Letter #50: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 31 January 1818

One thing that the letters from the last week or so of January 1818 suggest to us is just how many of Keats’s letters have been lost. We’re fortunate to have as many as we do, but even so, there are lots of hints (and some hard facts) that point toward letters that remain unknown to us. That is, we know about many letters that we don’t actually have in the cultural record. Yes, there’s always the vain hope that new ones will continue to crop up, but we’re on a 20+ year drought now! Come on, universe, send us some more lost Keats letters!

We saw back on 23 January that Keats wrote four letters, and, remarkably, all four still exist (even though one just in transcript form). Well here on 31 January 1818 Keats tells Reynolds that “I have parcelld out this day for Letter Writing.” And yet this letter to Reynolds is the only one still extant. What might have been the others? Keats ends this letter by writing, “I must take a turn, and then write to Teignmouth.” Presumably Keats did return to his task of letter writing after his walk, but alas, no letter to his brothers (then staying at Teignmouth) from this date exists.

Perhaps at this point you’re thinking, “but hold on a sec, KLP–what about that letter to George and Tom from yesterday? Maybe that’s the 31 January lost letter and it was just misdated?” Well, we’re glad that you’re paying attention, and it’s not a bad guess. Here’s the problem: that recently discovered letter has a postmark of 30 January. The Royal Mail doesn’t mess around. “But, KLP, I have another idea: maybe the Reynolds letter is misdated. It’s a transcript, right? Maybe Woodhouse got that one wrong. Yeah!” Well, gentle reader, we’re again very pleased at your attentiveness. But this solution doesn’t pass the smell test either. Yes, today’s letter is from a Woodhouse transcript, but he’s a pretty reliable copyist, and when he includes dates, he tends to get them correct. The other problem is that Keats notes “Hampstead Saturday” at the beginning of the letter. On his 30 January letter to Taylor Keats began with “Friday,” and even though he’s not all that good with dates and days, it seems unlikely that he would have written “Friday” on one of his letters and then that same day written “Saturday” on another. The more exciting conclusion: Keats wrote to his brothers on both the 30th and the 31st! The latter letter could still show up some day…

But for now we have just one for today. Much of this letter to Reynolds is devoted to sharing poetry with his friend, a practice that will continue in the next few weeks (get ready for “airy pigs” and “archangelical acorns” on 3 February!). Here we encounter Keats’s lyrics “O blush not so,” “Hence Burgundy, Claret & port” (sorry, Keats–but we prefer claret to sunshine, especially in this wintry season), “God of the Meridian” (sometimes consider a second stanza of “Hence Burgundy”), and then finally he copies his “last sonnet.” It’s this last text that’s the most famous of the group: “When I have fears that I may cease to be.”

And with that we’ll leave you to Keats’s poems amid his bits of prose. As mentioned above, we have the letter only in transcript form, which we include below.

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 31 January 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 31 January 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 31 January 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Keats’s Gelding

Arden Hegele
Columbia University

Re: Keats’s 30 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats

This is a recently discovered letter, exciting both for its newly articulated place within Keats’s manuscript archive and for its literary-historical value as it documents the poet’s vacillating emotions on the cusp of the publication of Endymion. The manuscript was found in 1995 in Louisville, Kentucky in the private collection of a family once acquainted with George Keats’s daughter Emma Keats Speed. Sold to a private collector for $70,000, the letter has since been republished with editorial commentary in Romantic Circles by Lewis Dearing (1998) and in Selected Letters by John Keats by John Barnard (Penguin, 2014). But while the text is a recent inclusion in Keats’s opus, the contents of the manuscript have been known anecdotally to the poet’s followers since the nineteenth century: Edward F. Madden saw the letter in Louisville and quoted from it in an 1877 article on Keats (361), while H. E. Rollins mentions this text as “lost” in The Letters of John Keats (Harvard, 1958) (I, 225n). Including this letter in Keats’s epistolary archive, then, satisfyingly resolves a century-long mystery about the poet’s vacillating state of mind as he revised Endymion for publication.

As the letter opens, Keats is revealed in a moment of vulnerability and self-criticism as he anticipates the reception of his first long poem, “which is I think going to the Press today.” The poet’s erstwhile ambitions of producing a quarto edition of Endymion and including Benjamin Robert Haydon’s chalk drawing of himself in the overleaf have been abandoned. “On looking attentively through it,” his publisher John Taylor “changed his mind,” preferring a cheaper octavo volume without the poet’s image, though Keats assures his disappointed brothers that “Haydon will take my Likeness all the same.” As ever, Keats is demoralized by money troubles—the £5 he encloses for his brothers should properly, he says, go to Charles Brown—and the publication of Endymion promises only the faint hope of pecuniary relief. “I am convinced now that my Poem will not sell,” he writes, but since others urge him to “hope,” he promises to “wait about three Months before I make my determination—either to get some employment at Home or abroad or to retire to a very cheap way of living in the Country.”

Keats’s lack of faith in Endymion’s financial prospects emerges out of the grueling project he undertook during most of January 1818 (Roe 206): correcting—or, as he says here, “gelding”—the poem before it went to press. Keats’s rhetorical choice here is perhaps the most striking thing about the letter, in its suggestion of the surgical removal of Endymion’s generative parts. (In fact, the poet’s reference to gelding is so unusual that all modern criticism of the letter engages strictly with this passage.) But does “geld” call back to the term’s Spenserian definition, “to mutilate a book […] by excising certain portions, especially objectionable or obscene passages,” as Lewis Dearing maintains (n7)? Or do we think, with Richard Marggraf Turley, that Keats wants us to consider the more familiar meaning of gelding, “to deprive (a male) of generative power or virility, to castrate or emasculate,” and that in its usage the poet calls up the “castration anxieties flickering beneath the surface of Endymion” (17)? Both significances of this charged term offer new insight into the poetry that Keats is producing at this moment—the register of Elizabethan retrospect and archaism inspires the first dated draft of “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern” enclosed in this letter, while motifs of sexual curtailment and “cold retreat” animate Endymion in its published form (Turley 19).

