And now for the fourth letter of 23 January 1818! Keats, after feeling “rather tired” and with “head rather swimming” from writing so many letters that day, finished on 24 January and sent it off to his brothers in Teignmouth. We hear again about the topic covered in the letters to Haydon and Taylor (the working plans for an engraving for Endymion, plans which never panned out). And we hear more about social tensions in their circle of friends. Keats notes that Leigh Hunt had read the first book of Endymion and “allows it not much merit as a whole.” Ever the astute observer of human behavior, Keats attributes Hunt’s huffiness to disappointment that Keats did not show proper deference to the elder poet and mentor. Keats did most of his writing away from London, and he did so in part to avoid the constant “dissect[ing] & anatomiz[ing]” that he knew Hunt would provide throughout the process. So now Hunt obliges after the fact. But Keats seems pretty unfazed: “But whose afraid Ay! Tom! demme if I am.”
More accounts of goings-on about town follow, including Keats showing up an hour late to one of Hazlitt’s lectures, whereupon he was met by everyone flowing out of the Surrey Institution. And then we shift to King Lear. This letter is perhaps most famous for its account of the sonnet “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” which Keats copies in the letter. He also wrote the sonnet (perhaps drafted?) in his facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. We certainly share Keats’s self-assessment of the poem: “So you see I am getting at it, with a sort of determination & strength.”
When Keats returns to the letter the next day, his mind remains on the theatre. He recounts his visit to a “private theatrical” at an “oily place.” Keats managed to get behind the scenes thanks to his friend Charles Wells, and they witnessed “the oily scene shifters” and “a little painted Trollop” who says: “‘damned if she’d play a serious part again, as long as she lived.'” All in all, it sounds like a fun time! For a response to today’s letter we turn to Marc Palmieri, a playwright himself, among other things. He reflects from that perspective on what such a visit to “the theatre’s bowels” might have felt like for a playwright. We hope you enjoy it!
For the text of the letter, we point you to Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition. And we include the images of the John Jeffrey transcript (the only source for the letter) from Harvard’s Houghton Library.