Reply to a Letter Intercepted

Karin Murray-Bergquist

Re: Keats’s 23-26 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats

Dear Mr Keats,

Forgive my intrusion on this Letter—but I could not help replying, from the room in which we are staying tonight, here in Ayr—for your travels are so like my own that I feel as though I’ve just overheard you in a crowded street or on the train. If there is any objection to my reading your correspondence, I can only reply that to Ayr is human. We have not wholly imitated you, having visited Orkney rather than Staffa, but as you did, we have followed local advice, whether in matter of which “Curiosities” to see, or merely where to eat.

After the Oat-Cakes of Notoriety, to have “made a good Supper” with a bit of white bread must have been a relief—it makes such a difference in travel. Our own tendency was to arrive in a town ten minutes or so before the pubs stopped serving food, which gave the trip some dramatic tension. I, too, cannot live on oat-cakes, and once or twice, my sister swears she caught me doing as you once did: “lean rather languishingly on a rock, and long for some famous Beauty to get down from her Palfrey in passing, approach me, with—her saddle-bags, and give me—a dozen or two capital roastbeef Sandwiches.” To come “sax Miles to Breakfast,” however, was never our lot.

Indeed, our accommodations seem twice as luxurious, when compared with your smoky lodgings on Staffa. But there is one advantage you have over us—your musical guide, with songs about drowned husbands and Charles Stuart. He sounds a most agreeable and eminently helpful man. Although we travelled with a violin, and played it from time to time, it was rare that we heard people singing such songs as you describe. But we were not wholly without musical encounters—we had CDs given to us by a fellow conferencer and a cab driver—traditional and modern fare alike, primarily fiddle rather than bagpipe solos.

The islands you describe are familiar; at least we encountered one such on the western coast—a great round lump lifted out of the sea and hovering on the horizon like a phantasmagoria—we were not sure for some time whether when we turned away from it, it would not disappear. There was a sort of blue glow about the edge, which seemed distinctly mirage-like, but whatever enchantment was holding it there, it held fast and so the island stayed.

The “great round lump” of an island seen hovering on the horizon. Watercolor by the author.

Perhaps if we had gone out to the island, we might have seen as you did on Staffa, basalt columns forming a cave of volcanic magnificence, as though “the Giants who rebelled against Jove had taken a whole Mass of black Columns and bound them together like bunches of matches.” I have seen caves such as this in Iceland and they too have become great tourist attractions—imagine my smile as I read your lines! Fingal’s Cave, inhabited by spirits and sightseers! Can it be you are tired of touring and tourists? You say that it can “only be represented by a first-rate drawing” and I hardly think mine fits the bill, but I have provided my best crack at it, though I never saw Fingal’s Cave except in photographs.

Fingal’s Cave–“This Cathedral of the Sea.” Watercolor by the author.

What has changed of Scotland since your time? The language I doubt you would quite recognise—that broad Scots is not often heard in touristic parts anymore nowadays—we had to decipher a little when we visited the Burns Cottage and Museum. He remains the chief champion of Scots, though not the only one, and remains as worshipped as ever, which I am sure would please you. His cottage, by the way, is no longer inhabited by anyone who knew Burns—drunken or otherwise—and although it still sees visitors aplenty, many of them are as illiterate in Scots as we are ourselves, for the museum provides translations of the most challenging words. But despite some strong accents, by and large it was a far cry from travelling in a foreign language, for English is everywhere. The poetry really must be read aloud—we read “Tam O’Shanter” as we drove along, the gorse blooming around, on a sunny day—an incongruous accompaniment, but a good taste of pronouncing Scots. You would be surprised to know that I read your sonnet to Burns aloud at the reconstructed cottage—you would perhaps be horrified that it was not so thoroughly forgotten as you intended. Perhaps I should apologise, but I ought first to point out something else that is new since your visit—the Trysting Tree. It is a metal tree, in the museum, where visitors write love-notes on the papers provided, then hang them on the twigs. I wrote something that could have been mistaken for a couplet, but it was so bad that I had not the heart to transcribe it, so I know full well how you feel.

Brown, perhaps, would find his genealogy work easier nowadays, what with societies to trace ancestry and allow one to find one’s nearest relations, as my sister intends to do on our arrival in northern England. Though perhaps you are better off without the potential embarrassing reunions that such research can involve—Brown’s encounter with the “parcel of people” at the cottage door seems a pleasanter alternative. He would also find his bespectacled state far less unusual, as among us academics at least, you hardly meet a soul without them.

Back to your recent rambles, however—and good thing you had fine weather—island-hopping is the best thing for history, a ferry ride is the best thing for a bit of salt air, and a walk about the ancient ruins, and a chat with local denizens, are best for a glimpse of a time when Icolmkill, or Iona, was “the most holy ground of the north,” a place where kings and chieftains were buried for centuries. The etymology of Icolmkill is a tricky thing, but you speak of the “I” meaning “island,” rather resembling the “ey” of Old Norse: a doubtful relation, though. When you return to Inverness, take a look at the river, where St Columba of the celebrated ruins was said to have banished a monster that has only grown in fame since. Lucky that on your journey you had the time to scribble poetry—and the inclination too. Whatever indolence you claim, that seems like enterprise to me. We took the time ourselves to write now and again, and even borrowed from you the notion of a poetry race, to sketch out our impressions of a place or two.