There is a third way of looking at Keats’s gelding: for its surgical valence, which attests to the lingering effects of his medical training on his literary practice. Anatomical dissection is a common trope of Romantic interpretive activity: consider the young Wordsworth taking the knife in hand and probing to the heart of the living body of society. But by enacting an anatomical intervention upon his own verse, Keats develops here an extraordinary register of editing as a violent form of self-surgery. The emasculatory significance of gelding reveals the poet’s ambivalence towards the procedure: this manuscript-mangling might be necessary to assure the survival of Endymion (at least, Keats’s friends thought so), but it also robs it of its most creative parts. In fact, Keats remained unsatisfied with his editorial intervention, and his anatomical critique persists in the fatal self-diagnosis he performs in the “Preface” to Endymion two months later, where he describes the poem as a “feverish attempt” and condemns this “youngster” to “die away” (147). Richard C. Sha captures the problem succinctly: “Keats’s anatomical training […] was a threat to [his] political and aesthetic stance,” and so it proved, as Keats had feared, in the reception of Endymion (227). Ultimately, his application of medical practice to poetic method would backfire: his appraisal of his own weakness in the “Preface” would set the tone for Endymion’s scathing, medically-inflected critical reviews.

But if the opening of the letter reveals a despondent and desexed Keats, its closing shows the poet revelling in the creative potential of sociable and sexual exchange. The gelded phallus is quickly restored in Keats’s transcription of Horace Smith’s bawdy sestet composed over dinner on a mutual acquaintance, Horace Twiss. An amateur poet, Twiss had a habit of inventing extemporaneous verse over the chamber pot, which Smith lampoons in a scatological investigation of “which flows out the fastest his verse or his piddle.” Keats’s delight in this double-valenced “spouting” recalls the puns on bathroom practices recorded in his letter of 5 January. His evident pleasure in the social occasions that inspired such effusions—especially the Immortal Dinner of 28 December, still in recent memory—leads the letter into more serious consideration of the potational practices of past poets. Introducing his new verses, “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern,” Keats tells George and Tom that “I was thinking of Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher and the rest who used to meet at the Mermaid in days of yore,” and the enclosed poem is a nostalgic reflection on another sort of Immortal Dinner led by the Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen at the Elizabethan watering-hole. The Mermaid Tavern’s status as an iconic site of literary exchange had recently been bolstered by William Gifford’s nine-volume edition of The Works of Ben Jonson (1816), which spread spurious anecdotes about “wit combats” between Jonson and Shakespeare (who was not known to attend the club).

For Keats, these myths of the Mermaid Tavern would strengthen his belief in the power of conviviality to inspire a deeper and more nuanced aesthetic range. This version of the “Lines” is notable for its minor variations, nearly all of which are comparative adjectives: in the poem’s 1820 published form, “Fairer” becomes “Choicer,” and “Richer” is amended to “Sweeter.” Keats’s evident pleasure in these verses’ lively and sociable language inspires him to close with a new optimism, as he advises “my dear Tom and Geo[rg]e” to “trust to the Spring” for the success of Endymion and an improvement in their affairs—an exact, whimsical reversal of his earlier doubts.


Works Cited

Barnard, John. Selected Letters by John Keats. New York: Penguin, 2014.

Dearing, Lewis. “A Rediscovered Letter by John Keats.” A Romantic Circles Electronic Edition (November 1998). http://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/keats/index.html

Dobson, Michael, and Stanley Wells. “Mermaid Tavern.” Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 291.

Gifford, William. The Works of Ben Jonson. 9 vols. London: G.W. Nicol et al., 1816.

Keats, John. “Endymion.” Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jeffrey Cox. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 2009. 147-239.

—. “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern.” Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jeffrey Cox. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 2009. 469-470.

Madden, Edward F. “The Poet Keats.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 55 (1877): 357-361.

Newman, Ian. “Keats’s Bawdry.” The Keats Letters Project (January 5, 2018). http://keatslettersproject.com/correspondence/keatss-bawdry/

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012.

Rollins, Hyder Edward, ed. The Letters of John Keats. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Sha, Richard C. Review of Keats’ Boyish Imagination by Richard Marggraf Turley. The Wordsworth Circle 37, 4 (Autumn 2006): 227-228.

Turley, Richard Marggraf. Keats’s Boyish Imagination. London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2004.

Letter #49: To George and Tom Keats, 30 January 1818

The second letter for today is one that has been known about for a long time, but not known in full until the mid-1990s. It was quoted from in an 1877 article in Harper’s by Edward F. Madden, who saw the letter in Louisville while visiting with Emma Keats Speed, the poet’s niece. It must have been some time after that visit that EKS gave the letter in question to Sally Fauntleroy Sears, who later gave it to her niece Juliet Fauntleroy. The rest of the story is really better told by Dearing Lewis, the nephew of Juliet Fauntleroy, who wrote about the discovery of the letter for Romantic Circles back in November 1998. We encourage you to visit there to learn about the letter’s fascinating history, and for the text of the letter.

Once you’ve done that, then you certainly need to read Arden Hegele’s response to the letter, which brilliantly takes up Keats’s comment about “gelding” book one of Endymion. It’s a fascinating analysis, one attuned to the multiple resonances of that term for Keats, particularly as someone with a background in surgical procedure. And let’s not forget about the fact that this letter includes some bawdy verses from Horace Smith about Horace Twiss (keep your Horaces straight, everyone). Hegele also makes excellent connections between this late-January letter and some of what we’ve seen from others earlier in the month. It’s a great response to bring January to a close!

For the text of the letter, we direct you, as above, to the Romantic Circles post from Dearing Lewis. Enjoy!

Letter #48: To John Taylor, 30 January 1818

Two letters from today, first one to John Taylor as Keats is in the midst of his copying of and revisions to Endymion. The main focus of the letter is a revision that Keats wants to make to a moment late in Book I. That moment is now famous because of the name Keats gives to what he devises as he goes back and elaborates this part of the poem: the Pleasure Thermometer.

In the poem the title character is attempting to explain to his sister Peona how he conceives of the nature of happiness. This lead Endymion to conclude that there are gradations of pleasure. And Keats in returning the passage and adding a few lines to it says this to Taylor:

My having written that Passage Argument will perhaps be of the greatest Service to me of any thing I ever did–It set before me at once the gradations of Happiness even like a kind of Pleasure Thermometer–and is my first Step towards the chief Attempt in the Drama–the playing of different Natures with Joy and Sorrow.

