We’ve hit two milestones with our latest letter: number 100 (woo hoo!) and the first of the great journal letters sent to George and Georgiana in America. It wasn’t until early October that word from George and Georgiana had been received in London. As will be the case in most of the transatlantic letters, Keats comments in this one about the nature of that tenuous connection linking them by the post. We daresay it’s a remarkable feat that the letters ever arrived at their destinations!
Because of the great distance separating Keats from his brother and sister-in-law, he would typically write long letters over the space of weeks and months, as opposed to writing shorter letters every week or so. Reading these journal letters is thus a much different experience than reading the sort of letters we’re used to reading from Keats. Each letter spans more time, each letter covers more topical ground, and each letter allows for more extended ruminations. In the example from today, we cover just over two weeks, we learn of a variety of topics (current goings-on, Keats’s thoughts on American character, Tom’s ailing state), and we dive deeply into Keats’s attitudes toward women, matrimony and children. It’s on these last topics that our response for today focuses, from Ivana M. Krsmanović. Enjoy!
To read the letter, you can head over to H. B. Forman’s 1895 edition here. Or you can work your way through the many images below, courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library.
Page 1 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 2 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 3 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 4 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 5 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 6 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 7 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 8 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 9 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 10 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 11 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 12 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 13 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 14 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 15 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 16 of Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.39). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
The end of this October marks the bicentenary of Keats’s iconic letter on the ‘poetical Character’. The letter of 27 October 1818, now one of the key sources of Keats’s poetic philosophy, emerged two hundred years ago from a period of distress and despair. Two months before the letter was written, Keats was sent home from Scotland to Tom’s failing condition. By ‘Sunday Evening Oct. 4. 1818’, Keats was deeply troubled by Tom’s predicament, circling the words ‘poor Tom’ along his reading of King Lear. Adding to the stress of nursing his dying brother are the hostile reviews of Blackwood’s and the Quarterly Review. Croker’s criticism of Endymion in the Quarterly upset Keats severely. Charles Cowden Clarke recalled, in his letter of 27 July 1821 to the Morning Chronicle, the sleepless night in early October 1818, when Keats ‘lain awake through the whole night talking with sensitive-bitterness of the unfair treatment he had experienced’.
The letter of 27 October 1818 was written as a reply to Richard Woodhouse’s rising concern for Keats’s declining poetic morale. Woodhouse’s concern rekindles Keats’s confidence in his poetic project and encourages a discussion on poetry and literary judgments, eliciting one of Keats’s most significant and precious letters on poetic practice and literary ideals. Woodhouse, having ‘met with that malicious, but weak & silly article on Endymion in the last Quarterly Review’, writes to Keats on 21 October:
I may have misconceived you,—but I understood you to say, you thought there was now nothing original to be written in poetry; that its riches were already exhausted, & all its beauties forestalled—& That you should, consequently, write no more: but continue increasing your knowledge, merely for your own gratification without any attempt to make use of your Stores.
Woodhouse expresses his anxiety as he recalls his ‘late conversation’ with Keats about the Blackwood’s criticism over dinner at Hessey’s on 14 September. As both a friend and advisor, Woodhouse fortifies Keats’s poetic ability and persuades him to continue his creative endeavours in his letter:
the true born Son of Genius, who creates for himself the world in which his own fancy ranges who culls from it fair forms of truth beauty & purity & apparels them in hues chosen by himself, should hold a different language—he need never fear that the treasury he draws on can be exhausted, nor despair of being always able to make an original selection.
Woodhouse’s argument reflects his admiration for Keats’s ‘original genius’ and ‘brilliancy’. Shortly after sending his letter to Keats, Woodhouse, in his letter dated 23 October to his cousin, Mary Frogley, asserts that Keats’s ‘poetical merits’ have ‘not appeared since Shakespeare and Milton’. Despite admitting the ‘great faults’ in Keats’s poetry, Woodhouse nonetheless ranks the poet ‘on a level with the best of the last or of the present generation; and after his death will take his place at their head’.
In his response to Woodhouse, Keats reflects on the limitations and powers of Wordsworth by distinguishing ‘the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime’ from his own ideal of ‘the poetical Character’. He celebrates the ‘camelion Poet’, a person who does not have an identity because its character ‘is not itself–it has no self–it is everything and nothing–It has no character–it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated–It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen’. Keats’s definition of the poetical character oscillates between claims and counter-thoughts. His character is developed from contradictions and paradoxes, from the simultaneous experiences of being itself and not itself. Keats’s reply corrects Woodhouse’s idea that poets should construct their own poetic world. He affirms instead that poets, even without fully abandoning the self, should have ‘no identity’ and ‘no nature’. Borrowing the notion of ‘gusto’ from Hazlitt’s 1816 essay, Keats speaks to Hazlitt’s account of Wordsworth’s self-absorption and his ‘intense intellectual egoism’. Keats confirms that great poets have gusto because their works are not impeded by their own created sense of identity or character, concluding that the ‘Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence’.
Keats’s poetical empathy and sympathetic imagination illuminated in the letter have extended his earlier reference to the ‘negative capability’ around 21-27 December, 1817 (a period that coincides with Keats’s first meeting with Wordsworth). The idea of ‘negative capability’ first occurred to Keats in a conversation with Charles Brown and Charles Wentworth Dilke while walking back from the Drury Lane Christmas pantomime. The theory was mentioned later in a letter to his brothers George and Tom, defining it as the condition ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. The imaginative potential of the negative qualities Keats ascribes to his poetical character in the 1818 letter – the importance of not being itself, of not having a self, and of not bearing a character – resonates with the poet’s former idea of the ‘passive capacity’ and adaptability. Keats locates and creates his greater character through the evasion of identity and consciousness. The complex question of self that the poet imposes sustains conflicts and diversity in life, as he relishes both ‘the dark side of things’ and ‘the bright one’. Keats’s celebration of feeling the unfelt confirms his recognition and awareness of an alternate aspect to human experiences.
On receiving Keats’s response, Woodhouse summarises and outlines his analysis of Keats’s concept of the poetical character in his correspondence to John Taylor on the same day.
his soul has no distinctive characteristic – it cannot be itself made the subject of poetry that is another person’s soul, cannot be thrown into the poet’s, for there is no identity (separatedness, distinctiveness) or personal impulse to be acted upon.
