Letter #78: To George and Georgiana Keats, 27 and 28 June 1818

One of the tricky things about these letters from Keats’s Northern Tour is that he’s writing multiple letters across multiple days, so there’s some overlap in the dates, which can easily lead to some confusion about what’s happening when. This letter to George and Georgiana was begun on the afternoon of 27 June, after Keats had visited Stock Ghyll Force in the morning, eaten breakfast at the Salutation Inn at Ambleside (now the Ambleside Salutation Hotel, owned and operated by Best Western), and then attempted to visit Wordsworth at Rydal Mount. Keats and Brown then made their way to the foot of Helvellyn, where they waited hoping that the mist would clear enough for them to attempt an ascent. While they waited, Keats began this letter to George and Georgiana.

We cover some of the same territory covered in the previous letter to Tom: dining at Bowness-on-Windermere (on trout which Keats himself retrieved from a box in the lake), a brief mention of the visit to the waterfall, and the planned visit to Wordsworth’s residence. Now we learn that the elder poet was not at home and that Keats “wrote a note for him and stuck it up over what I knew must be Miss Wordsworth’s Portrait.” Apparently Wordsworth didn’t keep the note, as it no longer exists. But when visiting the area three years ago, KLP adventurers Brian Rejack and Michael Theune did their best to recreate the scene (see below). They are silly.

These two jokers…

For the entertainment of his sister-in-law, and to (presumably) symbolically welcome her as a newly-minted member of the family, Keats goes on to write an acrostic for her new name. What a nice fellow. Eventually Keats and Brown gave up on waiting for the mist to clear and abandoned their plans to summit Helvellyn, hoping they’d have better luck with Skiddaw in a few days.

The next day, after lodging at the Nag’s Head in Wythburn, the pair walked to Keswick for breakfast, after which Keats returned to letter and deposited it at the post office before spending the day walking around Derwent Water. Keats ends the letter with a funny bit of self-reflection about the eventual fate of his correspondence: “We will before many Years are over have written many folio volumes which as a Matter of self-defence to one whom you understand intends to be immortal in the best points and let all his Sins and peccadillos die away–I mean to say that the Booksellers with [for “will”] rather decline printing ten folio volumes of Correspondence printed as close as the Apostles creed in a Watch paper.” Well, joke’s on you, John! Little did you know that you’d be so immortal that a bunch of people two hundred years later would be poring over that correspondence so obsessively. Lucky for you, though, your best parts pretty easily outnumber the sins and peccadilloes.

This particular letter, though, took a long time to make its way from its manuscript existence into print. Here’s what we know about its travels. First, it was sent to Liverpool but never actually reached George and Georgiana. Postmarks show it arriving in Liverpool on the first of July, by which point the newlyweds were already aboard the Telegraph, which did not leave port until four days later. Apparently they did not leave the ship in order to check on any letters that might have arrived for them. So the letter was redirected to “Messrs Frampton & Son / Leadenhall Street / London.” These were the employers of William Haslam, to whom George would have instructed any letters be sent after his departure from Liverpool. Haslam delivered the letter to Tom, who wrote on its exterior, “To be sent to George.”

What happened to the letter after the summer of 1818 is a bit unclear. It was still in Keats’s possession in September 1819, when Keats copied the acrostic to Georgiana in the letter he was writing then. He also copied some of the letter to Tom from 23 and 26 July 1818. We know that some of the letters from the tour had been sent to George and Georgiana in Keats’s October 1818 letter to them. But it appears that at least today’s letter and the late-July letter to Tom remained in London. Most likely today’s letter made its way to America at some point, though. When copying out the 23/26 July letter to Tom in September 1819, Keats explicitly points out that he’s copying it instead of sending the original, with this funny explanation: “before I go any further I must premise that I would send the identical Letter insted of taking the trouble to copy it: I do not do so for it would spoil my notion of the neat manner in which I intent to fold these thin genteel sheets–The original is written on course paper–and the soft ones would ride in the Post-bag very uneasy; perhaps there might be a quarrel–.” With this letter to Tom, we do know for sure it eventually arrived in America, because John Jeffrey made a copy of it in 1845. He did NOT make a copy of today’s letter, however.

