Letter #84: To Tom Keats, 17-21 July 1818

It’s fairly common for chroniclers of Keats’s life to point toward summer and fall of 1818 as the true beginning of the tragic phase that will end with Keats’s death in February 1821. Yes, he soon comes down with a sore throat that will force him to cut short his trip with Brown, and he will return to find Tom’s health at its worst yet, and we’ll soon enter the “living year” during which Keats will write the majority of his great poems, many of which are pitched in at least a somewhat tragic key. And yet, despite all the stress and suffering attendant to their travels in the north, Keats and Brown seem to be having a lot of fun. So let’s not don permanently the tragedy mask–comedy is alive and well here in summer 1818!

The opening bit of playfulness finds Keats (allegedly with Brown’s wit driving him) engaged in one of his more ribald moments. Many editors have blushed at or shown themselves a bit too innocent to fully pick up on what Keats and Brown are putting down. Forman in 1895 chooses to cut most of the place-name puns while adding this note: “The passages omitted consist of somewhat incoherent strings of place-names arranged apparently with an ulterior view to puns; [that’s one way of putting it!] but the intention is not quite clear, and the sentence ends abruptly without any construction as far as I can make out.” Rollins in 1958 tries his best, but we’ll go with Jon Mee’s suggestion that “Corry stone Water” out to be “Cony stone Water,” playing on Coniston Water in the Lake District, as opposed to Corrystone in Scotland. The boyish imagination appears to have been going strong the day before Keats would coin that term in his letter to Bailey.

Keats’s opening passage of ribaldry, with help (apparently) from Brown.

Jon Mee’s note about the passage, from his Selected Letters (Oxford, 2002), including his thoughts on the embarrassment of previous editors.

As the letter continues over the course of five days, Keats’s good humor continues. It is interspersed with some moments of complaint, but on the whole, we’d say the comedy mask wins out in the end. Two comic poems are included here, one on the gadfly, which Keats says has “been at me ever since I left the Swan and two necks” (i.e. since leaving London at the end of June). The second poem is a sonnet mulling the “dainty” sound of the bagpipes. Remember, then, when you’re tempted to ascribe to Keats intimations of his own early death and all the other tragic things that will befall him, in the moment he was living his life and often having a jolly time so doing. It’s all fine and good to talk about Keats’s commingling of joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, life and death–but all too often, in our humble opinion, we end up more than half in love with the latter elements at the expense of the former ones.

And now we will descend from our hobby horse and present you with Keats’s letter, via Forman’s 1895 edition (minus some of the bawdier puns). You’ll notice that Forman provides a facsimile of Keats’s sketch of Loch Lomond from early in the letter. Not a bad little drawing! Once you’ve read the letter, check out Evan Gottlieb’s response to it, which emphasizes and explores some of Keats’s humor, while also drawing some parallels to Gottlieb’s own experiences traveling around Europe here in anno Domini 2018.

Keats’s sketch of Loch Lomond, reproduced in Forman’s 1895 edition of the letters.

Letter #83: To Tom Keats, 10-14 July 1818

Keats and Brown continue to cover lots of ground, making their way from Ballantrae on 10 July to Glasgow by the evening of the 13th. That’s about 70 miles over four days, so not too shabby! As we learned from yesterday’s letter and Daniel Cook’s response to it, that journey passed through the “Bardies Country,” where our travelers made a pilgrimage to Burns’s cottage and other sites connected with the poet. Today’s letter to Tom describes the visit in less detail, while also offering more thoughts on the surrounding country, the characters of the Irish and the Scottish people, and the experience of being greeted upon entering Glasgow by a drunk man who needs to be scared off with threats of alerting the authorities.

As Kerri Andrews details in her response, we can gather a good sense of Keats’s complicated relationship to Scotland from this letter to Tom. He opens the letter with an attempt at mimicking a folk ballad; he spends lots of time describing the natural environs (including his sonnet on Ailsa Rock); and, of course, he wrestles with his feelings about Burns’s legacy after the disappointing visit to Burns’s cottage and the disappointing sonnet Keats felt compelled to write there (but disliked it so much that he didn’t even both to copy it out for Tom).