Woodhouse’s letter, with reference to Endymion, also points out the distinction Keats has drawn between himself and the Wordsworth school as well as other poets. The letter closes with his acclamation of Keats’s ‘full universality’ and a call for our belief in the truth of the poet’s ideas and feelings. Restoring Keats’s faith and confidence in himself, Woodhouse’s timely support in the bitter autumn of 1818 leads the poet to the creation of four new lyrics, and eventually, the odes of spring 1819. Woodhouse further shows his great admiration for Keats’s 1817 Poems and Endymion by taking up the responsibility to arrange the copyright transfers of the Poems, Endymion, and Lamia. More importantly, Woodhouse has devoted much time and effort to collecting and transcribing manuscripts of Keats’s poems and correspondences with his closest acquaintances. Their relationship is maintained after Keats’s death as Woodhouse carried on to preserve and edit any written records of the poet that he could possibly obtain. Alongside the transcripts of Keats’s unpublished works and variant copies of published materials, Woodhouse has provided critical annotations and interpretations, as well as included the poet’s biographical notes and facts in his collection of ‘Keatsiana’. The publication of the remarkable collection of ‘Keatsiana’, therefore, crystalises the significance of Woodhouse’s unfailing support and respect to the development and progression of Keats’s poetic career and reputation since the autumn of 1818.
Contributor Bio: Yimon Lo is a PhD candidate in English Studies at Durham University, where she works under the supervision of Professor Michael O’Neill and Professor Mark Sandy. She works on the late-eighteenth to nineteenth century British literature, with a focus on the poetry and prose of William Wordsworth. Her doctoral thesis examines Wordsworth’s soundscape and auditory imagination through the disciplinary lens of musical aesthetics. Her research offers an extended study of Wordsworth’s sense of musicality in relation to the poet’s key philosophical and literary ideas on lyricism and poetic harmony.
Keats employs a perplexingly opaque phrase—“the dark side”—in his famous letter on the chameleon-like nature of the poet, one that invokes, appropriately enough, the time of year in which he was writing, Halloween, with its phantasms and fantastic apparitions, shades, demons, devils, and damned souls creeping around the corners of the spirit world into the real. If Keats’s letters, as is popularly claimed, are a teleological journal of soul-making in the vale of poiesis, then the dialectical dance in this letter between light and dark, substance and shadow, real and spectral, throws eerie light on an unsettling feature of Keats’ ensouling: the otherworldly evanescence of the self as co-constitutive of any self.
Referencing the poetical character in his letter to Richard Woodhouse, he writes “it does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one” (387). Of course, in our modern parlance Keats’s descriptive soul-phrase the space battles, light sabers, and padawans of Star Wars conjures up it does. This is, indeed, a serendipitous modern-day connection because, curiously, in Keats’s inventory of celestial habitudes and material entities that the poet can literally em-body, he exempts the stars. Well, unless we count the listed Sun, which is obviously technically a star although its orbital locality to the Earth emphasizes its spatial enormity to the extent that it seems, less a star, and more a whole blazing, bright world. According to Keats,
…a Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures. (387)
Phasing in and out of creatures human and nonhuman, the poet flits about like a ghost constantly self-exorcising herself from one host and on the wing to possessing another. While the poet’s hauntology is certainly appropriately supernatural for the time of year during which Keats writes the letter, it strangely completely fails to anticipate Keats’s own poetry of this spooky season, his fall-related ode of the next year, “To Autumn,” where the lulling tenderness of bleating lambs and the quiet beauty of singing swallows seem as far away from going bump and boo in the night as one can imagine. That ode, in fact, if we follow Keats’s language, stands in the “bright.” Bathed in the lambent light of the sun, the poem and the poet, we might feel safe to say, will never turn to the dark side.
But what, then, is this dark side that glimmers within the poetical character and partially allows for its body-hopping-swapping abilities? The letter itself, to my mind, is little help in making sense of what is meant by the dark side, so I want to turn to another letter, one to George and Georgiana Keats, written during the same period, in which Keats, over the course of the month, jots down a slew of thoughts before crashing into a confessional on marriage and an encomium on the sublimity of solitude. In contrast to the chameleon letter, with its marvelously sneering put-down of the “Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime,” writing to George and Georgiana, Keats makes the poetical the personal (387). Having sung the praises of the cosmopolitan Isabella Jones, he then abruptly announces that he hopes he will never marry “though the most beautiful Creature were waiting for me at the end of a Journey or a Walk” (403). Much better, he attests, “is a Sublimity to welcome me home—The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children” (403). Keats’s love flows only to his poetry, these empyrean murmuring entities, in his contemplative, beatific solitude. The poet, in these metaphors, is ego-less in that she is self-less, unlike the egomaniacally braggadocio Wordsworth, but here we find the soul married to the wind and giving birth to children, the stars that are the poet’s poems. Having pricked out the black universe with his children, the shining stars, no wonder then that he tells us “I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds” (403). Except if we take the Sun and Moon above as worlds exampling two of these thousands, Keats would seem to open a schism in the poet’s bodily and textual hauntology. Perhaps this helps explain the above omission of the stars from Keats’s catalogue of nonhuman beings the poet inhabits and disinhibits. If the stars are his poetry and yet the poet cannot live in the stars but only in the planets and the sea and the bodies of men and women instead, then this would suggest that the poet cannot live in her own poetry. Confirmation of a sorts appears in Hyperion (1819) with Apollo proclaiming, “point me out the way / to any one particular beauteous star, / And I will flit into with my lyre” before Keats’s energy flags and the poem folds, as if Keats himself cannot lyricize the star (99-101). Perhaps Keats is here anticipating Paul de Man’s claim that prosopopoeia is the defining trope of poetry wherein the absent voice speaks in the present poem, the dead’s sussurrous speech ventriloquized in the living materiality of the tongueless text. The poet, in other words, is dead in this sense and lives only as a re-animated creature in poetry, alive now only in death.
But for that very reason it feels as if we are now worlds away from the poet of the chameleon letter and in the realm of what Keats’s means by the dark side, journeying among the sable skies by starlight, a kind of true dark night of the soul making. Perhaps Keats’s most famous starlight poem will aid in explicating what (and where) the poet is constellated among these worlds. The poet, we are told, “has no identity,” and “Bright Star” (1819) appears to affirm this lack:
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death. (1-14)
Autobiographically, “bright star,” as is well known, refers to Fanny Brawne, Keats’s last love, and he died while grieving over their bodily separation. However, it also sheds, err, light on the dark side of the earlier letter. The luminescent star is compared to the “Eremite,” marking the star off as solitary, just as in Keats’s claim when defining himself-as-poet in the letter to George and Georgiana on sublimity and his poetically conceived star-kids. At the same time, the star’s brightness occurs because it is not “hung aloft the night,” which suggests it is, instead, not a star but the sun, one of the poetical beings the poet should be able to shift into but here, puzzlingly, proves incapable of possessing. Yet, clearly, the poet, in his yearning to be as “stedfast” as the star is not that star, that sun, but rather a star, one amongst, we might say, the night’s other starry trophies hung. The speaker, unable ultimately to do anything other than “swoon to death,” remains “aloft the night,” on the dark side of the poetical character.
