This Week in Keats, Episode 4: Inventive Keats, Allusive Keats

This Week in Keats
Brian Rejack (Illinois State University) and Michael Theune (Illinois Wesleyan University)

Re: Keats’s 22 Nov 1817 letters to Bailey and to Reynolds

For the two letters dated 200 years ago today, the KLP presents Episode 4 of This Week in Keats. In their episode titled “Inventive Keats, Allusive Keats,” hosts Brian Rejack and Mike Theune discuss the many “fine Phrases” that they look upon like lovers while reading the letter to Bailey, as well as the wide range of Shakespearean references in the letter to Reynolds (plus a possible bawdy pun lost thanks to a missing word in Richard Woodhouse’s transcript of the Reynolds letter…). Much of the discussion revolves around negative capability, that black hole of a Keatsian concept from which no one can fully escape the event horizon. Eventually we all end up in its gravitational orbit. And for Brian and Mike, the two letters from today exist right at that boundary, given the many ways they look forward to the negative capability letter. Speaking of negative capability, be on the lookout for a variety of responses to the letter on the KLP at the end of December this year!

Letter #36: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 22 November 1817

And now for letter number two from today, this one to John Hamilton Reynolds. It seems that after Keats wrote to Bailey earlier in the day, he ventured out from his room at the Fox and Hounds inn (now the Burford Bridge Hotel) and took a stroll up Box Hill. Romanticists likely know Box Hill for the famous excursion to the site depicted in Austen’s Emma. More recently Box Hill was featured as the site of several laps of the Olympic cycling road race in 2012 (ok, so the KLP may have a cycling fan among its ranks). In any case, after his jaunt up Box Hill–seeking “after the Moon,” he tells Reynolds–Keats returned to his lodging and wrote “some lines” of Endymion. You may recall that Keats is just “winding up” his poem, as he puts it to Bailey, and he has a few hundred more lines to go before he finishes. He will do so less than a week from now, on November 28.

Now, as if we didn’t already have this sense from earlier letters, it’s pretty clear at this point that Keats is ready to move on from Endymion. He tells Reynolds in today’s letter that although under normal circumstances, “every Letter shall bring you a lyric,” Keats decides against sending extracts from Endymion (“I am too anxious for you to enjoy the whole, to send you a particle”–he does end up copying 10 lines at the end of the letter, though). One wonders if his hesitancy might have something to do with his desire to proceed to the next challenge. It’s clear that other things are occupying his mind in this moment. In the place of a lyric written by himself, Keats offers up some “beauties” and “fine things said unintentionally” from his presider, Shakespeare. As Brian Rejack and Mike Theune note in today’s episode of This Week in Keats, alongside the inventiveness of Keats’s fine phrases in the letter to Bailey, we have here in the letter to Reynolds excellent examples of Keats’s allusiveness. References to Shakespeare permeate this letter, and not only when discussing him directly. Towards the end of the letter he includes a burst of allusions to a handful of plays after having discussed earlier the sonnets and Venus and Adonis. In short, Shakespeare is this letter’s presiding genius.

Like most of the letters to Reynolds, this one comes to us from a transcript made by Richard Woodhouse. Since Keats seems to have written the letter in the evening after his walk up Box Hill, it likely did not post until the next day, 23 November. And like the letter to Bailey, for which we have the postage information from the MS, it likely departed from Leatherhead, about five miles north of Dorking (the transcript records the location as Leatherhead and a date of 22 Nov, presumably from the postage, since Keats was not there himself–it’s unclear if the letter did indeed make it to the post late in the evening of 22 Nov and receive a stamp indicating as much, or if Woodhouse saw a 23 Nov postage date and figured out that the “Saturday” indicated at the beginning of the letter referred to 22 Nov… but we digress!). We provide you here with both the images of the Woodhouse transcript, and a reading edition from Harry Buxton Forman’s one-volume text from 1895. Enjoy!

Page 1 of Keats’s 22 November 1817 letter to J. H. Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 22 November 1817 letter to J. H. Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 22 November 1817 letter to J. H. Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #35: To Benjamin Bailey, 22 November 1817

Today the KLP offers quite the treat for your enjoyment: two letters from Keats and a new episode of This Week in Keats! But more important than the latest TWiK episode (which is VERY important, of course), is that these two letters contain some premium Keats. Especially in this first letter to Benjamin Bailey–which Keats wrote early on November 22, after having arrived at Dorking, about twenty miles south of the city–we find several of Keats’s most famous epistolary moments.