There’s a bit of a break in Keats’s correspondence over the next few days: he begins his next letter to Tom on 17 July, and doesn’t send it until the 21st. Was there perhaps another letter written in the interval but which has not survived? Alas, the other letters do not provide any clues. But we do have today’s letter to Tom, which is held at the British Library, having made its way there via Benjamin Robert Haydon, who kept it in his diary along with several other Keats letters. The diary was purchased by Maurice Buxton Forman in 1932. He sold some of the letters that were in Haydon’s diary, but this letter to Tom he presented to the British Library in 1939. His father, Harry Buxton Forman, was the first to publish the Keats materials from Haydon’s diary, in his 1883 edition of Keats’s complete works. You can read today’s letter to Tom via the elder Forman’s 1895 edition here. Images of the letter come from the British Library, and can also be accessed here.

Page 1 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.

Page 2 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.

Page 3 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.

Page 4 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.

Letter #82: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 11-13 July 1818

Keats’s encounters with the legacy of Robert Burns continue as he moves through “the Bardies Country.” He begins this letter to Reynolds by first holding back on the detailed descriptions he’s become accustomed to giving his other correspondents, and of which he ‘s grown tired of writing. Instead he gives the beginning of the journey in the manner of the “Laputan printing press”: a bunch of words stitched together, and now Reynolds has their “journey thus far”!

The main focus of today’s letter is the visit to Burns’s cottage, a visit which is not exactly what Keats had in mind, it seems. As Daniel Cook writes in response to the letter, even though Keats wasn’t pleased with the sonnet he wrote while at the cottage, he was nonetheless significantly affected by his travels through Scotland, and his time spent contemplating one of his poetic idols. So with that we’ll turn it over to Daniel Cook, who goes into much more detail about Keats, Burns, and “the Bardies Country.”

The letter, as with most letters to Reynolds, exists only via a Richard Woodhouse transcript, which you can view in the images below (courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library). A print version of the letter can be found here, in Forman’s 1895 edition.

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 11, 13 July 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 11, 13 July 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 11, 13 July 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 11, 13 July 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #81: To Tom Keats, 3-9 July 1818

The next entry in Keats’s journal to Tom covers nearly a week, and it finds Keats and Brown making their way briefly to Ireland via ship from Portpatrick. The letter begins while Keats is still writing his previous one to Fanny. He copies out to Tom the short ballad on Meg Merrilies which he had written for Fanny the day before (2 July). He next returns to Tom’s letter on the day he posts Fanny’s, 5 July, at Newton Stewart. We get the usual thoughts on the scenery (“very rich–very fine–and with a little of Devon”), as well as what becomes the main focus of the letter’s last two entries: the people Keats and Brown have been encountering.

A common thread throughout the tour is Keats’s ambivalence about scenery, and about writing about it. Several times he notes the greater importance he places on learning about the people who inhabit such scenes. This attitude predates the tour, as well. Recall that back on 13 March 1818 he wrote, “Scenery is fine–but human nature is finer.” In his previous journal letter to Tom, after Keats describes the scene of a “country dancing school,” he notes, “This is what I like better than scenery.” And in his entry for 7 July, Keats quickly moves away from scenery in order to discuss what he sees as the differences in the character of the Irish and the Scottish.

First he notes the similarity in “the dialect on the neighbouring shores of Scotland and Ireland,” but then draws a distinction based on his sense of what effects the Church of Scotland had produced on the national character: “I can perceive a great difference in the nations from the Chambermaid at this nate Inn kept by Mr Kelly–She is fair, kind and ready to laugh, because she is out of the horrible dominion of the Scotch kirk–A Scotch Girl stands in terrible awe of the Elders–poor little Susannas–They will scarcely laugh–they are greatly to be pitied and the kirk is greatly to be damn’d.” The KLP remains agnostic on the question of the Kirk’s moral reign over the people of Scotland, but it seems Keats remains agnostic too! He goes on to note the good that the Kirk has done in cultivating thriftiness and diligence: “such a thrifty army cannot fail to enrich their Country and give it a greater appearance of comfort than that of their poor irish neighbours.” As he returns to the negative side of the column, he focuses again on the limitation of joy, particularly as it relates to erotic desire: “These kirkmen … have banished puns and laughing and kissing (except in cases where the very danger and crime must make it very fine and gustful. I shall make a full stop at kissing for after that there should be a better parenTthesis:” [that’s our attempt at a small caps “T” for Keats’s double-underline]. In what must be one of Keats’s better puns, he suggests making a full stop at kissing in order to avoid a parent-thesis emerging, although he never does close that parenthesis, nor does he actually make a full stop at kissing. In any case, Keats’s concerns about the lack of punning and laughing and kissing in Scotland connects with another preoccupation he seems to dwell on during the tour: his feelings toward women.

