Three Things

Renee Harris
Oklahoma State University

RE: Keats’s 13 Mar 1818 letter to Bailey

Keats begins his letter to Benjamin Bailey with sentiment similar to our contemporary, “Third time’s a charm”: “When a poor devil is drowning, it is said he comes thrice to the surface, ere he makes his final sink if however, even at the third rise he can manage to catch hold of a piece of weed or rock, he stands a fair chance,–as I hope I do now, of being saved.” Threes dominate this letter as Keats has three major movements in his structure: he transitions from a critique of Devonshire to a consideration of “thingness” (as I will call it), with a contemplation of the human impact on scenery in between. Staying true to theme, I will mimic the pattern of three in my response.

The 13 March letter to Benjamin Bailey can be read as an exploration of the mutual influence of humans and nature on each other. Keats opens the letter to Bailey with an explanation of his absence, how he came to Teignmouth to be with Tom instead of traveling to Oxford. Nicholas Roe records that Keats arrived in Teignmouth on March 6th after a wet and turbulent ride from London atop a postal carriage (219). For “these three last days,” Keats writes, he has been trapped indoors, seeing only Devonshire as “a splashy, rainy, misty snowy, foggy, haily floody, muddy slipshod County”. Dismissing the county for its weather and its “dwindled englishmen,” Keats explains that a countryside is made finer by its people. Whenever he goes into the countryside, he seeks people and the rich history they represent rather than the beauty and solitude of an untouched wilderness. He writes:

I like, I love England, I like its strong Men–Give me a “long brown plain” for my Morning so I may meet with some of Edmund Iron side’s descendants–Give me a barren mould, so I may meet with some shadowing of Alfred in the shape of a Gipsey, a Huntsman, or as Shepherd. Scenery is fine–but human nature is finer–The Sward is richer for the tread of a real, nervous, english foot–the eagles nest is finer for the Mountaineer has look’d into it.

Now, for the first of my three movements, let’s enjoy some Devonshire landscapes as we form our own opinions of scenery and the benefits of human intervention on nature.

A few years before Keats’s visit to Devonshire, J. M. W. Turner displayed this painting of the countryside:

‘A Valley in Devonshire’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1813. © Leeds Museums and Galleries (City Art Gallery), UK/ courtesy Bridgeman Art Library

Keats wrote, “the hills are very beautiful, when you get a sight of ‘em–the Primroses are out, but then you are in–the Cliffs are of a fine deep Colour, but then the Clouds are continually vieing with them.”

Unpopulated by the local men and women with whom Keats takes issue in his letter, this painting seems a model naturescape with rolling hills and foliage in fiery autumnal gold and red. The clouds wisp across a bright sky. Maybe if he’d seen this Devonshire landscape with its perfect weather, he would have a different attitude about the “slipshod County.”

Keats continues: “There are knotted oaks–there are lusty rivulets there are Meadows such as are not–there are vallies of femminine Climate–but there are no thews and sinews.”

‘Devonshire Bridge with Cottage’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1813. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported).

This landscape is more idyllic than the first with a cooler color palette, clearer sky, and soft flowing river. But the countryside here has the addition of a bridge and cottage. The landscape bears the marks of human civilization. I dare say Keats might prefer this scenery to the last, and he might even find a “Gipsey, a Hunstman or as shepherd” to chat up while passing an hour along the rivulet.

And a third Devonshire landscape:

‘Teignmouth’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Exhibited 1812. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

Here we return to the warm, fiery color palette. The blackness of the ships and trees in the right foreground are offset by the brightness of a golden sunset. We have people and animals and action in this painting. A woman corrals a two cows. A man works on a small boat. We see ships fully built and mid-build. People are here. Have been here. Have made a mark on the ecology. In better weather than Keats had in 1818, perhaps these locals would inspire thoughts of a grand English history.

I read Keats’s discussion of scenery and human intervention on nature as a prelude to the “thingness” passage in today’s letter. We elevate nature through imaginative or cognitive endowment. (This is very Wordsworthian of him, and Wordsworth gets two mentions in the letter.)

Here’s what I am calling Keats’s contemplation on “thingness”:

As Tradesmen say every thing is worth what it will fetch, so probably every mental pursuit take its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer–being in itself a nothing. Ethereal thing may at least be thus real, divided under three heads–Things real–things semi-real–and no things. Things real, such as existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakespeare–Things semireal such as Love, the Clouds &c which require a greeting of the Spirit to make them wholly exist–and Nothings which are made Great and dignified by an ardent pursuit–Which by the by stamps the burgundy mark on the bottles of our Minds, insomuch as they are able to “consec[r]ate whate’er they look upon.”

To me, it seems as though Keats would rank scenery among the semi-real. We imagine a (human) history of the land, and that gives the land real-ness and worth. The human Spirit turns a semi-real rivulet into Wordsworth’s Derwent. And similarly the people of Devonshire seem equally un-real. With the addition of a human Spirit (a Shakespearean imagination) the “dwindled englishmen” and women of Teignmouth could be Hamlets or Cordelias.