First it’s worth noting that Keats himself, at several different points in his letters, expresses admiration for the power of “fine Phrases” which, as he tells Bailey in August 1819, he “look[s] upon . . .  like a lover.” As we’ll see in today’s second letter, to John Hamilton Reynolds, Keats is admiring some of Shakespeare’s lovely turns of phrase today. But he is also creating several of his own. In the space of just a few sentences to Bailey, Keats writes the following: “the holiness of the Heart’s affections,” “What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth,” “The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream–he awoke and found it truth,” and “O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” And that doesn’t even count other highlights like the distinction between “Men of Genius” and “Men of Power,” the notion of the afterlife consisting of the “redigestion of our most ethereal Musings on Earth,” and Keats’s striking reverie: “if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince and pick about the Gravel.”

One way to make sense of this letter–and it’s a way that Brian Rejack and Mike Theune discuss in the latest episode of This Week in Keats–is to read it as anticipating the negative capability letter, which arrives at the end of December this year. Clearly at this point in his poetic development, Keats is thinking through the imagination, the particular kinds of mental characteristics necessary for poetry, and the ramifications the imaginative, poetic character has on notions of identity. These issues (among others) will continue to occupy Keats’s attention in his letters from here on out. What’s remarkable about today’s letter is how rich it is even at this early moment. Sure, more impressive things are to come, but even now–at this moment when Keats is just finishing his first real poetic challenge (Endymion)–this letter demonstrates remarkable depth of thinking about poetry and why it matters.

For a reading edition of the text, we direct you to one of our usual 19th-century editions, the one-volume text edited by Harry Buxton Forman in 1895. We also have the MS from Harvard’s Houghton Library. Like the 8 October 1817 letter to Bailey, this one was given by Bailey to John Taylor after Keats’s death and remained in the Taylor family until it was sold at auction in 1903 (to Bernard Quaritch, who sold it to Amy Lowell, who bequeathed it to Harvard). One odd feature of the MS: since Keats wrote a bit too much (even crossing all of the first page and one line on the second), he enclosed the folded letter in a second sheet of paper, on which he wrote the address on one side, and the instructions to “Direct Burford Bridge / near dorking” on the other. It’s a carelessness toward the material dimensions of the page which belies the care that seems to have gone into his construction of memorable phrases. But then again, one of the great things about the letters is how they contain such amazing achievements which emerge out of the contingencies of lived moments.

Page 2 of Keats’s 22 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.16). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 22 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.16). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 22 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.16). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 5 of Keats’s 22 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.16). Houghton Library, Harvard University. Bailey added the note seen here when sending the letter to John Taylor: “Extracts from this letter might be made with great credit to the unfortunate writer’s memory. BB.”

Page 6 of Keats’s 22 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.16). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Keatsian Interleavings

Anne C. McCarthy
Penn State University

Re: Keats’s 5 or 12 Nov 1817 letter to the Dilkes

The following collection has been entitled Sibylline Leaves; in allusion to the fragmentary and widely scattered state in which they have been long suffered to remain.

(Coleridge 186-87)


The Cumaean Sybil, the one who is most closely associated with the prophecies written on oak leaves and scattered by winds through the cave, the figure who guides Aeneas through the underworld and sings the founding of Rome, had attracted the attention of Apollo in her youth. Ovid tells the story in the Metamorphoses. Apollo granted her a single wish—that she would live a thousand years, one for each of the grains of sand she held in her hand. But here, the foresight of the prophetess fails: she asks for life but not for youth to go along with it. And so, she shrinks and shrivels a little more each year, until her whole being is nothing more than a voice.

In her cave she was accustomed to inscribe on leaves gathered from the trees the names and fates of individuals. The leaves thus inscribed were arranged in her order within the cave, and might be consulted by her votaries. But if perchance at the opening of the door the wind rushed in and dispersed the leaves the Sibyl gave no aid to restoring them again, and the oracle was irreparably lost.

(Bulfinch 275)


He didn’t even specify the date, John Keats, when he dashed off a mock-formal note to C. W. Dilke, his wife Maria, and his brother William, requesting that whoever gets this message first send him a copy of Coleridge’s new collection of old poems gathered together for posterity from the yellowing pages of old periodicals and earlier volumes. There were a handful of poems that had never been published before, and even some juvenilia. But much of the Sibylline Leaves—or, as Keats renders it, the “Sybilline Leaves”—is made up of the kinds of poems we associate with a younger Coleridge: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (published for the first time with the poet’s name attached and with his annotations), “The Eolian Harp,” “Fears in Solitude,” “Dejection: An Ode,” and many others. Sibylline Leaves was published the same year as the Biographia Literaria, and we know that Keats was reading both in the final months of 1817—absorbing the poetry and the philosophy, the willing suspension of disbelief and the supernatural strangeness of Coleridgean love, and—perhaps (as Richard Holmes intimates)—meditating on the song of the nightingale.

