A Poet at the Bottom of the Sea

Rosie Whitcombe
Birmingham City University

Re: Keats’s 14 September 1817 letter to Jane and Mariane Reynolds

In his letters, Keats inscribes, and experiments with, multiple selves. His epistolary personae reflect both his masterful manipulation of the letter form, and his heavy dependence upon it. Keats’s letters of 1817 are some of his most playful and varied, written during a period of relative calm and creative prosperity. As a result, they exhibit a smooth succession of selves, and a careful, commanding ability to control correspondence. Writing to Jane and Marianne Reynolds on the 14th September 1817, Keats not only plays with the boundaries of self-making, but layers multiple characters and environments into his correspondence, cannibalising the work of other writers and amalgamating their literary worlds with his own. He teases the Reynolds sisters, challenging their reception of his language and imagery and refusing any sense of resolution or clarity. Purposefully dense and difficult to define, this letter leaves its recipients in an unstable space, lost in an epistolary thicket of alternate personae.

Directing the mind’s eye like a periscope, Keats guides his recipients through a series of abstract images adapted from the work of other writers: ‘the open Sky sits upon our senses like a sapphire Crown – the Air is our Robe of State – the Earth is our throne and the sea a mighty Minstrell playing before it’ (I. 158). In control of this artful, fluid space, Keats compacts the sky and air into tangible shapes. What Keats terms ‘the great Elements’ (I. 158) become items of royal dress; these images are difficult to perceive because Keats is forcing together the untouchable with the touchable, creating a space in which the distinction between the physical and ethereal is blurred. Keats borrows from Milton’s Comus to cement this ‘sapphire crown’ (Milton l. 26) in a tradition of magical, deep sea description. Yet, he adapts and distorts Milton’s image, having his crown sit ‘upon our senses.’ In the space of this letter, the sky can sit, and our senses can be sat upon. Keats breaks the confines of what is ethereal and sensory, forcing the ‘Sky’ and ‘our senses’ into unfamiliar, unnatural shapes. He goes on to borrow and distort the imagery of several other texts, such as the Book of Samuel 16:23, The Tempest, and Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’, to name just a few. By cannibalising the literary worlds of his forbears, Keats not only demonstrates to the Reynolds sisters the extent of his reading, but revels in his ability to reshape the works of other writers to suit his purpose, taking apart accepted language and form and reinventing it under his control.

Keats continues to destabilise the letter with a set of questions: ‘Which is the best of Shakespeare’s Plays? – I mean in what mood and with what accompaniment do you like the Sea best?’ (I. 158) The second sentence reads as though it will supplement the first; it should extend the discussion of Shakespeare’s plays, but it addresses the sea, destabilising what is expected within the letter by refusing logical continuation. Keats is challenging his recipient, drawing their attention and manipulating their reading process with his sporadic, nonsensical misdirection. By merging the two questions so closely, he forces his recipients to check themselves; to re-establish their attention within the letter. How do Jane and Marianne like the sea best? Once more, the letter becomes thick with literary reference, as Keats incorporates Oberon’s lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare Act 3, Scene 2, II. 398-9) and Spenser’s Epithalamion (Spenser, l. 282-3) to offer different descriptions of the sea. Would the Reynolds sisters like the sea best in the morning, ‘when the Sun “opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams/Turns into yellow gold his salt sea streams”’ (I. 158) Keats wonders. Or perhaps in the evening, ‘when the fair planet hastens – “to his home within the western foam”’ (I. 158). By bombarding his reader with ever more literary allusions, Keats continues to complicate his image of the sea, fuelled by the instability he is causing, until he finally inserts his own description: ‘but don’t you think there is something extremely fine after sunset when there are a few white Clouds about and a few stars blinking – when the waters are ebbing and the Horison a Mystery?’ (I. 158-9). For Keats, the sea is best after sunset, shrouded in a semi-gothic strangeness and the promise of a descent into total darkness. Compared to Shakespeare and Spenser, Keats’s description of the sea is quiet, lacklustre; sparsely dotted stars provide faint light in contrast to Shakespeare’s ‘blessed beams’ of ‘yellow gold.’ Keats chooses to succumb to the sublime mystery of the sea, the uncertainty of the horizon it ebbs towards. His own interpretation is muted next to the multitude of grandiose images populating the rest of the section, and this brings a new softness, a poignancy unfound in the rest of the letter. In this isolated moment, Keats stops performing the words of others, and offers an unguarded, unprovocative glimpse into his own thinking. Having teased his recipients and manipulated their reading process, Keats concludes his discussion of the sea with a nod towards the negative capability he would soon define. He leaves Jane and Marianne Reynolds doubting their reception of his imagery, contemplating the mysteries of the horizon, and the uncertain associations he has made. Keats’s alternative imagery is left hanging in the unresolved space of the letter.