It’s a fascinating analogy for many reasons. Among them is the oddity that the Pleasure Thermometer itself is only one degree on the way to something larger. He seems to have come up with a thermometer to measure all pleasure that there is, but then he realizes that this metric is just one small piece of a larger project, which he’ll need to pursue further by writing a drama. As we all know, he never succeeded in “the Drama” in the way he hoped, but he sure did figure out how to write poetry that plays with the “Joy and Sorrow.”

In order to reflect upon this letter, the KLP has fabricated the world’s first genuine (rhymes with wine) Pleasure Thermometer. We call it the PT2K18TM.

The PT2K18TM in all its glory. Patent pending.

At press time KLP co-editors Brian Rejack and Michael Theune have just begun to experiment with this powerful instrument. They are documenting the results of various measurements (pleasurements?). So far we can share with you this exclusive finding: their pizza, topped with giardiniera and green olives (plus sausage for the savage meat-eater Mike), received the official PT2K18TM rating of … ONE KEATS. We don’t know what other results will follow on this marvelous device, but we shall keep you posted when more pleasures have been tested and the results analyzed. For now, enjoy these pictures from the initial findings.

Brian performs an initial measurement of his first slices.

Mike sees how the Cholula stacks up (which will adorn his pizza).


The PT2K18TM comes through with a solid reading. The pizza (with and without Cholula) was indeed one blissed out Keats mask.

For further pleasurements (we think Keats would be down with this neologism), check out the KLP next week!

And don’t forget about the letter, which you can read via Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition. We don’t have images of the manuscript, but the transcript in Woodhouse’s notebook is at Harvard, which we include below.

Transcript of Keats’s 30 January 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #47: “To any friend who may call” (on John Taylor), January (?) 1818

We’re running out of days in January, and the best guess for the date of today’s letter is sometime in January 1818, so we’ll go with today! There’s a lot we don’t know about this letter. We’ll count among the uncertainties that it was even written in January 1818. The note was acquired by Amy Lowell in 1903 when John Taylor’s descendants auctioned off his papers. She ventured a guess of January 1818 as the date of the letter’s composition, and no one else has made another guess since. Rollins prints it as the first letter of January 1818, but we’re guessing that, if it were written during that month, it probably happened toward the latter half of it. Here’s why.

The letter is addressed “To any friend who may call,” and it reads like this:

Mr Taylor’s Com pts to any Ladies or gentleman his friends who may call, and begs they will pardon him for being led away by an unavoidable engagement, which will detain him till eleven o’clock to night

In Richard Woodhouse’s transcript of the note, he prefaces it with this explanation: “Keats Persuaded Taylor to accompany him one afternoon to Hampstead & left wrote for him the following note–“. Woodhouse offers no date. In his notebook he copies this letter after Keats’s 10 June 1817 letter to Taylor and Hessey, and before the 23 January 1818 letter to Taylor (see image below). Woodhouse’s transcripts are not copied in a regular chronological order, but if the transcript’s placement before the 23 January letter is the justification for dating the letter to that same month, then we could just as well argue that we ought to date it to the month of the transcript that precedes it: June 1817. Keats was in Hampstead during that month as well, and he could presumably have visited Taylor during that month (he had, after all, asked Taylor for a loan in his 10 June letter). All of this is to say, we’re dating this letter as January 1818, but we have no real confidence in that dating.

Now, why are we going with late January instead of early? All respect to our hero, Hyder Edward Rollins, but there is some decent circumstantial evidence to point the letter toward later in the month. So here goes. Keats writes to Taylor on 10 January and apologizes for not seeing him for a while. If he had convinced Taylor to spend an afternoon with him in Hampstead at some point in the nine days preceding that letter, it seems unlikely that he would open the letter by apologizing for a long absence. We know Keats visited Taylor on 11 and 12 January, but there’s no evidence to suggest Taylor went to Hampstead on either of those days (and Keats writes to George and Tom on 13 January of being absent from Hampstead for the two days prior). Keats brought his first book of Endymion to Taylor on 20 January, but he also attended Hazlitt’s lecture at the Surrey Institution that evening (or tried to do so–he arrived at 8 pm for a 7 pm lecture). So if Taylor spent an afternoon and evening (“till eleven o’clock at night”) in Hampstead with Keats, it wasn’t on that day. Our supposition, then, is that the visit occurred sometime after January 23, when Keats had corresponded with Haydon and with Taylor about the prospect of having an engraved frontispiece for Endymion. Perhaps while still mulling the possibilities, Keats persuaded Taylor to walk with him from his shop in Fleet Street northwest toward Haydon’s residence in Lisson Grove, and then on to Hampstead where they could all chat further.

But alas, we just don’t know! Sorry, folks–the KLP demands of its readers a bit of that good ol’ fashioned negative capability. Now stop irritably reaching after fact and reason!

Keats’s Jan (?) 1818 letter to callers on John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.17). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Transcript of Keats’s January (?) 1818 letter to callers on John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

On “the Ripening of the Intellectual Powers”

Marc Palmieri
Mercy College

Re: Keats’s 23/24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats

I find this to be a most uplifting letter, one for a “writer for the stage,” (written by a poet) as it reflects on two activities I often look to in pitched battle with my own “addiction to passiveness.” First, Keats mentions a distaste for being “uninterested or unemployed,” states which happen to be two persistent companions to me in regards to “finding” a new play to write. One cannot be engaged in the making without first being struck by the idea that enthralls him – and the “change in intellect” that (hopefully) comes with it. In times of drought, and there are many, attending, reading, or teaching a Shakespeare play in my classes has often rescued me from these states – temporarily, of course, but sometimes long enough to ripen the intellectual powers to eventually grind out a new first draft.

In my experience, there is a great distance between two familiar states of a playwright – the first being life when there is no working draft, and life when there is. When in the latter, happier state, those colorful catastrophes Keats describes from his visit to the theatre’s bowels exist as longed-for agents of the play’s eventual realization, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. In life without a working draft under the arm, that kind of visit, for the playwright, can be a painful and lonely one. A little world of dreams and shadows where he had been a leading light, has no use for him now.

