John Keats and the Dolphin’s Turn

I want to think here, in my response to Keats’s August 1816 letter to his brother George, about Keats’s interest in turning, in creating those vital rhetorical and/or dramatic shifts at the core of so much great poetry. I will use as my guide Peter Sacks’s “You Only Guide Me by Surprise”: Poetry and the Dolphin’s Turn (Berkeley, CA: The Bancroft Library, The University of California, Berkeley, 2007). This work was first delivered on May 7, 2004, at The University of California, Berkeley, as the Second Memorial Judith Lee Stronach Lecture on the Teaching of Poetry.  (You can listen to the lecture here.) In it is a fascinating reflection upon a new kind (or, rather, an ancient kind—just one that so far has not been theorized) of turn: the dolphin’s turn.

According to Sacks, the dolphin’s turn is “a transformative veering from one course to another, a way of being drawn off track to an unexpected destination…” (3). Sacks adds, more generally, that “this turn is paradigmatic for the transportation system of poetry itself, both in its technical ‘versing,’ and in its thematic and figural changes” (3). The dolphin is associated with such turning, of course, because it is a creature that itself is always transgressing boundaries, leaping and diving. Sacks states,

Imagine that we are sailing, or swimming, or watching, or drowning—which we are.  Suddenly (a natural adverb of the dolphin, since sudden derives from underneath, from the same sub as sub-marine, going below or above, sur-facing, by sur-prise, as from hidden depths), a creature emerges.  It breaks the surface between two elements, perhaps as the poem breaks from silence to sound and back, line after line, leaping and turning through what differentiates poetry from prose: its more frequent encounters with wordlessness, its high quota of turns, both of speech and thought, and of actual lineation, its navigating according to its own frequency even as it finds its course, responsively, by echolocation, by soundings.

The dolphin’s turn, however, is more specific than this.  According to Sacks, the dolphin’s turn is signaled by the actual presence of a dolphin in a poem.  That is, the dolphin becomes a kind of totemic animal, a familiar whose appearance marks the presence of other, larger forces: the sighting of a dolphin in a poem often announces the advent of a radical turn.  As Sacks states,

[A]s the dolphin appears, imagine it has leapt not merely into your sight, but into your blood, breath, and the primal reaches of the mammalian mind, the part of us “in here” that responds and perhaps corresponds to the creature “out there”….[T]his partial correspondence has charged the human imagination since the earliest poems of history.  As we send exploratory pulses out toward the origins of poetry itself, the soundings ripple back to us through the waters of almost three millennia from the “Homeric Hymn to Apollo” to such twentieth century poets as Eliot, Rilke, Mandelstam and Celan, as well as Lowell, Walcott, and Bishop, whose great vocational portrait, “The Riverman,” begins “I got up in the night / for the dolphin spoke to me.” Always en route, the dolphin makes its way, and poetry’s way, via Shakespeare, Milton, and many others. You may already be recalling that the crucial turning point of “Lycidas” (1637), “Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more, / For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,” leaps from the preceding lines, “Look homeward angel now, and melt with ruth: / And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.” (4)

After discussing the dolphin’s turn generally, Sacks’s lecture becomes, largely, a consideration of many of the instances of the dolphin’s turn in poetry, including:

In a final note, Sacks also acknowledges other examples of the dolphin’s turn in poetry, including Robert Browning’s “Fifine at the Fair,” Theodore Roethke’s “A Dolphin at My Door,” C. Day-Lewis’s “Boy with Dolphin: Verocchio,” and (“the magnificent close of”) Derek Walcott’s book-length poem, The Prodigal (27).

However, the “prosing verse,” as Keats called it, of his verse epistle to George, which was reprinted with some (as Rollins refers to them) “slight variations” (I.5, note 1) in Keats’s Poems (1817), is not listed as a poem embodying the dolphin’s turn. I think, though, it should be.

The connections are clear: a dolphin appears at a crucial turning point in Keats’s verse epistle, and it prepares readers for an even more significant turn, the poem’s concluding address to George. But even more fundamental than these connections is the fact that Keats’s verse epistle to George, which is largely a meditation on and an enactment of the powers of poetry, links mention of Apollo and the presence of the dolphin. As Sacks notes: Apollo’s Delphi is etymologically connected to dolphin via its Greek designation, delphin, and he even goes so far as to say that “[t]he link between dolphin and lyric poetry could hardly be closer” (4).

