Letter #79: To Tom Keats, 29 June to 2 July 1818

The journey continues as Keats and Brown make their way across the last days of June and first days of July from Keswick to Dumfries. We hear again about the failed attempt to visit Wordsworth (and the note left on the mantle piece), as well as the failed attempt to climb Helvellyn due to mist. But with an early morning (4 am!) start on 29 June 1818, they set off to climb Skiddaw, which they successfully scaled with a guide and two other hikers (“very good sort of fellows”). During their climb, the mist held off long enough for views of “the coast of Scotland; the Irish Sea; the hills beyond Lancaster; & nearly all the large ones of Cumberland & Westmoreland, particularly Helvellyn and Scawfell.” But by 6:30 the mist arrived. So if you have to wake up at 4 am to climb a mountain in cold, misty weather, why not take a bit of rum to warm you up? Keats writes, “I took two glasses going & one returning.” And all before breakfast!

One other detail about his account of the climb is worth mentioning. He compares the feeling of the cold air with “that same elevation, which a cold bath gives one,” and then adds that “I felt as if I were going to a Tournament.” There is a strain of romantic adventuring that persists through the tour, even as Keats and Brown both also view themselves in self-deprecating ways. The connection to romance is perhaps most clear and most intriguing in Keats’s final letter from the tour. But we do get ahead of ourselves! Just stay on the lookout for other gestures toward that particular poetic genre and all its associations.

On the last day of June, Keats and Brown stay at Carlisle, where they are treated to a traveling dance school and its performers. Keats has this lovely description of the dance (although we should be wary of trusting the words and spelling too closely, given that the letter comes solely from a John Jeffrey transcript): “they kickit & jumpit with mettle extraordinary, & whiskit, & fleckit, & toe’d it, & go’d it, & twirld it, & wheel’d it, & stampt it, & sweated it, tattooing the floor like mad.” Keats clearly took delight in the performance, noting that “there was as fine a row of boys & girls as you ever saw, some beautiful faces, & one exquisite mouth. I never felt so near the glory of Patriotism, the glory of making by any means a country happier.”

The next leg of the journey sees Keats and Brown arrive in Scotland, having taken the coach from Carlisle through Greta Green (which Brown describes as “a sad, ominous place for a young couple–poverty-struck and barren!”) and on to Dumfries. Keats marks their arrival in his account to Tom by copying his sonnet “On visiting the Tomb of Burns,” which they saw upon arriving in Dumfries on the afternoon of 1 July. As Keats himself noted, it’s a sonnet “written in a strange mood, half asleep.” We’ll see with the visit to Burns’s birthplace a similar disappointment at the lack of inspiration felt there. In the case of the tomb, “coldness” seems to be the key idea: “All is cold beauty.”

But there is another hint at warmth at the end of the letter when Keats notes that “We have now begun upon whiskey, called here whuskey very smart stuff it is–Mixed like our liquors with sugar & water tis called toddy, very pretty drink, & much praised by Burns.” We concur that it is indeed very smart stuff. The peatier the better. But Keats seems to have tired of it by 13 July, when he writes with extreme disdain for the “mahogany faced old Jackass who knew Burns” and with whom he and Brown share some whiskey at Burns’s cottage. For now, though, we’ll leave Keats with his very pretty toddy and wish him well on his search after sublimity.

As alluded to above, today’s letter comes to us from a John Jeffrey transcript, which means that we ought to view it skeptically when it comes to accuracy and comprehensiveness (more on Jeffrey here and here and here). Alas, that’s all we have. Below are images of Jeffrey’s transcript. Print version of the letter can be read in Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 text (including images of Derwent Water and Dumfries).

Page 1 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 29 June to 2 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 2 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 29 June to 2 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 3 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 29 June to 2 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 4 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 29 June to 2 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).