So, that means the 27-28 June 1818 letter to George and Georgiana was not in Louisville, Kentucky in 1845. Sort of… It’s also possible that Jeffrey simply didn’t copy this letter. That Jeffrey could have done anything! In any case, the letter was not printed until 1925, when Amy Lowell published it in her biography of Keats. She owned the letter herself, but as far as we’ve been able to tell thus far, it’s not clear how she came to own it. Most of her Keats manuscripts she acquired through the sale of the Taylor family collection in London in 1903. With this letter, though, we suspect it was in the Keats family in America, given to someone by Georgiana or Emma Keats Speed at some point in the middle of the nineteenth century, and then acquired by Amy Lowell in the early years of the twentieth. She bequeathed it to Harvard’s Houghton Library in 1925.

Some technical difficulties are currently preventing us from providing images of the manuscript from Harvard, but you can look at those images via this link: https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:14984784$115i. Images below come from the Google Books preview of the letter from the Oxford edition of Keats’s Selected Letters.

Keats Lives in the Eye

Brian Rejack
Illinois State University

Re: Keats’s 25-27 June 1818 letter to Tom Keats

The highlight of this first letter from Keats’s tour is the long description of his visit to Stock Ghyll Force, a waterfall just outside of Ambleside. The lowlight is arguably Keats’s disappointment at Wordsworth. There are many reasons why Keats had been becoming more and more critical of Wordsworth over the last years. One reason is certainly the younger poet’s sense that the elder had become a bit too comfortable in his older age. Wordsworth was cheering on the French revolution in 1790-91, and now Keats finds him supporting the Tory candidate for the Westmorland parliamentary seat. While dining on his freshly-caught trout, Keats inquires of the waiter about Wordsworth: “he said he knew him, and that he had been here a few days ago, canvassing for the Lowthers. What think you of that–Wordsworth versus Brougham!! Sad–sad–sad–and yet the family has been his friend always. What can we say?” Keats tempers his criticism somewhat by noting that Wordsworth was supporting a family friend, but he nonetheless appears stung by “Lord Wordsworth[‘s]” act of betrayal.

In many ways the Northern Tour is a series of disappointments for Keats. Here he is in the land of Wordsworth’s poetry, and as much as he takes delight in noting “‘that ancient woman seated on Helm Craig,'” Keats also has to reckon with the elder poet’s political apostasy. Even so, Keats hoped to visit with Wordsworth, but he cannot do so (again, thanks to that political apostasy) and is forced to merely leave a note on the mantle piece at Rydal Mount. Later in the tour we will find similar disappointments as Keats visits Robert Burns’ birthplace hoping to feel inspired. Other more mundane obstacles seem to put a damper on Keats’s designs. The food becomes more and more of a preoccupation in the letters, with “the cursed Oatcake” emerging as his most consistent digestive foe. By early August he decides to cut the trip short after having come down with a nagging sore throat. If Keats had hoped that he’d write great poetry while taking in the scenes of grandeur, he feels disappointed in the results along those lines as well. Again and again in the letters, Keats expresses frustration with the poems he has written. So what did the tour do for him?

The description of Stock Ghyll Force points toward a few possibilities. Keats set out on this trip to, at least in part, gather more materials for his imagination. As he puts it more concisely back in April while planning the trip, he will “go to gorge wonders.” His first exposure to the “Lake and Mountains of Winander” seem to have done the trick: “the two views we have had of it [i.e. Lake Winander] are of the most noble tenderness–they can never fade away–they make one forget the divisions of life; age, youth, poverty and riches; and refine one’s sensual vision into a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power.” The echoes of Keats’s later poetry–in particular “Bright Star” (open lidded and stedfast) and “Ode to a Nightingale” (“they can never fade away–they make one forget the divisions of life”)–suggest that his experiences in the Lake District did indeed supply him with “life and food / For future years.” Similarly, the extensive account of the visit to the waterfall suggest optimism on Keats’s part regarding what he thought the tour might do for his poetic powers going forward.

