Letter #111: To Fanny Keats, 30 December 1818

Keats writes to Fanny today to explain that a sore throat is keeping him “confined at Hampstead,” and that he won’t be able to visit her for at least a few days. He also recognizes that he has sometimes been careless of his health and vows to be a bit more careful: “I intended to have been in Town yesterday but feel obliged to be careful a little while–I am in general so careless of these trifles, that they tease me for Months, when a few days care is all that is necessary.” If only that had been true for Keats for longer…

And with that we leave 1818 behind! Another milestone, if you’ve been following along with your trusty copy of Hyder Edward Rollins’s scholarly edition of the letters: we’re now embarking on volume 2! A halfway point of sorts, then. The KLP is pleased to have you along for the next stage!

Text of the letter can be accessed via Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 edition of the letters, courtesy of HathiTrust.

Letter #110: To John Taylor, 24 December 1818

Just a brief note from Keats to Taylor, and really only one main purpose for sending it: money money money! Keats has really come a long way regarding his anxiety about money matters. Just compares today’s note to the one Keats sent to his publishers Taylor and Hessey back in June 1817 (and while you’re at it, read David Sigler’s insightful and hilarious analysis of the letter). Whereas Keats bent over backwards to excuse his request for a loan 18 months ago, here he simply begins the letter by asking for the cash outright! Good for you, Keats.

The manuscript of the letter resides at Houghton Library at Harvard. You can view the images below, courtesy of their online resource.

Page 1 of Keats’s 24 December 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.44). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 4 of Keats’s 24 December 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.44). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #109: To Benjamin Robert Haydon, 22 December 1818

As we saw two days ago, Keats had canceled on a dinner engagement with Haydon on 20 December, but the two got together for the day of 21 December. It appears that Haydon the next day had sent a message to Keats apologizing for his “going out of the room” before they sat down to their meal. Keats writes back explaining that he was not offended at all. In other words, typical stuff for Keats’s correspondence! Particularly with Haydon, who was rather sensitive and quick to worry about having offended his friends (and quick to be offended by them himself), we often find letters like these which aim to smooth over any potential hurt feelings. It’s safe to say Haydon would have empathized with the members of Flight of the Conchords.

But we do digress. Another topic of importance comes towards the end of the letter. Keats offers to help Haydon financially, but also asks that Haydon first apply for assistance from “the rich lovers of art.” As we’ve seen in other letters by Keats, and as probably all of us know from experience, money issues can certainly lead to some hurt feelings! Over the next two years, of course, financial woes become more and more pressing for Keats. At this point, though, he seems to have been pretty sanguine about his prospects.

Another significant moment, which our contributor for today has much more to say about, is Keats’s mention of “all the vices of a Poet,” especially that of “irritability.” As Jeanne Britton writes in her piece, irritability signifies in several interrelated ways for Keats. Read the whole post to find out more!

Text of the letter to Haydon can be read via Forman’s 1901 edition here. Images below come courtesy of Houghton Library at Harvard University.

Page 1 of Keats’s 22 December 1818 letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.43). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 2 of Keats’s 22 December 1818 letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.43). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 3 of Keats’s 22 December 1818 letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.43). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 4 of Keats’s 22 December 1818 letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.43). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

“All the Vices of a Poet”: Keats to Haydon, 22 December 1818

Jeanne Britton
University of South Carolina

RE: Keats’s 22 December letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon

Keats’s letter to Benjamin Haydon of 22 December 1818 treads through the anxieties and hardship of artistic production that the aspiring poet and struggling painter shared. Dissatisfied with Hyperion, which he had cast aside for the time being, Keats opens his letter with disdain for the literary marketplace: he scorns its mercantile operation but admits to seeking “love and effect.” “I never expect to get any thing by my Books,” he declares, “and moreover I wish to avoid publishing.” His desire to write is not, it would seem, a desire for fame: “I should like to compose things honourable to Man—but not fingerable over by Men.” But earlier in this same paragraph, his admission—“I feel in myself all the vices of a Poet, irritability, love of effect and admiration”—might seem to contradict this disdain.[i]

