Letter #57: To John Taylor, 27 February 1818

Today’s letter to Taylor is a significant one, particularly for the “Axioms” in poetry which Keats shares with his publisher. It might not be the “FINEST LETTER of Keats Extant,” as “some enthusiast” (so deemed by Hyder Edward Rollins) wrote on the top of the manuscript. But it’s pretty dang good. What are these axioms, you say? Well hold on a sec. We’re getting there.

First it’s worth asking why Keats feels compelled to offer up these axioms in the first place. Of course, we don’t have Taylor’s letter to which Keats was responding. But Keats writes these sentences before getting to those axioms:

It is a sorry thing for me that any one should have to overcome Prejudices in reading my Verses–that affects me more than any hypercriticism on any particular Passage. In Endymion I have most likely but moved into the Go-cart from the leading strings. In Poetry I have a few Axioms, and you will see how far I am from their Centre.

In short, it seems Taylor attempted to politely dampen Keats’s expectations for the poem’s success by noting that it might not be exactly to the public’s taste. One thinks here of the rhetorical gymnastics performed by Wordsworth and Coleridge in the “Advertisement” to Lyrical Ballads, in which they 1) deny that critics know anything about poetry, 2) note that their poems are really just experiments (so NBD if they don’t work), 3) that readers might not even think they are poems at all, so don’t call them poems you jerks!–and 4) that readers should just erase their “pre-established codes of decision” and think only of whether these experimental not-poems give them pleasure or no. One imagines Taylor writing something like, “Keats, loving Endymion, my man. But, you know, it’s got some moments that people will probably find a bit, um, challenging? Because they just don’t get your genius like I do! Anyway, yeah–some turkeys who don’t know what’s what will probably feel a bit prejudiced against your poems because they are stuck in their old fuddy-duddy ways.” (Ok, Taylor probably didn’t write exactly like that.)

What Keats’s response shows is that he continues to be eager to move beyond Endymion. As he writes toward the end of this letter, he is ready to “get Endymion printed that I may forget it and proceed.” In his metaphors of the “go-Cart” and the “leading strings,” we see another indication of his judgment of the poem as a trial of invention that is merely a stepping-stone to something else. The “go-Cart” is what we would now call a baby walker; “leading strings” were devices used to help children learn to walk (essentially by having an adult hold strings attached to the infant). So, yes, Keats is but a child learning to “not trip up my Heels” in the realm of poetic walking. We’ll see a similar formulation in his Preface to Endymion, where he situates the poem as in between the imagination of a boy and of a man: “thence proceeds mawkishness.” Well we daresay that even in Endymion Keats was well beyond the baby-walker stage of managing poetic feet. Teenager overly excited about poetry and desire?? Yeah, that sounds about right. (Still, we maintain Francis Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review assessment of Endymion: “It is, in truth, at least as full of genius as of absurdity.”)

To the axioms, then. Here they are:

1st I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity–it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance–2nd Its touches of Beauty should never be half way therby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural natural too him–shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight–but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it–and this leads me on to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.

One thought on the poetry coming naturally as the leaves to the tree bit. I’ve–and here I’m breaking from the traditional KLP editoral we–Brian Rejack, here, hiya–long pushed back against this notion thinking that Keats is just being ideological. Of course Keats knows that poetry involve labor, study, time, revision, etc. But I had a realization while discussing this letter with my students today (beneath some trees that haven’t just yet begun budding, incidentally). Just because Keats claims that poetry should come as “naturally as the Leaves to a tree,” it doesn’t mean he intends that poetry must be instantaneous. Leaves actually take a good long while to fully come to the tree. And they require labor, patience, and devotion (albeit the devotion of sun to tree, water to soil, soil to root, etc.). So perhaps Keats merely intends that poetry requires careful cultivation by placing the poetic impulse in an environment in which poetry can thrive. That could still certainly mean intense labor and practice, working and reworking.

We’ll have more about these axioms with a response to come later this week (or the next). But for now, some final things to say about the manuscript of this letter. Like many of the letters sent to Taylor, this one remained in his possession for a long time, and after his death remained in the family. In the 1840s he made his materials available to Richard Monckton Milnes for use in Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848; 2nd edition, 1867). The next significant editor of the letters was Harry Buxton Forman, who made a name for himself in 1878 by publishing, to great controversy, the letters Keats sent to Fanny Brawne. In 1883 Forman published a complete edition of Keats’s poetry and prose. In that edition, the letters to Taylor are typically (if not all–apologies for not checking all of them yet) based on Milnes’s text. Milnes was much more likely to excise sensitive passages than was Forman. One can witness this fact in the 1895 single-volume edition of the letters (the KLP’s favorite 19th-century edition of the letters). It appears that at some point between 1883 and 1895, Forman got his hands on the manuscripts in possession of Taylor’s family. And when he found in those manuscripts some of the naughty bits that Milnes left out, Forman obliged by printing them for all to see and enjoy.