We could make out little by the dim light, but they seemed to contain prophecies, detailed relations of events but lately passed; names, now well known, but of modern date; and often exclamations of exultation or woe, of victory or defeat, were traced on their thin scant pages. This was certainly the Sibyl’s Cave …

(Shelley 3)


Dilke and Charles Brown had built a house together. Brown lived on the “lesser” side, while Dilke, Maria, and their young son Wentworth occupied the other. “It was,” as a biographer of Dilke writes, “a modest dwelling … but the surroundings were quiet and peaceful, the grounds were rolling, the air was pure …” (Garrett 5-6). Dilke met Keats in early 1817, and the young poet became a frequent visitor at a house known for its hospitality and conversation. When Keats returned to London after his 1818 walking tour, he would often make the trip across Hampstead Heath to see the Dilkes after caring for his dying brother Tom. After Tom’s death, Keats moved in with Brown and would lodge there during most of his remaining time spent in London before departing for Italy late in 1820. Thus, Keats was living in Wentworth Place when he crossed paths with Coleridge in April 1819. They talked, and Keats doubled back after saying goodbye to shake the elder poet’s hand. This becomes the stuff of legend. “There is death in that hand,” Coleridge remarked to his companion (Holmes 497). They should have met again; if nothing else, they were both authors published by Taylor and Hessey. Wentworth Place is better known to us as the Keats House.

The Keats House in July 2015. Photo courtesy Brian Rejack.

When in 1829 the Paris publisher Galignani produced a pirated anthology of three English poets, Coleridge was moved to discover that his work had been chosen alongside that of Keats and Shelley. He had become one of the young English poets again, and Keats had paid the long-delayed visit to Highgate after all.

(Holmes 500)


The Sibylline leaves, stirred and scattered by the wind, remind us of the ways that our words are never entirely our own. They inhabit other temporalities, appear in places that we never visited, predict events that we cannot possibly foresee. Keats promises to his friends that he will remain “in duty bound” to their kindness in forwarding the volume—bound to a future both longer and shorter than the one he anticipates. Our inscriptions exceed and escape us, they take on inhuman lives of their own and render us posthumous observers of the future to come. But on “this Wednesday morning of Novr 1817,” all of that remains in the future, casting only the faintest of shadows on Keats’s present. What is contained in this vision—the fatefulness, the fatedness—continues to unfold across many other Wednesday mornings and through many other Novembers.


Works Cited

Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable; The Age of Chivalry; Legends of Charlemagne. T. Y. Crowell Company, 1913.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson, and Raimonda Modiano. Norton, 2004.

Garrett, William. Charles Wentworth Dilke. Twayne Publishers, 1982.

Holmes, Richard. Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834. Pantheon, 1999.

Ovid. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Trans. Mary McInnes. Penguin, 1955.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. The Last Man. Ed. Anne McWhir. Broadview, 1996.

Letter #34: To the Dilkes, 5 or 12 November 1817

Today’s letter dates to either 5 or 12 November, and as is our wont, we’re going with the latter date for our post. It’s a seemingly inconsequential letter, but it is nonetheless significant for a few reasons. First, it’s a first! This letter is the first sent to Charles Dilke (and also addressed to Dilke’s wife Maria, and his brother William, or whoever will send Keats a book!). The Dilke family will become more and more significant to the Keats story, particularly after the second half of 1818, once Keats started to share Charles Brown’s half of the house in Hampstead which Brown and the Dilkes owned together. That house remains and is now the Keats House–if you haven’t made a pilgrimage there, then get to it! Among many other treasures, the MS of today’s letter is there (technically it’s probably at the London Metropolitan Archives, where most of the Keats Museum’s collection resides when not on display at the house itself).

The letter also shows Keats in one of his common epistolary modes: the mock formal. One wonders what other funny little notes like this one were dashed off in a hurry two hundred years ago only to disappear into obscurity like so many scattered leaves. Even in the moment of a mundane matter like requesting his friends send him a book we can see Keats’s humor and goodwill come through. As the KLP’s own Anne McCarthy writes in her response to the letter, one never knows how one’s words will persist and take on lives of their own. Despite its inconsequential subject matter, even this little scrap contributes to the Keatsian archive, and we celebrate it for surviving into the present.

John Keats to the Dilkes, 5 or 12 Nov 1817.