I fear I am only retracing your hand, over and over, in fact and in mind. There is a music in your letters. It is made sweeter by the knowledge that your account is for the benefit of your brother; I am travelling with one sister, writing to the other along the way, though (as you claim to be) I was “too indolent” to “put down every little circumstance,” an excuse that I am not sure she accepts. But I must close this letter to you, with the fondest wishes from another century and gratitude for so lively a companion. Mountains, castles, and lakes may become common, after enough time in close quarters with them, but it is still easier than having “time to be glum.” It is with a sense of adventure that you write, and I follow—but like you, I must study hard on my return—following this trip, I must go to write my exams.

Here is Jas insisting that we must go to dinner before the pubs close — and unless I wish to live on beer or oat-cakes, I must obey! O for a “seat and a Cup o’ tea at well Walk”

With the profoundest esteem and affection,

Karin Murray-Bergquist

PS—don’t worry about George. He’ll send a forwarding address eventually.

Karin Murray-Bergquist is a graduate of Dalhousie University and the University of Iceland, currently pursuing numerous writing projects whilst searching for PhD studies. She first discovered Keats as a child, through the book “Sleeping Dragons All Around,” though by the time she realised the title came from a poem, she had been introduced to him by other means. She recently presented at the 44th International Byron Conference in Ravenna, where she sent few letters but many postcards.

Letter #86: To Tom Keats, 23-26 July 1818

Today’s letter finds Keats and Brown heading to the Isle of Mull, Iona, Staffa, and eventually back again to Oban. We are treated to Keats’s extensive description of Fingal’s Cave, which he describes as such, and which we include at length, since it’s pretty fantastic:

it is entirely a hollowing out of Basalt Pillars. Suppose now the Giants who rebelled against Jove had taken a whole Mass of black Columns and bound them together like bunches of matches–and then with immense Axes had made a cavern in the body of these columns–of course the roof and floor must be composed of the broken ends of the Columns–such is Fingal’s Cave except that the Sea has done the work of excavations and is continually dashing there–so that we walk along the sides of the cave on the pillars which are left as if for convenient Stairs–the roof is arched somewhat gothic wise and the length of some of the entire side pillars is 50 feet–About the island you might seat an army of Men each on a pillar–The length of the Cave is 120 feet and from its extremity the view into the sea through the large Arch at the entrance–the colour of the colums is a sort of black with a lurking gloom of purple therin–For solemnity and grandeur it far surpasses the finest Cathedrall–

After the long prose description, we also find Keats venturing into a bit of verse. While Keats apologizes for it (“I am sorry I am so indolent as to write such stuff as this”), this particular KLP editor finds its rather intriguing. Like much of the poetry written during the tour, it’s an odd mix of Keats’s typical subject matter (poetry, fame, literary predecessors) with a comic tone that he seemed not to quite perfect. The premise, though, is actually quite funny: Lycidas, “Fam’d in funeral Minstrelsey” has appointed himself “Pontif Priest” of the place, where “Finny palmer’s great and small / Come to pay devotion due”–but now Lycidas has decided to depart because the place has been spoiled by all those dastardly tourists! Before diving into the water, he laments that “‘T is now free to stupid face / To cutters and to fashion boats / To cravats and to Petticoats.” Ok, we’ve now decided that the poem is actually a fantastic comic success.

Amidst his playful indolence, Keats also seems to feel ready to head home. Towards the end of the letter, he tells Tom, “I assure you I often long for a seat and a Cup o’ tea at well Walk–especially now that mountains, castles and Lakes are becoming common to me.” Just two more letters to come before Keats will choose to make his way back toward Well Walk. And stay tuned for a response from Karin Murray-Bergquist which parallels some of her recent travels in Scotland with Keats’s own reflections in this letter to Tom!

Images of the letter are below courtesy of Harvard. And for a print version we direct you once again to Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 single-volume edition.

Page 1 of Keats’s 23, 26 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.35). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 23, 26 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.35). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 23, 26 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.35). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 23, 26 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.35). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #85: To Benjamin Bailey, 18-22 July 1818

It’s tempting to attribute great significance to every word written in Keats’s correspondence–some may go so far as to create an entire website dedicated to chronicling each and every letter as they hit their bicentennials! What fools or knaves would do such a thing?? Anyway, we every once in a while get a reminder from Keats himself that these documents are product of a particular moment, and the sentiments contained therein might have persisted in their author only as long as it took to write them out. One such reminder comes in today’s letter to Benjamin Bailey.

If you look back at the previous two letters to Bailey (21, 25 May and 10 June), you’ll notice that Keats was a bit down in the dumps when writing them. Heck, if you take everything Keats says in those letters with utmost seriousness, you’d probably conclude that Keats was in the midst of a deep depression. And perhaps he was. But it’s worth viewing his statements like “I am in that temper that if I were under Water I would scarcely kick to come to the top” and “now I am never alone without rejoicing that there is such a thing as death” in the context of his epistolary habits as a whole and his habits in letters to Bailey specifically. When writing to Bailey, Keats often ventures into his most serious philosophical ruminations. As he writes again and again, though–both to Bailey and to others–Keats conceived of himself as a playful, speculative, and inconsistent thinker. Here’s what he says on the matter in today’s letter: “I carry all matters to an extreme–so that when I have any little vexation it grows in five Minutes into a theme for Sophocles–then and in that temper if I write to any friend I have so little selfpossession that I give him matter for grieving at the very time perhaps when I am laughing at a Pun.” This conundrum is endemic to letter-writing. It’s what Charles Lamb, as Elia, will call the “solecism of two presents.” Letters are written in one moment and read in another. Keats may write while in the depths of despair, but by the time Bailey reads the letter, Keats has moved on to laughing at a pun! Let’s keep Keats’s caution in mind, then: “I know my own disposition so well that I am certain of writing many times hereafter in the same strain to you–now you know how far to believe in them.”

