Wow. What a letter. There is so much in this letter. Despite its amazing features, today’s letter is not particularly well known. The KLP thinks it’s fair to say that the letter is an overlooked one. But it really shouldn’t be! It’s got the funnies; it’s got Shakespeare; it’s got playful teasing; it’s got a letter-within-a-letter delivered by Endymion from the bottom of the sea! In short, it’s got it all. So prepare to be blown away.
As the KLP has been of late obsessing over the possible provenances of the letters Keats wrote to the Reynolds sisters, we ought to say a word or two thereon here. Yesterday we mentioned that today’s letter is the only one (of five) to Jane and/or Mariane which made its way into Milnes’s 1848 collection (although he publishes only excerpts, and without identifying the sisters by name). Milnes had access to the letter via John Taylor, Keats’s publisher, and, after the poet’s death, an effective collector and preserver of Keatsiana. Today’s MS was sold at auction in 1903 along with many other Keats-related materials, and then through Amy Lowell the letter became part of Harvard’s collection in 1925.
As befits a letter which features a fictional character from Keats’s poem delivering a scroll from Keats to the Reynolds sisters through submarine courier service… the actual MS letter took a circuitous path before finding its recipients. The letter was addressed to Little Hampton but was missent to Minchinhampton! We know this because of the postage marks visible on the fourth image included below. What that means is that the letter first traveled west from Oxford before the mistake was discovered, at which point the letter then traveled south toward Little Hampton. If we here at the KLP knew a bit more about postal routes in 1817 we could tell you more–but alas, we simply have not world enough, nor time, to figure that out right now!
To guide you along the winding mossy ways of today’s wonderful letter, we have a response from Rosie Whitcombe. In it she deftly catalogues Keats’s “epistolary thicket of alternate personae.” After reading the letter, make sure you follow Whitcombe to the bottom of the sea and back as well!
We often guide you to Harry Buxton Forman’s 1883 edition of Keats’s works for a readable and well-edited edition in the public domain, but in this case it appears that Forman had only Milnes’s excerpt of today’s letter as the basis for his text in 1883. However, by 1895, when Forman published a one volume edition of Keats’s letters, he appears to have accessed either the MS or the Woodhouse transcript of the letter (if you’re so inclined to compare Forman’s printed text to both the MS and Woodhouse’s transcript, please do so and let us know your conclusions!). So we direct you to that edition if you have yet to find the pure joy that comes from reading Keats’s letters in his own hand via digital reproductions of them. Otherwise, enjoy these images courtesy of Harvard (click the images for larger sizes, and to download).