Take, for instance, the 10 June 1817 letter to Taylor and Hessey (dated 10 July by Milnes and Forman). In Milnes (1848, 1867) and in Forman (1883, 1889), the first sentence is removed (“I must endeavor to lose my Maidenhead with respect to money Matters as soon as possible–and I will to–so here goes”–by the way, read David Sigler’s response to the letter, which is fantastic). In Forman’s 1895 edition, the first sentence appears! Conclusion: for his earlier editions Forman used Milnes’s text, and for the 1895 edition he must have had access to the letter. Now, this letter remains in the Taylor family and is sold in 1903 to Amy Lowell (through Bernard Quaritch). So that means Forman had access to the letter, and that the access was granted by the Taylor family, as opposed to some other owner of the letter. Some of the letters once owned by Taylor were sold prior to 1903, including the 23 Jan 1818 letter. That one was sold in New York in 1897, and since Forman’s 1895 version of the text is based not on the manuscript, but again on Milnes’s text, that letter must have left the Taylor family’s possession before Forman got access to those materials.

Ok, we’re in the weeds. But hang on. Back to today’s letter. Forman’s 1895 edition was clearly based on the manuscript, whereas his 1883 and 1889 editions were based on Milnes’s texts. But today’s letter was not sold at the Taylor family auction in 1903! (CAVEAT–WE’RE NOT ENTIRELY SURE YET THAT THIS FACT IS CORRECT. PRETTY SURE, THOUGH.) It was sold in 1912 by the firm of J. Pearson & Co. The buyer was J. Pierpont Morgan. What happened to this letter between 1895(ish) and 1903? We don’t yet know. But presumably it passed out of the Taylor family and into private hands who eventually led it back into the market in 1912. Those hands may well have been those of John Pearson or his partner Charles Edward Shepheard, both of whom actively sought out valuable letters and manuscripts. In any case, thanks to the catalogue for their sale in 1912, we have a facsimile of the MS to present to you. Sadly, it includes just two of the letter’s three pages. Still, better than nothing.

Now if you’re still here and want to read the entire letter, you know now that the text in Forman’s 1895 edition was based on the manuscript, so you can trust that one. And images below are from the 1912 catalogue for J. Pearson & Co. Stay tuned for more details on the letter’s provenance as it comes in!

Facsimile of page 1 of Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor. From the 1912 catalogue of items for sale by J. Pearson & Co.

The listing for Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor, from the 1912 catalogue for J. Pearson & Co.

The listing for Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor (featuring text of the letter), from the 1912 catalogue for J. Pearson & Co.

Facsimile of page 3 of Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor. From the 1912 catalogue of items for sale by J. Pearson & Co.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Common Blackbird, enjoying a snack.

The Mistle Thrush. Probably not what Keats meant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Denial of Sociability from Keats; or, Poor Horace Smith!

Anne McCarthy
Penn State University

Re: Keats’s 19 February 1818 letter to Horace Smith

Wit and sense,

Virtue and human knowledge; all that might
Make this dull world a business of delight,
Are all combined in Horace Smith.

–Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Letter to Maria Gisborne”

Horace Smith was a stockbroker by profession and a poet by inclination. He immersed himself in the life of literary London in the early decades of the nineteenth century, spending his days in the counting-house and evenings at the theatre. With his brother James, he published the breakout success, Rejected Addresses, in 1812—a volume of poetic parodies in the style of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and many other leading poets of the day. Leigh Hunt found him “delicious” and remarked that “His figure was good and manly, inclining to robust; and his countenance extremely frank and cordial, sweet without weakness” (Reiman xxii, xxiii). By most accounts, he seems to have been a lot of fun to be around, willing to share his good financial fortune with his friends, and, especially after he retired from business in 1821 to devote himself to literary pursuits, a prolific writer of poems, novels, plays, and memoirs. He was a longtime contributor to the New Monthly Magazine, where his “A Greybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance” ran to thirteen installments in 1847-48. In a delightful, if somewhat morbid, turn of events, his final story—a highly-underrated three-part novella about a man who is buried alive called the Posthumous Memoir of Myself—appeared just after his death in 1849.

His best friend among the Romantic poets was Shelley who, in addition to praising him in the “Letter to Maria Gisborne,” characterized Smith as “the only truly generous person I ever knew, who had money to be generous with” (qtd. in Reiman xxii). By all accounts, Smith managed Shelley’s finances with skill and delicacy; for his part, Shelley always made sure that Smith was on the list to receive his new work. And it was Smith, incidentally, whose conversation helped provoke the contest that led to the writing of “Ozymandias.” You can read Smith’s poem here (image below).

In short, it would seem like everyone who was anyone enjoyed the company of Horace Smith. Except, perhaps, for John Keats.

