman, Julie, A History of Cant And Slang Dictionaries, Volume II 1785-858, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Brewer, David A., “The Moment of Tom and Jerry” ‘when Fistycuffs were the fashion’” https://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/fandom/praxis.fandom.2010.brewer.html.

Hughes-Hallett, Penelope, The Immortal Dinner: A Famous Evening of Genius and Laughter in Literary London, 1817, London: New Amsterdam Books, 2000.

Keats, John, The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder E. Rollins, 2 vols., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Marggraf Turley, Richard, Keats’s Boyish Imagination, London: Routledge, 2004.

Plumly, Stanley, The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb, New York: W.W. Norton, 2014.

Roe, Nicholas, John Keats: A New Life, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.


Letter #39: To George and Tom Keats, 5 January 1818

Happy New Year, Keats fans! As 1817 turned to 1818, Keats was up to much of the same as he’d been up to in December 1817: lots of eating, drinking, socializing, and “hanging out” (a Regency slang term Keats picks up from his friend James Rice and uses in today’s letter). One of the remarkable things about this letter, as KLP co-founder Ian Newman explains in his response, is that Keats spends very little time detailing the events of the “Immortal Dinner” (the dinner party of 28 Dec at Haydon’s which Keats attended among other luminaries including Charles Lamb and William Wordsworth), but quite a bit of time and detail on a rather more mortal dinner. This was an evening at George Reddell’s (or Redhall, as Keats has it), probably on 3 or 4 January.

As will become clear from Newman’s response, this other dinner involved quite a bit of bawdy conversation. Even though the Immortal Dinner featured fair amounts of silliness and rowdiness–notably Keats himself with his “pertinacity in favour of drinking–keeping [his] two glasses at work in a knowing way”–one imagines that some of the bawdy jokes and crude conversation at the dinner hosted by Reddell would have made Wordsworth even more uncomfortable than he’d been when his old friend Lamb got in his cups back at Haydon’s. Newman situates Keats’s retelling of the dinner and its conversation in two crucial contexts: the culture of male conviviality in Regency London, and Keats’s continued thinking on issues raised in the negative capability letter back at the end of December 1817. Drawing on Brian Bates’s recent post detailing the significance of the Christmas pantomime for the negative capability letter, Newman offers another astute analysis which reminds us of Keats’s frequent “leveling” of high and low, serious and absurd, sacred and profane.

One other detail to note about this letter and what insight it might provide about the original manuscript of the negative capability letter (we can’t quit you, negative capability!). Regular readers and negative capability acolytes will recall that the letter featuring Keats’s coinage comes to us not from the original MS (now lost or destroyed), but from an unreliable transcript by John Jeffrey (you can read more about Jeffrey and the MS here and here). Presumably, the negative capability letter (which we know was sent on 27 or 28 December 1817) was the last letter Keats sent his brothers until today’s letter (which was written and sent on 5 January 1818). We can infer as much because Keats begins the letter from today with this apology: “I ought to have written before, and you should have had a long Letter last week.”

As Rollins writes of this phrase, it is an “odd remark.” Did Keats not send them a letter just last week (if it was sent on 27 or 28 December)? Is he merely apologizing that the letter he did send wasn’t as long as he intended it to be? If so, the negative capability letter is not all that short–especially considering that Keats’s original manuscript most likely included a decent amount more than Jeffrey’s transcript–so it still seems a bit odd to apologize here. One other possibility, although we warn you that it’s a highly unlikely one, is that… wait for it… wait for it… what if Keats never actually sent the negative capability letter??

Ok, so here’s why that’s probably not the case. In today’s letter, he mentions that he “must … correct a little misconception of a part of my last Letter.” This he writes after he’s started mentioning “Your last Letter.” What’s happening basically looks like this: Keats sends the negative capability letter (“my last Letter”) and it arrives in Teignmouth around 29 December; Tom and George write a reply (“Your last Letter”) and send it by, say, 2 January; Keats receives it (maybe 3 January) and then writes his reply on 5 January. Since we don’t have the letter written by Tom and George, we don’t know exactly what they had to say about the negative capability letter or anything else they cared to share with their brother at the time. But Keats does say that “Your [Tom and George’s] last Letter” gave him “great Pleasure” because it suggested to him that Tom was “in a better spirit there along the Edge [i.e. on the seashore].” And then he gets to the misconception about which he wants to clarify matters for George.

Here is where things get curious again. Keats writes following the bit about the misconception: “The Miss Reynolds have never said one word against me about you [presumably meaning against George to John], or by any means endeavoured to lessen you in my estimation. That is not what I refered to: but the manner and thoughts which I knew they internally had towards you–time will show.” However, nothing about the Reynolds sisters and their opinions of George appears in the negative capability letter! So if George is concerned about something his brother mentioned regarding the Reynolds sisters in a previous letter, it was either in another (unknown) letter, or it was part of the negative capability letter that John Jeffrey excised. Either way, today’s letter demonstrates yet again how much we simply do not know about the original letter in which Keats wrote one of his most famous phrases.

Of course, there is more to say on the matter, including the fact that Jeffrey also copied today’s letter, the MS of which still survives (now in the New York Public Library). It was acquired at some point by Carl Pforzheimer, Jr., who bequeathed it to the NYPL in 1986. Although Jeffrey transcribed the letter and sent it to Richard Monckton Milnes in 1845, Milnes did not include the letter in his 1848 biography of Keats (perhaps because of the letter’s more bawdy moments). The MS appears to have stayed in the Keats family, first with Emma Keats Speed, daughter of George and Georgiana Keats, and then with her son, John Gilmer Speed, who published an edition of Keats’s letters and poems in 1883. As far as the KLP can tell at this point, Gilmer Speed’s edition is the first time this particular letter was published. The KLP would like to tell you more about the provenance of the 5 January 1818 letter, but at this point we cannot! We’ll keep looking into it, as we are wont to do.

We point you toward Gilmer Speed’s edition for some of the letter, but he unsurprisingly excises the section including the more controversial bits. (His footnote to that part of the letter, however, reveals more than it probably attempts to conceal!) For the rest of the letter, we include the images below of the final paragraphs as printed in the Rollins edition.