Although Keats apologizes to Tom for relying so much on descriptive prose (“descriptions are bad at all times”), he sure knows how to do it well. This passage deserves to be quoted at length.

Having visited this spot in July 2015, I can attest that the descriptions are quite accurate. We also get a sense of Keats’s reactions to them, but mostly the descriptions consist of an objective account without much intrusion from the writer’s thoughts. The “pleasant twinge” is a lovely detail, and a perfectly Keatsian one. Likewise for “then the thunder and the freshness.” There is a kind of cinematic, synesthetic character to the account, which alternately zooms in close and pans out wide, with visual and sonic details merging and blending. Then there is Keats’s keen sense of the “different characters” of the different parts of the falls. He expands on this notion further, which again deserves extensive quotation.

What Keats articulates here is nothing less than a theory of the relationship between place, embodiment, imagination, and poetry. From this moment of recognition the path to a poem like “To Autumn” now looks clear, which is not something one could confidently assert about Keats and his writing just a year earlier. First, he acknowledges the impossibility of ever fully cognizing a place. The “intellectual tone” cannot not be captured imaginatively or through recollection. Embodied experience, or “sensual vision” as Keats refers to a similar notion earlier in the letter, exists apart from, even as it must of necessity persist in relation to, imagined futures or recalled pasts. To “live in the eye” may seem to imply a form of disembodiment. Keats does, after all, say that this experience makes him “forget his stature.” However, he’s only forgetting his self-consciousness about being “Mister John Keats five feet high.” He’s differently embodied, not disembodied. The imagination rests because Keats finds himself so fully open to the sensory experiences filtered through his newly-constituted bodily awareness.

How do we get from that experience to poetry? Well, that part is a bit harder. If one cannot imagine or remember “these grand materials,” how exactly can they be harvested and put into poetic form? The answer is not a clear one, but Keats at least implies that the process must be one of further embodiment. He moves between abstract and material (“mass of beauty”), spiritual and physical, but ultimately he ends with “the relish of one’s fellows.” All of the processes that undergird and bring together the relations between embodiment and poetry ultimately conclude with the social and the material. The rhetoric of tasting (“relish”) is, of course, metaphorical, but it points toward Keats’s insistence on always returning to the world, to the body, to pleasure. Even this letter itself he conceives of as a vehicle for his brother’s physical well-being: “I am anxious you should taste a little of our pleasure; it may not be an unpleasant thing, as you have not the fatigue.”

So yes, Keats ends up doing a lot of griping about his summer adventure and its pitfalls. Just as frequently, though, we see some of his most significant thinking on the issues addressed in today’s letter, particularly with his account of visiting Stock Ghyll Force: how we experience the world around us, how we square that experience with other cognitive processes, and how poetry comes to exist and operate in the world as a result.

The author at Stock Ghyll Force in July 2015.

Stock Ghyll Force, “streaming silverly through the trees.”

Letter #77: To Tom Keats, 25-27 June 1818

“Here beginneth my journal, this Thursday, the 25th day of June, Anno Domini 1818.”
–John Keats to Tom Keats, 25 June 1818

Here beginneth the KLP’s chronicling of Keats’s Northern Tour, this Monday, the 25th day of June, Anno Domini 2018. For the next two months we’ll be following along as Keats and Charles Brown follow their noses to the north (see here for the reference). It’s a fascinating journey. Keats imagined it as “a sort of Prologue to the Life I intend to pursue–that is to write, to study and to see all Europe at the lowest expence.” (see his letter to Haydon from 8 April 1818). He planned to “go to gorge wonders,” (letter to Reynolds from 9 April 1818), and in so doing to add to his store of poetic materials: “I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavor of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, by the finest spirits, and put into etherial existence for the relish of one’s fellows” (from today’s letter!).

We’ll here more about this letter on Wednesday, when the KLP’s own will provide us with a more sustained response to this opening missive from Keats’s journey. But before we leave you today, here is some background on the history of this particular letter. The manuscript is now lost, but the text of the letter does not come to us from a usual source like a John Jeffrey or Richard Woodhouse transcript. Instead it comes from the June 1836 issue of The Western Messenger, a magazine founded by James Freeman Clarke and a group of other Unitarian ministers in the (then) western United States. What was Clarke doing publishing a letter by John Keats in his magazine? Well, Clarke had been living in Louisville, Kentucky since 1833, and during his time there he had befriended a local pillar of the community who just happened to be the brother of some fancy-lad poet from England. Yes, Clarke and George Keats became fast friends.