Which brings us back to the letter to George and Georgiana and the Hamlet (1609) allusion Keats opens the poem in that letter with:
Tis the witching time of night,
Orbed is the moon and bright,
And the Stars they glisten, glisten,
Seeming with bright eyes to listen.
For what listen they?
For a song and for a charm,
See they glisten in alarm
And the Moon is waxing warm
To hear what I shall say.
Moon keep wide thy golden ears
Hearken Stars and hearken Spheres
Hearken thou eternal Sky
I sing an infant’s Lullaby,
O pretty Lullaby!
Listen, Listen, listen, listen
Glisten, glisten, glisten, glisten
And hear my Lullaby!
Though the Rushes that will make
Its cradle still are in the lake,
Though the linen that will be
Its swathe, is on the cotton tree,
Though the woollen that will keep
It warm, is on the silly sheep;
Listen Starlight, listen, listen
Glisten, Glisten, glisten, glisten
And hear my Lullaby!
Child! I see thee! Child, I’ve found thee
Midst of the quiet all around thee!
Child, I see thee! Child, I spy thee
And thy mother sweet is nigh thee!—
Child, I know thee! Child no more
But a Poet evermore
See, See the Lyre, The Lyre
In a flame of fire
Upon the little cradle’s top
Flaring, flaring, flaring
Past the eyesight’s bearing—
Awake it from its sleep,
And see if it can keep
Its eyes upon the blaze—
It stares, it stares, it stares
It dares what no one dares
It lifts its little hand into the flame
Unharm’d, and on the strings
Paddles a little tune and sings
With dumb endeavour sweetly!
Bard art thou completely!
O’ the western wild,
Bard art thou completely!—
Sweetly, with dumb endeavour—
A Poet now or never!
O’ the western wild
A Poet now or never! (398-399)
Witch brings us back to Halloween. Keats never pauses to appropriate Shakespeare in his letters and the Hamlet invocation that kicks off this poem enwraps all of the chameleon disguises that pertain to poetry’s dark side. The black prince, Hamlet, thirsty for revenge, declares, “Tis now the very witching time of night / When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out / Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood / And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on” (381-385). Murder of his false father uncle, Hamlet contemplates here, with goth vampire tropes like drinking blood as the apparent ensanguinary event that lets all hell break loose on earth by releasing encrypted ghosts and ghouls. As the churchyard yawns open and the ghosts ex-spir-it their graves, we are reminded of the malefic, the incantations of poetry remade as, weirdly, homicidal obsession with childbirth. For the child is born at “the witching hour.”
Keats’s love for the mythological is as well known as his Shakespeare-citing tendencies. So let us examine the mythological figures shimmering here in the stars’ phosphorescence: the very odd paradoxes of Asteria, goddess of the stars, whose daughter, Hecate, was the goddess of witchcraft. Keats draws on these mythological paradoxes to define the poet and poetry in this letter and these lines. If we follow Keats’s logic, then poetry and the poet, star children, are both born at the witching hour even as at the same time Asteria gives birth to this witching hour. This suggests that, for Keats, poiesis is both born of the stars at the witching hour and is the stars. A paradox akin, in short, to the magic of witchcraft. What we are left to conclude is that Keats’s children, the stars of his poetry that here creepily “glisten glisten,” are at once a maleficarum whose transferential properties inspirit these ghosts with the dark side of the stars, of a re-life. Poetry is literally a re-animator and a crypt keeper of the soul: it gives new life to mortuus animus, the dead soul. It gives life to the poet. Who is always already dead. Soul-making has become en-souling. Yes, this letter, to recall David Sigler’s reminder of the Derrida-Lacan exchange in his marvelous piece, has gone well beyond its destination.
The back-from-the-dead poet and the still-living poem, in turn, help explicate the swooning death fits of “Bright Star.” There, love—poetry’s highest form for Keats—equates to a star and works as poetry does, both a star and born of the stars at the witching hour. And now we can understand the dark side. For, for Keats, love’s paradoxical nature means it always partakes of what he calls, in the chameleon letter, “the bright” and “the dark side.” Just as Hecate grieves her mother after Asteria refuses Zeus’s dark love and swoons to death in the sea, so Keats fears the dark side of love will lead to its, and his, death. His love may never be light enough to inhabit Fanny’s love’s poetical “unchangeable attribute,” its necessary balance of the bright and the dark, its “stedfast,” bewitching sun. He may never become the poet he wishes, may never give, bring, himself back to life in his poetry, in his love. He may never “let the warm Love in” (67).
Deconstructive this sounds, I suppose, as if the autumnal side of the leaf is what allows for the vernal side and vice versa. Yet, I think Keats’s equinoctal dance with life and death, light and dark, love and no-love locates itself on the hither side of deconstruction, in an ontological place that tarryingly revenants in re-life. Deconstruction can never experience death since life gives life presence by its absence, death. Keats’s poiesis brings dead matter back from death. Although Keats feared he could never love with a love like Fanny’s, for Fanny, he faced that fear, and fear of death, with eyes wide open. For he knew, in his star words and worlds that, to quote a famous philosopher, “fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Renowned philosopher, Yoda. Probably a fan of Keats.
Keats indeed should have no fear of the dark side because he knows—or at least his poetry knows—that it is essential to the brightness, to any possible love. And indeed his fears, ultimately, were needless, as his letters and poetry incant. Poetry’s special star-chart witchcraft gives life to death, its spell casting capable, even, of preserving love—in a sonnet, say. Poetry is a special kind of force, of the light side and the dark, whose involutions swoon the dead back to life and love. Poetry’s dalliance with the dark is an act of bringing balance to this force even if its psychomachia deceptively seems to delight in the devil’s party of necromancy for the sheer sake of evil. But it is light itself too. In this even-handedness, poetry, you see, works to trick us on one hand and treat us on the other.
de Man, Paul. “Autobiography as De-facement.” The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. 67-82.
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Vol. I. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 391-405.
Today’s letter is a big one! Well, not any physically bigger than is typical, but you get the drift. This is one of those letters that has its own nickname: the “camelion Poet” letter. Or perhaps the “poetical character” letter. Save for the negative capability letter, today’s is probably the most significant letter in which Keats theorizes the nature of poetry.
We won’t say too much ourselves by way of intro, since we have a few responses coming for you in the next few days. We shall let our contributors do their thing! To read the text of the letter, head over to Forman’s 1895 edition. The manuscript is at Harvard. Images below courtesy of Houghton Library.