“Dislike” is probably too strong a word. Still, in this letter we see Keats involved in a diplomatic refusal of Smith’s hospitality, pleading that familiar combination of too much work and too little time. Perhaps “Nehemiah Muggs,” for all its “Wit and imaginative fun,” was not entirely to his taste. The work still to be done on Endymion did loom, even though—as Rollins’ footnote tells us—it would be several more weeks before Keats made it to Devonshire.

When Smith met Keats and Shelley at Leigh Hunt’s house in 1816, his first impression of Keats was that “to an observant eye his looks and his attenuated frame already foreshadowed the consumption that had marked him for its prey. His manner was shy, and embarrassed, as of one unused to society, and he spoke little” ([Smith] 239). Smith’s biographer, Arthur Beavan, also records the following anecdote:

[H]is eldest daughter remembers that, when she was a child, she was solemnly led into the garden by her father one lovely afternoon in July to take a peep at a fragile-looking and rather ill-dressed gentleman sitting “immanteled in ambrosial dark” beneath a wide-spreading ilex. “Do you see that man?” said her father; “that’s a poet.” It was poor Keats, then fast nearing his end, whom Smith had enticed from Wentworth Place, Hampstead, to dine and spend a long day with him. (134)

Beavan goes on to describe this less-than-immortal dinner: it was “served earlier than usual to lengthen the exquisite evening, and everything that could be thought of to tempt the poet’s feeble appetite was there,” along with “a dozen bottles of Keats’s favorite beverage”—claret, one can only assume, to be consumed outdoors on this pleasant evening (135). Smith seems to have tried his best, that is, but there’s a sense that “poor Keats” might be struggling with this hospitality.

Beavan blurs the issue a bit, for he follows this anecdote with Keats’s report of a dinner with the Smith brothers, where he confesses that “They only served to convince me how superior humour is to wit in respect to enjoyment. These men say things which make one start without making one feel; they all know fashionables; they all have a mannerism in their very eating and drinking, in their mere handling of a decanter” (qtd. in Beavan 135-6). Here, of course, we can begin to understand why Keats, in February 1818, might want to put off a visit to Knightsbridge as being less relaxing than his host intended. But Beavan implies that this is a commentary on that “lovely afternoon in July”—that after all that had been done for him, Keats remained unmoved. But eagle-eyed Keatsians (or those of us capable of using Google) will recognize that the description of dinner with the Smith brothers is part of the negative capability letter—and, thus, that it cannot refer either to a gathering in July or, for that matter, to a visit where Keats was “fast nearing his end.”

I don’t want to read too much into this particular disjunction, of course. At best, it draws attention to certain temperamental differences between Shelley and Keats, a reminder that Keats did not always feel himself at his best in certain kinds of company. Perhaps—and this is speculation on my part—Smith was too much Keats’s opposite, with a robustness, good nature, and general comfort in the world that threatened to overwhelm him. In the final throes of Endymion, he may not have had the energy for “wit” or “mannerism,” and he could trust that Smith would be disappointed, but not offended, by his refusal. Gratitude and hospitality can be tricky sometimes, and, at least on this day, Keats decides that sociability comes at too high a cost.


Works Cited

Beavan, Arthur H. James and Horace Smith: A Family Narrative based upon Hitherto Unpublished Private Diaries, Letters, and Other Documents. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1899.

Reiman, Donald H. “Introduction.” Rejected Addresses and Horace in London by Horace and James Smith. New York: Garland Publishing, 1977.

[Smith, Horace.] “A Greybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance, No. VIII.” The New Monthly Magazine and Humorist Vol. 81, no. 322 (October 1847): 227-40.

Letter #55: To Horace Smith, 19 February 1818

The second letter for today is to Horace Smith, about whom we’ve heard a bit before. Back at the end of January, he was making fun of another Horace (Twiss) with some bawdy lines Keats shared with Tom and George. Arden Hegele had a great reading of the letter and Keats’s ambiguous feelings about masculinity, the body, and sex. We also heard about Smith in the 14 February letter to George and Tom, in which Keats mentions Smith’s poem “Nehemiah Muggs” and shares some extracts from it. (See also the latest This Week on Keats for a shallow dive into early nineteenth-century attitudes toward Methodism, among other topics). And now we have a letter to Smith himself, with Keats mildly praising “Nehemiah Muggs” as having “a full leven of Wit and imaginative fun.” (Remember that back in the negative capability letter Keats’s disdain for wit and preference for humour was formulated after a dinner with Smith as host.)

But we’ll cut things short here and let you get to Anne McCarthy’s wonderful response, which situates Smith as a minor but nonetheless significant figure in 2nd-generation Romantic circles, even if Keats never warmed to him in the way he did with some other folks.

The letter can be read in Harry Buxton Forman’s updated 1901 edition of the complete works (we believe this edition was the letter’s first time in print). And it’s short, so here’s an image of the letter as well.

Keats’s 19 Feb 1818 letter to Horace Smith. From Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 collected edition of Keats’s writings.

