Birmingham City University
Re: Keats’s 17/18 April 1817 letter to J. H. Reynolds
Following the death of his brother Tom and the new, transatlantic distance between himself and his brother George, letter writing becomes an increasingly anxious task for Keats. Fearful of the effects of long term or permanent separation, Keats experiments with the letter to ‘overcome this distance’ (Barnard 129) between himself and his recipients; yet even his earlier, more playful letters underpin a similar vexation with distance and an impatience with the letter as a form of communication. Keats’s letter to J. H. Reynolds of 17 and and 18 April 1817, is a fast-paced and forceful piece of writing which moves from bright, intense description to dark brooding. Keats toes the line between descriptive exploration and resentful longing, revealing the conflict of letter writing as both an essential means of communication and a delayed conversation in which the recipient is dependent on a cycle of constant reciprocation. Writing from his room in Carisbrooke, on the Isle of Wight, Keats begins by decorating his letter with cosy artifice: “I have unpacked my books, put them in a snug corner – pinned up Haydon – Mary Queen of Scotts, and Milton with his daughters in a row.” With Shakespeare’s head hanging “over my Books,” Keats opens his letter with an inviting warmth, settling himself, and his literary idols, into his lodgings. Keats’s good humour is soothing, his tone both charming in its attention to detail and fluid in movement from one topic to the next. Swiftly, he changes the scene of the letter, carefully describing the countryside “filled with trees & bushes in the narrow part; and as it widens becomes bare, if it were not for primroses on one side, which spread to the very verge of the sea, and some fisherman’s huts on the other”(I: 130). Keats directs the mind’s eye like a periscope, moving from the trees, emerging on to a wider plain decorated with flowers and fisherman’s huts; his insistence on fine detail provides clear visual communication for his recipient. For Keats, it is paramount to “convey the physical traces of touch on the paper” and communicate himself and his environment through the “beautifully captured … physical scrutiny” of the letter (Thomson 168). Not only does he want to communicate information to his recipient, but through his careful and artful attention to detail, he seeks to preserve a physical representation of himself, and his experiences, in his correspondence.
Fluid and fast, this letter slips from a woodland scene to a commentary about “the sea, Jack, the sea” (I: 131). Keats “attempt[s] to bridge physical separation” (Thomson 165) and overcome the tenseness he associates with distance by speaking not only for himself, but for Reynolds: “why are you at Carisbrooke? say you– Because… from here I can see your continent – from a little hill close by, the whole North Angle of the Isle of Wight, with the water between us” (I: 131). By dictating Reynold’s side of this extended conversation, Keats can cut out the distance between them and direct the course of his letter to reflect his feelings of separateness. Remaining in Carisbrooke, Keats can maintain a physical connection with home; he can see England, can look towards his recipients, but is nonetheless aware of the vast straight of water which divides them. His wistful ruminations on the sea, which has “haunted me intensely” (I: 132) during this trip, are compounded both with awe and fear, predicated on the longing and loss fostered by distance. Not only the sea, but the weather echoes his resentment towards separation: “The Wind is in a sulky fit, and I feel that it would be no bad thing to be the favourite of some Fairy, who would give one the power of seeing how our Friends got on, at a Distance” (I: 132). Keats exaggerates natural elements to convey his preoccupation with distance, personifying the wind to reflect his own agitation. He cultivates a fantastical reality in which a fairy might extend his communicative powers from the written word to a visual representation of his recipients, broaching the boundaries of the letter and closing the distance between himself and home. Keats inscribes a magical discourse in the letter which helps to romance the distance he faces as he looks out over the sea. He admits he would “like, of all Loves, a sketch of you and Tom and George” (I: 132) to be sent to him, underpinning his need for visual connection; the letter alone does not satisfy Keats’s desire to communicate intimately with his recipients. He moves closely and quickly through a succession of artfully devised scenes, from the cosy room to the haunting sea, illustrating both his imaginative breadth and his acute sense of distance.