We see Keats address the issue most directly in his letter to Benjamin Bailey later in the month (18, 22 July). It’s in that letter that Keats writes, “I am certain I have not a right feeling towards Women.” In today’s letter, though, his thinking about the lives of women under the “dominion of the kirk” is connected with a broader concern with social injustice. He expresses the matter like this: “Were the fingers made to squeeze a guinea or a white hand? Were the Lips made to hold a pen or a kiss? And yet in Cities Man is shut out from his fellows if he is poor, the Cottager must be dirty and very wretched if she be not thrifty–The present state of society demands this and this convinces me that the world is very young and in a verry ignorant state–We live in a barbarous age.” The tension between commerce and erotic desire should sound familiar to readers of Isabella. There is perhaps a strain of paternalism at work here (“let’s protect women from the horrors of employment!”), but it seems that the greater concern lies with the injustice inherent in work in an unequal society. The problem is that “out of suffrance there is no greatness, no dignity” and “in the most abstracted Pleasure there is no lasting happiness.” What the world presumably needs, then, is a social structure that allows for the pursuit of pleasure (punning, laughing, kissing) without the oppressive forces that deem such a pursuit immoral, and without the economic forces which deny pleasure to those not lucky enough to be born wealthy.

While Keats and Brown planned to spend longer in Ireland, they ended up returning to Scotland after just two days there (on 8 July). What Keats found in Ireland was the combination of high living expenses and extreme poverty. Keats seems despondent at the idea of “the improvement of the condition of such people,” not because of some inherent defects in their character, but rather because of the current social conditions. The sign which stands in for those conditions comes to Keats in the form of “that most disgusting of all noises” as they pass into Belfast: “the sound of the Shuttle.” In other words, the sonic reminder of economic conditions–specifically, the textile industry–fills Keats with “absolute despair” that things could change for the better. He probably wasn’t encouraged by the two laborers encountered between Belfast and Donaghadee, one of whom “took [Keats] for a Frenchman” (the horror!), and the other who “hinted at Bounty Money saying he was ready to take it.” Somehow Keats and Brown escaped, but before leaving the island, they had one more encounter which seems to have stuck with Keats:

On our return from Bellfast we met a Sadan–the Duchess of Dunghill–It is no laughing matter tho–Imagine the worse dog kennel you ever saw placed upon two poles from a mouldy fencing–In such a wretched thing sat a squalid old Woman squat like an ape half starved from a scarcity of Buiscuit in its passage from Madagascar to the cape,–with a pipe in her mouth and looking out with a round-eyed skinny lidded, inanity–with a sort of horizontal idiotic movement of her head–squab and lean she sat and puff’d out the smoke while two ragged tattered Girls carried her along–What a thing would be a history of her Life and sensations.

Now, it’s certainly true that this description could be kinder (perhaps an understatement, that??). But even after the long, demeaning description, Keats ends with an appeal towards empathy. Yes, he describes the woman as “idiotic” and “inane,” but he does so in the context of his condemnation of the broader social forces at work in creating and sustaining poverty. He also ultimately expresses his desire to know what this woman’s life was like. And not just her life, but her “sensations,” a key word in Keats’s vocabulary. He wants to recognize and understand her humanity, not just in terms of her thoughts, but in terms of the way she’s lived an embodied experience in a physical world governed by material circumstances which would have been largely out of her control.

We’ll hear more about Keats’s thoughts on his encounters with the common people of Ireland and Scotland as the tour continues. Certainly in this letter we get a nuanced–if also problematic–take on the relationship between social circumstances and individual lives.

You can read the letter in Forman’s 1895 edition here, although it’s based on a John Jeffrey transcript, so beware (note his reading of “nate inn” as “nate toone“–good try, Jeffrey!). The manuscript is at Harvard, but it was not used for editions of the letters until the second half of the 20th century (having been in the possession of James Freeman Clarke and his descendants until 1946–see here for more on Clarke). Images below.

Page 1 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

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).