Which brings us to the main subject of Keats’s letter: his sense that he has “not a right feeling towards Women.” We’ve come across the topic before, but today’s comment is the most extensive offered thus far in the correspondence. Keats claims that “When I am among Women I have evil thoughts, malice spleen–I cannot speak or be silent–I am full of Suspicions and therefore listen to no thing–I am in a hurry to be gone.” Why does he feel this way in the company of women? Is it just your garden-variety nineteenth-century misogyny? Well, surely that’s some part of it, but Keats does show some level of self-awareness about the origin of his feelings, and the unfairness of his having them. First, he ponders if his “suspicions” emerge from being acculturated in a particular way since youth–namely, the notion that “a fair Woman” is “a pure Goddess,” which leads him to “expect more than their reality.” Keats recognizes that he has “no right” to such an expectation. But nonetheless, he feels malice and spleen when in the company of real women who “fall so far beneath [his] Boyish imagination.” To his credit, he at least recognizes that he “must absolutely get over this.”

The question to which he does not yet have an answer is how to get over it. As he notes, “an obstinate Prejudice can seldom be produced but from a gordian complication of feelings, which must take time to unravell and care to keep unravelled.” To what extent Keats succeeded in so doing can perhaps be gleaned from continuing with his letters over the next several years. Of course, the letters to Fanny Brawne are notable for exactly the kind of “obstinate Prejudice” he’s already aware of here in summer 1818, several months before meeting Fanny. So maybe the gordian knot remained a bit tangled. And maybe after writing this letter he changed his thinking on the matter completely, as he claims he is wont to do. The commingling of seriousness and play is already there in the letter itself, after all. As we so often find with Keats, there’s a moment of levity to accompany his serious contemplations: “I do think better of Womankind than to suppose they care whether Mister John Keats five feet hight likes them or not.”

In terms of the tour with Brown and how it proceeds, Keats actually connects their travels with the desire to rid himself of prejudice: “I should not have consented to myself these four Months tramping in the highlands but that I thought it would give me more experience, rub off more Prejudice, use [me] to more hardship, identify finer scenes load me with grander Mountains, and strengthen my reach in Poetry, than would stopping at home among Books even though I should reach Homer.” As he and Brown approached the end of their journey, it certainly seems that Keats had become accustomed to hardship. And if his poetry of the next year is any indication, his reach in it was extended just a wee bit.

The letter currently resides at Harvard. Images below courtesy of Houghton Library. A print version of the letter can be read via Forman’s 1895 edition.

Page 1 of Keats’s 18, 22 July 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.34). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 18, 22 July 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.34). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 18, 22 July 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.34). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 18, 22 July 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.34). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Keats’s Good Traveling Mood

Evan Gottlieb
Oregon State University

Re: Keats’s 17-21 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats

Traveling can be tough. My family and I are currently nearing the end of a four-month tour around parts of Europe, and even though we’ve enjoyed all the conveniences of middle-class, Western, twenty-first century travel – roughing it meant going without data on our smartphones – it was still frequently trying. We endured the last-minute cancellation of our flight from Amsterdam to Lisbon, followed by hours of waiting in line to re-book; we took many wrong turns on the labyrinthine streets of Venice and Prague, as well as on the narrow country roads of the Lake District, the Cotswolds, and the Dordogne; we survived temporarily lost luggage, left-behind articles of clothing, a case of food poisoning, and many flights of stairs up to stuffy, cramped flats in various cities.

How much more difficult was it to travel during the Romantic era? Take away all of our modern modes of transportation; remove most of the modern conveniences that help keep us safe, comfortable, and oriented, from hi-tech hiking boots and waterproof jackets to Google weather alerts and GPS. No state-of-the-art suitcases or designer backpacks for carrying gear; no hot showers and Netflix for relaxing in the evenings; no ATMs to dole out cash in foreign currencies; no Airbnb with which to make reservations months in advance; no Skype and Facebook to keep in near-instantaneous touch with friends and family back home.

Yet travel the Romantics did, both on the Continent and domestically, and in greater numbers than ever before. Further, despite his posthumous reputation for constitutional fragility, Keats was among those who not only voyaged extensively but also did so primarily on foot. Sure enough, his tour letters are not devoid of trials. Here, Brown in particular suffers: trying to break in new shoes, he develops blisters so painful he can barely walk. Both men must also contend with consistently poor travel food (“all together the fare is too coarse”), poor accommodations, and neighbors who drink and talk loudly late into the night. (Having been in Paris when the French national soccer team won the World Cup, I can especially relate to the latter.) Then there are problems specific to traveling in Scotland: rainy weather; ubiquitous but inedible oatcakes; screeching bagpipes (“I thought the Beast would never have done”); vicious horseflies. Having never traveled in a “foreign country” before, Keats is also mildly alarmed by hearing many of the native Highlanders “gabble away in Gaelic at a vast rate.”