One fruit of that friendship was the publication of this first letter from Keats’s tour in the June 1836 Western Messenger (and part of the 23 and 26 July 1818 letter to Tom in the July 1836 issue of the magazine). Clarke heaps praise on Keats’s letters, calling them “of a higher order of composition than his poems.” If he thought the letters were so precious, then maybe he shouldn’t have lost this one, no?? But hold on a second. Let’s not rush to blame Clarke for the letter’s disappearance. Here are a few reasons why it’s plausible that today’s letter was lost through the fault of some other person.

First, Clarke obviously did value the letters quite highly. He notes in his intro, “We hope that they [i.e. the letters] will ere long be put into the possession of the public.” More significantly, the other letter which Clarke publishes in the July issue of The Western Messenger still does exist. It’s now at Harvard, having at some point made its way into what became known as the “Crewe Collection,” the materials assembled by Richard Monckton Milnes and then maintained by his son Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe-Milnes, later the first Marquess of Crewe. What’s strange about this letter, though, is that it didn’t make its way into that collection until sometime much later than most of the other materials. Milnes collected most of his stuff prior to the 1848 publication of Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats. The manuscript of the 23 and 26 July 1818 letter to Tom was not one of those. The text of the letter did appear in the 1848 book, but it was based on a transcript made by John Jeffrey in 1845. For Milnes 1867 edition, he was still relying on the Jeffrey transcript. Some letters that had been in the American Keats family possession were given to John Gilmer Speed by his mother Emma Keats Speed (daughter of George) before his 1883 publication of an edition of Keats’s letters and poems. But for the text of the July 1818 letter to Tom, Gilmer Speed relied on Milnes, who had relied on Jeffrey’s transcript. So sometime between 1845 and 1883, it’s likely that Emma Speed gave the July letter to someone, and that it made its way to the Crewe collection through sale sometime toward the end of the nineteenth century or beginning of the twentieth.

Ah, but what about the 25-27 June 1818 letter? Well, we remain skeptical that Clarke owned it and lost it, even though he certainly could have printed and copied two letters for The Western Messenger, returned one of them (the 23-26 July letter) and kept the other (today’s letter). There is one other letter that James Freeman Clarke most certainly did own, and which still survives to this day. That’s the 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom. It remained in the Clarke family until 1946, when they gave the letter to Harvard. Here’s the rub, though–this letter was not given to Clarke by George in 1836. We know this for two reasons: first, he didn’t publish it in his magazine, which seems like something he would have done either then or in the future if he owned from 1836 onward. Second, John Jeffrey made a transcript of the 3-9 July letter in 1845. He could not have done so if Clarke owned the letter, since Clarke was not living in Louisville in 1845. Clarke left Louisville in 1840 and lived in Boston for most of the rest of his life. He traveled to Louisville in summer 1851 and again in May 1873. From his letters we know that during the latter visit he spent two days visiting with Emma Keats Speed, during which time it seems plausible she may have given her old friend the Keats letter as a parting gift.

So there are three letters connected with Clarke. Two survive, one having been passed down through his family after it was likely given to him by Emma Keats Speed in either 1851 or 1873, the other having been used by him in 1836 and most likely promptly returned to George Keats, after which the letter stayed in the Keats family and was probably given by EKS to someone else. As for the third letter, today’s letter, the first from the Northern Tour–well, we just don’t know. Perhaps EKS gave it to a young Abraham Lincoln when he visited the Speed family plantation in July 1841, just after Emma had married Philip Speed, the brother of Lincoln’s good friend Joshua Speed. Lincoln and Joshua Speed met in Springfield, Illinois, where Speed owned a general store. Maybe Emma wanted to get in good with her new family by making a nice gesture to the tall, lanky guy visiting Joshua. Yes, we’re gonna go ahead and blame Lincoln for losing today’s letter. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it!