I will take leave of the scenery discussion now to examine the “thingness” theory in light of Keats’s previous letter to Benjamin Bailey from November 22: the Adam’s Dream Letter. Keats writes that “what the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth,” and so Adam awakes to find the truth (a real live woman!) that has laid claims on his imagination overnight. In the 13 March 1818 letter we have a revisitation of this theme in a new frame. A Nothing becomes real (a thing) via the addition of imagination or “ardent” attention to the concept.

Keats concludes this passage of the 22 November 1817 letter with the exclamation: “O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” All of this dances about in my head and makes me think of Keats’s medical journals and what he learned from his anatomical lectures about sensation and volition being intertwined and having a seemingly reciprocal relationship.

Contained in his Anatomical and Physiological Notebook (1934), Keats’s lecture notes from his years at Guy’s Hospital are full of contemporary scientific thought on the brain and nervous system from the foremost surgeons and anatomists such as Astley Cooper, John Abernethy, and Henry Cline. The majority of his anatomy notes are on the brain and nervous system, and even the discussions of muscles and bones appear secondary to related points on sensation and movement. Keats writes that the sympathetic nervous system has two main functions: sensation and volition. Keats learned that sensation begins at the extremities and tracks to the brain through the network of nerves. His notes read: ‘Volition is the contrary of Sensation it proceeds from the internal to external parts. It does not reside entirely in the Brain but partly in spinal Marrow which is seen in the Behaviour of a Frog after having been guilloteened’ (Keats 1934: Lecture 10, ninth page). Volition, then, as Keats understood it, is distributed beyond the brain through the spine. More strikingly, Keats records, ‘Volition is sometimes present while sensation is destroyed. In a Gentleman who had lost sensation and yet had powers of Volition it was observed that he could grasp and hold a substance which his whole attention was directed thereto, but on his turning to a fresh occupation the substance dropped’ (Keats 1934: Lecture 10, ninth page). Not only did early nineteenth-century medical science understand volition to be distributed along the sympathetic nervous system (an embodied cognition), these notes indicate a belief that volition can replace sensation. In the absence of sensation, concentrated attention can perform motor tasks thought to require input from external stimuli. In other words, something dead or inanimate, a Nothing, can become “real” because of concentrated attention and the workings of the human nervous system.

For my final movement: I try to marry these themes of thingness and human intervention under the guise of poetic meaning.

Maybe I should note as well that the notoriously self-conscious (and self-deprecating) eight-paragraph preface to Endymion, which he wrote six days later on the 19 March, picks up on many of the themes of today’s letter. He begins by saying readers should be aware that “as an individual in a ‘great nation’, Keats himself is ‘a nothing’” (Roe 220). Worried for the quality of his epic attempt, Keats’s seems to think himself a dwindled Englishman stuck in a slipshod County.

Roe notes the letter is “vexed by thoughts that a mental pursuit like poetry may be a ‘mere Jack a lantern’, taking ‘value and worth from the ardour of the pursuer’” (219). Is the poet passive or active? Is poetic meaning at the mercy of a reader? As in the debates on scenery’s worth and what can elevate the status of a “thing,” here we ultimately have a question of where and when a poem’s worth emerges. Does its meaning precede the attention of the reader, therefore emerging from the poet him or herself? A “Jack a lantern” will ultimately show some semblance of the artist’s design. Or is it enacted in the moment of reading, taking its worth from the attention of the reader? As we know, ultimately, the illumination of the lantern is a joint projection of reader and writer in combination at the site of the text (the carved pumpkin). But perhaps this doesn’t set a poet’s mind at ease when he’s looking upon the Devonshire locals as a potential reading public.

Poet and reader. Passivity and activity. Nature and human history. All of these seem interdependent, weaving together to form a beautiful truth. Like the human body taking cues from its environment and changing the environment in turn. Or like a vexed poet locked indoors for too long because of bad weather.

Renee Harris is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Oklahoma State University. She will be joining the faculty of Lewis-Clark State College in Fall 2018 as an Assistant Professor of the Long 18th Century. Her research examines the physiology of sympathy in the writer-reader relationship by placing eighteenth-century medical knowledge alongside the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. Renee seeks to understand how the circulation of affect is theorized and staged by Romantic narrative and how these poems become sites of shared feeling. She has published on materiality and social exchange in Romantic novels and has a forthcoming essay in the History of Distributed Cognition Volume (Edinburgh UP) on cognitive spaces of empathy in Keats’s Endymion.


Works Cited

Keats, John. John Keats’s Anatomical and Physiological Notebook: Printed From the Holograph in the Keats Museum Hampstead. Ed. Maurice Buxton Forman. Oxford UP, 1934.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. Yale UP, 2012.

‘A Valley in Devonshire’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1813. Accessed 6 Mar. 2018

‘Devonshire Bridge with Cottage’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1813. Accessed 6 Mar. 2018.

‘Teignmouth’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Exhibited 1812. Accessed 6 Mar. 2018.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *