On 30 November 2020, the KLP Editors served as guests at a meeting of “Romanticism in the Meantime,” a bi-weekly virtual gathering organized by Jonathan Mulrooney and Emily Rohrbach. For the bicentennial of Keats’s last letter, each of the KLP Editors offered their reflections on Keats, on his correspondence, and on the KLP itself. We reproduce them here in textual form as we near the bicentennial of Keats’s death. Click here for more on the KLP’s coverage of this sad, last bicentennial.
I don’t know if you know the contemporary poet Ross Gay, but if you don’t, I highly recommend you read him. I’ve been reading his most recent poetry book, Be Holding, and I love it, just as I loved his previous one, catalog of unabashed gratitude. In any case, I’m thinking of him now because I just had to figure out how to address everyone here—wherever that is—and I recalled how much I enjoy when Gay addresses his reader, not in the 19th-century mode of “Dear Reader,” but simply, and in the plural, as “friends.” So goes the opening line of the title poem of catalog of unabashed gratitude: “Friends, will you bear with me today.”
I’m lucky enough to call some of you friends already, but I’m also projecting into the future here, hopeful that with all of you my address will someday reach its destination. In any case, I hope that you can at least bear with me today. And bear with Keats, which is what, among other things, he asks of Charles Brown in his last letter. “There, you rogue,” he writes to his friend, “I put you to the torture,—but you must bring your philosophy to bear—as I do mine, really—or how should I be able to live?” To bear with Keats, or to bear as Keats does, is necessary to support his ability to live. (You can read my friend David Sigler’s wiser words on this sentence from Keats’s letter by checking out our collaborative post published on the KLP earlier today—David brought his philosophy to bear on the letter, and so should you bring yours.)
I’m also thinking about friends as we reflect on the work of the KLP over the last few years. Our project blossomed out of friendships—some old, some new—and it’s often been about them, too. Keats’s first letter, an epistolary poem that may or may not have actually been sent as a letter, speaks of his “great partnership” with its addressee, George Felton Mathew, whom Keats calls his “too partial friend.” In her response to this letter, published way back at the end of 2015, Kate Singer focused on the linguistic and semiotic play in “partnership” and “partial,” and how the playful, convivial impulse behind Keats’s friendships was something animating the KLP as well. But the “partiality” of friendship could also gesture toward the limitations of connection, of the many ways we remain separated from and mediated to one another, even before the pandemic but in more striking ways now during it.
All of this is to say, friends, that the occasion of commemorating Keats’s last letter here at the end of 2020 has been, well, difficult. Keats’s letter opens with the admission that “Tis the most difficult thing in the world to me to write a letter,” and many things this year have felt similarly. And yet, even at our worst, like Keats in quarantine, we summon up whatever we can, be they puns or other arts of living (another friend, Rebecca Ariel Porte, writes today, “the dead know that an awkward bow is an art of living.”) What else can we do but ask, with Keats, “Remember me to all friends.”
What I’ve found over the last few weeks, as I’ve corresponded with many friends (of Keats, of the KLP, of my own), and as I’ve made new friends that I hadn’t known at all until we corresponded about Keats’s last letter, is that it can be less difficult to write a letter, or an email, when our great partnerships take shape. As we wrote days after the 2016 election in a piece titled, “Why We Need Keats,” “As much as it pains the editors of the Keats Letters Project to admit, we may not really need Keats. What we do need is what we build around Keats.” And so, friends, I close my epistle with gratitude for you and your time today exploring with us what we’ve been building together.
Your sincere friend and co-scribbler,
My Dear Mr. Keats,
When my friends and I began this project, I was interested in your letters as objects because I knew you regarded them as such—as things, things that could be stained with jam, things that could be taken to bed, as you did with a July 1819 letter from Fanny Brawne. But I also was interested in your letters as objects because I knew something that you did not yet know when you wrote your early letters—that eventually they would bear the news of your body weakening—that as objects they would bear the physical traces of your faltering form into the hands of your correspondents. I knew that in these circumstances your letters, as bodies in the world, would take on a special charge. This is what letters can do when one correspondent is ill. I discovered this while silently weeping as I held the letters that Tom Poole and Tom Wedgwood sent to one another as Wedgwood approached death.
And you reminded us of all of this when you wrote to Charles Brown on 30 November—exactly two centuries ago—of avoiding his most recent letter: “I am afraid to look it over again.” We may fear the written word in many forms, but you told Brown that it was his visible trace that you feared most: “I cannot bear the sight of any hand writing of a friend I love so much as I do you.” His letter meant something different because you were ill. And your letter must’ve meant something different to him, too. I can imagine Brown looking at the shape of your script, trying to divine the state of your body by the appearance of the words. And he would’ve done something different with that letter, wouldn’t he have? At the very least he must have held it differently, and felt differently when he held it—the letter that was an object that connected his body to your dying body.
I wondered when we began the Keats Letters Project in 2015 what it would mean to reread your letters as you wrote them—not all at once, page after page according to my own pace—but slowly, spaced or clustered as they issued from your mind and pen. And reading your letters in this way did change things, at least somewhat. But I thought there were other ways I couldn’t get closer to you. My life is so far from yours. Time and distance mean different things now. Email and airplanes have changed us.
When we began our project, I didn’t think that digital communication could bear any of the charge of letters, but this year they have for me, as I have been at a distance from all of my loved ones that live beyond the walls of my little house. This spring I found myself beginning messages with the strained sentence “I hope this email finds you as well as possible,” all the while fearing news of illness or trauma, much as your correspondents would’ve come increasingly to fear for your body. Silence began to gnaw at me differently. I began to seek connection and correspondence differently. I began to avoid communication differently. Zoom has helped, but not much.
I sometimes touch objects that remind me of the people and places beyond my little house. Last month I made a casserole my mother used to make that I hadn’t had in nearly 30 years—I think for the smell. I wish I could hear my brother’s thumping feet above, and feel irritated by the strains of Nickelodeon theme songs emanating from his room. I wish I could feel and smell and taste the November air at dusk in Connecticut. I wish I could hear the sirens on Second Avenue. I can imagine putting a letter under my pillow.
In November 2020, I don’t take for granted that I will see my loved ones again. I never did, really, but I lived like I did. And as we climb the graphs here in Mississippi and across the country—graphs that blur people into blue and red lines—we are, all of us, in a contingent place, a fragile place. Distance and time have shifted. And we are—or at least I am—much closer to you in Rome.
I remain your humble servant—as I have been for quite some time, but I am perhaps now more than ever before,
Anne C. McCarthy
To my spectral companions and compatriots:
We’ve been living with Keats and his letters for five years now. There’s been a pleasure in suspending our knowledge of where it all ends—I think back to some of the earliest responses that drew attention to how much of Keats’s life remained unwritten in, say, 1816, and I think about the ways that something like negative capability could spring from a play of contingencies not yet congealed into felicity or tragedy. It’s a truism to remark that we don’t write letters like that anymore, but that doesn’t mean letters no longer matter. It’s just that they are largely, in the 21st century, the tools of institutions and officialdom, the neoliberal manager’s missile of choice for evaluating one’s suitability for a task (cover letters, letters of recommendation), for hiring and firing, for the granting and withholding of support. Today’s letters are more likely to narrow the vale of soul-making than enlarge it.
This is on my mind as I think about the first sentence of Keats’s last missive: “Tis the most difficult thing in the world for me to write a letter.” It’s not that Keats, writing from Rome at the end of 1820, has any less to say than he did in early 1818 when he reveled in the excesses of his “teeming brain” in “When I have fears that I may cease to be.” If anything, there is more to say at this later date, more words to be projected onto the page, across Europe, across time. There are still so many letters to write, but so much pain in the writing. It must have felt both absolutely necessary and entirely insurmountable. As another Charles Brown (the character in Peanuts, not Keats’s addressee) once admitted to his own pen pal, “some days I feel like I’m writing uphill.”
