Keats Lives in the Eye

Brian Rejack
Illinois State University

Re: Keats’s 25-27 June 1818 letter to Tom Keats

The highlight of this first letter from Keats’s tour is the long description of his visit to Stock Ghyll Force, a waterfall just outside of Ambleside. The lowlight is arguably Keats’s disappointment at Wordsworth. There are many reasons why Keats had been becoming more and more critical of Wordsworth over the last years. One reason is certainly the younger poet’s sense that the elder had become a bit too comfortable in his older age. Wordsworth was cheering on the French revolution in 1790-91, and now Keats finds him supporting the Tory candidate for the Westmorland parliamentary seat. While dining on his freshly-caught trout, Keats inquires of the waiter about Wordsworth: “he said he knew him, and that he had been here a few days ago, canvassing for the Lowthers. What think you of that–Wordsworth versus Brougham!! Sad–sad–sad–and yet the family has been his friend always. What can we say?” Keats tempers his criticism somewhat by noting that Wordsworth was supporting a family friend, but he nonetheless appears stung by “Lord Wordsworth[‘s]” act of betrayal.

In many ways the Northern Tour is a series of disappointments for Keats. Here he is in the land of Wordsworth’s poetry, and as much as he takes delight in noting “‘that ancient woman seated on Helm Craig,'” Keats also has to reckon with the elder poet’s political apostasy. Even so, Keats hoped to visit with Wordsworth, but he cannot do so (again, thanks to that political apostasy) and is forced to merely leave a note on the mantle piece at Rydal Mount. Later in the tour we will find similar disappointments as Keats visits Robert Burns’ birthplace hoping to feel inspired. Other more mundane obstacles seem to put a damper on Keats’s designs. The food becomes more and more of a preoccupation in the letters, with “the cursed Oatcake” emerging as his most consistent digestive foe. By early August he decides to cut the trip short after having come down with a nagging sore throat. If Keats had hoped that he’d write great poetry while taking in the scenes of grandeur, he feels disappointed in the results along those lines as well. Again and again in the letters, Keats expresses frustration with the poems he has written. So what did the tour do for him?

The description of Stock Ghyll Force points toward a few possibilities. Keats set out on this trip to, at least in part, gather more materials for his imagination. As he puts it more concisely back in April while planning the trip, he will “go to gorge wonders.” His first exposure to the “Lake and Mountains of Winander” seem to have done the trick: “the two views we have had of it [i.e. Lake Winander] are of the most noble tenderness–they can never fade away–they make one forget the divisions of life; age, youth, poverty and riches; and refine one’s sensual vision into a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power.” The echoes of Keats’s later poetry–in particular “Bright Star” (open lidded and stedfast) and “Ode to a Nightingale” (“they can never fade away–they make one forget the divisions of life”)–suggest that his experiences in the Lake District did indeed supply him with “life and food / For future years.” Similarly, the extensive account of the visit to the waterfall suggest optimism on Keats’s part regarding what he thought the tour might do for his poetic powers going forward.

Although Keats apologizes to Tom for relying so much on descriptive prose (“descriptions are bad at all times”), he sure knows how to do it well. This passage deserves to be quoted at length.

Having visited this spot in July 2015, I can attest that the descriptions are quite accurate. We also get a sense of Keats’s reactions to them, but mostly the descriptions consist of an objective account without much intrusion from the writer’s thoughts. The “pleasant twinge” is a lovely detail, and a perfectly Keatsian one. Likewise for “then the thunder and the freshness.” There is a kind of cinematic, synesthetic character to the account, which alternately zooms in close and pans out wide, with visual and sonic details merging and blending. Then there is Keats’s keen sense of the “different characters” of the different parts of the falls. He expands on this notion further, which again deserves extensive quotation.

What Keats articulates here is nothing less than a theory of the relationship between place, embodiment, imagination, and poetry. From this moment of recognition the path to a poem like “To Autumn” now looks clear, which is not something one could confidently assert about Keats and his writing just a year earlier. First, he acknowledges the impossibility of ever fully cognizing a place. The “intellectual tone” cannot not be captured imaginatively or through recollection. Embodied experience, or “sensual vision” as Keats refers to a similar notion earlier in the letter, exists apart from, even as it must of necessity persist in relation to, imagined futures or recalled pasts. To “live in the eye” may seem to imply a form of disembodiment. Keats does, after all, say that this experience makes him “forget his stature.” However, he’s only forgetting his self-consciousness about being “Mister John Keats five feet high.” He’s differently embodied, not disembodied. The imagination rests because Keats finds himself so fully open to the sensory experiences filtered through his newly-constituted bodily awareness.

How do we get from that experience to poetry? Well, that part is a bit harder. If one cannot imagine or remember “these grand materials,” how exactly can they be harvested and put into poetic form? The answer is not a clear one, but Keats at least implies that the process must be one of further embodiment. He moves between abstract and material (“mass of beauty”), spiritual and physical, but ultimately he ends with “the relish of one’s fellows.” All of the processes that undergird and bring together the relations between embodiment and poetry ultimately conclude with the social and the material. The rhetoric of tasting (“relish”) is, of course, metaphorical, but it points toward Keats’s insistence on always returning to the world, to the body, to pleasure. Even this letter itself he conceives of as a vehicle for his brother’s physical well-being: “I am anxious you should taste a little of our pleasure; it may not be an unpleasant thing, as you have not the fatigue.”

So yes, Keats ends up doing a lot of griping about his summer adventure and its pitfalls. Just as frequently, though, we see some of his most significant thinking on the issues addressed in today’s letter, particularly with his account of visiting Stock Ghyll Force: how we experience the world around us, how we square that experience with other cognitive processes, and how poetry comes to exist and operate in the world as a result.

The author at Stock Ghyll Force in July 2015.