On the Difficulty of Loving Keats AND Blackwood’s

Nicholas Mason
Brigham Young University

Re: Keats’s 3 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey.

As a long-time fan of both John Keats and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reading the poet’s 3 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey is a bit like watching two favorite sports teams duke it out on the field. The undeniable – and only slightly guilty – pleasures of seeing the Blackwood’s gang clobber would-be laureates from the “Leg of Mutton School” (country-house poets whose chief aim is landing a spot at the local squire’s dinner table) and the “Sable School” (specialists in boot blacking jingles) vanish altogether when the object of the magazine’s derision is as sympathetic, and, in 1817, vulnerable as Keats. In real ways, it’s as squirm-inducing a spectacle as witnessing your plucky little hometown team endure a six-touchdown beat-down at the hands of the powerhouse team of your youth.

If we are to believe the popular blogger and podcaster Bill Simmons, such confusing and traumatic fan experiences might easily be avoided in the realm of sports if boosters were to stop violating one cardinal commandment: don’t practice “sports bigamy.” In Simmons’s mind, “Sports teams are just like wives … you can only have one wife, you can only have one sports team.” Needless to say, then, this transgression goes from lamentable to positively heinous when the second spouse is a long-time rival of your first. A special place in hell, it would seem, is reserved for the Yankees fan who carries a flame for the Red Sox or the Celtic supporter who owns a stitch of Rangers apparel.

Compared to the strict monogamy Simmons prescribes for the truly orthodox sports fan, the diehard enthusiast for particular artists has it relatively easy. Here the commitments are comparatively lax, as–to follow the nuptials metaphor–open marriages, polygamy, and even free love aren’t altogether prohibited. Within this code, adoring Elena Ferrante not only doesn’t preclude buying the complete works of Karl Ove Knaussgard but might even incentivize it. Likewise, immersing oneself in Joyce is an entirely natural gateway to falling head over heels for Beckett or Woolf.

Still, it’s not a complete love-in, as taboos against rooting for a hated rival can be as strict in the arts world as in sports. Contemporary popular culture offers a slew of famous feuds – think, for instance, of East Coast vs. West Coast, Stars Wars vs. Star Trek, Oasis vs. Blur, Team Edward vs. Team Jacob – spilling over from the page, disc, or screen to the middle-school hallway or the streets. Yet high-brow literature can be just as prone to high-profile spats that force fans to choose teams. Just ask those queuing up at a Jennifer Weiner book signing about their enthusiasm for the new Jonathan Franzen novel, or poll John le Carré diehards about the genius and nobility of Salman Rushdie.

Fortunately, any prohibitions against reading or, worse, enjoying a favorite authors’ rivals tend to go to the grave with the writers in question. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that legions of Gore Vidal readers still refuse to read Norman Mailer. And it’s equally unlikely that the Samuel Richardson scholar might risk imperiling his or her reputation by admitting a fondness for Henry Fielding.

Even so, certain rivalries fade more slowly than others, and the Cockneys vs. Blackwood’s spat is a prime example of how long such feuds can continue infecting the organisms of literary history. During the lifetimes of the principal combatants – John Gibson Lockhart (the “Z.” of the original Cockney School attack), John Wilson, and William Maginn on the one side and Keats, Leigh Hunt, and William Hazlitt on the other – roughly equal numbers of readers and commentators sided with either group, with the divide largely falling on partisan lines (i.e., conservatives siding with Blackwood’s and liberals with the Cockneys).

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth-century, however, when the literary reputations of Keats, Shelley, and Hazlitt were ascendant and those of Lockhart, Wilson, and Maginn were rapidly waning, admission to the Keatsian or Hazlittean fraternity seemingly required swearing eternal enmity toward Blackwood’s. Leading literary anthologies and histories uncritically propagated the Shelleyan myth that Keats’s was a death by a thousand cuts at the hands of Tory reviewers – never mind the tuberculosis or Keats’s admirable inclination to take the Blackwood’s attacks in stride. Much to the poet’s credit, in fact, in his 3 November 1817 letter to Bailey, he is much more splenetic over his friend’s being denied a promised curacy (“I cannot express how I despise the Man who would wrong or be impertinent to you”) than his own rough treatment at the hands of the mysterious “Z.” (“I don’t mind the thing much”).

Paradoxically, though, Keats’s refusal to follow Leigh Hunt’s lead in using the Examiner to excoriate Blackwood’s or sending William Blackwood cease-and-desist letters seems to have resulted in his supporters feeling compelled to avenge his honor well beyond the standard statute of limitations. While the Treaty of the Canon Wars might have brought an ecumenicalism to literary studies whereby few writers have committed genuinely unforgivable ideological or aesthetic sins, Keats partisans remain unusually disinclined to extend such grace to Blackwood’s.