Letter #78: To George and Georgiana Keats, 27 and 28 June 1818

One of the tricky things about these letters from Keats’s Northern Tour is that he’s writing multiple letters across multiple days, so there’s some overlap in the dates, which can easily lead to some confusion about what’s happening when. This letter to George and Georgiana was begun on the afternoon of 27 June, after Keats had visited Stock Ghyll Force in the morning, eaten breakfast at the Salutation Inn at Ambleside (now the Ambleside Salutation Hotel, owned and operated by Best Western), and then attempted to visit Wordsworth at Rydal Mount. Keats and Brown then made their way to the foot of Helvellyn, where they waited hoping that the mist would clear enough for them to attempt an ascent. While they waited, Keats began this letter to George and Georgiana.

We cover some of the same territory covered in the previous letter to Tom: dining at Bowness-on-Windermere (on trout which Keats himself retrieved from a box in the lake), a brief mention of the visit to the waterfall, and the planned visit to Wordsworth’s residence. Now we learn that the elder poet was not at home and that Keats “wrote a note for him and stuck it up over what I knew must be Miss Wordsworth’s Portrait.” Apparently Wordsworth didn’t keep the note, as it no longer exists. But when visiting the area three years ago, KLP adventurers Brian Rejack and Michael Theune did their best to recreate the scene (see below). They are silly.

These two jokers…

For the entertainment of his sister-in-law, and to (presumably) symbolically welcome her as a newly-minted member of the family, Keats goes on to write an acrostic for her new name. What a nice fellow. Eventually Keats and Brown gave up on waiting for the mist to clear and abandoned their plans to summit Helvellyn, hoping they’d have better luck with Skiddaw in a few days.

The next day, after lodging at the Nag’s Head in Wythburn, the pair walked to Keswick for breakfast, after which Keats returned to letter and deposited it at the post office before spending the day walking around Derwent Water. Keats ends the letter with a funny bit of self-reflection about the eventual fate of his correspondence: “We will before many Years are over have written many folio volumes which as a Matter of self-defence to one whom you understand intends to be immortal in the best points and let all his Sins and peccadillos die away–I mean to say that the Booksellers with [for “will”] rather decline printing ten folio volumes of Correspondence printed as close as the Apostles creed in a Watch paper.” Well, joke’s on you, John! Little did you know that you’d be so immortal that a bunch of people two hundred years later would be poring over that correspondence so obsessively. Lucky for you, though, your best parts pretty easily outnumber the sins and peccadilloes.

This particular letter, though, took a long time to make its way from its manuscript existence into print. Here’s what we know about its travels. First, it was sent to Liverpool but never actually reached George and Georgiana. Postmarks show it arriving in Liverpool on the first of July, by which point the newlyweds were already aboard the Telegraph, which did not leave port until four days later. Apparently they did not leave the ship in order to check on any letters that might have arrived for them. So the letter was redirected to “Messrs Frampton & Son / Leadenhall Street / London.” These were the employers of William Haslam, to whom George would have instructed any letters be sent after his departure from Liverpool. Haslam delivered the letter to Tom, who wrote on its exterior, “To be sent to George.”

What happened to the letter after the summer of 1818 is a bit unclear. It was still in Keats’s possession in September 1819, when Keats copied the acrostic to Georgiana in the letter he was writing then. He also copied some of the letter to Tom from 23 and 26 July 1818. We know that some of the letters from the tour had been sent to George and Georgiana in Keats’s October 1818 letter to them. But it appears that at least today’s letter and the late-July letter to Tom remained in London. Most likely today’s letter made its way to America at some point, though. When copying out the 23/26 July letter to Tom in September 1819, Keats explicitly points out that he’s copying it instead of sending the original, with this funny explanation: “before I go any further I must premise that I would send the identical Letter insted of taking the trouble to copy it: I do not do so for it would spoil my notion of the neat manner in which I intent to fold these thin genteel sheets–The original is written on course paper–and the soft ones would ride in the Post-bag very uneasy; perhaps there might be a quarrel–.” With this letter to Tom, we do know for sure it eventually arrived in America, because John Jeffrey made a copy of it in 1845. He did NOT make a copy of today’s letter, however.

So, that means the 27-28 June 1818 letter to George and Georgiana was not in Louisville, Kentucky in 1845. Sort of… It’s also possible that Jeffrey simply didn’t copy this letter. That Jeffrey could have done anything! In any case, the letter was not printed until 1925, when Amy Lowell published it in her biography of Keats. She owned the letter herself, but as far as we’ve been able to tell thus far, it’s not clear how she came to own it. Most of her Keats manuscripts she acquired through the sale of the Taylor family collection in London in 1903. With this letter, though, we suspect it was in the Keats family in America, given to someone by Georgiana or Emma Keats Speed at some point in the middle of the nineteenth century, and then acquired by Amy Lowell in the early years of the twentieth. She bequeathed it to Harvard’s Houghton Library in 1925.