Indeed, when in the “Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo” Apollo selects his first priests, he does so as a dolphin:

Then Phoebus Apollo pondered in his heart what men he should bring in to be his ministers in sacrifice and to serve him in rocky Pytho. And while he considered this, he became aware of a swift ship upon the wine-like sea in which were many men and goodly, Cretans from Cnossos, the city of Minos, they who do sacrifice to the prince and announce his decrees…. These men were sailing in their black ship for traffic and for profit to sandy Pylos and to the men of Pylos. But Phoebus Apollo met them: in the open sea he sprang upon their swift ship, like a dolphin in shape, and lay there, a great and awesome monster…

The ship then follows the wild course determined by the god, who “kept shaking the black ship every way and [made] the timbers quiver.” When the ship finally lands where the god decrees, Apollo reveals himself in his glory and makes priests out of those who had just been merchants and politicians. Sacks, who reads the “Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo” as a complex pattern of multiple kinds of turns, states,

Celebrating the inauguration of the Delphic oracle, and most importantly, Apollo’s selection of his first priests, a scene of election that literally turns them from one life-course to another, the poem enacts the ur trope of poesis itself. This marks one of the first, but by no means the last, scenes of hijacking in all of literature, and we may wonder to what degree the experience of a lyric poem resembles the action of being hijacked. (5)

Keats’s verse epistle to George is a poem of great turns, including some final gestures that are gorgeous acts of transport, if not stunning acts of (loving) hijacking. The poem opens in despondency: the speaker-poet is concerned that he will not catch, and so be able to convey, divine music; he fears he “should never hear Apollo’s song.” In this state, however, the poet still can glimpse other, further possibility (“But, there are times…”), entering into reveries in which he sees the skies animated, brought to life. These “trances,” when “open[ed] wide,” allow for heavenly vision: “The Poet’s eye can reach those golden Halls.” And even further than this, the speaker-poet once again catches glimpses of immortal “bowers.” But here this inability to see fully is a good thing: the poet-speaker explains that mortals can only peep the bowers’ “Flowers” because (as “well Apollo knows”), a view of such glorious flora would make all terrestrial blossoms fade in the eyes of beholders: “‘T would make the Poet quarrel with the Rose.” The poet-speaker then tries to describe how that distant, wondrous place appears:

All that’s reveal’d from that far seat of Blisses,
Is, the clear fountains, interchanging kisses
As gracefully descending, light, and thin,
Like silver streaks across a Dolphin’s fin,
When he upspringeth from the coral Caves,
And sports, with half its Tail above the Waves.

The dolphin becomes here, for the speaker-poet, just what it represents for Sacks: a mediator between worlds and a sign of transformation. The impossible-to-perceive divine world (how are readers to imagine “clear fountains”?) is embodied in (or on) the dolphin’s fin as the avatar springs up from the sea, breaching the limit of one world to dazzle momentarily in the next. The leaping dolphin stunningly re-presents the speaker-poet’s imagination as it leaps from one state (or realm) to another, emblematic of the movements of the speaker-poet’s mind, which the poem’s turns trace.

The verse epistle takes some further turns: it dives easily back into the world of poetic fancy (though, as the “waviness / of whitest Clouds” indicates, the sea has not been left completely), and then it veers even more greatly into the future, the consideration of poetry’s gifts to its readers, “Posterity’s award.” This act of imagination, too, transports the speaker-poet, and, bidding the “[f]air world Adieu!” he, “upon widespreading Pinions” (a Pegasus’s? a nightingale’s?), he ascends.

But then comes what I believe is the verse epistle’s most significant turn: the final address to George. Although George had been addressed three times previously–once as “dear George,” and twice as “ye”–each time was a rather brief acknowledgement of him as primary audience for the verse epistle. Here, nearly everything changes: verticality (earth/sea-sky-heaven) goes horizontal; the gods disappear, replaced by human companionship. Certainly, some vestiges from the earlier parts of the verse epistle remain (the speaker-poet remains concerned about the nature of his calling, for instance), but, radically, the speaker-poet now is, in full conversation with his brother, at home in the world. Imaginative invention is subdued, and the world can be described much as it is:

E’en now, I’m pillow’d on a bed of Flowers,
That crown a lofty Cliff, which proudly towers
Above the Ocean Waves–The Stalks, and Blades
Checquer my Tablet with their quivering shades.

Out on that ocean no supernatural dolphins sport. Indeed, there is no otherworldly transport, but a ship (which seems to have inherited some of the dolphin’s silver); a lark, “down dropping to her Nest”; and a Sea Gull, that either flies or else bobs on the waves, “dancing on the Reastless Sea.” In this world of limits and horizons, the speaker-poet still has many moves to make, and his closing maneuver is a literal turn, toward the sunset, but also, as his answer to his self-reflexive question (“Why westward turn?”) makes clear: to offer a gesture, “‘T was but to say adieu! / ‘T was but to kiss my hand dear George to you!”

I wish to dwell for a moment on the turning to George in Keats’s verse epistle. Three things deserve special note. First, the turning to George feels, at some level, like a challenge to the dolphin turn. Discussing the “Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo,” Sacks suggests that the important trajectory of the poem’s turns are from the horizontal to the vertical (8). The very human, companionable turn to George undoes this. Second, this is a kind of turn already familiar to Keats, and one that would engage him for some time. Keats had practiced it in his sonnet “To My Brother George,” in which the speaker-poet catalogs the “wonders” he has seen during his day to then turn to claim that such visions would be insignificant without “social thought” of his brother. And Keats will think about this kind of turn for years, perhaps fully instantiating its movement from charming to warming in the twists and turns of his writing career (including his inability to make the turn from Hyperion to Apollo yet again in The Fall of Hyperion) to arrive at the warm “To Autumn.”