Given all of the above, then, what strikes me about this letter to Tom is what a good mood Keats is in through most of it! His jollity is immediately signaled by the humorous inscription of his current location as “Cairn-something.” Keats then launches a series of self-consciously bad puns connecting the scenic locales he and Brown have visited recently into a bawdy tale, telling Tom for example that “the Lord of the Isles . . . un-Derwent” the “Whitehaven” of “the Lady of the Lake” in a way that combines some of Walter Scott’s tourist-friendly metrical verses with real places. The fact that Keats blames Brown for all this ribaldry – “Here’s Brown going on so that I cannot bring to Mind how the last two days have vanished” – adds humorous insult to injury.

To be sure, some of Keats’ usual complaints about being a tourist are present. There are too many steamboats now on Loch Lomond “for such romantic chaps as Brown and I,” and it’s too expensive to climb to the top of Ben Lomond or visit Staffa, which has become overly trendy. But there are also many magnificent views of lakes and castles, plenty of picturesque mist on the hillsides, and even several eagles which, in contrast to Keats and Brown’s slow progress, “move about without the least motion of Wings when in an indolent fit.” In this spirit, even several of the challenges encountered by Keats and Brown are transformed into occasions for good humor; in particular, the abovementioned horseflies (“gadflies”) and bagpipes that plague Keats each get their own verses. It’s all doggerel, of course, but done with plenty of verve.

Indeed, there seems to have been something in the Scottish air that sparked and fed the lighter, friskier side of Keats’ imagination. Admittedly, every vacation that involves travel promises a concomitant change of perspective and mood — a temporary reprieve from the burdens and responsibilities of daily life — that continue to be the staple of travel brochures and cruise line advertisements. But there’s clearly more at work – or, rather, at play – here. Something about the specifically Scottish environment seems to liberate Keats to be both funny and risqué, as in these naughty lines on the gadfly:

Has any here a daughter fair
Too fond of reading novels
Too apt to fall in love with care
And charming Mister Lovels

O put a gadfly to that thing
She keeps so white and pert
I mean the finger for the ring
And it will be breed a Wert–

Does Robbie Burns, with his reputation as Scotland’s national bard and ladies’ man, stand behind this “pert” bit of sexist ribaldry? I’m not sure; as noted above, it’s Scott who appears most explicitly in this epistle, and although the Author of Waverley was associated with many things, bawdiness was not usually one of them. Nor do I think Keats was deeply inspired by the Scottish landscape or Highland culture. His observations and reflections on these subjects, both here and in the published verses derived from his time in Scotland, are neither especially original nor profound; it’s no coincidence that the latter, with titles such as “Lines Written in the Highlands after a Visit to Burns’s Country,” haven’t found a place in readers’ hearts alongside “Ode on a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Instead, I suspect that what most empowers Keats in Scotland is a sense of mild superiority over its people and places. In England, especially in London’s ever-snobbish and competitive literary milieu, Keats was accustomed to feeling overlooked and undervalued; in Scotland, by contrast, he could feel important and empowered simply by virtue of being an Englishman on tour. As we’ve seen, Keats was hardly traveling in grand style; nevertheless, spending time among the Scottish peasantry seems to have impressed him with a sense of his good fortune at being born south of the border and into a middle-class family to boot.

The letter’s final entry, on 21 July, is primarily a catalogue of Highland squalor. The inn where Keats and Brown are now staying is the nicest building around but lacks an indoor toilet; the rest of the village is even more primitive, consisting of “some dozen wretched black Cottages scented of peat smoke,” which rises through holes in the roofs. The locals are equally poor: at the inn, “Grandmother” is “none too clean” and the “Guid wife” lacks stockings to go with her single “pair of old Shoes.” Most striking to Keats, finally, are the young peasant women he sees: “one little thing driving Cows down a slope like a mad thing,” and another “standing at the cowhouse door rather pretty fac’d all up to the ankles in dirt.” These seem odd details to note, much less to use as the penultimate observations of his letter, but the sight of young women performing hard rural labor obviously made a particular impression on Keats, whose own poetic female characters are frequently, notably idealized. Is he being condescending or genuinely sympathetic? Either way, between the intimation of insanity and the juxtaposition of female beauty and barnyard muck, it seems clear that as much as he’s enjoyed his rambles in Scotland, Keats would not trade his own life for those of the locals. In this way, Keats’ letters from Scotland confirm at least one more truism of foreign travel that was as relevant in 1818 as it is in 2018: however good it is to see more of the world, it is equally good to return the places we call home.

Letter #84: To Tom Keats, 17-21 July 1818

It’s fairly common for chroniclers of Keats’s life to point toward summer and fall of 1818 as the true beginning of the tragic phase that will end with Keats’s death in February 1821. Yes, he soon comes down with a sore throat that will force him to cut short his trip with Brown, and he will return to find Tom’s health at its worst yet, and we’ll soon enter the “living year” during which Keats will write the majority of his great poems, many of which are pitched in at least a somewhat tragic key. And yet, despite all the stress and suffering attendant to their travels in the north, Keats and Brown seem to be having a lot of fun. So let’s not don permanently the tragedy mask–comedy is alive and well here in summer 1818!