The Rites of the Reader as Practiced by John Keats

Jeff Rients
Illinois State University

Re: Keats’s 19 February 1818 letter to Reynolds

Maurice Sendak, author of the children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are, once related an anecdote in which he replied to a fan letter from a little boy by sending the lad a sketch of a Wild Thing inscribed “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Jim’s mother wrote back to Sendak, reporting that her son loved the sketch so much that he ate it. I feel a similar toothsome urge every time I re-read the letter of 19 February 1818 from Keats to Reynolds. Part of me wants to tear that full page of distilled Prose right out of of the book and gobble it up. I yearn to take those words and consume them, digest them, integrate them into my body, make them a part of who I am on an atomic level.

Of all Keats’ letters discussing the theory and practice of poetry, this one is–dare I say it–the most relatable to those of us who do not make our way in the world as its unacknowledged legislators.  Let the poets wrangle with the mysteries of Negative Capability or the challenge to act as the most unpoetical thing in existence. For we who receive poetry (take it into our hearts, our minds, perhaps even our stomachs) more often than we pen it, what Keats provides us with is a theory of reading. And what’s more, it is a theory that is liberating, joyous, and yet also challenging.

Although I had undoubtedly encountered Keats at some point in my K-12 education, I first became conscious of him as a Big Deal in Romantic Poetry in the second of my two Brit Lit survey courses as an undergrad. This was the kind of environment where you spent a heady semester blazing through a weighty Norton Anthology. By the end so much material had been crammed into my throbbing brain that I could barely remember the works and writers that I liked. Following the final exam, I was left with only a vague impression that Keats was one of the poets that I had liked.

Thank goodness that I would encounter Keats again and again in seminars on romanticism and poetry in general. In these slightly less frenetic venues the opportunity arose to slow down and enjoy Keats, to luxuriate, at least a bit, over his lush and vibrant verses.  Keats “delicious, diligent Indolence” of focusing for a day on a single page of “full Poesy or distilled Prose” is a call to inaction, a challenge to take the time necessary to digest what we read. In an era where seemingly all texts ever written lurk behind the floodgates of a single click, waiting to inundate us with information overload, Keats’ idea isn’t simply liberating, it’s downright radical. Do we dare–two centuries of ever-accelerating life later–to doze on the sofa or nap on the clover with just one page of poetry or prose as our only companion? Can we turn off the TV, silence the phone, put down our work, and unplug from the world long enough just to be and to read? The modern push back against our multitasking, ever-online, ever-busy, ever-tired existence can be found in such places as the Slow Food movement and its progeny, such as Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s controversial work The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. But Keats got there first, looking for ways to lift a little time from our shoulders.

Keats, of course, doesn’t advise simply when to read poetry, but also how. Here I could continue my luddite approach in the previous paragraph and insists that Keats’ phrase “a certain Page” demands that we only use paper and ink to investigate fully poesy and distilled prose. Such an impulse may be nothing more than projecting my own tendency towards distracted reading, my knee jerk urge to visit Google or Wikipedia to track down a word or concept or to just check my tumblr feed at any given moment. I can’t help but see a warning against these behaviors encoded in the line “man should be content with as few points to tip with the fine Webb of his Soul and weave a tapestry empyrean.” The state of being Keats aspires to, both diligent and indolent, is more akin to the “relaxed attention” of certain schools of meditation, a posture of mindful awareness and ease, open like a flower, passive and receptive. Or, to put it in the modern parlance, Keats wants us to close all the tabs and face the world with just one browser window open, both literally and metaphorically.

Another important aspect of the theory of reading Keats espouses is the “sparing touch of noble Books” that logically follows from treating with only a single page at a time. At a page a day, there’s no room in a human lifetime to get through the list of canonical works in the back of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon and hardly even time to read one work of each of the twenty-six authors he discusses at length. Both the work and the author were great bugaboos of my youth, haunting scolds who (in my mind, at least) constantly chastised me for not spending every waking moment reading all the works of the greats. Keats invites us not to reject these works, but to dip into them in search of “any one grand and spiritual passage.” As a result, the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World series that sits on the bookshelf nearest my easy chair feels less like an unclimbable Everest and more like the source of cool waters, a mere mouthful of which restoreth my soul.

Finally and perhaps most importantly is the urging by Keats to read with a multiplicity of strategies: take up that one page and “wander with it, and muse upon it, and reflect from it, and bring home to it, and prophesy upon it, and dream upon it.” What a glorious array of possibilities!  Reading for Keats is anarchic, individual, even idiosyncratic, with no one correct strategy for finding meaning with text. Keats’s methodology of reading is an openness to all effective methodologies of reading, in much the same way that Jeet Kune Do practitioners profess to eschew the rigidities of more formalized martial arts styles in favor of a more fluid approach to hand-to-hand combat. Allow the mind to wander, invoke your muse, reflect deeply, inquire to what the text says to you in particular and to the universe at large (at least, that’s how I read bringing home and prophesying), whatever way into the text you can find is good.

