Letter #24: To John Hamilton Reynolds, September 1817

Today’s letter exists only in a fragmentary form. Presumably during one of the first few days of Keats’s visit to Benjamin Bailey at Oxford, Keats wrote to Reynolds to inform him of his arrival. In that letter he included these playful verses offering some initial observations on the place.

Keats’s verses on Oxford, from his letter to Reynolds.

This particular copy of the poem comes from Harry Buxton Forman’s 1883 edition of Keats’s complete writings. Forman got the text from a letter written by Charles Brown to his friend Henry Snook in March 1820. As you can see from the bit of the letter above the poem, Brown says he had just come across the lines for the first time in spring 1820, almost three years after they were first written. Brown may have seen them from the letter itself, probably then still in Reynolds’s possession, but to the KLP it seems more likely that he encountered another copy of the verses. Brown says nothing about the context on the poem provided in the letter.

So how do we know about this letter? Well, our indefatigable Keats-chronicler, Richard Woodhouse, made two transcriptions of the poem, and in his copies, he added Keats’s setup for the verses: “Wordsworth sometimes, though in a fine way, gives us sentences in the style of school exercises–for instance ‘The lake doth glitter / Small birds twitter’ &c. Now I think this is an excellent method of giving a very clear description of an interesting place such as Oxford is–”

One of Woodhouse’s two transcriptions, with the two-sentence setup for Keats’s poem.

Sadly for us, Woodhouse did not copy the entire letter. His transcripts are found not among his other copies of Keats’s letters, but in the two notebooks he used for Keats’s poems. Alas. At least we have these two sentences preserved from the letter. If we had only Brown’s letter as the source for the poem, the KLP would likely not be talking about the text as a letter.

Below you’ll find the two images of Woodhouse’s transcripts, courtesy of Harvard. For a response to this fragment of this letter, the co-hosts of This Week in Keats (Brian Rejack and Mike Theune) have been co-writing a poem in imitation of Keats’s imitation of Wordsworth, chronicling Rejack and Theune’s adventures in Oxford during a visit in summer 2015. The poem (and pictures!) will be forthcoming next week. Since the date of the letter is uncertain (and *not* because Brian and Mike are slow composers of poetry), we feel justified in delaying the response until next week. More soon!

Keats’s poem, as copied by Richard Woodhouse. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.1). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Keats’s poem, as copied again by Richard Woodhouse. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.2). Houghton Library, Harvard University.