One might expect that reading the work of an immortal literary titan might just push a writer further into that passiveness he was seeking to escape. After all, what’s the point of me giving it a go now that THIS has been accomplished? Keats touched on this in his “Spenser! a jealous honourer of thine” where upon being asked to write a Spenserian poem, he declines out of flattening humility:

                …’tis impossible
For an inhabitant of wintry earth
To rise like Phoebus with a golden quell,
Fire-winged, and make a morning in his mirth.

But by sonnet’s end he’s up for it, at least once the weather improves:

Be with me in the summer days and I
Will for thine honour and his pleasure try.

Passiveness overcome.

It’s been three years since my last play premiered. I’ve tried, but can’t get past an opening scene. Now in my 48th winter, I’ve grown so much more accustomed to the idea of  my own death that I may not have chosen to sit down today with my copy of the great tragedy of old age for activating inspiration, but Mr. Keats has once again shown me how that Prince of Darkness can prove a gentleman.


Marc Palmieri is a fulltime core faculty member at Mercy College’s School of Liberal Arts in Dobbs Ferry, NY, where he teaches courses in Theatre, Film and Speech. He has taught dramatic writing since 2010 at The City College of New York’s MFA Creative Writing Program. Since 2006 he has taught Shakespeare, Modern & Post-Modern Drama, World Humanities and Dramatic and Creative Writing in CCNY’s undergraduate English Department. Publications include the plays: The Groundling, Levittown (NY Times Critic’s Pick), Carl the Second and Poor Fellas (all by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.). Marc has published fiction in Fiction Magazine, and portions of his plays in the anthologies 10 Minute Plays for Kids (Applause Books), The Best Stage Scenes (of 2002 and 2007 by Smith & Kraus Inc.), The Best Stage Monologues for Men (2002, 2007 and 2015 by Smith & Kraus, Inc.). He is also the author of the screenplays Telling You (Miramax, 1999), and The Thing (web series). www.marcpalmieri.com

Letter #46: To George and Tom Keats, 23/24 January 1818

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.”

Keats’s sonnet, written on the page facing the beginning of King Lear in his copy of a First Folio facsimile.

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.

Page 1 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 23/24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 2 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 23/24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 3 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 23/24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 4 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 23/24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).


Keats’s Good Hair Day

Jayne Lewis
University of California Irvine

Re: Keats’s 23 January 1818 Letter to Benjamin Bailey

Irony and playful self-deprecation are not always the attitudes that spring to mind when we encounter a Keatsian declaration of poetic ambition. But both are on display in today’s letter to Keats’s then-friend, the learned and pious Benjamin Bailey. Braided into a typical mesh of on-the-ground gossip and philosophical rumination (“the best of Men have but a portion of good in them—a kind of spiritual yeast in their frames which creates the ferment of existence” [Rollins, 76]), we find an aspirational ode to no less a poetic predecessor than John Milton…or at least to his hair.

Milton’s hair? Can Keats have been serious? Milton’s eyes, or at least their tragic dimming, might have made sense as an occasion for the young poet’s “sacrifice of verse/And Melody.” So might Milton’s tongue, which indeed seems to be invoked as Milton’s “spirit…rolls about our ears/For ever and for ever.” Or what about the Puritan’s poet’s own “ear,” as he is begged to “lend” it “to a young delian oath”? Or even Milton’s “mortal Lips,” given how many immortal syllables fell from them? It’s not that Keats—trained as a surgeon after all—ignores these parts of Milton’s body. But in the end, it is all about the hair. The “bright hair,” to be exact. Its brightness seems to have afforded Keats some “glimpses” of his own “futurity.” Relatively speaking, Milton’s eyes, tongue, ears, and lips leave him in the dark.

The lock that presumably prompted this poem only turns up at the end of it: Keats’s “sudden it came” is therefore fake news. But where did Milton’s “bright hair” come from? Within the chronology of the poem, its source seems to be the speaker’s own “forehead hot and flush’d.” Does John Keats—or at least his speaker—discover John Milton’s sacred aura now hovering around himself? If so, he doesn’t at first recognize it for whose it is—this somehow despite having been thinking about the “chief of organic Numbers” from the start. He’s thus surprised if not by sin, then at least by the famous “name/Coupled” with an otherwise inert strand of keratin and dead skin cells. Milton’s name transforms and revitalizes that strand. And yet the word “Milton” is never actually uttered in the poem proper. All of which makes that poem somehow less than proper: a strange, ungainly ode mounted on the flimsiest of foundations. If it expresses its author’s desire to become a new Milton, it ironically demonstrates the unlikelihood of this.

But is it possible that, even before Keats wrote this poem, Milton’s hair meant more than meets our eye?

First, the hair was a real thing. Flushed forehead or no, Keats didn’t make it up. As he explains to Bailey, he had lately come across “a real authenticated Lock of Milton’s Hair” at the home of his friend Leigh Hunt (Rollins, 76). The poem is Keats’s response to it.

Hunt was in fact an inveterate collector of the locks of the famous; Milton’s was part of a larger collection that, at final tally, would include the locks of (among others) Swift, Johnson, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Maria Edgeworth, and Percy Shelley —a hirsute anthology of English literary history that Hunt eventually annotated with the tresses of Napoleon, George Washington and Lucrezia Borgia. You can visit Hunt’s collection today in the Ransom Library at the University of Texas. Milton’s hair holds pride of place there, tenderly affixed to ivory vellum:

Collection of Hair formed by J.H. Leigh Hunt: John Milton. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

It’s fun to think about what Hunt’s collection as a whole might represent. Many of the locks that it paginated can be seen as relics of those recently canonized secular saints that Johnson called the English poets…or as fetish objects that allow the collector to appropriate their original possessors as love objects. They half-fulfill longing for physical contact with an idol of the mind even as each might matter most as a charismatic token of exchange within a contemporary author-revering community.    The weight of so many meanings is a lot for one frail ring of hair to bear. Set beside that delicate wisp, Keats’s ode reads almost like mockery, as overblown as any canto of The Rape of the Lock. Even as he participates in what Deidre Lynch has recently chronicled as the uniquely modern cult of literary love (Lynch 2014), Keats cuts Milton down to size. This perhaps makes room for an up-and-coming writer but there’s also a twitch of the lip at that same writer’s own pretensions.

