“Keats’s Bawdry”

Ian Newman
University of Notre Dame

Re: Keats’s 5 January 1818 Letter to George and Tom Keats

When Keats wrote to his brothers George and Tom on 5 January 1818—his first letter to them since dining with Charles Lamb, William Wordsworth and others at Benjamin Haydon’s studio—“The Immortal Dinner” only gets a passing mention, in part because Keats was too busy making jokes about genitalia.

I was at a dance at Redhall’s and passed a pl[e]asant time enough—drank deep and won 10.6 at cutting for Half Guinies there was a younger Brother of the Squibs made himself very conspicuous after the Ladies had retired from the supper table by giving Mater Omnium—Mr Redhall said he did not understand anything but plain english—where at Rice egged the young fool on to say the World [sic] plainly out. After which there was an enquirey about the derivation of the Word C__t when while two parsons and Grammarians were setting together and settling the matter Wm Squibs interrupting them said a very good thing—‘Gentleman says he I have always understood it to be a Root and not a Derivative.’ (Rollins I, p. 200).

The host, George S. Reddell, was sword-cutler to the Prince Regent and the Dukes of Sussex and Cambridge, who resided at 236 Piccadilly near Haymarket, where Piccadilly Circus is now. He also provided surgical instruments to Guy’s Hospital, which is presumably how Keats knew him (Roe, p. 203). This exchange is typical of the kind of masculine banter that took place after dinner, “after the ladies retired” euphemistically indicating the moment when bawdy songs and crude jokes, often in the form of toasts, became the order of the day. Young Mr. Squib “gives”—that is, “offers a toast”—in Latin, “Mater Omnium” meaning literally “Mother of all,” clearly a slang term for vagina. The humor here lies in the contrast between sophisticated Latin expression and coarse content, a form of humor that was firmly established in masculine convivial circles of the early nineteenth century. The response by Reddell, who refuses any such sophistication, determinedly lays bare the crass nature of the toast, a refusal amplified by Rice, someone Keats had been spending much time with, and who introduces Keats to some of the cant terms most often associated with Pierce Egan and the Tom and Jerry craze, which would burst onto the London scene in 1819-20 following the serialized publication of Life in London. It is Rice who causes young Squib to blurt “C__t” out in plain English, to the amusement of all gathered.

But Keats’s account of the after-dinner conversation is not done yet. He continues his report: “On proceeding to the Pot in the Cupboard it soon became full on which the Court door was opened Frank Floodgate bawls out, Hoollo! here’s an opposition pot—Ay, says Rice in one you have a Yard for your pot, and in the other a pot for your Yard” (Rollins I: pp. 200-201). This is helpful evidence for those who have wondered how bathroom etiquette worked in the days before flushing toilets. Apparently, chamber Pots were kept in “cupboards” —a kind of commode—in the dining room, which could be expeditiously visited without causing an inconvenient break in conversation. The contents were then emptied out into the “yard.” Plans of taverns from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries show conspicuous outdoor “yards,” presumably included in the architecture with this purpose in mind. But, as Rollins points out, “yard” was also one of the most common literary words for penis, and so the puns here contrasting the pot and the yard, pick up on the previous comments concerning reproductive organs, developing the language of body parts (and it’s likely the “pot” here is another reference to female genitals) and layering over it a language of early nineteenth-century bathroom mechanics.

Richard Marggraf Turley has suggested that the censoring of the “enquirey” into the derivation of the word “C__t”–seen both in Keats’s refusal to report the details of the discussion and his reluctance to spell out the word itself–testifies to Keats’s uncertainty and indecision when it came to replicating ‘after-dinner’ modes of masculine address” (Marggraf Turley, p. 108). There is indeed something of the self-conscious “sniggering schoolboy” (Marggraf Turley’s phrase) in Keats’s representation of bawdy conversation, but what is surely more striking is just how far Keats goes. It perhaps not so much that the conversation is shocking itself, but Keats’s willingness to represent it raises an eyebrow. And it’s all the more notable just how much detail Keats goes into when compared to his account of the “Immortal Dinner,” for which Keats provides very little detail concerning the conversation.

“I forget whether I had written my last before my Sunday Evening at Haydon’s,” Keats scrawls, as if the thing is of no consequence. Then continues “—no I did n{o}t or I should have told you Tom of a y{oung} Man you met at Paris at Scott’s of the n{ame of} Richer” (Rollins I, p. 197-8). It’s a performance of absent-mindedness (genuine or feigned) that emphasizes the whirl of sociability—so many dinners, so much to report it’s hard to keep them all straight. And it’s a curious historiographical fact that when he introduces the subject of the Immortal Dinner, Keats’s emphasis is primarily on one of the lesser-lights in the firmament of Immortality, Joseph Ritchie (whom he calls “Richer” presumably mistakenly, but it could be another punning in-joke with his brothers) the surgeon and explorer who was about to set off on a government-sponsored expedition to Fezzan, in what is now southwest Libya. (Like many of the “immortals” Ritchie would die prematurely, in November 1820.) After mentioning Ritchie, Keats, in an exemplary humble brag, mentions the other dinner guests: “then there was Wordsworth, Lamb, Monkhouse, Landseer, Kingston and your humble Sarvant,” going on to relate briefly, how “Lamb got tipsey and blew up Kingston—proceeding so far as to take the Candle across the Room hold it to his face and show us wh-a-at-sort-fello he-waas I astonished Kingston at supper with a pertinacity in favour of drinking—keeping my two glasses at work in a knowing way.” Keats then suddenly departs from the dinner with a note about their sister, “I have seen Fanny twice lately,” urging the brothers to write to her (I: p. 198).