His reference to “irritability” might also be understood to echo the famous letter of the previous December in which he defines “Negative Capability” as the ability to remain in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”[ii] Precisely what Keats means by this term in either context is difficult to say. My sense, though, is that he is drawing in these two letters on an intertwining of irritability’s literary and medical significance, a feature that defines much of his finest poetry. While this intertwining of the literary and medical offers a different gloss on the term, it would not be wrong to take “irritability” to mean bad temper; indeed, Keats’s encounters with William Wordsworth, one of the age’s most prominent specimens of “the genus irritabile”—that is, poets—certainly provide him with an example of prickly crotchetiness.[iii]

Benjamin Robert Haydon, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (1820)
Haydon, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (detail). Wordsworth is bowing his head; Keats’s profile appears directly above Wordsworth’s.

As 1818 drew to a close, Benjamin Haydon was still at work on the huge, ambitious Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. This painting took him six years to complete, and its outmoded style of historicism was his relentless “great object.”[iv] Another object was to include great writers of modern times in this historical, religious subject; Newton, Voltaire, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, William Wordsworth, and Keats himself also appear. It was this painting that, in a half-finished state, brought Keats and Wordsworth together for what Haydon himself termed the “immortal dinner” of the previous December.

Haydon’s life-mask of Keats. Keats-Shelley House, Rome.

Haydon had made Keats’s life-mask in Dec 1816 as a study for this painting. He also measured Wordsworth’s height for the same purpose, noting in his diary that his “very fine, heroic proportion” of nearly 5’10”—indeed tall for the time—apparently made the poet of egotistical sublimity so pleased that, as Haydon also records, “He made me write it down.”[v] Keats, who was just over five feet tall, experienced the brunt of Wordsworth’s ego, if not his irritability, on meeting him earlier in December of 1817 and, at Haydon’s request, reciting the “Hymn to Pan” from Endymion. Wordsworth’s response—“a Very pretty piece of Paganism”—was, according to Haydon, “unfeeling,” “ill-bred,” and “nonsense.” He believed Keats felt its sting, intended or not, “deeply.”[vi]

Perhaps, if we want to be charitable to Wordsworth, he was simply grumpy. And perhaps Keats is, too, when he proclaims in this letter of December 1818 that he feels “all the vices of a Poet, irritability, love of effect and admiration.” But in addition to peevishness, irritability carried two other meanings in these years: it had been associated with the character of the poet since classical antiquity (hence the aforementioned term, genus irritabile), and it was posited as the origin of muscular mobility in eighteenth-century medicine. Keats invokes irritability’s literary sense in other letters, and the wide currency of “irritability” as a physiological concept in the work of his teachers at Guy’s Hospital informs his complaints about his health—his “nervous irritability” and “irritable state of health.”[vii] He calls on the term’s literary significance with the reference to “the ‘genus irritabile’” of poets that ushers in his definition of the chameleon poet and, indeed, its distinction from the Wordsworthian “egotistical sublime.”[viii]

In medical discourse, “irritability” names a property of the muscles that determines contraction. Swiss anatomist and physiologist Albrecht von Haller defined irritability as the tendency of muscles to contract when stimulated. Sensibility, the property of the nerves, communicated the muscular response to stimuli to the brain. After Haller’s mid-eighteenth-century attempt to prove the existence of irritability, nearly every medical treatise referred to this concept and its more prominent counterpart, sensibility, in some fashion. Many readers of Haller attributed more significance to irritability than Haller did himself: even the English translator of his Dissertation on the Sensible and Irritable Parts of Animals claims that “irritability is the long-sought vital principle, the key to nature itself” in a contradiction of Haller’s explicit warning that this principle should not be taken as the principle of life.[ix] In Haller’s system, irritability is an involuntary, physiological force that determines mobility, and sensibility is associated with feeling and expressive of the soul. According to Haller, an irritable body part “becomes shorter upon being touched,” and a sensible body part that is touched communicates with the soul.[x] The reception of his terminology in later medicine blurred these distinctions, and sensibility came to be associated with the vital principle.