But what about the contemporary community within which these lines took shape? The lines that Lucy Newlyn finds “embarrassingly fetishistic” and Lorna Clymer “a tribute” overwhelmed by “the difficulties of writing a tribute” in effect steal Milton’s hair from Hunt (Newlyn, 27; Clymer, 108).   From this point of view, Keats transmutes that hair into the more spiritualized element of verse; then, in the makeshift reliquary that his letter provides, he passes it on to Bailey. Later in the year, Hunt would steal it back, publishing two sonnets on Milton’s hair in his 1818 volume Foliage, the so-called “Cockney manifesto” that, as Jeffrey Cox has shown, bound an otherwise marginalized and disparate group of contemporary writers together and made them major players in English literary history (Cox 1998). Or perhaps stealing is the wrong trope: once etherealized in this fashion, Milton’s hair might belong to anyone.

But was the physical hair in Hunt’s possession actually Milton’s? Certainly, today’s letter presents it to Bailey as a “real, authenticated Lock” (Rollins, 76). Yet “authenticated” doesn’t necessarily mean authentic: in fact, this variant of the word raises the question of whether the hair at issue actually grew on Milton’s head. The letter’s ta-da moment keeps the question open. “Here it is,” Keats announces, “as they say of a Sheep in a Nursery Book” (Rollins, 76). It’s hard to know if “it” is the hair or the poem it instigated, or indeed if Keats’s words are ironic. Yet does it ultimately matter whether Milton’s hair was more real than the fleece in a nursery book?   As is well known by anyone whose pate has grown hot and itchy under a wig, fake hair is no less “real” than hair that isn’t fake.  In any case, as long as everybody agrees to accept Milton’s hair as his—or at least as once his—its transactional value will be the same whether it is authentic or not.

Speaking of transactional value: Hunt himself claimed to have been given this small sample of Milton’s “Apollonian tresses” by his own physician, William Batty (Hunt 1818: cxxxii). “This treasure,” he later wrote in what became one of his Wishing Cap essays, “was generously given us by [Batty], who claimed to have gotten it from his father-in-law, who had it from [Samuel] Johnson.” Hunt admitted that “the link of evidence is here lost; but Johnson was famous for his veracity, and he would not have given it as Milton’s, had he not believed it genuine” (Hunt 1833: 368). As Keats’s twentieth-century editor Maurice Forman wryly observed, “this pedigree, though not sufficiently authoritative to satisfy a rigid regard for the ordinary laws of evidence, was ample justification for the faith of the imaginative Keats” (Forman: 86).

Whether Keats’s faith was misplaced or simply facetious may be beside the point. In his lifetime, Milton’s hair really was a big deal, at least to him. Its luster and abundance were one of the reasons that, as a Cambridge undergraduate, he was teased as the “Lady of Christ’s.” Milton indeed seems to have been quite vain of his hair, maintaining a full head of tresses in the Cavalier style even through his years of political affiliation with the Roundheads. His poems too make hair matter. In Paradise Lost, Eve’s “wanton ringlets” at once foretell postlapsarian complications and, as Stephen Dobranski has shown, represent matter’s spiritual potential before the fall. We usually see the Samson of the closet tragedy Samson Agonistes as a stand-in for the blind poet Milton. But the Jewish hero’s “puissant” hair was another common denominator.

In Milton’s seventeenth century hair was often believed to have a life of its own independent of the bodies on which it grew (Geisweidt 2009). So it’s possible to picture the same locks literally migrating from Eve’s head to Samson’s to Milton’s own. Stranger things have happened, absolutely. And now that one thinks of it, Benjamin Bailey himself is on record as having found Keats’s own hair to be “beautiful—a fine brown rather than auburn.” Indeed, panted Bailey, “if you placed your hand upon his head, the silken curls felt like the rich plumage of a bird” (Colvin, 143).  Small wonder that among the small businesses today clustered about Hampstead Heath it is possible to find the popular salon Keats Hair. (It rates four stars on Yell, the British Yelp.)  A photograph of that establishment was posted by the Keats Shelley Association this past December, glossed with Susan Wolfson’s playful concordance to apparently widespread appreciation of Keats’s “silken curls.”

It’s funny how Milton and Keats seem to have had much the same hair. Maybe this is an unspoken prerequisite for English poetic magnitude: Thomas DeQuincey thought that Wordsworth’s hair also looked like Milton’s (DeQuincey, 123). But then again, isn’t that the thing about hair? It marks identity and yet is completely anonymous. In terms of any pantheon of British poets—under construction over the eighteenth century—hair playfully undercuts the glory of each denizen therein. In terms of power, meanwhile, good hair is alluring. But it is also vulnerable, as Judges’ Samson and Pope’s Belinda both discovered. It’s trivial. It makes light of glory. And yet it also outlasts and shines. It matters and does not. All of these potentialities collide in Keats’s ode. He did with them what in fact Milton himself, seldom to be recommended for deep coherence, might have done: twisted them into one messy chignon. Who knows what Bailey made of it all? We don’t have his response to this poem, and he and Keats would fall out in time. But he probably continued to think that Keats’s own hair was awfully pretty.

As for Milton’s hair, just how did it escape his head in the first place? This is an unfathomable mystery. Swift’s hair was trimmed on his deathbed and distributed among his friends, who perhaps identified it with the hair that apparently made Gulliver so vulnerable to the Lilliputians (they use it to tie him down). Not so Milton’s. As far as we know, it accompanied him to the grave. However, in 1790, a body believed to be his was exhumed from his supposed burial place in St Giles Church. The corpse’s hair, reported the barrister and Milton aficionado Philip Neve, turned out to be “perfectly straight and even,” despite the moldering state of the scalp to which it was attached (Neve 17). What to do but cut it off? Better late than never. Locks of Milton’s hair were soon for sale. Lots of locks. Locks and locks of Milton’s hair. Indeed, remarked one wag writing for the English Chronicle, “the head of the poet must have vegetated a great variety of hair, and of various colors, as the Public are alternately presented in the streets with grey, black, red, and auburn hair, each of which they are solemnly assured is real and genuine” (Chronicle, 1801; Barton n.p.).