Page 1 of Keats’s 27 October 1818 letter to Richard Woodhouse. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.38). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 2 of Keats’s 27 October 1818 letter to Richard Woodhouse. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.38). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 3 of Keats’s 27 October 1818 letter to Richard Woodhouse. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.38). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 4 of Keats’s 27 October 1818 letter to Richard Woodhouse. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.38). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Emily was crying. Earlier in the week, her fourth-grade teacher had marked as incorrect the word “different” on her spelling test because the dot atop her letter i wasn’t sufficiently visible, and my livid sister—“She obviously knew it was an i if she could complain about the dot!”—had been determined that her handwriting on Friday’s retest would be beyond reproach. In an effort to be absolutely clear, Emily had topped each and every i with a colored-in circle about the size of a pea, but now the teacher, who regarded that choice as an attempt to mock her correction and defy her authority, was the angry one. She sent home a stern note addressed to our parents—“Emily has behaved very disrespectfully,” it said—and Emily was pretty sure that she had landed herself in some serious trouble.
Our father, it turned out, found the whole thing very funny, and he proposed an irreverent response. “I sincerely apologize for my daughter’s behavior,” he offered to write back, dotting every i with a dime-sized blotch, “and I can’t imagine where she acquired such an insolent attitude.” Emily was horrified—“No, Daddy, don’t do that, or she’ll hate me for the rest of the year!”—and that’s when our mother stepped in. It’s not that Mom didn’t recognize the absurdity of the situation; both my parents have what they often describe as “a sick sense of humor,” and my mother, who now works as a professional calligrapher, knew more than most folks about legibility and letter forms. At the time, though, Mom was a practicing pediatrician, and her perspective differed from that of my father, a physician whose patients were mostly elderly. “Look,” she said, “the teacher gets to make the rules. Is she being unnecessarily picky and maybe even unfair? I think so, and I don’t see that you’ve done anything wrong. Her classroom is her classroom, though, and for now you’re stuck with her. It’s probably best to apologize for having seemed to make fun of her—and next time, keep an eye on your i-dots. Unmistakable isn’t always better.”
I mention my parents’ careers because I think that their professional experiences informed their responses to my sister’s crisis. Both (like Keats, incidentally) had medical training, but my father, geriatric internist, regarded pain as something acquired with age. His patients complained of creaking bones, swollen joints, unemptiable bladders, and worse; when they visited his office, they sought relief from their daily discomforts and, sometimes, the restoration of their youth, that epoch devoid (as they remembered it) of substantive hurt. Dad knew, of course, that kids can become seriously ill, and having been a sensitive child himself, he responded with love and reason when his daughters expressed anxieties about their teachers, friends, and bodies. For the most part, however, I think he regarded childhood as its own palliative. Kids’ problems are, in a sense, inherently ephemeral, and I suspect that my father figured—not consciously, necessarily, but at some level—that a “problem” like Emily’s was the sort that a seventy-year-old cancer patient would love to have: physically painless, existentially nonthreatening, and even uncommonly amusing. A protracted battle over i-dot sizing? It metonymized the trivial agonies of childhood, the sort of youthful dis-ease that would, in retrospect, seem downright charming when real disease inevitably set in.
Pediatricians, in contrast, understand that the limited agency that goes hand in hand with childhood is often a kind of agony in itself. My mother spent her days not just prescribing asthma medications but also explaining to her asthmatic patients that some adults might speculate—unfairly, of course—whether they were complaining of symptoms in order to avoid required activities: “Sometimes, you’ll need to say politely, ‘I’m very sorry, Coach, but my doctor told me not to run when the pollen count is high. I hate that I’ll have to sit this one out.’” Likewise, Mom couldn’t just establish dietary restrictions; she had to teach the kids in her care that dangerous foods were always forbidden, even when their babysitting grandparents insisted that “one bite couldn’t hurt”: “Sometimes, you’ll need to say, ‘I really wish I could try it, Nana, but I have to say no. Dr. Leslie said.’” And there were times when my mother, in order to safeguard her patients’ physical and mental health, had to encourage kids to offer more than insincere apologies and dissembling expressions of regret to the grown-ups in charge of their days and nights. “Sometimes,” Mom would say, “you’ll need to bend the truth. Keep the crackers in your pocket, and if your teacher still insists that you can’t eat during class, just tell him that you have to use the restroom. Eat the crackers in a stall until the nausea goes away. He doesn’t have to know.” Put simply, my mother—a parent, I should note, as loving and as sensitive as my father—never forgot that even when adults err, they retain their power. As a result, children live full-time in a world that can turn dystopic at any moment, and although that experience is mostly just exhausting, there are occasions when, if not handled with courtesy and grace, it can lead to suffering or even danger. Emily had somehow been too clear, too honest, and in order to avoid further repercussions, she would have to apologize disingenuously and, on subsequent tests, be less plain about her intentions—even though she had initially been accused of not having been plain enough. Her most unambiguous i-dots would, like the nauseous kid’s snacks, have to be hidden away.
In the fall of 1818, Keats’s sister Fanny revealed an innocent truth to a power-pleased adult and consequently risked losing what remained of her family. Her guardian Richard Abbey harbored what Walter Jackson Bate calls “an almost pathological desire to keep Fanny from seeing Keats”—perhaps, Bate speculates, he feared that Fanny would be encouraged by her “older and shrewder” siblings “to spy” on his financial arrangements, which had been bolstered by “an inheritance of which [the Keats children] had received only … a relatively small part” (364)—but since Tom Keats was gravely ill, Abbey reluctantly agreed that Fanny could visit him with John. However, when Abbey learned from Fanny upon her return that John had, during the visit, also “introduced her to some of his friends,” he used that circumstance as “an excuse to forbid further visits” (Bate 364). It was “the flimsiest excuse,” Andrew Motion argues—Abbey “complained that Keats had [violated]… the codes governing the behaviour of young ladies” (299)—but since Abbey’s authority was absolute, “Keats’s negotiations with the man, in order to allow [Fanny] to see Tom again, [would continue] for weeks” (Bate 364). Keats’s 26 October 1818 message to his sister is bookended by references to those on-going “negotiations”—“I called on Mr. Abbey in the beginning of last week,” he begins, and he concludes by writing that he intends to “call on Mr. Abbey tomorrow: when I hope to settle when to see you again”—but the most significant portion of the letter is its middle, which articulates a vision of childhood more akin to my pediatrician mom’s than my geriatrician dad’s. That passage has long resonated with me because it finds Keats challenging, in a few succinct sentences, the Wordsworthian attitudes toward youth and maturity that most critics regard as integral to Romanticism’s ideological core.