Critics have stressed Keats’s proximity to prominent advances in early nineteenth-century science. Less prominent, perhaps, but especially significant for their role in the medical history of irritability, are reinterpretations of this concept carried out by Keats’s own teachers and their sources. His teacher Astley Cooper refashioned his mentor John Hunter’s concepts of physiological sympathy and irritability, and the Scottish physician John Brown influentially adapted Haller’s distinct categories of sensibility and irritability into his more capacious concept of excitability. According to Brown, “The blood by its quantity distends the muscular fibres of the vessels; that distention stimulates the excitability in the fibres, and produces excitement, commonly called their irritability; thus excited, the fibres contract.”[xi] Eighteenth-century origins of the medical concept of irritability continued to have traction in early nineteenth-century definitions of the term, appearing in the entry for “irritability” in the 1810 and 1823 editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The version of irritability that circulated within and beyond Guy’s Hospital draws on the blurring of Haller’s distinction between sensibility and irritability and the later conceptualization of a generally responsive principle in the human body.

If irritability identifies the tendency for muscular contraction, then the “irritable reaching” that negative capability overcomes suggests both contraction and extension; it would produce either paradox or pain.[xii] The physicality of what I take to be the instinctive, unreflective “reaching” that negative capability overcomes urges us to identify Keats’s consideration of the embodied nature of irritability and negative capability. Horace’s complaint about the fretful tribe of scribbling lyricists seeking fame is echoed in the writings of Coleridge and Byron.[xiii] The term’s long-standing literary associations complement the immediate context of negative capability’s definition in Keats’s 1817 letter—the assimilating character of Shakespeare as opposed to the determined objectivity that Keats rather attributed, however oddly, to Coleridge.Along these lines, negative capability suggests that the ideal poetic character sheds the historical stereotype of the fame-seeking scribbler. 

In Keats’s references to irritability, the dovetailing of the literary and the medical approximates the complexity of the poet’s relationship to literary inheritance and sensory experience. Rather than lingering over the sting of Wordsworth’s dismissiveness, I prefer to think that this snub from one of his literary influences may have inspired the pugilistic young poet to continue reaching, so to speak, towards new poetic horizons. In the following year, of course, the great odes reconfigure the weight of literary influence and the strain of poetic aspiration—without irritable reaching—in their sublime manifestations of negative capability.

Contributor’s Note:
Jeanne Britton is a Curator in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina. Portions of this essay are drawn from “‘Irritable Reaching’ and the Conditions of Romantic Mediation,” which appears in Keats’s Negative Capability: New Origins and Afterlives, ed. Brian Rejack and Michael Theune (Liverpool UP, 2019).

[i] The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), vol. 1, p. 414.

[ii] Letters, vol. 1, p.  193. Letter to George and Tom Keats, 21, 27 (?) December 1817.

[iii] Letters, vol. 1, p. 386. Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 Oct 1818.

[iv] Letters, vol 1, p. 416. Letter from Benjamin Haydon, 23 (?) Dec 1818.

[v] Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1963), p. 115.

[vi] Cited in Bate, pp. 265-66.

[vii] The reference to irritability appears in the scattered style of his lecture notes: “Sympathy.  By this the Vital Principle is chiefly supported.  The function of breathing is a sympathetic action—from irritation produced on the beginning of the Air Tube affects the Abdominal Muscles and produces coughing.” Anatomical and Physiological Note Book. Printed from the Holograph in the Keats Museum, Hampstead. Ed. Maurice Buxton Forman. (New York: Haskell House Publishers Ltd., 1970), p. 56.

[viii] Letters, vol. 1, p. 386. Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 Oct 1818.

[ix] Anne Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology: Sensibility in the Literature and Medicine of Eighteenth-Century France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). p. 27-8.

[x] Albrecht von Haller, Dissertation on the Sensible and Irritable Parts of Animals, trans. Tissot (London: Nourse, 1755), p. 4.

[xi] John Brown, The Elements of Medicine; or, a Translation of the Elementa Medicinae Brunonis with large notes, illustrations, and comments by the author of the original work. Trans by the author. 2 vols. (London: Johnson, 1788), vol. 1, p. 111. For a fuller discussion of John Brown’s excitability as a development upon Haller’s irritability, see de Almeida, pp. 66-73. 

[xii] See Janis Caldwell, Literature and Medicine in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 378.

[xiii] In the second chapter of Biographia Literaria, Coleridge has a section, which may refer covertly to Byron, on the supposed irritability of men of genius. Byron refers to the irritability of poets in Don Juan: ‘But he had genius, —when a turncoat has it / The ‘Vates irritabilis’ takes care / That without notice few full moons shall pass it; / Even good men like to make the public stare’ (Canto III, stanza 81). 