Stock Ghyll Force, “streaming silverly through the trees.”

Letter #77: To Tom Keats, 25-27 June 1818

“Here beginneth my journal, this Thursday, the 25th day of June, Anno Domini 1818.”
–John Keats to Tom Keats, 25 June 1818

Here beginneth the KLP’s chronicling of Keats’s Northern Tour, this Monday, the 25th day of June, Anno Domini 2018. For the next two months we’ll be following along as Keats and Charles Brown follow their noses to the north (see here for the reference). It’s a fascinating journey. Keats imagined it as “a sort of Prologue to the Life I intend to pursue–that is to write, to study and to see all Europe at the lowest expence.” (see his letter to Haydon from 8 April 1818). He planned to “go to gorge wonders,” (letter to Reynolds from 9 April 1818), and in so doing to add to his store of poetic materials: “I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavor of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, by the finest spirits, and put into etherial existence for the relish of one’s fellows” (from today’s letter!).

We’ll here more about this letter on Wednesday, when the KLP’s own will provide us with a more sustained response to this opening missive from Keats’s journey. But before we leave you today, here is some background on the history of this particular letter. The manuscript is now lost, but the text of the letter does not come to us from a usual source like a John Jeffrey or Richard Woodhouse transcript. Instead it comes from the June 1836 issue of The Western Messenger, a magazine founded by James Freeman Clarke and a group of other Unitarian ministers in the (then) western United States. What was Clarke doing publishing a letter by John Keats in his magazine? Well, Clarke had been living in Louisville, Kentucky since 1833, and during his time there he had befriended a local pillar of the community who just happened to be the brother of some fancy-lad poet from England. Yes, Clarke and George Keats became fast friends.

One fruit of that friendship was the publication of this first letter from Keats’s tour in the June 1836 Western Messenger (and part of the 23 and 26 July 1818 letter to Tom in the July 1836 issue of the magazine). Clarke heaps praise on Keats’s letters, calling them “of a higher order of composition than his poems.” If he thought the letters were so precious, then maybe he shouldn’t have lost this one, no?? But hold on a second. Let’s not rush to blame Clarke for the letter’s disappearance. Here are a few reasons why it’s plausible that today’s letter was lost through the fault of some other person.

First, Clarke obviously did value the letters quite highly. He notes in his intro, “We hope that they [i.e. the letters] will ere long be put into the possession of the public.” More significantly, the other letter which Clarke publishes in the July issue of The Western Messenger still does exist. It’s now at Harvard, having at some point made its way into what became known as the “Crewe Collection,” the materials assembled by Richard Monckton Milnes and then maintained by his son Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe-Milnes, later the first Marquess of Crewe. What’s strange about this letter, though, is that it didn’t make its way into that collection until sometime much later than most of the other materials. Milnes collected most of his stuff prior to the 1848 publication of Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats. The manuscript of the 23 and 26 July 1818 letter to Tom was not one of those. The text of the letter did appear in the 1848 book, but it was based on a transcript made by John Jeffrey in 1845. For Milnes 1867 edition, he was still relying on the Jeffrey transcript. Some letters that had been in the American Keats family possession were given to John Gilmer Speed by his mother Emma Keats Speed (daughter of George) before his 1883 publication of an edition of Keats’s letters and poems. But for the text of the July 1818 letter to Tom, Gilmer Speed relied on Milnes, who had relied on Jeffrey’s transcript. So sometime between 1845 and 1883, it’s likely that Emma Speed gave the July letter to someone, and that it made its way to the Crewe collection through sale sometime toward the end of the nineteenth century or beginning of the twentieth.

Ah, but what about the 25-27 June 1818 letter? Well, we remain skeptical that Clarke owned it and lost it, even though he certainly could have printed and copied two letters for The Western Messenger, returned one of them (the 23-26 July letter) and kept the other (today’s letter). There is one other letter that James Freeman Clarke most certainly did own, and which still survives to this day. That’s the 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom. It remained in the Clarke family until 1946, when they gave the letter to Harvard. Here’s the rub, though–this letter was not given to Clarke by George in 1836. We know this for two reasons: first, he didn’t publish it in his magazine, which seems like something he would have done either then or in the future if he owned from 1836 onward. Second, John Jeffrey made a transcript of the 3-9 July letter in 1845. He could not have done so if Clarke owned the letter, since Clarke was not living in Louisville in 1845. Clarke left Louisville in 1840 and lived in Boston for most of the rest of his life. He traveled to Louisville in summer 1851 and again in May 1873. From his letters we know that during the latter visit he spent two days visiting with Emma Keats Speed, during which time it seems plausible she may have given her old friend the Keats letter as a parting gift.

So there are three letters connected with Clarke. Two survive, one having been passed down through his family after it was likely given to him by Emma Keats Speed in either 1851 or 1873, the other having been used by him in 1836 and most likely promptly returned to George Keats, after which the letter stayed in the Keats family and was probably given by EKS to someone else. As for the third letter, today’s letter, the first from the Northern Tour–well, we just don’t know. Perhaps EKS gave it to a young Abraham Lincoln when he visited the Speed family plantation in July 1841, just after Emma had married Philip Speed, the brother of Lincoln’s good friend Joshua Speed. Lincoln and Joshua Speed met in Springfield, Illinois, where Speed owned a general store. Maybe Emma wanted to get in good with her new family by making a nice gesture to the tall, lanky guy visiting Joshua. Yes, we’re gonna go ahead and blame Lincoln for losing today’s letter. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it!

Regardless of what happened to the letter after 1836, we at least have the text of it thanks to Clarke’s insertion of it in his magazine. And that’s how we’ll give you the letter for today (along with Clarke’s intro to the letter). Enjoy, and come back in two days to read more about the content of the letter!