In fact, literary scholars’ implicit commitment to a Wordsworth-centric Romanticism has, I think, rendered them more or less unable to describe what, exactly, Keats means to communicate to Fanny in this letter. Nicholas Roe, who asserts that Keats’s recent “venture north had put him back in touch with his childhood” (242), says virtually nothing about the note or the episode that inspired it, while Bate reduces the letter to a scolding, a reprimand because Fanny had “babbled”: “At length, trying to muffle his rising anger, [Keats] writes to rebuke her gently… for ever having told Abbey that she saw anyone except Tom” (364-365). Motion, in turn, reads the note as less “rebuke” than “acknowledge[ment],” a pragmatic reminder “that if they were going to find a way round her guardian, [Fanny] would have to be more discreet. … Abbey was a permanent feature of their lives, and present difficulties needed to be solved without creating others for the future” (299). Notwithstanding their different assessments (or lack thereof) of the letter’s tone, Keats’s most recent biographers concur, it seems, that the poet regarded childhood in a quintessentially Romantic manner—that is, as a period when the whole world feels pleasantly (if, sometimes, too pleasantly) intimate and immediate. Grown-ups have learned (or so the Romantic story goes) to establish certain boundaries between self and other, but the “openhearted” childhood years both seed adulthood’s valuable “philosophic mind” and, later, periodically reinvigorate it through memory. The latter quotation derives from William Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode, but the sentiment in question is perhaps most famously articulated in “Tintern Abbey,” the Romantic touchstone in which Wordsworth addresses his sister. Wordsworth has matured since he last visited the spot identified in that poem’s title—“I have learned,” he writes, “To look on nature, not as in the hour / Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes / The still sad music of humanity”—but Dorothy, he argues, has yet to ripen: “[I]n thy voice I catch / The language of my former heart, and read / My former pleasures in the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes.” To my mind, those lines neatly capture the Keats that Roe, Bate, and Motion imagine (in aggregate) to have written to Fanny in October of 1818: a man freshly “in touch with his childhood” but willing to “rebuke” (Wordsworth’s “wild,” my literature students are always quick to note, isn’t exactly respectful) or at least critique his sister’s “thoughtless[ness],” her juvenile lack of both foresight and insight. From my vantage, however, that portrait doesn’t account for the palpable sympathy that Keats expresses or, I daresay, his pediatrician-esque desire to ameliorate with a simple prescription: a license to lie.
A license is a document that authorizes its holder to exercise his or her judgment in a type of complex situation—while driving a car, say, or performing a medical procedure—and implicit in its issue is the understanding that our world is rarely perfect, ideal. A licensed driver, for instance, knows the rules that, under the best conditions, govern lane changes, but when she’s cut off on the highway, she recognizes that changing lanes without pausing to flick the turn signal might be the safest course of action. Likewise, to hold a driver’s license is not to be authorized to drive under any and all circumstances; when certain factors either external (e.g. the weather) or internal (e.g. intoxication) to the driver impede her ability to drive well enough, she’s expected not to drive at all, the card in her wallet notwithstanding. Put simply, a licensee of any sort is always an arbiter, an agent who knows that the best course of action in this flawed world is often less unassailable than closest to right. And indeed, almost as soon as he mentions having “called on Mr. Abbey… last week,” Keats explains that he, older and wiser than Fanny, doesn’t regard what she did or said to have been “wild,” to have been morally or socially inappropriate: “I do not mean to say that you did wrongly in speaking of it, for there should rightly be no objection to such things.” However, as his hedging diction (“I do not mean to say,” “there should rightly be”) suggests, a problem persists, and it’s less about rightness and wrongness than about the kind of “People [with whom] we are obliged in the course of Childhood to associate”—with, that is, the Goldilocks-picky i-dot measurers who wield like a weapon their authority to call things either right or wrong. According to Keats, their “conduct” “forces” the children in their charge to behave toward them with “duplicity and fa[l]shood,” and although he’s careful to “recommend” not “duplicity but prudence with such people,” it’s clear that he conceives of truth and “fa[l]shood” as abstract endpoints on an infinitely nuanced spectrum or, perhaps, as phenomena akin to chemical substances that, impotent or dangerous in their undiluted forms, can be mixed to produce a safe and effective solution. Fanny, Keats explains, must play the role of chemist, titrating her admirable “openhearted[ness]”—“To the worst of People we should be openhearted,” the poet writes—with just enough omission and equivocation to preserve the health of that heart, of her authentic self: “…but it is as well as things are to be prudent in making any communication to any one, that may throw an impediment in the way of any of the little pleasures you may have.”
In sum, Keats isn’t “rebuk[ing]” or even offering practical advice in this letter to his sister. Rather, he’s letting Fanny in on the best kept secret about childhood: It’s really hard, and sometimes, it really stinks. For every youthful “spot of time” that we recall with fondness or that inspires in us Wordsworth-esque meditations about nature and instinct, there are whole swathes of childhood that, for most of us, evoke memories of frustration, confusion, or helplessness simply because truth is no synonym for beauty when a legal guardian, assigned teacher, or other authoritative adult fetishizes his or her own “philosophic mind.” That’s why my mother, now a doting grandmother, still says in utter seriousness that she “wouldn’t be a kid again if you paid me.” Mom didn’t have an especially difficult or unhappy childhood, but like all children, she was forced to suffer fools, a circumstance that rendered her youth (like mine, and probably yours, and maybe even my own kids’) less “splendor in the grass” than a real pain in the … well, I suspect you catch my drift. The best way to survive that trying period, my mother Keats-ishly suggested to Emily in the wake of the i-dot disaster, is to fib a little, to lie—but only as prescribed. For her own moral and physical safety, a child can neither enthusiastically embrace dishonesty nor wholly disavow it, and that’s the straitened path on which Keats hopes, in this October letter, to set his sister. What’s more, Keats acknowledges that the liar’s license he means to issue will come with a learning curve. At the close of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—the source of my reference, above, to the relationship between beauty and truth—the urn itself asserts with stony confidence that those terms’ equivalence “is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Those vatic lines have, like the images on the vessel itself, “tease[d] us [readers] out of thought” for centuries, but Keats eschews cold philosophy—i.e. the inarguable fixedness implied by “all ye need to know”—when he writes to Fanny. “Perhaps I am talking too deeply for you,” he says without a trace of urnish hauteur, but “if you do not now, you will understand what I mean in the course of a few years.” In other words, the necessity of the license he offers and the judgment it authorizes will become clearer to Fanny as she ages—not so much because she’ll come into intellectual maturity but because she’ll come out of childhood and, therefore, into real agency. After all, Fanny was only fifteen in 1818; Keats’s “few years,” then, seems to anticipate a condition more akin to legal independence than old-womanish sagacity. Once Fanny holds life’s reins, Keats intimates, she’ll recognize the degree to which the carefully delimited lying that he presently recommends has preserved—not compromised or eroded—her truest self.