Letter #108: To Benjamin Robert Haydon, 20 December 1818

We know that Keats got himself in a bit of a sticky situation regarding Christmas invites (see his letter to Charlotte Reynolds from a few days back). Today’s letter involves another declined invitations, but it seems this one was rather easier for Keats to get out off. This letter to Haydon involves just a few lines in which Keats explains that he “had an engagement today,” and as such, he would not be able to dine with Haydon. He promises to do so the next day when, he tells Haydon, “we will hate the profane vulgar & make us Wings.” One hopes that they enjoyed their flights of fancy that day!

Text of the letter can be read via Forman’s 1901 edition of Keats’s complete works (where he has the letter dated as 2 January 1819). Images of the manuscript below come courtesy of Houghton Library at Harvard.

Keats’s 20 December 1818 letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.42). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #107: To Fanny Keats, 18 December 1818

As we have occasionally remarked since encountering the first of Keats’s letters to Fanny, most of those manuscripts were given by her (through Harry Buxton Forman) to the British Museum towards the end of her life. Those forty-two letters now reside at the British Library. However, there are a few others that took different paths into public existence. Today’s letter is one of three such letters.

For background on these letters, we direct you to Maurice Buxton Forman’s piece in the Times Literary Supplement from 4 October 1934. The details of how Fanny kept these three letters in her possession is outlined as such:

From the Times Literary Supplement, 4 October 1934.

The two letters “regard as of too sacred and personal a nature for publications during her lifetime” we’ll come to later this spring and in fall of 2020, respectively. But the third, as Forman notes, was written by Keats on the back of a letter written by Mrs. Dilke to Fanny on 18 December 1818. Keats appears to have added his brief note on that same day, although the letter was not posted until a few days later, 21 December (as indicated by the postage marks).

The content of Keats’s note is, much like other ones to Fanny around this time, mostly concerned with apologizing for not seeing her as often as he would have liked. He promises to come see her the following week. As we’ll see when we get into early 1819, obstacles continued to be placed in between the siblings, primarily by Fanny’s guardian Richard Abbey. But Keats would persist and write on an almost biweekly basis to his sister for much of 1819.

The brief note, along with additional contextual information, we reproduced below from Forman’s TLS article in 1934. This piece marked the first publication of all three letters from Keats to Fanny which had not made their way to the British Museum through the elder Forman a few decades prior.

From the Times Literary Supplement, 4 October 1934.

Letter #106: To Richard Woodhouse, 18 December 1818

A fascinating letter from Keats to Woodhouse, not so much for the content of the letter as for the context it alludes to. Some background, then. Woodhouse had a cousin named Mary Frogley, whom the Keats brothers had known through their friendship with George Felton Mathew (and his cousins, Ann and Caroline). Earlier in 1818 Frogley had borrowed Woodhouse’s copy of Endymion. She and her future husband, Henry Neville, asked Woodhouse for more time with the book, explaining that their friends Jane Porter had seen the book on Neville’s table while visiting with him, and asked if she might borrow it from him. After she (and her sister Anna Maria) had read the poem and been pleased with it, the Porters asked if Neville knew the author and might be able to arrange an introduction with him. Through Woodhouse, Neville passed along a letter from Jane Porter in which she expressed this desire.

Keats’s letter to Woodhouse, then, is in response to Porter’s letter and Woodhouse’s offer of making the “introduction to a Class of society, from which you may possible derive advantage as well as gratification, if you think proper to avail yourself of it.” The Porter sisters were already well-established authors, each of them having published several books by this time in 1818. Keats, however, was not overly inclined to make new friends at the moment. We see an increasingly anti-social side of Keats over the next few months: he writes to George and Georgiana in January 1819 of Woodhouse’s offer, and in that same letter he also expresses his frustration with Leigh Hunt and his social circle. So part of Keats’s hesitancy surely results from his desire for a bit of solitude. He writes to Woodhouse, “I have a new leaf to turn over–I must work–I must read–I must write–I am unable to affrod time for new acquaintances–I am scarcely able to do my duty to those I have.”