I gave up writing for Lent this year because I could no longer visualize a future. Determined to avoid the sorts of deadly thoughts of past times—and thankfully here I had a less problematic stomach than Keats did—I started reading. It wasn’t so much a journey through realms of gold as it was the process of laying down stepping stones towards a shore that may or may not be there at all.
The thing about an impasse is that it’s supposed to end at some point—the word implies that there is a passage, even if that passage only reveals itself as a blockage. Both Lent and, in its original use, quarantine, refer to periods of forty days. I thought that’s about how long I’d read for. But the time of giving things up has never really ended this year. Keats’s literal quarantine in Naples harbor was only about ten days, and we know that he wrote, and generated puns throughout. But Rome wasn’t really an end to that separation as an intensification of it—that “posthumous existence” where the future is both inevitable and unthinkable.
As someone who literally wrote the book on suspension, I should probably have made peace with this by now. I can say that I’m on track to read about 150 books this year and it has taken me an inordinately long time to put these words on paper. It’s perpetually the 41st day of the thing that was supposed to end at 40; what can we do but follow Keats’s advice to bring our philosophy to bear? Thus far, the bicentenniality of it all has given us a convenient alibi for our resistance to the rule of the official letter. The spacing of distance and absence is also what allows thought to breathe.
As we move beyond the shelter of the bicentennial, what comforts may we find in writing—and not writing—with—and without—Keats?
Yours in (somewhat) willing suspension,
Dearest Beloved Correspondents:
I’ve been thinking a lot about our early conversations, and in particular our discussions of the letter-poem to George Felton Mathew. I wrote then of the Brotherhood of Song that the letter enacts, speaking of the ways singing together required breathing together, and the necessity of physical proximity to music making—the one thing that the letter, as a marker of physical distance, can never achieve. These thoughts have resonated over the course of our project, as the editorial team have sought ways to get together, to enjoy one another’s company, but all too frequently have had to resort to google hangouts and latterly Zoom meetings. Now, I feel this irritation more intensely. Physical distance has become social distance. Correspondence has become an impossible, but life-saving necessity—simultaneously heroic and utterly tedious.
But there’s something else about the quality of song, that has been pestering me since those early conversations. It’s a thing that, at least as a short-hand, we might call “the ear worm”: the short musical phrase that gets stuck in your head, burrowing deep down into the skull, pestering you with its glossy unrelenting appeal. We don’t have an equivalent term to describe similar literary effects, but I think we need one. Because certain moments from literature, stay with you. There are words that resonate deeply, echoing through our skulls and becoming a part of our identity. Keats has furnished us with a few good ones. Beauty is truth, Truth beauty. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. But Keats was himself subject to the literary ear worm, as he shows in his final letter.
“There was a star predominant” says Keats misquoting from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The speech Keats refers to comes from the scene in which Leontes is driven to the point of madness by his jealousy and lashes out with extraordinary passion at everything and everyone around him, leading him ultimately to blame the construction of the planet, which Leontes claims is inherently lecherous. “It is a bawdy planet, that will strike where ‘tis predominant,” Leontes says. It is this vicious, wild jealousy that Keats invokes when he reflects that he’s only just missed Charles Brown on his way to Italy.
You could see this as completely commensurate with the passion of Keats’s feeling. Keats was desperately ill and his frustration at learning about this near miss must have been exquisitely painful. But you could also read it as a comically ludicrous allusion. The near miss of seeing his good friend and collaborator was almost nothing like the cosmic and vicious jealousy of Leontes, who believes his wife was cheating on him.