One easy method that I sometimes forget in my haste is to read the poem or passage aloud.  Another is to copy the text into my notebook. Neither of these options appears among Keats’ reading techniques, but I see no reason to assume that he meant for his list to be exhaustive. Thus the poetry of erasure (as found in Ronald Johnson’s exquisite Radi Os or Tom Phillips’ stunning A Humament) or the cut-ups of William S. Burroughs, or the exercises in Ron Padgett’s Creative Reading are all legitimate ways into a text, as are a thousand other ways of reading that remain undiscovered.

Nor are we meant to pick one technique, but rather Keats challenges us to employ as many methods as befits a day of diligent indolence with that single page. The result is a multi-dimensional reading, a triangulation of sorts like Keats’ various individual minds “leav[ing] each other in contrary directions” but “greet[ing] each other at the Journeys end,” each reading whispering its results to another. The act of reading becomes a layered space of play, a joyous series of “events,” to use Johanna Drucker’s term for the strange dance between the reader and the read. Every text becomes what Espen J. Aarseth calls an ergodic text, writing that requires extra procedural effort to parse (oh, but what an exuberant effort!), or an “image,” to use the term employed by Lynda Barry for art and memories that are alive in the imagination. Under this regime of reading as a flurry of motion, text is no longer merely interactive, it becomes the interaction, leaping to new life with each new reading.

This is the gift of Keats’s letter to Reynolds, a declaration of the infinite possibilities of any small sliver of literature, a call to action to a deeper, more vibrant engagement with small texts, an invitation to discover infinity in a bit of pulp and few drops of ink. We need only to take the time to necessary to allow reading to be experimental and experiential, to look at each page the way Joyce writes Ulysses and how he demands we read Finnegans Wake. Or perhaps we would do better to look for exemplars of Keats’s method among the work of various latter day mystics, such as the multivalent symbolism in Aleister Crowley’s Liber 777, the quantum psychology of Robert Anton Wilson, or the “fragmentary glimpses of eternity” that Terence McKenna mentions on “Re:Evolution,” his spoken word collaboration with the Scottish electronic band, the Shamen.

Maybe not every reading of “a certain Page of full Poesy or distilled Prose” should lead us to day-long reveries, applying a dozen methods of encountering the text, but Keats invites us to join him in the “two-and thirty Pallaces” whenever we are able.


Jeff Rients is a doctoral candidate in the English Studies program at Illinois State University, where his research focuses on typographical and paratextual elements in the construction of authorship in 19th century British literature. In addition to his research and teaching duties, he has also served as the English 101 Coordinator of ISU’s Writing Program (training and mentoring new graduate instructors), and he continues this work leading the Future Professor’s Development Circle at Illinois State’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology. His most recent publications include “Encountering the Kelmscott Coleridge,” a digital edition of the 1896 Poems Chosen out of the Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Not Just Skills: Writing, Research, and Character” for the Grassroots Writing Research Journal, and the Dungeons & Dragons adventure Broodmother Skyfortress.

Letter #54: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 19 February 1818

Two letters to get to today, so we’ll spare you much of a long intro here. All you need to know (in addition to beauty being truth, truth beauty–duh) is that today’s letter to Reynolds is amazing. It’s easily his most lovely meditation on reading. Ok, there are other candidates. But this one definitely makes it into the top three or so. If you’ve never indulged in a bit of Keats’s “delicious diligent Indolence,” then go read this letter right now and do with it what he says you should do with “a certain Page of full Poesy or distilled Prose.”

Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition provides us once again with today’s text. Read it and start weaving a tapestry empyrean of your own. Then check out Jeff Rients’ (Illinois State University) response to the letter, which revels diligently and deliciously in Keats’s luxurious model of reading.

Woodhouse transcript included below. The original MS (one of the only letters to Reynolds to survive in manuscript) is at Princeton. Once we get a digitized copy, we’ll share.

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 19 Feb 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 19 Feb 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 19 Feb 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

This Week in Keats, Episode 5: ‘When once a man delays a letter’

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

Re: Keats’s 14 Feb 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats

For the latest episode of This Week in Keats, Brian and Mike discuss the etiquette of writing a late reply (something no KLP editor would ever do!), Keats’s playful acknowledgement of his burgeoning fame (“in the west country”), cultural attitudes toward Methodism circa 1818, and an intriguing story about a Keats manuscript and Oscar Wilde.