Some technical difficulties are currently preventing us from providing images of the manuscript from Harvard, but you can look at those images via this link: https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:14984784$115i. Images below come from the Google Books preview of the letter from the Oxford edition of Keats’s Selected Letters.

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!

Letter #76: To Thomas Monkhouse, 21 June 1818

The second letter from today is to Thomas Monkhouse, whose primary claim to fame within the Keats world is his attendance at the “Immortal Dinner.” He was there through his connection to Wordsworth, whose wife Mary Hutchinson was a cousin of Monkhouse. Side note: Mary’s brother Thomas Hutchinson married Mary Monkhouse and had a daughter named Sara Hutchinson, which was also the name of Mary and Thomas Hutchinson’s sister Sara. Very confusing stuff. We’ll try to get you a family tree to sort it all out.

In any case, Thomas Monkhouse–not to be confused with his cousin Thomas Hutchinson who married his cousin Mary Monkhouse, who was Thomas Monkhouse’s sister–had apparently been reading Endymion and enjoying it. He’d called on Keats sometime in the previous few days, when Keats happened not to be at home. So in this letter Keats apologizes for missing him, and expresses his gratitude “in hearing from Haydon that you so great a Lover of Wordsworth should be pleased with any part of my Poem.” Wordsworth, it should be noted, will be on Keats’s mind for much of the early parts of his Northern Tour. He is romping around in the Lake District after all. As we’ll see from future letters, Keats’s attempts to visit Wordsworth go a bit awry. But here we gather a sense of eager anticipation as he mentions to Monkhouse his planned “visit to Rydal.”

This letter still exists thanks to the descendants of the Hutchinsons and Monkhouses, including that elder Sara Hutchinson who is not as famous as her namesake and aunt. But we have to gripe for just one more moment about all of these names! Thomas Monkhouse named his daughter Mary, which was also his sister’s name. And Thomas and Mary Hutchinson, who had the second Sara Hutchinson, also had a daughter named Mary! Ok, so they also had an Elizabeth and a George, mixing things up a bit. But they also added another Thomas in there! Really making the genealogical work a bit tricky here… (Also, it makes total sense to name children after other family members–just that with the cousins marrying each other and all the repeated surnames and given names, the brain starts to hurt a bit trying to figure things out.)

All right, rant over. It’s Elizabeth Hutchinson (1820-1905), daughter of Thomas and Mary, who appears to have been the first guardian of this letter. Really, though, Keats’s letter was likely just a minor piece (from the family’s perspective) of a much larger and more significant collection of letters by the elder Sara Hutchinson, which were edited and published in 1954 by Kathleen Coburn (renowned for her indefatigable work editing Coleridge’s notebooks). The then guardian of the letters was Joanna Hutchinson, who had the unenviable task of protecting them during the bombings of London during WWII (according to Coburn, Hutchinson had them stored in a suitcase under her bed in case she needed to flee hastily). But protect them she did, and in 1958, when Rollins published his edition of Keats’s letters, the manuscript of this one to Monkhouse was still in her possession. It appears that between now and then it was loaned to the British Library in order for them to make photocopies of it, but the whereabouts of the original elude us in our current efforts at sleuthing. If the current owner wants to be relieved of the heavy burden of owning the letter, the KLP would be happy to take over for you. Just saying.

Text of the letter can be read below via the Times Literary Supplement, where it was first published in 1937 thanks to Ernest de Selincourt.

“Keats and Monkhouse.” From the Times Literary Supplement, 23 October 1937.

Letter #75: To John Taylor, 21 June 1818

Today’s letters (this one to Taylor, and another to Thomas Monkhouse) come as Keats, Charles Brown, and the newlyweds George and Georgiana Keats prepare to set out on a pair of exciting adventures. Keats and Brown would be traipsing through the north of England and Scotland (with a brief stop in Ireland) for the next few months, while George and Georgiana would depart for America. The quartet traveled together by coach for Liverpool on the morning of June 22. But on June 21, Keats was busy tying up some loose ends before departure!