So what is the allusion doing in this letter? Maybe it’s just an ear worm. A line from Shakespeare, that has been playing repeatedly in Keats’s skull. A good line that recurs obsessively, but not necessarily appropriately, or even correctly. Partly what I’m getting at is that we need a language to describe both the intensity and frequency of the textual encounter, rather than the mere fact of it. A song that plays repeatedly in the head is a different form of interaction than going to hear a song performed at a concert. It gets under the skin, and into the bones. You can hear this happening with The Winter’s Tale in Keats’s last letter. And you can hear it in our respondents writing about Keats. There are those phrases like negative capability or the “vale of Soul-making” which are already well-known. But others less obvious have resonated across the entries, like the phrase “An Era in my Existence” written as Keats contemplates his first meeting with Leigh Hunt, which, has become a marker for significant events of all kinds. And now too, with this final letter: the “awkward bow” is a phrase that I know I will be using with some considerable frequency from now on.
And with that, I will make my graceful exit.
Your most loyal and obedient Humble Servant,
Ian Newman, Esq.
A few days ago, the KLP published my reflection on the November 30 letter. In that reflection, I argue that Keats criticism so far has missed a pretty obvious pun: when Keats says he is “leading a posthumous existence,” he is, among many other things, noting that, exiled to Italy and away from his beloved, his existence is like that of Posthumus from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline—a favorite character from a favorite play.
But that argument is there to read, so instead of rehashing it, I’ve decided to present some insights in the genre of what I call thank-eww notes—offers of sincere gratitude that also often contain bad jokes. But this in itself really is a Keatsian endeavor, an homage. What Andrew Bennett says of Keats’s poems also adheres to the letters: “What makes the poetry of John Keats so compelling, at once so disturbing and so seductive, are its uncertain but irreducible and scandalous instabilities.”
The pun in posthumous Keats creates a scandalous instability. It is serious and deep and true, AND it is witty, AND a groaner. Here are mine:
Thank you for explaining some of your wordplay as you wordplayed. Truly. Or else we may never have known you so well as we do, you Laugher at Fun Farces.
Dear Charles Cowden Clarke,
Thank you for telling us of the tears Keats cried when reading of the departure of Posthumus. Truly. Without even trying, you explained Keats’s jest. It would have been very hard to Imogen the joke without you.
Dear Posthumous Existence,
Thank you for the scintillating paradox you offer. Truly. But don’t ever think you’ll be as capable as negative capability.
Thanks for not going with blurple.
Thank you for all the language.
Thanks for all the humor.
Dear Dr. Clark,
Thank you for doing your best. Truly. Even in the 21st century, we’re still working very hard to understand contagion and the medicinal power of anchovies.
Dear Bing Search Bar,
Thanks for all the suggested treats when I punched in pun: punctuation, punching bag, punitive damages, Punta Gorda Airport, Punky Brewster, pundit. Truly. But what about the pungent, puncturing punk rock of punchinellos? What about the explicitly puntomimical?
Thank you for all the super-prizes.
If you were tall like me you could have said, Lord Byron cuts a figurine.
There’s a late-night comedian who has a segment called Quarantinewhile. Truly. It combines his regular segment Meanwhile with the fact that we’re living in a pandemic. No one bats an eye.
Dear Keats Critics,
Let’s keep unabashedly trying to become better friends of Keats. Truly. Let’s understand that being a friend means having in-jokes. Even if those in-jokes are no-dad-jokes.
Though I still don’t know what I think about what you decided to do with the laudanum, thank you—truly—for doing your best.
Love your work. All of what the KLP has done has in some way come from you. There cannot be enough gratitude for all you did. Truly. But sixty plus years ago you forgot a footnote.
Dear Mole Under Imogen’s Breast,
Thanks for being a sign of having been false as much as having been true.