Letter #53: To George and Tom Keats, 14 (?) February 1818

Happy Valentine’s Day, Keats fans! The only valentine we know Keats sent was one to his brothers, still wintering out in Teignmouth. Of course, we don’t actually know what day Keats sent this letter, only that he probably began writing it on 14 February. Yes, this is another John Jeffrey transcript, so the usual caveats apply: surely there are some mistakes in the act of transcription, and most likely there are significant excisions. Jeffrey himself dated it 16 February, so perhaps it was sent and postmarked on that date (but then again, Jeffrey is wildly unreliable when it comes to dates). In any case, given that early in the letter Keats mentions being “half afraid [the printers] will let half the season by before” they start printing Endymion, and then notes towards the end, “I saw a sheet of Endymion & have all reason to suppose they will soon get it done,” it’s reasonable to assume some time passed in the interval between writing those two sentences. Then again, maybe Keats’s fears were simply misplaced and he was disabused of his worry not long after he expressed it in writing. With Jeffrey it all comes down to this: We. Just. Don’t. Know. Curse you, Jeffrey, for forcing us to remain content in half knowledge!

Images of Jeffrey’s transcript are included below. (Notice the letter is begun below Jeffrey’s transcript of the negative capability passage–we can’t escape it!) He also transcribed some extracts from Horace Smith’s poem,”Nehemiah Muggs–an Exposure of the Methodists,” which Keats sent along with the letter to his brothers. For the text of the letter (but not the poem), head over to Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition of the letters.

For our response to today’s letter, we have a special valentine from Brian Rejack and Michael Theune: that’s right, it’s a new episode of This Week in Keats! Today’s installment includes ruminations on the etiquette of slow (e)mail response, a foray into attitudes toward Methodism circa 1818, and a story of one poem’s afterlife involving Oscar Wilde. Enjoy!

Page 1 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 14 Feb 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 2 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 14 Feb 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Extracts from Horace Smith’s poem “Nehemiah Muggs–An Exposure of the Methodists,” included in Keats’s 14 Feb 1818 letter to this brothers. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Extracts from Horace Smith’s poem “Nehemiah Muggs–An Exposure of the Methodists,” included in Keats’s 14 Feb 1818 letter to this brothers. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Letter #52: To John Taylor, 5 February 1818

Keats continues his work on copying Endymion and delivering it book by book to Taylor and the printers. Today we see him apologizing to Taylor for delaying a bit with Book II. The cause is that, although he’s finished copying it, he wants another day to look it over again, and he’s busy this day with “the affair of Cripps.” Cripps refers to Charles Cripps, a student at Oxford and friend of Benjamin Bailey, for whom Keats had served as an intermediary with Benjamin Haydon. Haydon asked back in October 1817 if Keats would suss out Cripps to see if Haydon ought to take him on as a student. What Keats refers to here is likely his efforts to raise some money from among his circle to help Cripps pay for his study with Haydon.

Not much else of significance to note here, which means it’s time to delve into the realm of insignificance! Yes, it’s time to discuss Keats’s penmanship. Take a look at the word below and see if you can figure out what it is.

Hieppap? Come on, Keats! Help us out!

If you guessed “tresspass,” then you’d be correct! And yes, that extra s is necessary. You might alternatively want to transcribe the word as “trespas,” and your impulse would be a good one. But that long vertical stroke preceding the cursive s is how Keats typically writes out a double s. It looks an awful lot like his p, right? Why, you ask, does the KLP know about this fact, let alone care about it? Well, we just so happen to be stuck in an airport trying to make it through a 3+ hour delay, and what else would you have us do but look at Keats’s handwriting?? Ok, we confess, it’s actually because one of the KLP co-editors, Brian Rejack (who may or may not be the one of the editorial We currently stuck in said airport), has written about Keats’s orthography with respect to negative capability. He’s suggested that one possible mistake John Jeffrey may have made in transcribing the word has to do with the uncanny similarity between how Keats writes p and ss. It’d be really nice if cassability were a word… Anyway, if you ever do work with Keats’s handwriting, now you know to be on the lookout for the p and ss uncanny valley. Otherwise you might end up wondering what “hieppap” means.

You can read today’s letter from Forman’s 1895 edition, although he was working from Woodhouse’s transcript (which you can tell because he has “2nd” instead of “second,” which is what Keats has in the MS. You can see the image of Keats’s letter below.

Page 1 of Keats’s 5 February 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.21). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

The address and postmarks from Keats’s 5 February 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.21). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

American Grandeur

Seth Abramson
University of New Hampshire

RE: Keats’s 3 February 1818 letter to Reynolds

In the nineteenth century, literary America contended with a number of entrenched dilemmas that lasted the century, among them the question of how to canonize American literature and how to dynamically educate younger writers aspiring to one day enter the canon. Both these stateside quandaries—so central to the evolution of American letters—were forecast by John Keats in a letter dated February 3, 1818.

In the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, the “poetry anthology wars” saw American poets striving to extricate themselves from their British inheritance and forge an identity uniquely theirs. For starters, this meant weening American secondary schools and universities off the anthologies of British literature they’d been teaching for years, replacing these with anthologies of American authors often long on names and short (some prominent scholars felt) on literary merit. When the “Fireside Poets” came up with an ingenious solution for nineteenth-century anthologists’ quality-control problem—they became anthologists themselves, anthologizing primarily their own poetry and that of their friends—at least two generations of late-nineteenth century poetry textbooks were born.