The opening bit of playfulness finds Keats (allegedly with Brown’s wit driving him) engaged in one of his more ribald moments. Many editors have blushed at or shown themselves a bit too innocent to fully pick up on what Keats and Brown are putting down. Forman in 1895 chooses to cut most of the place-name puns while adding this note: “The passages omitted consist of somewhat incoherent strings of place-names arranged apparently with an ulterior view to puns; [that’s one way of putting it!] but the intention is not quite clear, and the sentence ends abruptly without any construction as far as I can make out.” Rollins in 1958 tries his best, but we’ll go with Jon Mee’s suggestion that “Corry stone Water” out to be “Cony stone Water,” playing on Coniston Water in the Lake District, as opposed to Corrystone in Scotland. The boyish imagination appears to have been going strong the day before Keats would coin that term in his letter to Bailey.

Keats’s opening passage of ribaldry, with help (apparently) from Brown.

Jon Mee’s note about the passage, from his Selected Letters (Oxford, 2002), including his thoughts on the embarrassment of previous editors.

As the letter continues over the course of five days, Keats’s good humor continues. It is interspersed with some moments of complaint, but on the whole, we’d say the comedy mask wins out in the end. Two comic poems are included here, one on the gadfly, which Keats says has “been at me ever since I left the Swan and two necks” (i.e. since leaving London at the end of June). The second poem is a sonnet mulling the “dainty” sound of the bagpipes. Remember, then, when you’re tempted to ascribe to Keats intimations of his own early death and all the other tragic things that will befall him, in the moment he was living his life and often having a jolly time so doing. It’s all fine and good to talk about Keats’s commingling of joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, life and death–but all too often, in our humble opinion, we end up more than half in love with the latter elements at the expense of the former ones.

And now we will descend from our hobby horse and present you with Keats’s letter, via Forman’s 1895 edition (minus some of the bawdier puns). You’ll notice that Forman provides a facsimile of Keats’s sketch of Loch Lomond from early in the letter. Not a bad little drawing! Once you’ve read the letter, check out Evan Gottlieb’s response to it, which emphasizes and explores some of Keats’s humor, while also drawing some parallels to Gottlieb’s own experiences traveling around Europe here in anno Domini 2018.

Keats’s sketch of Loch Lomond, reproduced in Forman’s 1895 edition of the letters.

Keats’s Vexed Creative Relationship with Scotland

Kerri Andrews
Edge Hill University

Re: Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats

This composite letter to Keats’s brother Tom, written over a period of five days, covers a great deal of ground both literally and imaginatively. At the beginning Keats is in the far south west of Scotland having not long returned from a short visit to Ireland. By the end of the letter Keats was in Glasgow, Scotland’s industrial heart and not long after to become the country’s largest city. In those five days Keats and his walking companion Charles Brown had made a journey of over ninety miles along the south west coast, beginning in verdant glens that, much to Keats’s delight, were “eternally varying,” but ending surrounded by Glasgow’s “Stone” and solidity, where Keats was greeted in a manner still recognisable to visitors to Glasgow city centre: by an overly-familiar drunken man.

Whilst Keats and Brown physically covered a great deal of ground between 10-14 July, Keats also seems to have moved imaginatively in his creative relationship with Scotland. The letter to his brother Tom opens with an attempt at a folk ballad about a wedding, but the poem fails to hit its mark, instead landing awkwardly between pastiche and homage. Its characters, “Willie,” “Marie,” “Rab” and especially “Tam,” could have come from one of a hundred Scottish stories, and their names hint at unacknowledged debts to Walter Scott and Robert Burns. Yet there is a sincerity in Keats’s attempts to mimic (albeit not entirely successfully) the speech patterns of the ‘ordinary’ people he has encountered – despite travelling in Scotland for a time Keats knows “nothing of the higher Classes,” so it is everyday language that is transfigured into poetry. Just three days later, though, Keats was complaining about the impenetrability of that self-same language, lamenting that in conversation with “an old Man who knew Burns” it “was impossible for a Southren to understand above 5 words in a hundred.”

Such oscillations between affection and dislike of southern Scottish language use are evidence perhaps of a larger issue – a vexed relationship between the young English poet and his sense of poetic inheritance and literary convention. Keats includes in this letter the texts of two poems – his partially successful story of a Scottish wedding and a sonnet on Ailsa Craig, a dramatic and rocky island prominent all along Keats’s coastal walk – but he mentions a third. This is another sonnet, composed in the cottage where Robert Burns was born in Alloway, about half way between Portpatrick and Glasgow. Keats writes that he was “determined” to write the poem in the cottage itself, but the result is a sad disappointment – it is, he writes to his brother, “so bad I cannot venture it here.” Keats’s arrival in Alloway, birthplace of Scotland’s bard and setting for one of Burns’s most famous poems, “Tam O’Shanter,” is the intellectual climax of this part of his tour. Keats and Brown tour the sights mentioned in the poem, including the Brig O’Doon where, in Burns’s poem, Tam finally reaches safety from the witches and devils chasing him, though not before his horse has her tail ripped from her rump. At the keystone, where the magic of the running water of the River Doon at last protects Tam from his demented pursuers, Keats and Brown stand for “some time” contemplating Tam’s flight, and take a “pinch of snuff on the key stone” itself. Creatively, though, Keats gains almost nothing from his visit to one of Scottish literature’s holiest places. He cannot understand the speech of those who knew Burns personally, and the only poetry that comes to him here is so poor that he cannot even show it to his brother. Instead of finding poetic inspiration, Keats is reduced to the role of picturesque tourist, commenting half-heartedly on Alloway’s woodland and sea views. It is perhaps significant that in closing his letter to Tom in Glasgow, Keats notes that “there are a thousand things I cannot write.”