His letter to Taylor is a “catalogue” of requests (he apologizes for not having time to say more than his list of demands). First he asks that Taylor lend Tom some books, since Keats worries that his ailing brother will be bored and lonely. He also requests a bound copy of Endymion for Tom, as well as one for Mrs. Reynolds. He even writes an inscription for Mrs. Reynolds on the letter (see image three below) and instructs Taylor to paste it into her book. Seems like Taylor failed on that one!

Two bits of humor close out the letter. First, Keats puns on the name of Henry Cary, the translator of Dante with whom Taylor and Hessey were negotiating for a second edition of his work: “Remember me to Hessey saying I hope he’ll Carey his point.” And then Keats signs the letter as “John O’Grots,” playing on the name of the village at the northern tip of Scotland. Clearly Keats was in a jovial mood as he got ready to venture north!

Our usual sources for the letter today: images from Harvard, and print text from Forman’s 1895 edition. Get ready for the Northern Tour and its letters starting next week!

Page 1 of Keats’s 21 June 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.31). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 21 June 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.31). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 21 June 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.31). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 21 June 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.31). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #74: To Benjamin Bailey, 10 June 1818

In case you may have forgotten, Keats did just publish his second book sometime around the end of April or beginning of May. NBD. But once Endymion is behind him, Keats doesn’t spend much time dwelling on it. Instead he’s on to the next thing. By this point in early June he’s already finished Isabella, one of the three long narrative poems which will be featured in the title of his 1820 volume. And he’s about to set off for his walking tour of the north, which he envisions as a way for him to strengthen his poetic powers as he continues to take on new projects. Although Keats has moved on from Endymion, his critics are just getting started… [INSERT OMINOUS MUSIC]

But Keats has his friends too, and as he wrote in his previous letter to Bailey, those friends could buoy him when necessary: “There is a comfort in throwing oneself on the charity of ones friends–‘t is like the albatros sleeping on its wings.” Turns out Bailey is a solid wing-man (see what we did there??). For in the 30 May and 6 June issues of the Oxford University and City Herald there are two small notices praising the author of Endymion. The correspondent, who signs as “N. Y.”, urges the editors of the paper to take notice of the new volume and its author. It gets pretty impassioned: “I call upon the age to countenance and encourage this rising genius, and not to let him pine away in neglect, lest his memory to after ages speak trumpet-tongued the disgrace of this.” Well, things didn’t quite work out that way.

Bailey’s achingly genuine paean to Keats’s brilliance.

So, yeah, Bailey was “N. Y.” And Keats writes to his friend expressing thanks for the praise, but also a bit of trepidation. Keats recognizes that Bailey is too simple and decent for the world of Regency literary reviewing. Bailey even tries to claim his simplicity and decency his letter to the editor: “I am no bookseller’s tool; I am no pandar to poetical vanity; but I would not for worlds witness the insensibility of Old England to her own glory, in the neglect of the vernal genius of her sons.” Keats realizes that such an attempt at candour simply will not do in the climate of periodicals of 1818. Bailey is like someone on twitter trying to claim they’re not a bot. In 2018, we’re all bots. Just accept it.

Who might Keats have in mind when thinking of reviewers who’d refuse to play by the rules of decency and kindness like Bailey does? Hmm, could it be… Blackwood’s? (Shout out to the Church Lady.) Why yes, yes it could be. Although in this letter Keats refers to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine as “the Endinburgh Magasine,” and they would do their best to end Keats. In the May issue of the magazine, the latest “blow up against Hunt,” which is titled “Letter from Z. to Leigh Hunt, King of the Cockneys,” features two jabs directed at Keats. They are hints of what’s to come, and Keats seems to know it. Z even quotes a bit from Keats’s “Great Spirits” sonnet and alludes to “Sleep and Poetry,” so it’s clear he’s been doing some reading of the 1817 volume (which will be reviewed along with Endymion in the August 1818 issue). For now, though, Keats (and we with him) will leave behind any concerns about such things as he prepares to venture north.

There’s more to be said about this letter, but we’ll leave it here for now. If you’d like to read all of Z’s nastly letter to Leigh Hunt (in the parlance of our times, one might say “Z Eviscerates Leigh Hunt”), you can find it here. Boy, John Gibson Lockhart really, really hated Hunt’s Story of Rimini. For Keats’s letter, head over to Forman’s 1895 edition, or read the images below (courtesy of Harvard).

Page 1 of Keats’s 10 June 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.30). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 10 June 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.30). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 10 June 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.30). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 10 June 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.30). Houghton Library, Harvard University.