The Fireside Poets (Emerson, Longfellow, Bryant, Whittier, Lowell, and Holmes) were so called because their poetry explored largely “domestic” themes. At the time, “domestic” connoted not so much the affairs of a homestead as the inchoate contours of the self, whether at home or otherwise. Thus aspiring poets attending university in the last three decades of the nineteenth century found themselves reading, re-reading, analyzing, and extemporaneously speaking on literary art whose obvious focus was the improvement of the spirit. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that, by the 1880s, certain university figures, indeed not just blocs of students but their professors, too, had begun to rebel.

Harvard professor Barrett Wendell (1855-1921) should be regarded as the father (or perhaps grandfather) of two disciplines: composition studies and creative writing. In the 1880s, his advanced composition courses bucked the then-extant American literary canon by allowing students to write “imaginatively” and to spend as much time in class discussing one another’s work as the work of long-lionized American savants. In fact, Wendell’s classroom—which in short order, once he’d instituted these rebellious pedagogies, became among the most popular on campus—featured writing praxes that look very much like the creative writing workshops of today. One key difference, however, was that unlike the workshops of the present century, Wendell’s urged students to become “citizens of the world” by making their work responsive to major themes in American civics and by writing of places and people that had not habitually been the subject of American authors’ ruminations. Wendell’s was an extroverted ideology that overturned prescriptions for writing, canonization, and civic duty alike.

In writing his friend, English poet and critic John Hamilton Reynolds, on February 3, 1818, Keats chose to muse on how poets might, like “ethereal Pigs,” venture forth into the world seeking “spiritual Mast and Acorns” rather than subsisting on nostalgia (or yearning) for a domesticated heart. He urged Reynolds to cut the words “tender and true” from a recent poem, noting in such a saccharine sentiment a dangerous rapprochement with the Baroque: “[W]here there are a throng of delightful Images ready drawn,” he warns Reynolds, “simplicity is the only thing.” A contemporary poet peering over Keats’ shoulder might well wonder, on what basis did Keats distinguish between “spiritual Mast” and the “tender and true”? Might not the “airy pigs” Keats urges poets to be profitably locate tenderness and truth outside their self-contained spheres of interest? I think yes—as I think Keats is on about process, here, rather than destination. The hard-won tenderness and truth we find in our civil (or not-so-civil) discourse is categorically not the same tenderness and truth we might already be able to divine, but perhaps too easily, in our still-untested selves.

In making his argument, Keats affixed himself to an easy target: Wordsworth. Keats admires his peer’s “imaginative” and “domestic” passages, but not the egotistical philosophies a fixation on the domestic—or one’s unaided imagination—might invoke. The danger Keats apprehended in 1818 is still with us today; how much of contemporary literary debate begs the question of whether and when it’s acceptable for a poet to turn personal “speculations” into something one “broods and peacocks over”? In an American political moment when the ordinarily political act of poetry-writing feels ever more contingent and ever more tangential to real-time political outcomes, ought poets not be afraid they will, as Keats warned, “make a false coinage” of their esoteric speculations and thereby “deceive themselves” into a sad facsimile of relevance? And is there not an equal danger that our speculations on the vagaries of the human spirit will quickly turn to moralizing, in the form of poems that “have a palpable design upon us, and, if we do not agree, seem to put their hands into their pockets”? My own sense is that in 2018, as in 1818, the Scylla and Charybdis of the poet is a poem too enamored of its own inward gaze and then, across a broad strait, another poem that gazes creepily at its readers, smirking condescendingly. How to write something rooted in want but not tethered to self-interest? How to arrest the reader completely, but without the odiously conspicuous manipulations we call “mere artifice”?

Keats again offers us, in reply, the poet as “airy pig”—a flying squirrel-like figure cast out from its tree on an adventure whose domestic origin-point is tacit and whose halts and advances are both “great and unobtrusive.” In common parlance, we’d say that Keats asks of poets that they be minimally self-conscious “content creators” whose subjects inherently interest readers rather than implicitly demanding, with haughty poetic artifice, that readers develop an interest in them. The poem Keats imagines is not one that seems to “startle or amaze the soul” with the fact of its “poemness” but the quality of its observation of social, political, and moral spheres we all jointly inhabit. Preferable is the “retired flower,” Keats advises Reynolds, to the one beside the highway crying out, “Admire me! Dote upon me!” The former lies not just where we live but where we do, finally, meet one another; the latter has designs on being stored away for a greedy and private consumption.