Dr Kerri Andrews has just completed a monograph on women walkers from the eighteenth century to the modern day, and is also lead editor of The Hannah More Letters: A Digital Edition (, which seeks to make digitally accessible all 1800 of More’s surviving letters. She has published widely on eighteenth-century literature, poetry, and women’s writing.

Letter #83: To Tom Keats, 10-14 July 1818

Keats and Brown continue to cover lots of ground, making their way from Ballantrae on 10 July to Glasgow by the evening of the 13th. That’s about 70 miles over four days, so not too shabby! As we learned from yesterday’s letter and Daniel Cook’s response to it, that journey passed through the “Bardies Country,” where our travelers made a pilgrimage to Burns’s cottage and other sites connected with the poet. Today’s letter to Tom describes the visit in less detail, while also offering more thoughts on the surrounding country, the characters of the Irish and the Scottish people, and the experience of being greeted upon entering Glasgow by a drunk man who needs to be scared off with threats of alerting the authorities.

As Kerri Andrews details in her response, we can gather a good sense of Keats’s complicated relationship to Scotland from this letter to Tom. He opens the letter with an attempt at mimicking a folk ballad; he spends lots of time describing the natural environs (including his sonnet on Ailsa Rock); and, of course, he wrestles with his feelings about Burns’s legacy after the disappointing visit to Burns’s cottage and the disappointing sonnet Keats felt compelled to write there (but disliked it so much that he didn’t even both to copy it out for Tom).

There’s a bit of a break in Keats’s correspondence over the next few days: he begins his next letter to Tom on 17 July, and doesn’t send it until the 21st. Was there perhaps another letter written in the interval but which has not survived? Alas, the other letters do not provide any clues. But we do have today’s letter to Tom, which is held at the British Library, having made its way there via Benjamin Robert Haydon, who kept it in his diary along with several other Keats letters. The diary was purchased by Maurice Buxton Forman in 1932. He sold some of the letters that were in Haydon’s diary, but this letter to Tom he presented to the British Library in 1939. His father, Harry Buxton Forman, was the first to publish the Keats materials from Haydon’s diary, in his 1883 edition of Keats’s complete works. You can read today’s letter to Tom via the elder Forman’s 1895 edition here. Images of the letter come from the British Library, and can also be accessed here.

Page 1 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.

Page 2 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.

Page 3 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.

Page 4 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.

Keats at Burns’s Cottage

Daniel Cook
University of Dundee

Re: Keats’s 11, 13 July 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds

By the 11th of July 1818, Keats and Brown had reached Maybole in South Ayrshire, a small burgh of barony (a type of Scottish town) built on a sloping hillside overlooking the Southern Uplands, with the Firth of Clyde barely five miles to the west. Maybole Castle, a fine sixteenth-century building replete with a square tower and round turrets, still stands. Other sites of local interest might have attracted their attention–though poking around abbeys and ruins was more Reynolds’s thing, so Keats claimed at the end of the present letter. Along with its natural beauty, the burgh’s connections with one of Keats’s idols would have been of especial interest to the travellers. Maybole is situated barely six miles south of the birthplace of Robert Burns–roughly two hours by foot. In fact, Burns’s mother, Agnes Brown, hailed from Maybole itself. And it was there that Agnes met and married William Burnes, the poet’s father.

In his letter to Reynolds, though, Keats was in too much of a rush to record the fuller details of his journey to the burgh. He wanted to get to Burns’s Cottage. To record his journey, to “run over the Ground we have passed”, would be “merely as bad as telling a dream”. Like any dream, the recounting is not as interesting as the experience. Referencing the absurdities of the scheme of the inhabitants of Swift’s floating island, he should describe the present travels, he jokes, “in the manner of the Laputan printing press–that is I put down Mountains, Rivers Lakes, dells, glens, Rocks, and Clouds, With beautiful enchanting, gothic picturesque fine, delightful, enchancting, Grand, sublime—a few Blisters &c”. And now, he wraps up, “you have our journey thus far”. Burns is their firm focus–“I am approaching Burns’s Cottage very fast”. Since their pilgrimage to the tomb at Dumfries on the 1st of July, Keats explains, they had made “continual enquiries” about the whereabouts of the cottage and other sites of particular interest. In those conversations Keats notes the “great reputation” of the Ayrshire Bard among the locals, chiefly as a man who “wrote a good mony sensible things”. Keats doesn’t record anything beyond that, anything about Burns’s character, say, but he does categorically aver that “we need not think of his misery—that is all gone”. As with his prior pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon with Bailey, he is sure he will look on the visit “with unmixed pleasure”.