Third, while the turn to George in the final section is wonderfully surprising, it is important to consider that the surprise would have felt, I think, even more significant in the context of its letter. Keats opens his letter by saying that if there is room left on his sheet after he copies his poem, he will then “say a few things to [George] in downright Prose–” (the substance of which is now missing). The letter’s prose introduction, it turns out, is a lovely little bit of misdirection. Keats has much to say to George in his poem, and especially at the end, where George not only is addressed, but featured and focused on. (Keats’s turn at “Ah, my dear friend, and Brother!” is not, strictly speaking, apostrophic, as George has been addressed at other times in the verse-epistle, but it certainly has the power of apostrophe.) What a thing, to be referred and gestured to inside this poem, about the divine, future-informing nature of poetry! Our surprise at this ending would have to have been much greater for George, reading it in this letter, and in a section that so clearly, if subtly, overrides by sidestepping the poem’s early mysticism.

In the final note in his book on the dolphin’s turn, Sacks remarks, “[W]e may be encountering a force within language, which at its most poetic simply embodies what Georgio [sic] Agamben speaks of when he writes, in Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience, “Like dolphins, for a mere instant, human language lifts its head from the semiotic sea of nature” (27). It is impossible to read this passage without thinking of what Keats wrote to Leigh Hunt (10 May 1817): “I must mention Hazlitt’s Southey – O that he had left out the grey hairs! Or that they had been in any other Paper not concluding with such a Thunderclap – that sentence about making a Page of the feeling of a whole life appears to me like a Whale’s back in the Sea of Prose.”

Whether or not the sentence Keats refers to in Hazlitt’s “A Letter to William Smith” can or should be read as a turn in Hazlitt’s prose (I think it could be), we need to recognize that Keats, as much as he was a “lover of fine Phrases,” also was, like all great poets, a connoisseur of and experimenter with turns. Turns, of course, often occur in places where scant language (minor words or sounds: but, and yet, ah, o) or none exist–turns often take place between words. They exist momentarily. But these moments, these visitations, these greetings, these surprises, are major elements of what we call poetry. When they appear, they breathe new life into language, and into us.

Letter #3: To George Keats, August 1816

Here we have the earliest letter written by Keats for which we have an extant manuscript (you can read the text of the poem here, and also read more about that particular digital copy here). Like so many of the Keats manuscripts (both letters and poems), this one resides at the Houghton Library as part of the Harvard Keats Collection. Their wonderful website offers digitized images of dozens of manuscripts (some of the transcripts from Richard Woodhouse and John Jeffrey, as well as those in Keats’s autograph). For the Keats scholar and Keats lover alike, the Harvard Collection is indispensable, and we here at the KLP are grateful for their embrace of the spirit of open access and free use. We will frequently direct our readers to the Harvard site, and if you don’t already have it bookmarked, you ought to!


So it’s August 1816, and Keats and his brother Tom are staying at Margate for a several week visit. During this time Keats writes two verse epistles, this one to George, and another to Charles Cowden Clarke in September (be on the lookout for a response to the Clarke epistle soon!). Although we have the manuscript of the poem (and the few words Keats writes by way of preface and conclusion), we also know that part of the letter is missing. To understand about that missing piece, it’s important to recognize that during this period letters were not sent in envelopes–instead, writers folded the letter in such a way as to seal itself (here’s a handy guide on how to fold nineteenth-century style, from the Iowa State University library). In order to keep his poetry manuscript protected from any damage in transit, Keats took another sheet of paper and used it to enclose the poem. Sadly that enclosing sheet, along with Keats’s few words of “downright prose” for George included on it, has disappeared. Perhaps it still lingers in an old attic somewhere in Louisville, Kentucky, since we know George took the existing manuscript with him to America in 1818, and perhaps at that time still had the enclosing sheet as well. The man who married Georgiana Keats after George’s death, John Jeffrey, when he made copies of several letters to send to Richard Monckton Milnes in 1845 (who was then preparing his biography of the poet), neglected to transcribe the verse epistle because it had been previously published–at the top of the first page of the manuscript Jeffrey wrote, “(published).” As Jeffrey was by no means a careful textual scholar, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that if the enclosing sheet was still there, he found the words of “downright prose” not worth his time either. In any case, with or without that enclosing sheet, the poetry manuscript at some point made its way into the collection of William Arnold Harris, an American book collector who owned a handful of Keats manuscripts at the time of his death in 1923 (including one of the most haunting of Keats’s manuscripts, that containing the blood-chilling fragment, “This living hand”). At the auction of Arnold’s collection held in New York on 10-11 November 1924, Amy Lowell purchased the verse epistle to George (and “This living hand,” although a few other items were claimed by other collectors, presumably to Lowell’s extreme disappointment). Thanks to the work of assiduous collectors and that of equally–if not more–assiduous librarians and archivists, this letter to George can be glimpsed in digital form alongside a wealth of other Keats manuscripts. Enjoy! And also enjoy Michael Theune’s deft exploration of the poem’s dolphin-like leaps and turns!