To launch the KLP, we’ll be featuring responses, written by the founders, to Keats’s first extant letter, the verse epistle ‘To George Felton Mathew.’ You can read the poem here, and the previous response in the series here. Once collected, all responses will be here.
Response / “To George Felton Mathew” (November 1815)
Anne McCarthy / 24 November 2015
Who is writing? To whom? And to send, to destine, to dispatch what? To what address? Without any desire to surprise, and thereby to grab attention by means of obscurity, I owe it to whatever remains of my honesty to say finally that I do not know.
The invitation you can’t refuse is also a riddle: the poem that addresses itself as a letter, the letter that slides into the sweet pleasures of verse. It’s easier to make this leap as part of a “brotherhood in song.” And we must agree, or else we wouldn’t be beginning this way, stacking letters upon letters, multiplying invocations to each other and to those we haven’t met yet or don’t know well; we wouldn’t be setting out our initial calculations, plotting destinations. I am writing this letter to all of you with Derrida’s The Post-Card on my left and Keats’s “To George Felton Mathew” on my right. I suppose this is both the best and worst place to begin with the confession that I have always read The Post-Card in a kind of scattershot, intermittent fashion (my textual traces, all these obscure and not so obscure underlinings reminding me of all the things I’ve looked for at one point or another) and also that sometimes I can’t believe I’ve gotten myself into a position where I’ve agreed to think about Keats on a pretty regular basis for the next several years.
Not that the letter never arrives at its destination, but it belongs to the structure of the letter to be capable, always, of not arriving.
Nevertheless, we begin by thinking, with Keats, of “this great partnership.” And so: drawing up a contract of sorts, terms of agreement and response, our reading is also a counter-signing, however uncalled for, however uninvited. A contract that suggests, at least, an unlimiting of response, of reading and writing without end. It’s often useful to have a co-pilot on a flight of fancy. Did you see what I just saw, “flush’d Aurora in the roseate dawning”? Let’s write it together, somehow that makes it more real. I will write myself out of this dark city where I am not yet who I will become. I will write myself a path to “Some flowery spot, sequester’d, wild, romantic, / That often must have seen a poet frantic …” (We will not yet journey to fully undiscovered lands; we save the glances of Cortez for another day.) The vision of a drawing room—a space that brings the muse to us, and, by doing so, by entering into our joint hospitality, comes to seem less conventional somehow than the woods with violets and nightingales and ruins—the space created, the other poets join us in thought—we break the bounds of history, but we do so together.
A correspondence: this is still to say too much, to too little. Perhaps it was not one (but more or less) not very correspondent.
And of course, we’re not imagining a place so much as a poem, other poems and letters that will be both over- and under-read in order that they may be read at all. By the time “To George Felton Mathew” appeared in Keats’s 1817 Poems, the partnership was already in decay; in Nicholas Roe’s account, the differences came to be both aesthetic and political. Printed near the center of this volume, circumscribed as earlier than the poems that surround it, the lines of invitation, Roe writes, “marked a friendship which had soured.” Keats moves on to the pursuit of other muses, growing closer to Leigh Hunt as he drifts apart from Mathew who, Roe suggests, was perhaps less than keen to admit William Tell or Robert Burns to his poetic drawing room.
Now it is bad, and I know no other definition of the bad, it is bad to predestine one’s reading, it is always bad to foretell. It is bad, reader, no longer to like retracing one’s steps.
But we suspend for now the historical endings we know to be inevitable; we will never, it is true, be able to do much more than open these letters again for the first time. But if the letter, as Derrida argues, is constituted by its destinerrance, if its destin lies, to some extent, in its capacity for errance—we can find in this breathing-space room for putting on a “soft humanity.” A place from which we allow ourselves to be apostrophized, we who were not even thought of before, and from which we risk responding, and inviting response.
The quotations in italics are all taken from Jacques Derrida, The Post-Card (trans. Alan Bass; Chicago, 1987); they appear on pages 5, 444, 3, and 4. I also refer to Nicholas Roe, “John Keats and George Felton Mathew: Poetics, Politics, and the ‘European Magazine,’” Keats-Shelley Journal 49 (2000): 31-46.