Keats curtails the letter somewhat abruptly at this point, claiming that he will “fill this sheet for you in the Bardies Country”, namely when he reaches Ayr. Writing in Kingswells two days later, he recalls his surprise at finding the area to be “so beautiful”. He had in mind, he concedes, the desolate “rigs of Barley” mentioned in the Burns song ‘It was upon a Lammas night’ (often known as ‘Corn Rigs’ or ‘The Rigs o’ Barley’). (Desolate is Keats’s word–an odd choice to describe the scenery in a song in which “The sky was blue, the wind was still / The moon was shining clearly”.) He traces Burns’s literal and literary steps (the “bonny Doon” of the Bard’s ‘The Banks o’ Doon’ or the bridge that Tam o’ Shanter crossed). But he also follows his own poetic instincts. Overwhelmed by the new sights around him, Keats revels in the profound effect of the scene on his imagination (“I endeavour’d to drink in the Prospect, that I might spin it out to you as the silkworm makes silk from Mulbery leaves”).

When they arrive at Burns’s Cottage, though, Keats finds that he can only write (by his own estimation) a mediocre sonnet “for the mere sake of writing some lines under the roof—they are so bad I cannot transcribe them”. The whisky consumed and the company encountered won’t have helped. The keeper at the Cottage “was a great Bore with his Anecdotes—I hate the rascal”. Described in the letter as “a mahogany faced old Jackass who knew Burns”, the man, Keats insists, “ought to be kicked for having spoken to him [Burns]”. Keats’s pilgrimage to the Bardie’s country has taken an uncivil turn. But now he knows the man a little better, and knows his pain:

His Misery is a dead weight upon the nimbleness of one’s quill—I tried to forget it—to drink Toddy without any Care—to write a merry Sonnet—it wont do—he talked with Bitches—he drank with Blackguards, he was miserable—We can see horribly clear in the works of such a man his whole life, as if we were God’s spies.

Mindful of a similarly dissolute fate, Keats insists that he has much to live for, even if he considers his romantic prospects to be blank (his word). And so does Reynolds, he gleefully informs him: “I have more than once yearne’d for the time of your happiness to come”. Maybe it was the whisky talking.

Keats then returns, in the letter, to his imminent travel plans. The rain had impeded their progress, after a dozen or so miles, but he and Brown remained on track to reach Loch Lomond the day after tomorrow (the 15th). There they planned to climb Ben Lomond (on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond) and, after that, more than eighty miles to the north, Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain–no mean feats. After all, Skiddaw in the Lake District, the sixth-highest summit in England, had proven tricky. On average, by Keats’s own claim, they managed to walk twenty miles a day on average. As this and other letters written at the time suggest, Keats was deeply affected by his time in Scotland–often in wholly surprising ways. Burns’s Cottage, for one, proved to be a bore. But the countryside surrounding it caught Keats unawares with its natural charm. And much more was to be explored. They walked into Glasgow that evening.

Daniel Cook, University of Dundee
School of Humanities, University of Dundee, Scotland DD1 4HN

Letter #82: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 11-13 July 1818

Keats’s encounters with the legacy of Robert Burns continue as he moves through “the Bardies Country.” He begins this letter to Reynolds by first holding back on the detailed descriptions he’s become accustomed to giving his other correspondents, and of which he ‘s grown tired of writing. Instead he gives the beginning of the journey in the manner of the “Laputan printing press”: a bunch of words stitched together, and now Reynolds has their “journey thus far”!

The main focus of today’s letter is the visit to Burns’s cottage, a visit which is not exactly what Keats had in mind, it seems. As Daniel Cook writes in response to the letter, even though Keats wasn’t pleased with the sonnet he wrote while at the cottage, he was nonetheless significantly affected by his travels through Scotland, and his time spent contemplating one of his poetic idols. So with that we’ll turn it over to Daniel Cook, who goes into much more detail about Keats, Burns, and “the Bardies Country.”

The letter, as with most letters to Reynolds, exists only via a Richard Woodhouse transcript, which you can view in the images below (courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library). A print version of the letter can be found here, in Forman’s 1895 edition.

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 11, 13 July 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 11, 13 July 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 11, 13 July 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 11, 13 July 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #81: To Tom Keats, 3-9 July 1818

The next entry in Keats’s journal to Tom covers nearly a week, and it finds Keats and Brown making their way briefly to Ireland via ship from Portpatrick. The letter begins while Keats is still writing his previous one to Fanny. He copies out to Tom the short ballad on Meg Merrilies which he had written for Fanny the day before (2 July). He next returns to Tom’s letter on the day he posts Fanny’s, 5 July, at Newton Stewart. We get the usual thoughts on the scenery (“very rich–very fine–and with a little of Devon”), as well as what becomes the main focus of the letter’s last two entries: the people Keats and Brown have been encountering.

A common thread throughout the tour is Keats’s ambivalence about scenery, and about writing about it. Several times he notes the greater importance he places on learning about the people who inhabit such scenes. This attitude predates the tour, as well. Recall that back on 13 March 1818 he wrote, “Scenery is fine–but human nature is finer.” In his previous journal letter to Tom, after Keats describes the scene of a “country dancing school,” he notes, “This is what I like better than scenery.” And in his entry for 7 July, Keats quickly moves away from scenery in order to discuss what he sees as the differences in the character of the Irish and the Scottish.