Nicholas Roe indicates that Keats did indeed “[call] at Abbey’s on Tuesday the 27th,” when he “made another fruitless attempt to persuade [him] to let [Fanny] visit Tom” (279). That may be, but Keats also did something else on 27 October 1818, the day after he penned his note to Fanny: He wrote another (and much more famous) letter. There’s plenty to say about that iconic epistle to Richard Woodhouse, and although I’ll leave most of those points for others to articulate, I do want to observe that the discussion in the 27 October letter turns on a distinction between “the poetical Character” and “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime”—on, that is, a complaint about the artistic and ethical limitations that inhere in Wordsworth’s worldview. I can’t help but wonder whether the previous day’s empathic admission that childhood is no bed of roses assisted Keats in formulating this particular critique of Wordsworth, whose solipsism, I might argue, is most noticeable (and most insufferable) when he writes to or of figures with less legal or social agency—think beggars, gleaners, “idiots,” women, and, of course, children—than himself. In any case, Keats means to establish himself in his letter to Fanny and in his subsequent letter to Woodhouse as something or someone different. And notwithstanding the idiosyncratic charm of Keats’s handwriting—though typically visible, his i-dots tend to be unusually high, as if trying to escape the reach of their sticks—his points in those missives are clear enough.
Betsy Winakur Tontiplaphol is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Trinity University, where she teaches courses in nineteenth-century British literature, including a seminar on John Keats. Her first book, Poetics of Luxury in the Nineteenth Century, was published by Ashgate in 2011, and she is currently completing her second book, a study of the influence of ballet on nineteenth-century verse. Portions of that work, tentatively titled The Pointe of the Pen, have been published in the Byron Journal and European Romantic Review.
Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1963.
Motion, Andrew. Keats. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.
Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. New Haven: Yale UP, 2012.
Today’s letter to Fanny Keats, the third one in three weeks, represents the culmination of the battle with Richard Abbey, which we’vediscussedbefore. But to recap: Abbey was displeased that during one of Fanny’s earlier visits to Well Walk to see John and Tom, she also visited (most likely) Wentworth Place. Apparently Abbey thought it inappropriate for the young Fanny to be in social situations which he did not know of or approve of prior to their occurrence. Well, Mr. Abbey, you probably still shouldn’t have been such a jerk about it! Fanny had not been to visit Tom since early October, and she would not see him again before his death on the first of December.
Keats doesn’t go into too much detail about Abbey and the ongoing negotiations about her potential visits. His primary focus is the question of Fanny having divulged to Abbey that she had been to visit other places than Well Walk. We witness some subtle and really thoughtful insight from the older brother to the younger sister about honesty, prudence, and the complicated situations one finds oneself in as a child, when one’s agency is not yet fully one’s own.
And with that we’ll leave things there, because we have a fabulous response to today’s letter which explores in great detail and with great insight precisely these issues. Betsy Winakur Tontiplaphol’s piece analyzes Keats’s careful counsel to his sister while also gesturing toward a broader claim about Keats’s ideas about childhood. And particularly given that Keats has Wordsworth on the mind (as we’ll see tomorrow with the “camelion Poet” letter), that broader claim nicely dovetails with other strands of Keats’s current thinking about poetry, identity, truth, beauty—you know, Keats’s bread and butter. So please enjoy Tontiplaphol’s great essay!
For the text of the letter, we’ll direct you to our usual spot once again: Forman’s 1895 edition. Images below.
There is nothing unusual about Keats’ excursion through the Lake District, except, perhaps, for his mode of travel—on foot. Like many a Londoner, he and Charles Brown arrived from the south, walking along the path of the modern A65 from Lancaster to Endmoor, where they spent the night. Next morning early, they passed through the Westmoreland town of Kendal, and having noted its ruined castle, and crossed over the river Kent by one of its impressive bridges, they headed west on what is now the B5284 to Bowness-on-Windermere.
Alfred Pettitt #142, “Kendal Castle (the birthplace of Catharine Parr, wife of Henry VIII).”
Thomas Ogle #213, “Nether Bridge and the Parish Church, Kendal.”
It is from this road that Keats caught his first views “of the Lake and Mountains of Winander” (Rollins, 298), which to him were beautiful beyond description. This stereograph, taken by Thomas Ogle in the early 1860s, shows the approach to Bowness that Keats must have taken, and the sights that impressed him. The jutting points of land are the Ferry Nab, where William Wordsworth would often cross as a boy, and the White Lion Inn, where Keats ate trout fetched directly from the lake, can be seen along the shore of the lake. One wonders if Keats and Brown might have been tempted by the bowling green, built on elevated ground behind the Inn, and praised by James Clarke and others in their tour guides.
Thomas Ogle, “Windermere—From above Bowness.”
Unfortunately, the “winding lane” (Rollins, 300) along the edge of Windermere that Keats took to Ambleside, is gone now, displaced by “World of Beatrix Potter” exhibits (she would have hated them) and other tourist kitsch. But there are places where glimpses of the lake and mountains are still possible, such as this view up the Langdale valley from above the Lowwood Inn, which appears much the same today as it did in 1860.
Anonymous, “Windermere and the Langdale Valley from above Lowwood.”
On the far right in the distance is Loughrigg, a hill Keats admired; his sighting of Kirkstone, even in the clouds, however, was pure fantasy. An 1858 stereograph gives some sense of what the walk along the “beautiful shady lane” might have felt like, “wooded on each side, and green overhead, and full of Foxgloves” (Rollins, 300).
Thomas Ogle and Thomas Edge #159, “Near Low Wood, Windermere.”
Their evening destination on 26 June was the Salutation Inn in Ambleside, the small town at the head of Windermere where the Brathay and Rothay rivers conjoin to form the lake, or mere, as it is more properly denominated. Stereographs like this one, taken by the Ambleside photographer, R. J. Sproat, are the forerunners of the hotel postcards commonly found in almost every hotel lobby today.
R. J. Sproat, “Salutation Hotel, Ambleside”
Before breakfast the next morning they arose to seek out Ambleside’s chief natural attraction: Stock Ghyll Force, a 50-foot waterfall buried in the woods behind the Salutation Inn. The walk is easy, although, as Thomas West complained in the 1770s, the falls itself are so obscured by trees and vegetation that one finds it more by sound than by sight—and that was the case for Keats. “We, I may say, fortunately, missed the direct path, and after wandering a little, found it out by the noise,” he wrote to Tom (Rollins, 300). It was his first sight of a waterfall, and it is remarkable how little falls have changed over the centuries. The “jut of rock” where Keats stood and viewed the “water … divided by a sort of cataract island” must be exactly where Thomas Ogle stood in the late 1850s, and where I stood myself just months ago (Rollins, 300).
Ogle and Edge #308, “Stock Ghyll Force, near Ambleside
Photo by the author, summer 2018.