We can assume that the hair Hunt owned and showed to Keats in the winter of 1818 was higher far descended. Certainly, Hunt later claimed that it was. However, the essay in which he does so moves with suspicious speed away from the question of provenance. With respect to authenticity, Hunt is happier to expand on “the internal evidence of the hair itself.” Which evidence, he declares, “is strong,” for “the colour is brown, which is known to have been Milton’s.” Nor is it simply brown: “This lock of the great poet is […] beautiful. It is remarkable for its excessive and almost preternatural fineness—we mean the softness and slenderness of its individual hairs. […] Certainly, it is more like the hair of the most delicate girl….” (Hunt 1833: 370)

So, as we’ve seen, was the no less brown hair of Keats. Perhaps the Milton ode was a way of offering a notional bit of it to Bailey. As for the hair that grew on Keats’s own head, it too eventually found its way into Hunt’s collection. Where it, alongside Milton’s, is living at this hour.

Collection of Hair formed by J.H. Leigh Hunt: John Keats. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.


Works Cited


Barton, Carol. “Ill Fare the Hands that Heaved the Stone’; John Milton, A Preliminary Thanatography.“ Milton Studies 43 (2004), 198-260.

The Chronicle, 7-9 September 1790, no. 1801.

Clymer, Lorna. “Cromwell’s Head and Milton’s Hair: Corpse Theory in Spectacular Bodies of the Interregnum.” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation  40 (Summer, 1999): 91-112.

Colvin, Sidney. John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends, Critics, and After-Fame London: Macmillan, 1920.

Cox, Jeffrey N. Poetry in the Cockney School: Keas Shelley, Hunt and Their Circle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

DeQuincey, Thomas. Recollections of the Lakes and Lake Poets [1862], ed. Edward Sackville-West (London: John Lehmann, 1958).

Dobranski, Stephen. “Clustering and Curling Locks: The Matter of Hair in Paradise Lost,” PMLA 125 (2010), 337-53.

Forman, Maurice Buxton ed. The Letters of John Keats. London: Oxford, 1947.

Geisweidt, Edward J. “Horticulture of the Head: The Vegetable Life of Hair in Early        Modern English Thought.” Early Modern Literary Studies 12 (2009), 95-116.

Hunt, Leigh. “Milton’s Hair,” in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine (January 1833) rpt. in Edmund Blunden, Leigh Hunt and His Circle. New York: Harper, 1930, 368-74.

——–. Foliage; or Poems Original and Translated. London: Ollier, 1818.

Lynch, Deidre Shauna. Loving Literature: A Cultural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Neve, Philip. A Narrative of the Disinterment of Milton’s Coffin. 2nd. ed. London: 1790.

Newlyn, Lucy, Paradise Lost and the Romantic Reader. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.

Rollins, Hyder Edward. The Letters of John Keats. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1958

Letter #45: To Benjamin Bailey, 23 January 1818

For his third letter of the day, Keats sat down to write to Benjamin Bailey. As we saw in the letter to George and Tom back on 13 and 19 January, Keats has been thinking fondly of Bailey in comparison to the antics of Reynolds and Haydon, and Hunt and Haydon (fighting over minor slights). And we see Keats returning to this theme as he addresses Bailey directly. The squabbles he refers to as things “of great Perplexity.” And, indeed, it does seem that Keats’s frustration was much more a product of his inability to understand why his friends wouldn’t simply get over themselves and make up (“Men should bear with each other”), than it was about him being upset about any particular individual’s behavior.

As Keats moves on to report on how their other mutual friends are doing, he tells of a recent visit to Leigh Hunt’s where they looked at a lock of Milton’s hair. Naturally, they had to write some poems about it. And the majority of the rest of the letter includes the poem and a few more words about it from Keats after he’s copied it. That poem–along with the hair of Milton, and of Keats–is the focus of the response to this letter, from Jayne Lewis (University of California Irvine). It’s a sharp and witty essay, which we think you’ll thoroughly enjoy whether you prefer Keats’s or Milton’s hair. Of course the KLP is partial to Keats’s locks, but we recognize that there’s plenty of room in the temple of fame for Milton’s tresses too.

The letter is at Harvard’s Houghton Library, which provides the images below. And Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition offers a good reading text, just in case you’re not yet used to reading Keats’s handwriting (just takes a bit of practice!).

Page 1 of Keats’s 23 Jan 1818 letter to Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.20). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 23 Jan 1818 letter to Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.20). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 23 Jan 1818 letter to Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.20). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 23 Jan 1818 letter to Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.20). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Thora Brylowe on Keats, Haydon, and the Sister Arts (Interviewed by Brian Rejack)

Today we debut a new format: the KLP Interview! To discuss two letters from 23 January 1818 (one to Haydon and one to Taylor), Brian Rejack sat down with Thora Brylowe (University of Colorado, Boulder). You can listen via the file below. We also include a transcript (lightly edited for clarity).


Brian Rejack: This is Brian Rejack from the Keats Letters Project, and for today’s response to two of Keats’s letters on the 23rd of January 1818, I’m sitting down to talk with Thora Brylowe of the University of Colorado, Boulder. And we’re gonna talk about these letters in which Keats is talking with Benjamin Robert Haydon and his publisher—Keats’s publisher, John Taylor—about the possibility of getting an illustration ready for Endymion, which is about to be published. Thora has a book that is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press called, Romantic Art in Practice: Cultural Work and the Sister Arts, 1760–1820. So, we at the KLP thought she’d be a perfect person to talk to about book illustrations and engravings, and what we can learn about Keats and these letters from her expertise. So, welcome, Thora.

Thora Brylowe: Hi, Brian.

BR: And thank you for agreeing to talk to me for this project here.

TB: Well thanks for the chance to do this.

BR: Yeah, absolutely. So, first can you tell us a little bit about the book and, sort of, what you do in it?

TB: Yeah, sure. So, again, the book is about the sisters arts as a kind of cultural practice, right. So I’m trying to think about the way authorship in the middle of the 18th century or so is pretty well defined as a way of understanding how print circulation works: you garner fame through the circulation of print, your name is affixed to whatever you author at the front of it, and that’s a way of forming a literary field. So, I look at the way that painters, at some point, realized that they can do the same thing. The way they’re going to do that is to circulate their work through print, but that means that you have to have subject matter that everybody is interested in, and if we’re going to do history painting in a Protestant nation where you can’t paint pictures of Jesus, who you can paint pictures of is Shakespeare. So what winds up happening is that this sort of visual arts field gets formulated against antiquarians. And that’s probably pretty relevant to what we’re looking at here, because antiquarians in the early part of the period I’m looking at, which is around 1760, are making their own illustrations that they’re commissioning, and the first kind of big, large-format art books, and artists say, “well, we don’t really want to make the stuff you want us to make, we want to make our own stuff.” And so they sort of glommed onto the literary field as a way to attract a public audience as opposed to an audience of patrons, and that meant of course print circulation, which means they had to think about what their relationship was to engraving and to books.