First he notes the similarity in “the dialect on the neighbouring shores of Scotland and Ireland,” but then draws a distinction based on his sense of what effects the Church of Scotland had produced on the national character: “I can perceive a great difference in the nations from the Chambermaid at this nate Inn kept by Mr Kelly–She is fair, kind and ready to laugh, because she is out of the horrible dominion of the Scotch kirk–A Scotch Girl stands in terrible awe of the Elders–poor little Susannas–They will scarcely laugh–they are greatly to be pitied and the kirk is greatly to be damn’d.” The KLP remains agnostic on the question of the Kirk’s moral reign over the people of Scotland, but it seems Keats remains agnostic too! He goes on to note the good that the Kirk has done in cultivating thriftiness and diligence: “such a thrifty army cannot fail to enrich their Country and give it a greater appearance of comfort than that of their poor irish neighbours.” As he returns to the negative side of the column, he focuses again on the limitation of joy, particularly as it relates to erotic desire: “These kirkmen … have banished puns and laughing and kissing (except in cases where the very danger and crime must make it very fine and gustful. I shall make a full stop at kissing for after that there should be a better parenTthesis:” [that’s our attempt at a small caps “T” for Keats’s double-underline]. In what must be one of Keats’s better puns, he suggests making a full stop at kissing in order to avoid a parent-thesis emerging, although he never does close that parenthesis, nor does he actually make a full stop at kissing. In any case, Keats’s concerns about the lack of punning and laughing and kissing in Scotland connects with another preoccupation he seems to dwell on during the tour: his feelings toward women.

We see Keats address the issue most directly in his letter to Benjamin Bailey later in the month (18, 22 July). It’s in that letter that Keats writes, “I am certain I have not a right feeling towards Women.” In today’s letter, though, his thinking about the lives of women under the “dominion of the kirk” is connected with a broader concern with social injustice. He expresses the matter like this: “Were the fingers made to squeeze a guinea or a white hand? Were the Lips made to hold a pen or a kiss? And yet in Cities Man is shut out from his fellows if he is poor, the Cottager must be dirty and very wretched if she be not thrifty–The present state of society demands this and this convinces me that the world is very young and in a verry ignorant state–We live in a barbarous age.” The tension between commerce and erotic desire should sound familiar to readers of Isabella. There is perhaps a strain of paternalism at work here (“let’s protect women from the horrors of employment!”), but it seems that the greater concern lies with the injustice inherent in work in an unequal society. The problem is that “out of suffrance there is no greatness, no dignity” and “in the most abstracted Pleasure there is no lasting happiness.” What the world presumably needs, then, is a social structure that allows for the pursuit of pleasure (punning, laughing, kissing) without the oppressive forces that deem such a pursuit immoral, and without the economic forces which deny pleasure to those not lucky enough to be born wealthy.

While Keats and Brown planned to spend longer in Ireland, they ended up returning to Scotland after just two days there (on 8 July). What Keats found in Ireland was the combination of high living expenses and extreme poverty. Keats seems despondent at the idea of “the improvement of the condition of such people,” not because of some inherent defects in their character, but rather because of the current social conditions. The sign which stands in for those conditions comes to Keats in the form of “that most disgusting of all noises” as they pass into Belfast: “the sound of the Shuttle.” In other words, the sonic reminder of economic conditions–specifically, the textile industry–fills Keats with “absolute despair” that things could change for the better. He probably wasn’t encouraged by the two laborers encountered between Belfast and Donaghadee, one of whom “took [Keats] for a Frenchman” (the horror!), and the other who “hinted at Bounty Money saying he was ready to take it.” Somehow Keats and Brown escaped, but before leaving the island, they had one more encounter which seems to have stuck with Keats:

On our return from Bellfast we met a Sadan–the Duchess of Dunghill–It is no laughing matter tho–Imagine the worse dog kennel you ever saw placed upon two poles from a mouldy fencing–In such a wretched thing sat a squalid old Woman squat like an ape half starved from a scarcity of Buiscuit in its passage from Madagascar to the cape,–with a pipe in her mouth and looking out with a round-eyed skinny lidded, inanity–with a sort of horizontal idiotic movement of her head–squab and lean she sat and puff’d out the smoke while two ragged tattered Girls carried her along–What a thing would be a history of her Life and sensations.

Now, it’s certainly true that this description could be kinder (perhaps an understatement, that??). But even after the long, demeaning description, Keats ends with an appeal towards empathy. Yes, he describes the woman as “idiotic” and “inane,” but he does so in the context of his condemnation of the broader social forces at work in creating and sustaining poverty. He also ultimately expresses his desire to know what this woman’s life was like. And not just her life, but her “sensations,” a key word in Keats’s vocabulary. He wants to recognize and understand her humanity, not just in terms of her thoughts, but in terms of the way she’s lived an embodied experience in a physical world governed by material circumstances which would have been largely out of her control.

We’ll hear more about Keats’s thoughts on his encounters with the common people of Ireland and Scotland as the tour continues. Certainly in this letter we get a nuanced–if also problematic–take on the relationship between social circumstances and individual lives.

You can read the letter in Forman’s 1895 edition here, although it’s based on a John Jeffrey transcript, so beware (note his reading of “nate inn” as “nate toone“–good try, Jeffrey!). The manuscript is at Harvard, but it was not used for editions of the letters until the second half of the 20th century (having been in the possession of James Freeman Clarke and his descendants until 1946–see here for more on Clarke). Images below.

Page 1 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.