One thing that the letters from the last week or so of January 1818 suggest to us is just how many of Keats’s letters have been lost. We’re fortunate to have as many as we do, but even so, there are lots of hints (and some hard facts) that point toward letters that remain unknown to us. That is, we know about many letters that we don’t actually have in the cultural record. Yes, there’s always the vain hope that new ones will continue to crop up, but we’re on a 20+ year drought now! Come on, universe, send us some more lost Keats letters!
We saw back on 23 January that Keats wrote four letters, and, remarkably, all four still exist (even though one just in transcript form). Well here on 31 January 1818 Keats tells Reynolds that “I have parcelld out this day for Letter Writing.” And yet this letter to Reynolds is the only one still extant. What might have been the others? Keats ends this letter by writing, “I must take a turn, and then write to Teignmouth.” Presumably Keats did return to his task of letter writing after his walk, but alas, no letter to his brothers (then staying at Teignmouth) from this date exists.
Perhaps at this point you’re thinking, “but hold on a sec, KLP–what about that letter to George and Tom from yesterday? Maybe that’s the 31 January lost letter and it was just misdated?” Well, we’re glad that you’re paying attention, and it’s not a bad guess. Here’s the problem: that recently discovered letter has a postmark of 30 January. The Royal Mail doesn’t mess around. “But, KLP, I have another idea: maybe the Reynolds letter is misdated. It’s a transcript, right? Maybe Woodhouse got that one wrong. Yeah!” Well, gentle reader, we’re again very pleased at your attentiveness. But this solution doesn’t pass the smell test either. Yes, today’s letter is from a Woodhouse transcript, but he’s a pretty reliable copyist, and when he includes dates, he tends to get them correct. The other problem is that Keats notes “Hampstead Saturday” at the beginning of the letter. On his 30 January letter to Taylor Keats began with “Friday,” and even though he’s not all that good with dates and days, it seems unlikely that he would have written “Friday” on one of his letters and then that same day written “Saturday” on another. The more exciting conclusion: Keats wrote to his brothers on both the 30th and the 31st! The latter letter could still show up some day…
But for now we have just one for today. Much of this letter to Reynolds is devoted to sharing poetry with his friend, a practice that will continue in the next few weeks (get ready for “airy pigs” and “archangelical acorns” on 3 February!). Here we encounter Keats’s lyrics “O blush not so,” “Hence Burgundy, Claret & port” (sorry, Keats–but we prefer claret to sunshine, especially in this wintry season), “God of the Meridian” (sometimes consider a second stanza of “Hence Burgundy”), and then finally he copies his “last sonnet.” It’s this last text that’s the most famous of the group: “When I have fears that I may cease to be.”
And with that we’ll leave you to Keats’s poems amid his bits of prose. As mentioned above, we have the letter only in transcript form, which we include below.