BR: Great. So, at what point did authors sort of respond to how the painters were trying to enter into this, and then I’m guessing that authors then realized, “hey, these painters are glomming onto the literary field, let’s use them to our advantage for forwarding our fame.” Is that a fair assumption to make?

TB: Sometimes, yes, but it depends. I mean, I think Keats and Haydon are a good example of how the Sister Arts might kind of prop each other up. But also there was in the 90s a kind of institutionalization of this relationship, and it came in the form of these big literary galleries that were all in fashionable London, along Pall Mall. And those galleries really brought to bear the tension between artists and authors that engraving really brought out. And in the end it kind of hurt engraving quite badly, because, you know, these galleries thought that they were promoting engraving, but then when you look at pictures of Shakespeare—and I should just back up and say a lot of this is about not living authors like Keats, but canonical authors who had in the 70s come out of copyright. So that meant that not only were there lots of anthologies circulating, but also these guys who were largely print sellers could get in there and negotiate the world of bookselling in a way that they couldn’t before because booksellers were a pretty tight-knit scene. But if you could get hold of Shakespeare or Milton for free, and not have to deal with copyright, all of a sudden that opened it up for these big institutions to do big editions that used the paintings that pretty famous British painters made as the subject matter for illustrations. And I think in terms of the letter that we’re talking about, that’s fairly relevant, because that’s the vision that Keats has, or Keats’s publisher has, for what this frontispiece is going to look like. But at the same time… you know there’s a great quote about the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery from Lamb, who says, you know, what injury has Boydell not done for me with Shakespeare, because now I have to look at a particular version of Imogen, or Ophelia, or whoever. And so, the book is better than the movie, right? It’s always like what’s in your head is what’s significant.

BR: Right, right.

TB: So I think the kind of hesitancy you see in Haydon’s response—which I don’t have so I don’t know exactly what he said—but from what’s quoted in the second letter, my sense is that, you know, that’s part of it. There’s an interpretive process here that since the 1790s artists have been held accountable for their interpretations of the content of the literary work that they’re illustrating.

BR: Yeah, that’s really fascinating, that part of Haydon’s hesitancy might be that he doesn’t want to get Endymion wrong. Right, that he doesn’t… so just to set things up a little bit further for our listeners, we have two letters, one in which Keats is writing to Haydon, and saying, you know, “thanks for your offer, let’s think about this for the next poem.” And then in the letter to Keats’s publisher, John Taylor, Keats explains to Taylor about Haydon’s hesitancy, and what he says is that Haydon doesn’t want to rush doing an illustration of a scene from the poem, because that would be the thing that would require that interpretive work that he would want to get right, and so instead he offers to do an image of Keats’s head, from a chalk drawing that he already has. So it’s interesting—that context, of a sort of already existing, almost institutional convention, seems to be a big part of what’s going on here. So, what else can you tell us about, with this particular—maybe we can talk a little bit about the shift from the idea of illustrating a scene to the idea of an engraving of Keats’s own face. And I love this line he has, where Keats says to Haydon: “Your proposal pleases me—and, believe me, I would not have my Head in the shop windows from any hand but yours.” [Chuckles]

TB: [Laughter] Yeah, yeah.

BR: So how are authors, and how are painters and engravers and publishers, sort of navigating all the issues that are around that: the idea of having the author’s head on the frontispiece?

TB: Well, it’s a pretty old idea, right? And it goes hand in hand with a way that—you know frontispieces sort of work in different ways—but the illustrated frontispiece is a kind of 18th century, late-18th century, invention (although, you know, there are some in Pamela, and that’s the 1740s). Just moving back in time a little bit… if we think about the iconic picture of Shakespeare—right, the idea that that book is a body, it’s your body of work, is a pretty ingrained, what do we want to call that… like a kind of vocabulary of what frontispieces are supposed to do. The original word frontispiece suggests an architectural apparatus, so it’s like a doorway that welcomes you into the book. But then books are metaphorized in a bunch of ways. And one of the ways they’re metaphorized is a sort of body of the author who’s imbued its spirit or mind into the words. So I think that’s what Haydon’s going for. And of course also practically, if Haydon has just stuck Keats into Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, then we’ve got a bunch of chalk drawings of his head kicking around somewhere, that he’s sort of studied that head a little bit. And so therefore I think it’s much easier, but I also think probably, on the other end, that the engraving of a portrait, particularly—I don’t know the specifics of who they would have—but particularly because it could be done in some kind of non-line form, a kind of stipple, or something like that, that would be quicker, it would move the whole process along. So we have drawings that Haydon’s happy with already, and then we also have—or [drawings] that he could do quicker—and then we also have a form that’s easier to mediate into engraving. So, there’s two ways that it would be better for the artist.

Haydon’s Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (1820). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Click for full size. Keats’s head can be seen just above Wordsworth’s (on the right, between the two columns).

One of Haydon’s sketches of Keats. Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery.

BR: Well and it seems like the publisher as well. That’s one of the things that intrigues me about this whole scenario. When Keats took his fair copy of the first book of Endymion to show to John Taylor, Taylor was excited and said, “Hey, let’s talk to Haydon about getting some sort of illustration here.” He’s coming up with this idea, and scheming to try and make it happen. So, if they had gone forward with making an engraving of one of those chalk drawings, what would that process have looked like? I mean, is the publisher the one fronting that money to pay for the engraver, or are there different models for how that might work?

TB: You know as far as I know, no, there are not different models. I took a look at—and this is not really super-well researched—but there is some maniacal collector who was interested in British engraving, [and] collected the signatures of lots and lots and lots of engravers (the autograph signatures, not on plates). And those are in the Philadelphia Free Library, and happily, the ones that the maniacal collector did not cut off the page are usually on bills. So what we do know is that the price for the engraving, regardless of whether or not it was designed to be circulated as a print, or stuck in a book, is more or less the same. We know that engraving is quite a time-consuming process, and especially—I think you said that this book was going to come out in a quarto—so we’re not talking about a particularly small engraving, probably.