Keats closes the first half of his letter with the poem ‘On the Sea.’ This sonnet presents the changeable nature of the sea, one moment in “gentle temper,” the next in a “mighty swell” (I: 132). After identifying its inherently opposing and contradictory characteristics, Keats implores his reader to “Feast … upon the wideness of the Sea,” and “Sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth and brood” (I: 132). This sonnet does not seek to resolve the conflicting elements of the sea, rather encouraging its reader to embrace and indulge in its chaos. This reflects the unresolved conflict of the letter and Keats’s inability to bridge the distance between himself and his recipients. “On the Sea” concludes with a figure sitting brooding, feasting transfixed on something which potentially holds no answers and cannot be reconciled or controlled. This serious, thoughtful tone replaces the cheer found in the first half of the letter and provides direction for the second half: while Keats cannot control the chaos of the sea, his dogmatic approach to the rest of the letter is an attempt to resolve the conflict of distance by controlling the boundaries of communication. Keats is instructive, not descriptive: his imperative rhetoric demands Reynolds “ask them what they can say for themselves – ask Mrs Dilke wherefore she does so distress me – Let me know how Jane has her health… Tell George and Tom to write” (I: 133). From an inviting trail of varied and provoking imagery, this letter evolves into a solid list of requests. Keats’s desires are no longer presented under the guise of fairies and floral imagery, but explicitly announced: he must “receive a Letter from you and another from my Brothers” (I: 133) on a specific date, his direction reflecting his growing agitation with the fragility and uncertainties of long distance communication.
In the following paragraph, Keats’s curtness softens as he makes a sudden admission: “I find that I cannot exist without poetry – without eternal poetry – half the day will not do – the whole of it – … I had become all in a Tremble from not having written anything of late – the Sonnet [‘On the Sea’] over leaf did me some good. I slept better last night for it – this Morning, however, I am nearly as bad again” (I: 133). Once more, Keats entirely alters the focus of the letter, his abrupt instruction mellowing into tense insecurity. His syntax is jarring, broken in more places as he broods on his relationship to poetry. Not only is it impossible to live without poetry, but his very existence depends upon it; poetry is not something he does, but something he is. It is a life force, a marker of health, and a means of healing the self: Keats can sleep better for writing, and becomes nervous for neglecting his work. Yet poetry’s restorative powers only provide a temporary cure; for Keats, poetry is a constant necessity, without which he experiences intolerable changes to his physical and mental health. His anxiety cresting, this admission is a far reach from the jovial, inviting tone which began the letter, cementing Keats’s nervousness about distance and poetry side by side.
With a final slither of hope that he might bridge that distance between himself and home, Keats dreams of a future time when Reynolds will visit him, and “we will read our verses in a delightful place I have set my heart upon near the Castle.” However, Rollins’s footnote reveals “Reynolds did not make the visit” (I: 134). Keats has returned to the dreamy, detailed description of the letter’s opening, which curtails his anxiety with hope. Yet with hindsight the idyllic vision he set his “heart upon” is to remain a vision, the geographical distance between himself and Reynolds left unbridged. His “random, indeterminate motions of mind” (Wolfson 45) and the speed at which his descriptions transform over the course in this letter reveals the troubling nature of the distance between Keats and his life back home. As Robert Gittings observes, during this trip Keats “had hardly been able to bear the hundred miles distance between” (217) himself and his loved ones, and this anguish seeps into the foundations of the letter. Repeated requests for responses underline a thirst for communication as well as a need for physical, visual connection, and his anxieties about poetry and distance culminate in a final instruction to Reynolds which was never to be realised. This letter demonstrates the relationship between Keats’s imaginative force and his developing anxiety: using the letter as an outlet for both reveals Keats’s conflict towards writing. To write is both his life force, an intrinsic part of his identity; but it is also an unreliable, unsatisfying means of communication, and, ultimately, a reminder that he remains at a distance.
Barnard, John, ‘Keats’s Letters: “Remembrancing and enchaining”’ in The Cambridge Companion to Keats, ed. by Susan J. Wolfson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Gittings, Robert, John Keats (London: Penguin, 2001).
The Letters of John Keats, ed. by Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Thomson, Heidi, ‘Keats’s Letters: ‘A Wilful and Dramatic Exercise of Our Minds Towards Each Other’’, The Keats-Shelley Review, vol. 25 (2011).
Wolfson, Susan J., ‘Keats the Letter-Writer: Epistolary Poetics’, Romanticism Past and Present, vol. 6 (1982).
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