Nevertheless, there are promising signs that even this literary equivalent of the Hatfields and McCoys feud might be headed toward rapprochement. In my experience, the very same scholars who passionately articulate how the field of British Romanticism has impoverished itself by neglecting the age’s most ingenious literary magazine are quick to acknowledge how sneaky, misleading, and heartless Blackwood’s leading lights could be when pursuing a cause.

On the other side of the divide, important studies like Jeffrey Cox’s Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School have begun demonstrating that the fair-minded scholar can respect the memories of Keats and Hunt while simultaneously appreciating the ideological, professional, and aesthetic imperatives that drove Blackwood’s to declare war on the Cockneys. At the end of the day, then, while it’s completely human to wince at the Blackwoodian bullying that threatened Keats’s poetic career before it had even begun, we might finally have arrived at the moment when one can declare allegiance to both the London and Edinburgh squads without risking charges of literary bigamy.


Contributor bio:
Nicholas Mason is Professor of English at Brigham Young University. He served as the general editor of
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1817-1825: Selections from Maga’s Infancy (Pickering and Chatto, 2006), a six-volume scholarly edition that offers annotated versions of the entire Cockney School series and includes various other reviews and parodies of Keats, Hunt, and their circle. Mason also touches on the Cockney School debates in his recent monograph, Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism (Johns Hopkins UP, 2013), where he contextualizes Blackwood’s‘ attacks in terms of the magazine’s disdain for widespread self-reviewing within the Hunt circle.

Letter #33: To Benjamin Bailey, 3 November 1817

And so the dark times begin… In today’s letter to Bailey, Keats briefly discusses the appearance of what he calls “a flaming attack upon Hunt in the Endinburgh Magazine.” That attack was, of course, the first battle in the notorious “Cockney School of Poetry” flamewars. After six months of a tepid debut, the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine, edited by Thomas Pringle and James Cleghorn, was relaunched in October 1817 with William Blackwood, John Wilson, and John Gibson Lockhart leading the way in a more combative, playful, and sensationalist manner. Lockhart’s “Cockney School of Poetry No. I,” written under the sign of “Z,” became one of several incendiary pieces in that first issue which showed that the Blackwood’s crew was bringing artillery to a knife fight.

It’s a funny thing to reflect back on Blackwood’s from the perspective of 2017, when an insult like Z’s of Hunt, that “He talks indelicately like tea-sipping milliner girl,” seems tame in comparison to precisely 97.3% of all content on Twitter (*not an actual statistic*). But if the KLP might for a moment defend Blackwood’s and Twitter, as much as both might sometimes feel like cesspools of the worst human affects, they also contain their fair shares of brilliant wit, savvy self-reflexivity, and incisive cultural analysis. As Nicholas Mason writes in his response to today’s letter, it ought to be possible for us to appreciate both Blackwood’s and Keats, even as the former ends up treating the latter with such virulent nastiness.

That said, it is true that the Cockney School attacks cast a long shadow over the reception of Keats across the nineteenth century (and, arguably, continuing into today). With that in mind, the KLP shares Mason’s sense that it’s important to remember that Keats himself was much more upset by an injustice done to his friend Bailey–he spends the greater part of the letter on that topic–than by Z’s promise to place Keats in his cross-hairs next. He writes here, “I dont mind the thing much,” and in late 1818 after Cockney School No. IV does take up Keats in full, he makes his famous declaration to George and Georgiana, “This is a mere matter of the moment–I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death.” If Keats doesn’t feel too bad about Blackwood’s and Z, then perhaps we can move on as well. After all, Keats was right about being among the English Poets! Take that, Z!

As mentioned, today’s response comes from Nicholas Mason, who uses an appropriately-time sporting metaphor (the World Series having just concluded) to delve into the Blackwood’s context. Images of the letter come courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library (the letter is partially crossed, so have fun with that!). The reading edition from Harry Buxton Forman includes only a portion of the letter (the portion in which Keats discusses Blackwood’s). Bailey sent just one leaf of the letter to John Taylor in 1821, presumably keeping the other to himself since it concerned only Bailey’s personal matters. That portion of the letter remained in Bailey’s family (and, thus, must have traveled with him to Sri Lanka and remained there for many years–see the previous letter to Bailey). It was not until 1953 that the first leaf was reunited with the second when it was presented to Harvard.

Page 1 of Keats’s 3 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.15). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 3 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.15). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 3 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.15). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 3 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.15). Houghton Library, Harvard University.