And on his return walk, Keats must also have seen the old mill on the Stock, still in operation in the 1850s, and now a pub with unsightly outdoor umbrella tables—the “miasma of London” has indeed polluted the Lakes, far beyond Keats’s imaginings (Rollins, 299).
Ogle and Edge #58, “Old Mill on the river Stock, Ambleside.”
After breakfast the two men headed to Rydal, where Keats hoped to pay his respects to Wordsworth at his Rydal Mount home. The two had met the previous December at Haydon’s “Immortal Dinner,” and Keats was already annoyed when he heard, at Bowness, that the great poet was out campaigning for the Lowther interests. So when no one was home, he left a note on the mantle and left in something of a huff—but not before visiting the two waterfalls in Rydal Park: the Lower Falls, with its viewing house, and the Upper Falls as well, both of which even today, in spite of the interventions of a water company, look very much as they did when Thomas Ogle photographed them.
Ogle and Edge #26, “Rydal Mount, Westmoreland.”
Ogle and Edge #52, “Upper Fall, Rydal Park, Westmoreland.”
Thomas Ogle #95, “The Lower Fall, Rydal Park, Westmoreland.”
From Rydal, Keats and Brown followed the post road by Rydal Lake and Grasmere, and ascended up Dunmail Raise, before heading gently downward to Wythburn, where they spent the night. Keats’s head was full of Wordsworth’s “To Joanna” (which may also explain why he thought he might see the Kirkstone), and he delighted to recognize Silver How and the “ancient woman seated on Helm Crag,” before settling in to sleep at an inn near the base of Helvellyn.
Thomas Ogle #258, “Grasmere Lake, from Red Bank—Helm Crag, Dunmail Raise, &c., in the distance.”
Wythburn is no more, a victim of the water needs of the city of Manchester, although its roofs can occasionally be seen in the Thirlmere reservoir during periods of drought. But Wythburn Chapel remains, and one would like to think that Keats and Brown had a pint or two at the local pub, the same pub where Benjamin the Waggoner had a pint or five. Not that Keats could have known the literary association: The Waggoner would not appear in print for another year, and by that time Keats was too ill for a return visit, even if he had wanted to.
Thirlmere, ca. 1865
Alfred Pettitt #151, “Wythburn Chapel and Helvellyn.
The next day, Keats and Brown arose early and walked the 8 miles north to Keswick and Derwentwater, Thomas Gray’s “Vale of Elysium.” “The approach to Derwent Water,” wrote Keats to his brother Tom, “surpassed Winandermere—it is richly wooded & shut in with rich-toned Mountains” (Rollins, 306).
Robert Carlyle, “Keswick and Skiddaw, from Castlerigg.”
They stayed two days, first circumambulating the lake, a walk that Keats estimated at about 10 miles, and on their way saw the waterfall of Lodore, subject of the famous children’s poem by Robert Southey. There Keats climbed “about the fragments of Rocks & should have got I think to the summit, but unfortunately I was damped by slipping into a squashy hole” (Rollins, 306).
Ogle and Edge #55, “The Falls of Lodore, near Keswick.”
Ogle and Edge #38, “Grange Bridge, Borrowdale, Cumberland, Gate Crag in the background.”
From Lodore, he would have crossed the Derwent at Grange Bridge, then circled around the back of the lake, along Brandelhow and under Catbells, before crossing the Derwent again at Portinscale, and returning to Keswick.
Photo by Jeff Cowton, May, 2015. Derwentwater and Blencathra from Brandelhow.
Just at the end, as Keats put it, “we had a fag up hill, rather too near dinner time,” in order “to see the Druid temple,” the Castlerigg Stone Circle, here seen in an anonymous stereograph, as well as a recent photograph of my own (Rollins, 306).
Anonymous, “Druid Circle, Keswick.”
Photo by the author.
The vigorous walk “rather fatigued” the pair, “but not so much as to hinder us getting up [the next] morning, to mount Skiddaw.” The views, until the mists rolled in, were spectacular: “the coast of Scotland; the Irish sea; the hills beyond Lancaster; & nearly all the large one of Cumberland & Westmoreland, particularly Helvellyn & Scawfell.” And all this, he wrote proudly to Tom, “before Breakfast” (Rollins, 306).
Photo by the author of the view from Skiddaw, August 2017.
It was his last breakfast in the Lakes, for afterwards they headed north to Ireby, where they saw Morris dancers, and then to the cathedral town of Carlisle. “The difference between our country dances & these scotch figures,” wrote Keats, “is about the same as leisurely stirring a cup o’ Tea & heating up a batter pudding.” The dancers impressed him, even more than the Cumbrian mountains: “I never felt so near the glory of Patriotism, the glory of making by any means a country happier. This is what I like better than scenery” (Rollins, 307).
Bruce Graver is Professor of English and Department Chair (for two more years only) at Providence College. He has been walking the Lake District for over 30 years, on junkets billed as research trips, scholarly conferences, and even a couple of class trips.
Like last week’s letter to Fanny, today’s contains an apology for not securing Abbey’s permission for Fanny to come visit Tom. Keats claims that he couldn’t make his way to Walthamstow to deal with Abbey and his (we think) unreasonable insistence that Fanny be kept away from her brothers. As with last week, Keats has had to remain close to home because of Tom’s state of health. We’ve already passed the date of the last time Fanny would see Tom (sometime before 9 October, it seems), and, sadly, Tom’s condition will not improve from here on out.
Keats decides not to divulge too much about Tom’s health here. We can tell from his journal letter to George and Georgiana, which he began just two days before this letter to Fanny, that he probably knew Tom’s fate was secured. He writes to them that “you could have had no good news of Tom and I have been withheld on his account these many days; I could not bring myself to say the truth, that he is no better, but much worse—However it must be told, and you must my dear Brother and Sister take example frome me and bear up against any Calamity for my sake as I do for your’s.” One senses that Keats is preparing them for the inevitable news once it comes. In the letter to Fanny, however, Keats takes a much different tack, hoping to not upset her anymore than she already would have been by the sheer fact that her guardian was keeping her from seeing her brothers at a moment when one was already across and ocean, and another was quickly fading away.
Brother John does have some good news for Fanny on another front, however: news from George and Georgiana had finally arrived. Their ship, the Telegraph, had reached port in Philadelphia sometime late in August, and one presumes that they promptly sent word back across the Atlantic. It seems that this initial notice of their safe arrival was sent only to Mrs. Wylie (Georgiana’s mother), with more detailed correspondence to other friends and family to follow later, and more slowly, given that those letters needed to make their way east over land to an eastern port like New York or Philadelphia, or south via water down the Ohio, to the Mississippi, and leaving port from New Orleans. But we do digress! The point here is that Keats can at least share the happy news with Fanny that George and Georgiana have “landed safely … they are both in good health—their prospects are good—and they are by this time nighing to their journey’s end.”