Regardless of what happened to the letter after 1836, we at least have the text of it thanks to Clarke’s insertion of it in his magazine. And that’s how we’ll give you the letter for today (along with Clarke’s intro to the letter). Enjoy, and come back in two days to read more about the content of the letter!

Letter #76: To Thomas Monkhouse, 21 June 1818

The second letter from today is to Thomas Monkhouse, whose primary claim to fame within the Keats world is his attendance at the “Immortal Dinner.” He was there through his connection to Wordsworth, whose wife Mary Hutchinson was a cousin of Monkhouse. Side note: Mary’s brother Thomas Hutchinson married Mary Monkhouse and had a daughter named Sara Hutchinson, which was also the name of Mary and Thomas Hutchinson’s sister Sara. Very confusing stuff. We’ll try to get you a family tree to sort it all out.

In any case, Thomas Monkhouse–not to be confused with his cousin Thomas Hutchinson who married his cousin Mary Monkhouse, who was Thomas Monkhouse’s sister–had apparently been reading Endymion and enjoying it. He’d called on Keats sometime in the previous few days, when Keats happened not to be at home. So in this letter Keats apologizes for missing him, and expresses his gratitude “in hearing from Haydon that you so great a Lover of Wordsworth should be pleased with any part of my Poem.” Wordsworth, it should be noted, will be on Keats’s mind for much of the early parts of his Northern Tour. He is romping around in the Lake District after all. As we’ll see from future letters, Keats’s attempts to visit Wordsworth go a bit awry. But here we gather a sense of eager anticipation as he mentions to Monkhouse his planned “visit to Rydal.”

This letter still exists thanks to the descendants of the Hutchinsons and Monkhouses, including that elder Sara Hutchinson who is not as famous as her namesake and aunt. But we have to gripe for just one more moment about all of these names! Thomas Monkhouse named his daughter Mary, which was also his sister’s name. And Thomas and Mary Hutchinson, who had the second Sara Hutchinson, also had a daughter named Mary! Ok, so they also had an Elizabeth and a George, mixing things up a bit. But they also added another Thomas in there! Really making the genealogical work a bit tricky here… (Also, it makes total sense to name children after other family members–just that with the cousins marrying each other and all the repeated surnames and given names, the brain starts to hurt a bit trying to figure things out.)

All right, rant over. It’s Elizabeth Hutchinson (1820-1905), daughter of Thomas and Mary, who appears to have been the first guardian of this letter. Really, though, Keats’s letter was likely just a minor piece (from the family’s perspective) of a much larger and more significant collection of letters by the elder Sara Hutchinson, which were edited and published in 1954 by Kathleen Coburn (renowned for her indefatigable work editing Coleridge’s notebooks). The then guardian of the letters was Joanna Hutchinson, who had the unenviable task of protecting them during the bombings of London during WWII (according to Coburn, Hutchinson had them stored in a suitcase under her bed in case she needed to flee hastily). But protect them she did, and in 1958, when Rollins published his edition of Keats’s letters, the manuscript of this one to Monkhouse was still in her possession. It appears that between now and then it was loaned to the British Library in order for them to make photocopies of it, but the whereabouts of the original elude us in our current efforts at sleuthing. If the current owner wants to be relieved of the heavy burden of owning the letter, the KLP would be happy to take over for you. Just saying.

Text of the letter can be read below via the Times Literary Supplement, where it was first published in 1937 thanks to Ernest de Selincourt.

“Keats and Monkhouse.” From the Times Literary Supplement, 23 October 1937.

Letter #75: To John Taylor, 21 June 1818

Today’s letters (this one to Taylor, and another to Thomas Monkhouse) come as Keats, Charles Brown, and the newlyweds George and Georgiana Keats prepare to set out on a pair of exciting adventures. Keats and Brown would be traipsing through the north of England and Scotland (with a brief stop in Ireland) for the next few months, while George and Georgiana would depart for America. The quartet traveled together by coach for Liverpool on the morning of June 22. But on June 21, Keats was busy tying up some loose ends before departure!

