Letter #56: To George and Tom Keats, 21 February 1818

Today’s letter finds Keats getting encouragement from the “Thrushes and Blackbirds,” which “have been singing [him] into an idea it was spring.” Well, if you’re in the eastern part of the US today, you might be having a similar thought, given that it’s over 70 degrees throughout much of the Northeast and New England. And yes, it’s February 21st. The birds may have encouraged Keats to have spring in his mind, but the weather that day in 1818 certainly didn’t help the cause. Here’s what the Literary Gazette reported in the 28 February issue.

That drop from “30” to “6” would make you think it was not much of a spring-hearkening day, right? Well, that’s actually a printing error. For those of you with an interest in historical weather data from London in 1818, here’s a great resource for you: The Annals of Philosophy, published monthly, now available on Hathitrust, and with Luke Howard’s meteorological journal included at the end of each issue (about two months behind–so the data for February are in the April issue). You may know Luke Howard for devising the cloud classification still in use today. Go to paragraph 13 in this essay and you can learn a bit about him, and about how much Geothe loved him for coming up with the whole cloud thing. (Sorry for the shameless plug–the essay is by the KLP’s Brian Rejack, that dastardly braggart.) Anyway, here’s what Howard recorded for Feb 1818.

He had 45 degrees for a high on 21 February, recording his measurements in Tottenham. So the Literary Gazette must have just forgotten the “4” before that “6.” (Their measurements were from Edmonton, so let’s not rush to slag off anyone’s instruments–the temp could have been different in the two places, even if just a mile apart or so.) All of this comports with what Keats has to say about the weather: “The Weather, although boisterous to day has been very much milder.” Howard notes of 21 February, “Much wind, a.m. with clouds driving high and close,” so there’s your boisterousness. And the 34 degree morning was a few degrees warmer than the last two days, so we’ll give Keats the “much milder.” Incidentally, the weather in London today was pretty similar to this day 200 years ago. High of 44, low of 33, bit of wind. So obviously the climate is ok. Problem solved!

Now that we’ve given you far more background on Keats’s weather than you could have ever wished for, what else was he up to? He tells George and Tom that the immediate occasion for writing was a letter from one “Miss Wylie” intended for George, and which Keats enclosed in his letter. This is the first mention in the letters of Georgiana Wylie, who, experienced Keats devotees will already know, becomes Georgiana Keats. She and George actually wed not that far from the time of this letter exchange. They marry in June 1818, and then leave for America just weeks later. After that point Keats would never see Georgiana again, and he would see George again just for one month in January 1820 when George returned briefly to settle his financial affairs. And Poor Tom would not live to see either of them again.

But at this point, George is still just a bachelor receiving a note from his lady friend (or special lady, if you prefer). We say it all the time here at the KLP, but we so often encounter moments like this one when it’s revealed just how quickly and regularly the big, life-changing events in the story of the Keats family happen.

Keats touches on some other topics of interest: his visit to the British Gallery and some of the paintings he saw, the poor health of his friend Reynolds, his attendance at more of Hazlitt’s lectures, Shelley’s recent poem (Laon and Cythna, published Dec 1817; revised and republished because of controversy as The Revolt of Islam in Jan 1818) and its likely absence at the “Teignmouth Libraries,” and the egotism of Wordsworth. On this last topic Keats writes, “I am sorry Wordsworth has left a bad impression wherever he visited in Town–by his egotism, Vanity and bigotry–yet he is a great Poet if not a Philosopher.” This opinion of Wordsworth will continue to solidify as the year goes by, particularly in the summer when Keats attempts to visit Wordsworth at Rydal Mount and misses him because the elder poet is out campaigning for the Tory politician William Lowther, Earl of Lonsdale (Keats, doing his best Trump impression, writes, “Sad–sad–sad”).

Oh and the thrushes make a return! It’s rather lovely to have this moment of Keats melding the birdsong into the moment of his writing: “The Thrushes are singing now–af it [presumably “as if”] they would speak to the Winds because their big brother Jack, the spring was’nt far off.” Some confusion arises here regarding what species of birds Keats is actually referring to. Remember that first he mentions “Thrushes and Blackbirds.” So is this “big brother Jack” one of the blackbirds? Perhaps Keats has confused the common blackbird with the Jackdaw, which is indeed a black-colored bird (but actually part of the crow family). What seems more likely is that Keats has in mind this nursery rhyme: “Two little blackbirds sitting on a hill / One named Jack and one named Jill” (or similar variations thereof). We are no experts in the history of nursery rhymes, but given this one’s existence in books from the middle of the nineteenth century, it seems plausible that it would have been in circulation in 1818. The other hint here is the “big brother.” The Common Blackbird (like other old world blackbirds) is actually a kind of thrush, from the genus TurdusTurdus merula, the Common Blackbird, is bigger (~25 cm) than Turdus philomelos, the Song Thrush (~23 cm), which is probably what Keats had in mind with “thrush.” He could also have meant Turdus viscivorus, the Mistle Thrush, another common bird in the UK. Confusing things further, in 1818 the Song Thrush was still classified as Turdus musicus, which then later gets wrongly associated as a former name for Turdus iliacus (the Redwing). It did not acquire the Greek-mythology-inspired name philomelos until 1831 (and we won’t quibble about Philomela turning into a nightingale or a thrush or some other singing bird). So anyway–we don’t really know for sure what kind of birdsong Keats was hearing, but we know what he heard was getting him in the mood for spring. Now here are some pictures of birds and some recordings of their song for you to enjoy!

The Common Blackbird, enjoying a snack.

The Mistle Thrush. Probably not what Keats meant.

The Redwing. Almost definitely not what Keats meant. But still pretty.

And finally, Turdus philomelos, formerly known as Turdus musicus. Probably what Keats was hearing. You can call him Song Thrush. Or just thrush, or throstle, or mavis. They really have lots of names.

To hear some samples of their songs, head over to Royal Society for the Protection of Birds: Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Redwing, Song Thrush.

Oh, and if you’d like to read the letter, you can read a slightly truncated version of it in Forman’s 1895 edition (based on Milnes, from Jeffrey’s transcript). Or read the whole thing in Keats’s hand below. Interestingly, this manuscript was acquired by Arthur Houghton in 1951, and presented to Harvard some years later. The KLP does not know any more about its provenance, but we’re intrigued by a letter that was not in the possession of one of the typical Keats stewards until so late in the 20th century. We shall find out more when we have time.

Page 1 of Keats’s 21 February 1818 letter to George and Tom. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.22). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 21 February 1818 letter to George and Tom. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.22). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 21 February 1818 letter to George and Tom. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.22). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 21 February 1818 letter to George and Tom. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.22). Houghton Library, Harvard University.


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