So much has been written about the “Immortal Dinner”—including two books dedicated to the subject in recent years (by Penelope Hughes-Hallett and Stanley Plumly)—that the brevity of the account is a little disarming. It has been billed as the legendary night when first and second generation Romantic poets gathered together for spirited literary conversation, laced with not a little wine. So familiar are the stories—of Kingston’s high-minded banality, asking Wordsworth whether he thought Milton and Newton geniuses; of the social awkwardness of the sober Wordsworth being confronted by his superior from the Stamp Office; of Haydon’s bravura in setting the dining table in front of his enormous painting Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, in which Keats, Lamb and Wordsworth were depicted in the crowd; and especially of Lamb’s hilariously drunken behavior, chanting Diddle idle don / My son John / Went to bed with his breeches on as serious subjects were broached, and asking to examine Kingston’s head whenever he uttered something mundane—that it is remarkable to find the occasion skipped over so lightly in Keats’s letter.

Recall just how excited Keats was to meet the artist just over a year earlier when he visited Haydon’s studio as Hazlitt was sitting for his portrait for Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem. So thrilled was he that he penned his sonnet “Great Spirits Now on Earth Are Sojourning,” which included Haydon along with Leigh Hunt and William Wordsworth as one of the thrilling intellects now regenerating the planet. A mere thirteen months and sixteen days later Keats was so used to hanging out with the great spirits of the age that they only get a passing mention, along with his theater reviews for the Champion, Tom’s illness, dinners with Wells and Severn and Haslam, the education in cant that Rice has given him (including the expression “hanging out”), the Covent Garden Pantomime, Shelley’s review of Godwin’s Mandeville, subscriptions for William Hone (whose trials for blasphemy were underway), the relative merits of Smollett and Walter Scott, dancing, Fanny’s request for a letter, and the derivation of the word C__t. Reading this letter it becomes clear how much is going on with Keats, and especially how much of it, in this Christmas season, involves socializing. This is an impression Keats is keen to give to his brothers. The characteristic punctuation is a series of dashes, producing a breathless forward motion, a non-sequential stream of thoughts scribbled down in haste, often blurring into one another.

Part of the absence of details about the Immortal Dinner, then, has to do with the particular character of his correspondence with his brothers, which is often playful, funny, punny and salacious. I’m struck by Brian Bates’s comments on how considering pantomime might help us come to terms with the comedic possibilities of negative capability, which has often been taken much too seriously. Part of the effect of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts,” Bates suggests, is one of leveling, so that Harlequin and Shakespeare can be taken equally seriously. What is striking about the 5 January follow-up to the negative capability letter is the effacement of the serious in favor of the low, essentially enacting an argument he makes in favor of Smollett over Scott in the same letter: “Scott endeavours to th[r]ow so interesting and ramantic a colouring into common and low Characters as to give them a touch of the Sublime—Smollet on the contrary pulls down and levels what with other Men would continue Romance. The Grand parts of Scott are within reach of more Minds that [sic] the finest humours in Humphrey Clinker—I forget whether that fine thing of the Sargeant is Fielding’s or Smollets but it gives me more pleasure that [sic] the whole Novel of Antiquary—you must remember what I mean. Some one says to the Sargeant “thats a non sequiter,” “if you come to that” replies the Sargeant “you’re another”” (Rollins I: p. 200). The “fine thing of the Sargeant” is in fact in Fielding’s Tom Jones, not Smollett, but regardless, Keats’s preference for the comic novelists of the eighteenth-century over Scott’s historical novels, however appealing they may be to Minds, is telling. The “leveling” principle in Keats involves not an elevation of the low, so much as a reduction of the high. Or to put that another way, Keats enjoys pointing out the absurdity of the pretentions of elite culture—at least in his letters to his brothers. So it makes sense that in this letter he should devote more time to Rice’s bawdry than Haydon’s elevated aspirations towards genius, or Wordsworth’s sagacity. It makes sense, too, that when it comes to recalling the Immortal Dinner, Keats’s emphasis should not be on the high-minded excellence of the conversation, which Haydon compared favorably to anything in Boswell (Plumly p.127), but to Lamb’s silliness. Of course, Keats could at times aspire to high-minded genius himself, but this letter suggests that we would do well to attend to the ways those aspirations are kept in check by a playful sense of the absurd and the vulgar.


Works Cited

Coleman, Julie, A History of Cant And Slang Dictionaries, Volume II 1785-858, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Brewer, David A., “The Moment of Tom and Jerry” ‘when Fistycuffs were the fashion’” https://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/fandom/praxis.fandom.2010.brewer.html.

Hughes-Hallett, Penelope, The Immortal Dinner: A Famous Evening of Genius and Laughter in Literary London, 1817, London: New Amsterdam Books, 2000.

Keats, John, The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder E. Rollins, 2 vols., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Marggraf Turley, Richard, Keats’s Boyish Imagination, London: Routledge, 2004.

Plumly, Stanley, The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb, New York: W.W. Norton, 2014.

Roe, Nicholas, John Keats: A New Life, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.


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