Oregon State University
Re: Keats’s 17-21 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats
Traveling can be tough. My family and I are currently nearing the end of a four-month tour around parts of Europe, and even though we’ve enjoyed all the conveniences of middle-class, Western, twenty-first century travel – roughing it meant going without data on our smartphones – it was still frequently trying. We endured the last-minute cancellation of our flight from Amsterdam to Lisbon, followed by hours of waiting in line to re-book; we took many wrong turns on the labyrinthine streets of Venice and Prague, as well as on the narrow country roads of the Lake District, the Cotswolds, and the Dordogne; we survived temporarily lost luggage, left-behind articles of clothing, a case of food poisoning, and many flights of stairs up to stuffy, cramped flats in various cities.
How much more difficult was it to travel during the Romantic era? Take away all of our modern modes of transportation; remove most of the modern conveniences that help keep us safe, comfortable, and oriented, from hi-tech hiking boots and waterproof jackets to Google weather alerts and GPS. No state-of-the-art suitcases or designer backpacks for carrying gear; no hot showers and Netflix for relaxing in the evenings; no ATMs to dole out cash in foreign currencies; no Airbnb with which to make reservations months in advance; no Skype and Facebook to keep in near-instantaneous touch with friends and family back home.
Yet travel the Romantics did, both on the Continent and domestically, and in greater numbers than ever before. Further, despite his posthumous reputation for constitutional fragility, Keats was among those who not only voyaged extensively but also did so primarily on foot. Sure enough, his tour letters are not devoid of trials. Here, Brown in particular suffers: trying to break in new shoes, he develops blisters so painful he can barely walk. Both men must also contend with consistently poor travel food (“all together the fare is too coarse”), poor accommodations, and neighbors who drink and talk loudly late into the night. (Having been in Paris when the French national soccer team won the World Cup, I can especially relate to the latter.) Then there are problems specific to traveling in Scotland: rainy weather; ubiquitous but inedible oatcakes; screeching bagpipes (“I thought the Beast would never have done”); vicious horseflies. Having never traveled in a “foreign country” before, Keats is also mildly alarmed by hearing many of the native Highlanders “gabble away in Gaelic at a vast rate.”
Given all of the above, then, what strikes me about this letter to Tom is what a good mood Keats is in through most of it! His jollity is immediately signaled by the humorous inscription of his current location as “Cairn-something.” Keats then launches a series of self-consciously bad puns connecting the scenic locales he and Brown have visited recently into a bawdy tale, telling Tom for example that “the Lord of the Isles . . . un-Derwent” the “Whitehaven” of “the Lady of the Lake” in a way that combines some of Walter Scott’s tourist-friendly metrical verses with real places. The fact that Keats blames Brown for all this ribaldry – “Here’s Brown going on so that I cannot bring to Mind how the last two days have vanished” – adds humorous insult to injury.
To be sure, some of Keats’ usual complaints about being a tourist are present. There are too many steamboats now on Loch Lomond “for such romantic chaps as Brown and I,” and it’s too expensive to climb to the top of Ben Lomond or visit Staffa, which has become overly trendy. But there are also many magnificent views of lakes and castles, plenty of picturesque mist on the hillsides, and even several eagles which, in contrast to Keats and Brown’s slow progress, “move about without the least motion of Wings when in an indolent fit.” In this spirit, even several of the challenges encountered by Keats and Brown are transformed into occasions for good humor; in particular, the abovementioned horseflies (“gadflies”) and bagpipes that plague Keats each get their own verses. It’s all doggerel, of course, but done with plenty of verve.
Indeed, there seems to have been something in the Scottish air that sparked and fed the lighter, friskier side of Keats’ imagination. Admittedly, every vacation that involves travel promises a concomitant change of perspective and mood — a temporary reprieve from the burdens and responsibilities of daily life — that continue to be the staple of travel brochures and cruise line advertisements. But there’s clearly more at work – or, rather, at play – here. Something about the specifically Scottish environment seems to liberate Keats to be both funny and risqué, as in these naughty lines on the gadfly:
Has any here a daughter fair
Too fond of reading novels
Too apt to fall in love with care
And charming Mister Lovels
O put a gadfly to that thing
She keeps so white and pert
I mean the finger for the ring
And it will be breed a Wert–
Does Robbie Burns, with his reputation as Scotland’s national bard and ladies’ man, stand behind this “pert” bit of sexist ribaldry? I’m not sure; as noted above, it’s Scott who appears most explicitly in this epistle, and although the Author of Waverley was associated with many things, bawdiness was not usually one of them. Nor do I think Keats was deeply inspired by the Scottish landscape or Highland culture. His observations and reflections on these subjects, both here and in the published verses derived from his time in Scotland, are neither especially original nor profound; it’s no coincidence that the latter, with titles such as “Lines Written in the Highlands after a Visit to Burns’s Country,” haven’t found a place in readers’ hearts alongside “Ode on a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Instead, I suspect that what most empowers Keats in Scotland is a sense of mild superiority over its people and places. In England, especially in London’s ever-snobbish and competitive literary milieu, Keats was accustomed to feeling overlooked and undervalued; in Scotland, by contrast, he could feel important and empowered simply by virtue of being an Englishman on tour. As we’ve seen, Keats was hardly traveling in grand style; nevertheless, spending time among the Scottish peasantry seems to have impressed him with a sense of his good fortune at being born south of the border and into a middle-class family to boot.
The letter’s final entry, on 21 July, is primarily a catalogue of Highland squalor. The inn where Keats and Brown are now staying is the nicest building around but lacks an indoor toilet; the rest of the village is even more primitive, consisting of “some dozen wretched black Cottages scented of peat smoke,” which rises through holes in the roofs. The locals are equally poor: at the inn, “Grandmother” is “none too clean” and the “Guid wife” lacks stockings to go with her single “pair of old Shoes.” Most striking to Keats, finally, are the young peasant women he sees: “one little thing driving Cows down a slope like a mad thing,” and another “standing at the cowhouse door rather pretty fac’d all up to the ankles in dirt.” These seem odd details to note, much less to use as the penultimate observations of his letter, but the sight of young women performing hard rural labor obviously made a particular impression on Keats, whose own poetic female characters are frequently, notably idealized. Is he being condescending or genuinely sympathetic? Either way, between the intimation of insanity and the juxtaposition of female beauty and barnyard muck, it seems clear that as much as he’s enjoyed his rambles in Scotland, Keats would not trade his own life for those of the locals. In this way, Keats’ letters from Scotland confirm at least one more truism of foreign travel that was as relevant in 1818 as it is in 2018: however good it is to see more of the world, it is equally good to return the places we call home.