BR: Right. Although I think eventually they did… I think when they decided not to do the illustration, then they scaled down in size as well. But yeah, the plan that Taylor said was we’ll do it in quarto if Haydon will agree to this illustration.

TB: So then you’re talking about a generally more expensive process, because it’s more expensive in labor, it’s more expensive in materials. And where a lot of that expense is coming in is with the engraver, who would get some kind of an up-front amount of money with the commission, and then would have to write periodically as he ran out of money, to say, “hey, I need a little bit more.” So usually there was an agreement of a full price, and then some amount of that would come along.

BR: I wish I knew more about what Taylor’s finances were like, and what his business was like at this time, because I’m pretty sure that he’s given Keats an advance on Endymion already, maybe even two? So he’s already invested a decent amount of money in this project, basically before any of it was even written. Now he’s offering to put up more money.

TB: Right. So probably he sees that it’s going to sell well, so he’s looking to make it the nicest book possible to get the return. That’s my guess.

BR: Yeah, too bad he was wrong on that business prediction a little bit. As far as I know, Endymion wasn’t… not quite a best seller. Maybe if it had been in quarto, with a frontispiece from Haydon, things would have been different. [Laughter]

TB: Right.

BR: So, one other thing in the letter here that’s intriguing I think is—and, we were talking about this before, you pointed this out—that Keats says an illustration of this would be better suited to the next poem he has in mind, which he’s already referring to as Hyperion. We don’t know how much he’s figured out about his plan for that poem yet, but obviously he’s got some sense of it. And he says that “the nature of Hyperion will lead me to treat it in a more naked and grecian Manner,” so he’s saying that the illustration [from Haydon] would be more fitting. So can you talk a little bit about that “grecian Manner” and some of the contexts during this time period that might be appropriate for that?

TB: Yeah, I mean, in the book that I just finished, I look a lot at how the relationship between artists and antiquarians shaped the relationships between artists and authors. And one thing that’s really notable is that artists really always want to stay true to these principles. They just don’t want to be ordered around by antiquarians like Richard Payne Knight, who has a sort of established reputation and was deeply hostile to the acquisition of the [Elgin] Marbles because of their state as kind of broken and pitted. So there’s this way that artists and antiquarians are kind of at odds with one another. Ultimately, what I want to say is that Keats is thinking about the Marbles, he’s thinking about something that is… I don’t know—if you think about Grecian Urn, he’s imagining the possibility of an unmediated encounter. And so the rawness or the nakedness or the lack of mediation of some antiquarian telling you how this ought to look, is part of the encoded discussion that he and Haydon are having: “hey, you know, Haydon, you won this battle in 1816 to acquire these things.” And I mean, that was such a significant moment, because it really demonstrated victory of artists over antiquarians in matters of taste, in matters of national taste in particular, and in the understanding of antiquity. It’s a way of [Keats] saying, “I recognize your expertise on this, and I am learning from that expertise.” And I think, you know, it speaks to the relationship between the Sister Arts, and how that’s changed over the course of the period, you know, because of antiquarians who just were getting their meathooks in everything. But they really influenced the relationship between painters and poets in really interesting ways.

BR: But you think that by the 1810s, the artists had sort of gained—

TB: Absolutely.

BR: —in that battle.

TB: Yeah, but after 1816, I mean I think that that is a really important and defining moment, but it was a thing that had been building since the literary galleries fell apart. Haydon’s friend Landseer was instrumental in sort of positioning the artist and the engraver as united, and as something independent, and something where their cultural authority was huge. Because if you think about it—and this is one of the things that’s interesting about portraiture—before this rise of history painting after the 1760s, that’s all England had was portraiture. So if you think back about art history before the 18th century, what you get is the Pelican portrait, or, I don’t know, those Holbein pictures, or whatever. It’s a history of portraiture. But if I’m a painter and you ask me to paint your portrait, then that portrait means something to you—it doesn’t circulate the way literature does. It doesn’t mean something—obviously if you’re an aristocrat of some renown, then it means something to the nation. But not in the way that The Death of General Wolfe does, or any kind of [painting of] literary, canonical literature. You start painting that, and it does sort of change the relationship between artists and authors.

BR: I weirdly just started thinking about Clueless, [laughter] and taking the picture of…

TB: Oh yeah, right.

BR: And then the guy wants the picture because Cher took the picture, even though it’s a picture of someone else. And I was thinking all that before I remembered, “oh yeah, that’s Emma.”

TB: Yeah. [laughter]

BR: I’m a bad romanticist.

TB: Well, Clueless is pretty good.

BR: Oh, it’s great. Yeah. But you know, that association between the person being illustrated versus the person doing the work of illustrating, and how the work of art is connected to both of the people involved in that.

TB: Right. And so is the process of mediation. So, when you’ve got a photograph that’s one thing, because it’s a process of totally mechanical reproduction. But when you move that back into our period, then you’re talking about somebody who has to make that reproduction. So if I’m an artist, I want that guy [the engraver] to be a photocopy machine, or a camera. But if I’m the engraver, I’m like, “I’m an artist, like you. I am mediating or I am translating this from one medium into another.” That’s why I said before, it’s like a complicated relationship; it’s hard to simplify it, because there are so many different points of tension in the field of cultural production (if you want to think about it that way).

BR: Yeah, and it has so much to do with the particularities of the different art forms and the different technologies involved with them…

TB: Exactly.

BR: … and how people are physically involved in working with those technologies. Which is why I’ve always thought in Clueless the thing with the photograph really doesn’t translate very well. It’s just like she snaps a, I think it’s like a Polaroid, and then, it’s not really… anyway.

TB: Yeah, a portrait you make is…

BR: Always comes back to Clueless.

TB: Yeah, maybe it always comes back to Clueless.

BR: Well, thank you, Thora, for sitting down to talk with me and sharing your thoughts with the Keats Letters Project audience in this new format. I guess we’re experimenting with technology here as well as the artists and engravers and publishers were doing two hundred years ago.

TB: That sounds great, and I’m always for technological experimentation, so thank you very much for listening to me rattle on, and good luck with the next interview!

BR: Yeah, thank you!