Today’s letter to Bailey includes a wealth of intriguing things–which our contributor Renee Harris picks up on and runs with by following Keats’s grouping of threes in the letter–and this should come as no surprise for regular readers. Keats seems to have a particular affinity for sharing lots of thoughts with Bailey. Three of the last four letters to Bailey (28-30 Oct 1817, 3 Nov 1817, and 22 Nov 1817) were at least in part crossed, and the one letter to Bailey that Keats did not cross (23 Jan 1818) was still filled to the brim. Nary a short letter to Bailey, it seems, for today’s letter is crossed on three of its four pages. Brian Rejack and Michael Theune discussed some theories about why Keats might find Bailey to be a receptive correspondent for extensive and speculative thoughts back in Episode 4 of This Week in Keats, but today we offer another possibility (if an admittedly a silly one).
Bailey had notoriously bad penmanship. Keats mentioned it back in Nov 1817, when he wrote to Reynolds, “Bailey writes so abominable a hand, to give his Letter a fair reading requires a little time.” Writing to Richard Monckton Milnes in October 1848 (to let Milnes know that he had erroneously killed off Bailey in Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats), Bailey himself owned up to the defects in his “Kaligraphy“:
I meditate drawing up a paper for your information, and if needful for your use in a future edition, upon poor Keats: and I will borrow my daughter’s hand to copy my Kaligraphy, to which, among my “good works,” I see you have given your imprimatur, on the authority of poor Keats, 30 years ago [i.e. Milnes’s edition included Keats’s “abominable hand” comment quoted above]. It required not that attestation of its badness: and I fear that “years which bring the philosophic mind” will not have mended my handwriting.
In a footnote to this letter from Bailey to Milnes, Hyder Edward Rollins expresses his displeasure with Bailey as well: “Bailey’s hand is exceptionally villainous in this letter.” We feel you, Rollins. Thank you for your assiduous attention to Bailey’s villainy, as painful as it may have been!
So here is our theory: perhaps Keats, slowed down and a bit miffed by Bailey’s villainous handwriting, decided he would match Bailey penstroke for penstroke in the way he best could: by crossing his letters! Take that, Bailey! Keats’s hand, we venture to say, is actually quite neat, legible, and even downright pretty, despite what that dastardly John Jeffrey may have thought back in 1845–curse you, John Jeffrey! But also thanks for transcribing stuff, badly as you may have done it…. Apologies, we do digress. To return. Since Keats’s hand is so lovely, it’s rather difficult to transform it to villainous levels of illegibility. The best way to do so: cross the letter. Just look at the images below to get a sense of how difficult it is to read such a letter.
Of course we don’t actually think Keats intended to stymie Bailey’s efforts to read his letters in retaliation for Bailey inflicting that challenge on him… but then again, Keats does playing the trickster.
With that thought, then, we will leave you in the capable hands of Renee Harris, who deftly analyzes several of the topics Keats covers. Enjoy!
Text of the letter can be read in Forman’s 1895 edition via HathiTrust, or, for the optically adventurous, via the images below, courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library.