His letter to Taylor is a “catalogue” of requests (he apologizes for not having time to say more than his list of demands). First he asks that Taylor lend Tom some books, since Keats worries that his ailing brother will be bored and lonely. He also requests a bound copy of Endymion for Tom, as well as one for Mrs. Reynolds. He even writes an inscription for Mrs. Reynolds on the letter (see image three below) and instructs Taylor to paste it into her book. Seems like Taylor failed on that one!

Two bits of humor close out the letter. First, Keats puns on the name of Henry Cary, the translator of Dante with whom Taylor and Hessey were negotiating for a second edition of his work: “Remember me to Hessey saying I hope he’ll Carey his point.” And then Keats signs the letter as “John O’Grots,” playing on the name of the village at the northern tip of Scotland. Clearly Keats was in a jovial mood as he got ready to venture north!

Our usual sources for the letter today: images from Harvard, and print text from Forman’s 1895 edition. Get ready for the Northern Tour and its letters starting next week!

Page 1 of Keats’s 21 June 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.31). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 21 June 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.31). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 21 June 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.31). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 21 June 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.31). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #74: To Benjamin Bailey, 10 June 1818

In case you may have forgotten, Keats did just publish his second book sometime around the end of April or beginning of May. NBD. But once Endymion is behind him, Keats doesn’t spend much time dwelling on it. Instead he’s on to the next thing. By this point in early June he’s already finished Isabella, one of the three long narrative poems which will be featured in the title of his 1820 volume. And he’s about to set off for his walking tour of the north, which he envisions as a way for him to strengthen his poetic powers as he continues to take on new projects. Although Keats has moved on from Endymion, his critics are just getting started… [INSERT OMINOUS MUSIC]

But Keats has his friends too, and as he wrote in his previous letter to Bailey, those friends could buoy him when necessary: “There is a comfort in throwing oneself on the charity of ones friends–‘t is like the albatros sleeping on its wings.” Turns out Bailey is a solid wing-man (see what we did there??). For in the 30 May and 6 June issues of the Oxford University and City Herald there are two small notices praising the author of Endymion. The correspondent, who signs as “N. Y.”, urges the editors of the paper to take notice of the new volume and its author. It gets pretty impassioned: “I call upon the age to countenance and encourage this rising genius, and not to let him pine away in neglect, lest his memory to after ages speak trumpet-tongued the disgrace of this.” Well, things didn’t quite work out that way.

Bailey’s achingly genuine paean to Keats’s brilliance.

So, yeah, Bailey was “N. Y.” And Keats writes to his friend expressing thanks for the praise, but also a bit of trepidation. Keats recognizes that Bailey is too simple and decent for the world of Regency literary reviewing. Bailey even tries to claim his simplicity and decency his letter to the editor: “I am no bookseller’s tool; I am no pandar to poetical vanity; but I would not for worlds witness the insensibility of Old England to her own glory, in the neglect of the vernal genius of her sons.” Keats realizes that such an attempt at candour simply will not do in the climate of periodicals of 1818. Bailey is like someone on twitter trying to claim they’re not a bot. In 2018, we’re all bots. Just accept it.

Who might Keats have in mind when thinking of reviewers who’d refuse to play by the rules of decency and kindness like Bailey does? Hmm, could it be… Blackwood’s? (Shout out to the Church Lady.) Why yes, yes it could be. Although in this letter Keats refers to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine as “the Endinburgh Magasine,” and they would do their best to end Keats. In the May issue of the magazine, the latest “blow up against Hunt,” which is titled “Letter from Z. to Leigh Hunt, King of the Cockneys,” features two jabs directed at Keats. They are hints of what’s to come, and Keats seems to know it. Z even quotes a bit from Keats’s “Great Spirits” sonnet and alludes to “Sleep and Poetry,” so it’s clear he’s been doing some reading of the 1817 volume (which will be reviewed along with Endymion in the August 1818 issue). For now, though, Keats (and we with him) will leave behind any concerns about such things as he prepares to venture north.