Full text of the letter can be read in Harry Buxton Forman’s edition of the letters from 1895. Image below from that same text.
Keats’s 16 October 1818 letter to Fanny Keats. From Forman’s 1895 edition of the letters.
I begin in the first person today (Brian Rejack, here—hiya), in order to offer an anecdote to contextualize today’s letter to Thomas Richards. There’s a famous moment in Rejack family lore from one of the many visits that, early in my youth, we made to Florida, where my maternal grandfather (I called him Pop) lived his final years. He was a fun-loving guy, and one for whom decorum and politesse were definitely NOT considerations. (Another famous bit of family lore—technically this is DeMartino family lore, since Pop was Salvatore “Frank” DeMartino—involves Pop attending an opera at the Met in New York, where he put up his feet on the seat in front of him, promptly fell asleep and began snoring.) So on one of these visits to Florida to see Pop, the family was talking about our neighbor back home, who was cat-sitting for us while we were away. Her name was Claudia. So a conversation about Claudia was going on for several minutes, and apparently Claudia’s name was uttered several times. Pop listened for a while, until all of a sudden, he burst out with, “Who the hell is Claudia??” He wasn’t angry—just genuinely confused that everyone was talking about someone named Claudia, and he had no idea what was going on. Anytime after that when the name Claudia came up—or comes up, still—we’d fondly recall the moment (and probably ask the question yet again).
(Ok, back to our customary editorial third person)—One approaches today’s letter perhaps wondering, “Who the hell is Thomas Richards??” His name does not come up much in the story of Keats, and this letter remains the only extant one Keats sent to him. The existence of the letter, despite Richards being about as marginal a figure in Keats’s correspondence as one could imagine, offers us an important reminder. What we have of Keats’s life, and even of that part of his life registered and retained in extant correspondence, is such a small fraction of an unknown and unknowable whole. Just think of how many other Claudias of the Keats story are out there, waiting to be named so that those who thought they knew all there is to know, can ask once again, “who the hell is that??”
Thomas Richards, it turns out, was the son of a livery stable-keeper, so he had that in common with Keats. The only other mention of him in the correspondence comes from way back in December 1816, when Keats wrote to Charles Cowden Clarke that he had been at “Richards’s” and that “it was so whoreson a Night that I stopped there all the next day.” Although one night think “so whoreson a Night” refers to jubilant reveling and the next day’s hangover that might have kept Keats from heading home immediately, it appears he was referring to bad weather that kept him from departing. (See the inaugural episode of “This Week in Keats” for speculations along these lines.)
Other than that, we don’t know a whole lot about Richards. He was someone Keats knew. And according to the letter, Keats had promised to visit Richards, but Tom’s health had kept him from so doing. We also know that Charles Brown knew Richards, for he too wrote letters to him that survive. Brown’s letters help solve a mystery in Keats’s, which ends by asking that Richards remember him “to Mrs R—and to Vincent.” One might assume that the latter name refers to Vincent Novello, but regular readers of Keats’s letters will know he almost never uses first names, except to refer to family. In two of Brown’s letters to Richards, he sends his regards to a “Mr. Vincent” and a “Mrs. Vincent.” It thus seems likely that Keats is referring to the same person. Now, who the hell is Mr. Vincent?? We do not know. (Rollins details these questions and how they came to be resolved in the notes to this letter in his edition.)
The provenance of the manuscript is also fraught through with uncertainty. It now resides at the University of Virginia library (the only Keats letter there–poor lonely MS!). It was presumably part of the collection of books and manuscripts donated to the library in 1938 by Tracy McGregor, a philanthropist whose giving included money (and items) for university libraries. How he came to own this letter is unclear. It is possible that the letter was passed down in the family to Richards’s grandson, John F. Richards, whose archives included one of the “Amena” letters written to Tom by Charles Wells (in an elaborate hoax to trick Tom into thinking he had a secret admirer–Keats mentions the scheme in anger when he finds some of the correspondence in spring 1819, about which he writes to George and Georgiana). So perhaps the letter to Thomas Richards was also at some point in possession of John F. Richards, before it was sold to someone else (maybe McGregor, but more likely multiple owners before McGregor got his hands on it). It was first published in the 1930s by Maurice Buxton Forman, but (we think) after it had already been acquired by McGregor. And that’s about all we know!
Since the letter was first published post-1923, we don’t have any out-of-copyright editions in which it appears to link for you here. But here’s a screenshot of it from Rollins’s edition (via Google Books preview).
Today’s letter is a short one to Fanny, and like several other letters during this period in autumn 1818, it concerns Tom’s health and Keats’s difficulties securing permission for Fanny to visit (or for Keats to visit her). Yes, it’s that dastardly Richard Abbey once again: the Keats family guardian after the death of their grandmother Alice Jennings. Since Fanny had not yet come of age, she remained in Abbey’s care. And he sure didn’t like the Keatses! After Fanny had been allowed to visit with John and Tom several times at the end of summer/beginning of fall, Abbey had around this time forbidden any further visits. His reasoning–likely a pretext to keep Fanny away from her brothers–was that Fanny should not have been allowed to visit other places and with other people on such occasions. Abbey learned sometime in early October, from Fanny herself, that she had done so (most likely she had been to Wentworth Place, home of Charles Brown and the Dilkes, where Keats himself would soon live–Keats House, today). We’ll hear all about how Keats consoles and gently advises Fanny about the matter in a letter later this month. Betsy Winakur Tontiplaphol has an excellent response to that 26 October letter–so be on the lookout!
Today, though, the controversy with Abbey is not really the reason for Fanny’s separation from her brothers. Instead, it’s simply that Keats could not make the journey to Walthamstow, as he had planned to do, because of Tom’s ever-worsening health. He apologizes to Fanny and promises that he “shall be punctual in enqu[i]ring about next Thursday.” In another bit of whimsy, typical of the playful letters to Fanny, Keats notes that he “got to the Stage half an hour before it set out and counted the buns and tarts in a Pastrycooks window and was just beginning with the Jellies. There was no one in the Coach who had a Mind to eat me like Mr Sham-deaf.” We can always count on Keats to do his best to soothe the cares of those he loves when they have plenty of reason to be full of anxiety.
In case you’re wondering what exactly Keats is intending to say here, you’re not alone! According to a note from Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 edition, the “half an hour before it set out” means “half an hour before it would have set out [if there had been enough passengers].” That clarifies the bit about “no one in the Coach.” Now, we remain agnostic on the issue of “who had a Mind to eat me like Mr Sham-deaf.” Sorry, folks!
Full text of the letter can be read in Harry Buxton Forman’s edition of the letters from 1895. Image below from that same text.
Keats’s 9 October 1818 letter to Fanny Keats. From Forman’s 1895 edition of the letters.