As soon as it takes this quiet turn, however, the letter careers back to a roaring pitch. Keats pens a lengthy fantasy describing what his future landlady, Mrs. Dilke, would have experienced ‘had I remained in Hampstead.’  Keats would have: ‘made precious havoc with her house and furniture – drawn a great harrow over her garden – poisoned Boxer [her dog] – eaten her Cloathes pegs, – fried her Cabbages fricaceed (how is it spelt?) her radishes – ragouted her Onions – belaboured her beet root – outstripped her scarlet Runners – parlez vou’d with her french Beans – devoured her Mignon or Mignonette – metamorphosed her Bell handles – splintered her looking glasses – bullock’d at her cups and saucers – agonized her decanters – put old Philips [the gardener] to pickle in the Brine tub – disorganized her Piano – dislocated her Candlesticks – emptied her wine bins in a fit of despair – turned out her Maid to Grass and Astonished Brown – whose Letter to her on these events I would rather see than the original copy of the Book of Genesis’ (I. 159). Breathless, this irregular set of actions sees Keats complicating language and meaning to an even greater extent. In this alternate reality in which he ‘remained at Hampstead,’ Keats creates an alternate self, a destructive, comical force who writes to entertain and astonish. Keats couples each item in the list with an unconventional verb, creating a jarring series of images which impact the reader through sensory impression, rather than clear association. Firstly, this serves to dehumanise Keats’s alternate self; as a creature who eats clothes pegs and bullocks at cups he becomes a farm yard animal let loose in a domestic space.  Poisoning the dog and pickling the gardener see him running sadistic errands, while metamorphosing the bell handles – turning them into something else entirely – speaks of witchcraft. Keats’s alternate self is somewhere between the animal and the supernatural, denatured, comically absurd, and at liberty to upset domestic and linguistic order. Secondly, Keats personifies the household items; Mrs. Dilke’s decanters are ‘agonized,’ her candlesticks ‘dislocated.’ These objects become bodily, reimagined into a rhetoric of pain and disfigurement, anthropomorphised to heighten the absurdist tenor of this alternate Hampstead. Deftly designed to entertain, Keats creates a topsy-turvy space in which the human becomes animal – magical, even – and the inanimate object develops human characteristics. Keats pens destructive images in quick succession to entertain; but it also serves to plot a dialogue of broken conventions. Everything here is misshapen and reimagined: verbs and objects unnaturally forced together allow Keats to refigure the domestic, the linguistic, and the conventional approach to letter writing. By denaturing his own identity and performing the unreal parts of inanimate objects, Keats maintains control of this increasingly complicated space, generating comic confusion, and leaving his readership in even greater uncertainty.

The crescendo of this letter’s creative subversion comes at its close. Keats introduces a second speaker to address the Reynolds sisters: ‘Endymion and I are at the bottom of the Sea,’ (I. 160) Keats declares before introducing Endymion/Endymion as an authorial voice in the letter. ‘My dear Ladies … how ever my friend Keats may have teazed and vexed you believe me he loves you not the less’ (I. 160). In a bold turn, Keats personifies Endymion, who addresses the Reynolds sisters from the sea. Refiguring his authorial voice into new possibility, Keats is unclear whether this is the voice of Endymion the character or Endymion the poem now given centre stage. He plays on this ambiguity to obscure the close of his correspondence; speaking from the sea, this is a final subversion – and, indeed, a submersion – of the identity Keats assumes as letter writer. The personified Endymion/Endymion tells the Reynolds sisters he has a message for them from ‘John Keats,’ who ‘sends you moreover this little scroll’ (I. 160). This imagined scroll reads: My dear Girls, I send you per favor of Endymion the assurance of my esteem of you and my utmost wishes for you Health and Pleasure – being ever – Your affectionate Brother. John Keats’ (I. 160). It is almost impossible to conjecture who is signing off this letter, which of all the selves he creates has become the ‘John Keats’ who puts his name at its close. This final self, ‘John Keats,’ is communicating through an imagined scroll entrusted to Endymion/Endymion, the personified character or poem, by Keats, the letter writer. Leading his recipients on a wild goose chase through a series of brilliant, conflicting scenes and diverse selves, Keats upturns and challenges the letter form. This letter barely breathes, ‘hawling’ (I. 160) its recipients, much like the personified Endymion/Endymion claims Keats is ‘hawling’ him, or indeed it, through a sea of enchanting and uncertain images. Keats speaks through other writers; through a destructive, alternate self; becomes the poet at the bottom of the sea; the character Endymion; the poem Endymion; and, lastly, arrives at ‘John Keats.’ Creating and destabilising these personae, Keats disrupts the conventional, singular voice of the letter writer, making it impossible to trace one identity through the multiple layers of artifice. Bound to no single self, challenging and subverting the very rules of language and composition, dealing with illusion and magic: Keats assumes control by deliberately destabilising the form, demonstrating the unique epistolary prowess that characterises his letters of 1817.



The Letters of John Keats, ed. by Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Milton, John, ‘Comus’, Milton’s Comus with Introduction and Notes (London: Macmillan, 1891)

Shakespeare, William, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Cheltenham: Stanley Thornes, 1994)

Spenser, Edmund, Amoretti, and Epithalamion (UK: Dodo Press, 2010)

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