Thanks a lot. I wasn’t even going to work on this, but then I shared on our shared KLP Google doc an idea that I had to address my comments today to Hyder E. Rollins, the editor of the standard scholarly edition of Keats’s letters, and you wrote, “DEAR HYDER!!!!!” And I replied, “I can’t figure out what at all to do with this… Planning a tactical retreat… Unless I do something like: Dear Hyder, Love your work. But you forgot a footnote.” And you wrote, “That’s perfect!” And then, suddenly, I had an idea, and wrote, “Thinking of a short series of these kinds of quick notes. Not letters, but postcards…” Then you wrote, “Yeah, I totally dig it. Fits well with the content of your remarks, too.” And I said, “Thanks, Brother. Let me see what I can do…” And then you said, “Feel free to also feature this exchange in your remarks,” adding after that a colon and a closed parenthesis, which, if we didn’t know the signs, I could have taken to mean “the rest is silence,” but, knowing, instead, I wrote: “You read my mind.”
Scandalously, Instably, but still Yours,
Dear all of yous proing and cunning,
Can I admit that I too am “afraid to encounter the proing and conning of any thing interesting to me” outside my office where I “teach” other yous, and where my son sits in frenetic boredom spinning the chair of remote school? Keats’s FOMO in this letter is, of course, deathly serious, and/but/also, Keatsian afraidness contains a punning temporality that might be familiar to us now. For he is anxious and apprehensive of what is happening elsewhere and otherwise; he resists projecting into a future he cannot see into the life of. Yet, he is also all too aware of consequences that cannot but bring him forward, in ways he neither intends nor desires.
Keats, as usual, sits on the ledge of an apocalypse whose Hyperionic brightness blots out any vision of what comes next. When he writes of his “real life having past,” it seems to be, partially, that feeling that everything we know, all the ways we have lived are changed, yet “how it would have been” and how “it appears to me” cannot be spoken of. He is better now that is he no longer ensorceled in a plagued ship, but he is still quarantining, still encloistered in the apprehension of the “or how should I be able to live.” The “or how should I” is enabled by both Brown’s “philosophy to bear” and the “as I do mine, really”; with the beings of Brown and Severn, there is never a single Keatsian apocalypse. Individual death, even the death of the author, rides the pony, at least in our imaginations, of other endings, of others’ endings of us, of other ways of dying into life. As I looked at the picture of a mobile mortuary in Texas this morning, I heard Judith Butler asking, “What makes for a grievable life?” and I then heard Keats punning on grievable. Maybe the “probing and coming” of “healthy, alert &c, walking with her,” his “riding the pony” of those puns, the ramming down of double meanings “to consolidate by pounding,” the Italian puntiglio of stubbornness, the ironic temporality of a future comic drum beat where one meaning becomes another, one life becomes another.
If Keats, as we do, knew there was no re-covery from the revelation of “all the information,” he is always asking us how we transform our dying into lives, how grievability of ours and others’ “real life having past,” the grievability of our “philosophy to bear” becomes a shin-protecting greave, a jambeau, or enjambment of the leg swinging over, shod without stopping, the next foot taken. “I have not written to x x x x x yet” “I shall write to x x x to-morrow, or next day. I will write to x x x x x in the middle of next week.” “and tell x x x x I should not have left London without taking leave of him.” Here is Keats’s To Do List for himself, and for us, to think of writing each other, not only in Romantic taverned sociability but with punning greavability, not admitting absence but the criss-crossed praising and conceiving of others, who are readying themselves for work and battle and unshielded love. In my not-yet xx’ed to do list still developing to-morrow, or middle of next semester: Rejack’s flat-capped networked media magic, Stanback’s not very little matter of letters that rewrite our notions of abled re-covery, Theune’s long-armed & tall order poetics of closures and puns that signal that negatively capable evermore about to be, Newman’s gregariously bearded information of the Londonian multiverse, McCarthy’s Gritted, Wollstonecraftian truth-saying and unbowed living on. My friends, let’s keep xxxing our project and others, even if conning the end after the end ’tis the most difficult thing in what was formerly known as the world…