There’s more to be said about this letter, but we’ll leave it here for now. If you’d like to read all of Z’s nastly letter to Leigh Hunt (in the parlance of our times, one might say “Z Eviscerates Leigh Hunt”), you can find it here. Boy, John Gibson Lockhart really, really hated Hunt’s Story of Rimini. For Keats’s letter, head over to Forman’s 1895 edition, or read the images below (courtesy of Harvard).

Page 1 of Keats’s 10 June 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.30). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 10 June 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.30). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 10 June 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.30). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 10 June 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.30). Houghton Library, Harvard University.


Letter #73: To Joseph Severn, 6 June 1818

Today’s letter is one of Keats’s shortest, at just thirty-six words in two sentences. He writes Severn to inform him that the doctor has ordered Keats to stay at home, and Keats refuses to even entertain Severn with a sonnet or a pun–what a monster!

Two quick things to note about this letter. First, that it survives shows how much Severn valued his relationship with Keats. Even this brief little scrap stays with him for the rest of his life. Second, this letter is one of the rare ones that appears not to have made it into an archive. The letter was likely given to someone in Rome towards the end of Severn’s life, given that someone wrote on it, “Addressed to Mr Consul Severn.” Severn served as the British Consul in Rome from 1861 to 1872, and he would have retained the honorific after that. Between Severn’s death in 1879 and 1918 the letter’s whereabouts are unknown. It was sold at auction in August of 1918. By 1952, according to Maurice Buxton Forman’s edition of the letters published in that year, the letter was owned by someone named Howard Eric. And that’s all we can tell you for now! Some initial efforts to track down the letter’s movements since then have been fruitless. So if anyone knows where the letter is, let us know!

Keats’s 6 June 1818 letter to Severn (from Rollins’s edition).

Letter #72: To Marian and Sarah Jeffrey, 4 June 1818

When Keats left Teignmouth back at the beginning of May, he and Tom were (most likely) accompanied on the first part of their trip by Sarah Jeffrey, one of the daughters of Margaret Jeffrey, to whom Keats sent a polite note assuring her that the beginning of their journey had gone well and that Tom’s health was stable. As explained in our post about that letter, the Keats brothers had become friendly with the Jeffreys during their stay. After their departure, they would send a few letters to them over the next year or so. Tom was the first to do so, on 18 May. At the end of that letter he wrote that “John will write to you shortly.” Well, as we say in his most recent letter to Bailey, Keats was not exactly on top of his correspondence at this time. So it took him a little over two weeks to get around to his letter. Give the guy a break!

Anyway, once Keats did get around to writing his letter to Marian/Marianne/Mary Ann and Sarah, he seems to have found some good humor. The letter is a pretty darn funny one. He begins by apologizing for his delay in writing, and then quickly turns playful: “I am a fool in delay for the idea of neglect is an everlasting knapsack which even now I have scarce power to hoist off–by the bye talking of everlasting knapsacks I intend to make my fortune by them in case of a War (which you must consequently pray for) by contracting with Government for said materials to the economy of one branch of the Revenue. At all events a Tax which is taken from the people and shoulder’d upon the Military ought not to be snubb’d at.” Who doesn’t love a good war profiteering joke? His next bit of whimsy involves a plan to clean St. Paul’s Cathedral, which had apparently turned black “on the tolling of the great Bell for the aimable and tea-table-lamented Princess [i.e. Charlotte, whose death following childbirth in 1817 had set off intense national mourning, the genuineness of which Keats questions a bit here). That idea of “sympathy in inanimate objects” leads to another illustration of the principle from one of the “veal-thigh Aldermen” reputedly discussing the plan to clean St. Paul’s. By the by, jokes about the London Aldermen as idle gourmands were commonplace in the early-19th century. Not sure if they still have that reputation. So this Alderman who suggested St. Paul’s darkened to mourn Princess Charlotte tells the story of Robert Waithman, then MP and later Lord Mayor of London, quoting Peter Pindar, at which point “the head of George the third although in hard marble squinted over the Mayor’s seat at the honerable speaker so oddly that he was obliged to sit down.”