It is too easy to call this letter a jeremiad against prettiness, or, more broadly, domesticity in the sense that term was understood in poetry in the nineteenth century. Rather, I think Keats encourages poets to compose work whose discoveries poet and reader arrive at simultaneously. There should, in the Keatsian poem idealized here, be less a cataloging (or worse, sanitizing and safeguarding) of one’s immediate spiritual environs than—well—a desire to be a citizen of the world, and to engage with topics of such civic moment they operate equally upon the close and distant, the author and audience, the poet and the farmer or banker. Wendell, for his part, would agree, and so would the students whose idiosyncratic imaginations he turned loose on the world rather than bending them ever more inward toward a rigid canon of moral prescriptions. Perhaps Wendell would likewise have agreed with Keats that there is no reason for poetry’s more studied artifices to “tease [us] with grandeur and merit when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive [in the world].” Keats even invokes Robin Hood and his merry band, perpetually wandering and filled with wonder, as a blueprint for the poet-citizen of his imagination. It puts one in mind of the several decades at the end of the nineteenth century in which the Fireside Poets studiously kept that great Robin Hood of American verse, Whitman, out of the canon.

I might be smitten with Keats’ vision were I not aware that, in 2018, we enjoy an unprecedented opportunity for those whose stories have heretofore been erased, told by oppressors, or left at the margins to make central what was once suppressed. It is no one’s place to say to the poet of color or the woman poet, to the transgender poet or the gay or lesbian poet, to the poet processing trauma in situ or the poet for the first time finding an unyielding voice of resistance and defiance, that their earnest and hard-won speculations on the mysteries of the self, so long discouraged or discounted, are self-indulgent. In fact, it is white men like Keats whose prescriptions would today seem to us self-indulgent, the product of a time when literacy was still largely for the white, male, and landed. At the time he wrote Reynolds, Keats’ complaint bespoke a generous rebelliousness within his social and professional class; today, the same words might well strike us as boorish and coercive.

Keats also wrote Reynolds during one of his nation’s brief respites from war, so it may have seemed natural to him to think, in 1818, that there was plenty of time for intermittently engaged citizen-adventurers to litter the literary landscape of his homeland. In 2018, sporadic political mischief, ensconced in the carefree life of a vagabond, just won’t do. That ethos is every bit the indulgence of Wordsworth lounging beneath a bough and dreaming of “Old Matthew.” To be merely an observant “citizen of the world,” as Wendell put it, or like the eternally wandering Esau, as Keats did in his letter to Reynolds, falls short of what America wants today: a defender of the lawful and good world a nation’s citizens (and, too, countless noncitizens) have built. Brave and persistent engagement is what America wants from its poets—but in saying so we must indulge the possibility, too, that America doesn’t ask that that engagement come in the form of a poem.

More than sixty years before Wendell challenged the American canon with his primordial creative writing workshops, Keats anticipated the dangers of a certain sort of complacency which, I’d argue, we find in the very fact of “canon” itself as well as the breed of “domesticity” that won itself canonization in the late nineteenth century. What he could not anticipate were the dangers poetry itself would face—both the art and its practitioners—two hundred years hence. But I nevertheless find in his February 3 letter some guidance for poetry and poets today, and perhaps where I least expected it: his likely tongue-in-cheek rendering of the poet as “airy pig” or flying “squirrel,” that is, one who leaves the safety and comfort of home on a purposeful rather than contented adventure. In 1818, the spiritual nourishment such a poet might seek was, well, whatever it was—without being a better historian than I am, I’m certain I can’t properly reconstruct it. But I do know that today, in these dark hours of American history, sufficient nourishment for the poet’s soul is not—or not necessarily—to be found in any poem, whatever its provenance or artifice or “unobtrusive grandeur.” Wendell taught his students to be citizens first and writers second, expecting, one imagines, that the trials of fully inhabiting the first role inexorably alter the potentialities of engaging the second. Just so, what Keats warned Reynolds of was putting poetry before the world—which in a contemporary context means putting poetry before the responsibilities of citizenship or (as applicable) one’s commitment to the rights of a “citizenry” broadly defined.

I wrote several years ago that poetry is in the midst of a Golden Age, and thereafter wrote a book of poetry by the same name. In neither case did I mean to say that this is a Golden Age of poems—history will decide that—but rather a Golden Age for those with the intuition, nerves, and bountiful ingenuity of poets, and a Golden Age for the communities that people of this sort have the power to create (and yes, too, for the initiatives their communities can support) should the polis and citizenship be placed ahead of any one person or his private “speculations.” I don’t at all believe poems to be the necessary byproduct of any of this; I do, however, see a dynamic pedagogy—a dynamic poetry-writing pedagogy—as the fount from which what poets must do off the page in today’s America can spring. We must learn poetry to exceed it, I think, and to me that’s the message Keats sent to Reynolds in 1818, and that Barrett Wendell sent his students at Harvard in 1888, and that America itself now sends to its poets, whoever they are or ever hope to be, in 2018.

Seth Abramson is a poet, professor, attorney, and political commentator. Read more about him here.