The laugh riot continues as Keats interrupts his writing for a snuff break: “You see how badly I have written these last three lines so I will remain here and take a pinch of snuff every five Minutes until my head becomes fit and proper and legetimately inclined to scribble.” Regular readers (and regular viewers of This Week in Keats) will recall Keats spelling legitimate in this same manner all the way back in December 1816. You can see what Mike Theune and Brian Rejack had to say about the spelling in December 2016 (in the very first episode of This Week in Keats!). They still do not agree.

Keats seems to have been successful with his snuff inspiration (to use snuff one breathes it in–see what we did there???). The rest of the letter certainly feels a bit influenced by a stimulant. As is proper when one has been inspired, Keats first praises his muse: “Oh! there’s nothing like a pinch of snuff except perhaps a few trifles almost beneath a philosophers dignity, such as a ripe Peach or a kiss that one takes on a lease of 91 moments,–on a building lease.” Here we encounter the limitations of HTML to effectively present Keats’s pun on building/billing lease. Notice in the image below that he crosses our the u and the d in “building” and adds an l above the crossed-out d.

Keats’s ode to snuff, which he enjoys almost as much as a kiss taken on a building/billing lease.

Lots of possibilities regarding what Keats is hinting at here, but it certainly seems to be the case that he’s being a bit flirtatious with the Jeffrey sisters. There’s been lots of speculation about the Keats brothers’ relationships with these young women. Albert Forbes Sieveking, who first published the letters, notes that Keats writes “in terms of such warm intimacy and friendship.” Harry Buxton Forman in 1901 noted the tradition, apparently still believed in Teignmouth at that time, that Marian had been in love with Keats. More recently Angus Graham-Campbell (in the Keats-Shelley Journal in 1984) entertained the possibility by turning to Marian’s poetry.

Yes, in 1830, then recently married to Isaac Sparke Prowse, Marian published a volume, titled simply Poems, just like the first volume published by Keats, under the name Mrs. I. S. Prowse. You can read the book here. According to Rollins, the “effusions” are “up to the low standard of the 1830’s,” which, although it is a sick burn on both Marian and the 1830s, is also not that nice. And more importantly it’s also rooted in masculinist and misogynistc assumptions about canonicity. So nuts to that! We suggest you read Graham-Campbell’s much more detailed and fair assessment of the work, and of the question of what sort of relationship existed between Keats and Marian Jeffrey. The sense we gather from this letter and the two later ones to Marian is that Keats had a great fondness for the sisters, and that he also respected and valued Marian’s intellect and friendship. And while he seems not to have developed any serious romantic feelings, Keats certainly displays a bit of coy flirtation in this letter.

We’ll conclude with one of the poems from Marian Jeffrey’s 1830 volume. In the spirit of her affection for and appreciation of Keats, we’re going with “To Autumn.”

“To Autumn,” from Poems by Mrs. I. S. Prowse (Marian Prowse, née Jeffrey)

“To Autumn,” from Poems by Mrs. I. S. Prowse (Marian Prowse, née Jeffrey)

For the text of Keats’s letter we direct you to Forman’s 1895 edition. Or go ahead and practice reading Keats’s hand via the images below (courtesy of Harvard).

Page 1 of Keats’s 4 June 1818 letter to Marian and Sarah Jeffrey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.29). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 4 June 1818 letter to Marian and Sarah Jeffrey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.29). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 4 June 1818 letter to Marian and Sarah Jeffrey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.29). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 4 June 1818 letter to Marian and Sarah Jeffrey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.29). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

P. S. Keats has a funny post-script in his letter about other possibilities that P. S. might stand for. One sample: “Upon a Garter Pretty Secret.” See, Keats being playful, saucy, flirtatious, what have you.

P. P. S. How did this letter get delivered? You’ll notice that there are no postage marks, and no address. One possibility: in his letter two weeks prior Tom mentioned a “Mrs. Atkins” who had come to London bearing a letter from Mrs. Jeffrey. He claimed that he was thinking about sending his letter back with her, but instead he posted it. So perhaps she stuck around in London until after June 4 and then took John’s letter back to the Jeffreys? One other connection: Keats mentions “Atkins the Coachman” in his 14 March letter to Reynolds. Perhaps Mrs. Atkins was his wife?