There is, however, another factor likely at play here. As we’ve seen in the past, and as we’ll see on multiple occasions again in 1819, Keats had an anxious relationship with women writers. One senses his condensation in his letter to Woodhouse: “I must needs feel flattered by making an impression on a set of Ladies–I should be content to do so in meretricious romance verse if they alone and not Men were to judge.” Keats elsewhere associates women’s writing with popularity as against the seriousness of male discourse. One imagines that Keats’s disdain for popularity is in part a result of not achieving it. An easy defense mechanism for the little-read poet is to dismiss more popular writing (in this case, by women) as less significant, less consequential, less serious.

Keats’s disdain comes across more fully when he copies Porter’s letter to George and Georgiana, after which he offers this gloss on the invitation: “Now I feel more obliged than flattered by this–so obliged that I will not at present give you an extravaganza of a Lady Romancer. I will be introduced to them if it be merely for the pleasure of writing to you about it.” One hopes that if Keats had met the Porter sisters, he would have changed his attitude about “Lady Romancers.” Surely he had a thing or two to learn from them if he would have been willing to know them genuinely, and not just as fodder for ridicule.

The letter can be read via Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition here. Below are images of Keats’s letter, as well as Woodhouse’s transcript of the letter from Jane Porter to Henry Neville (both courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library).

Image of Keats's letter to Woodhouse.
Keats’s 18 December 1818 letter to Richard Woodhouse. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.41). Houghton Library, Harvard University. Note the signature was at some point cut away.
Image of Jane Porter's letter to Henry Neville as copied by Woodhouse.
Woodhouse’s transcript of Jane Porter’s 4 December 1818 letter to Henry Neville. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Improper Time

Kamran Javadizadeh
Villanova University

RE: Keats’s 16 December 1818–4 January 1819 letter to George and Georgiana

Your brother has moved a great distance away—so far, in fact, that you can’t be sure you’ll ever see him again. You know that it will take a letter weeks to reach him, and yet you have news—urgent news—to report: your youngest brother, at whose sickbed you have been keeping vigil, has just died.

How might the letter that you write (for you decide to write) respond to its inevitable untimeliness, to the fact that your living brother won’t know of the death of the youngest for the several weeks it takes for a letter to arrive? How might your words take measure of the distance that separates you from the brother to whom they are addressed in light of the more radical distance that has opened up between both of you and the brother who is now gone?

If you were John Keats, whose brother George had recently moved to the American interior and whose brother Tom had just died, on the first of December, in London, of consumption, you would let more than two weeks pass before you began to write, and then you would write not briefly but at great length. Yes, you’d address the sad news in the letter’s first lines, but, rather than sealing that news in an envelope and starting it on its transatlantic journey as quickly as possible, you’d keep the letter for yourself and, over days that would turn into weeks (and indeed into the new year), you’d add sheet after sheet of cramped script to the one on which you’d first reported and reflected on the “last days of poor Tom” (II, 4). Those new pages would drift away from the grief of your original occasion and into the minutiae of your daily life, into gossip, into poetry.

The first page of Keats's letter, including his opening announcement of Tom's death.
The first page of Keats’s letter. Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University. MS Keats 1.45.

Why, when Tom died, did John write to his brother George (and to George’s wife, Georgiana) in this way? When he first set pen to paper, on 16 December 1818, he seemed to have known what he was doing. The letter’s very first line anticipates the outcome that its author’s dilatory process would as a matter of course produce: “You will have been prepared, before this reaches you for the worst news you could have, nay if Haslam’s letter arrives in proper time, I have a consolation in thinking the first shock will be past before you receive this” (II, 4). He understood, in other words, that his own letter would not, after all, deliver the news. It would not arrive “in proper time.”

Instead, for Keats, letters circulated in and helped to create a different kind of temporality—call it “improper time”—which afforded its own consolations. That temporality tended to manifest in the letter writer’s habit of projecting himself into a future perfect from a richly described indicative present. “The fire is at its last click,” Keats would write (again to George and Georgiana, two months later): “I am sitting with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet […] These are trifles—but I require nothing so much of you as that you will give me a like description of yourselves, however it may be when you are writing to me” (II, 73). A letter like this opens up an alternate temporality, one that connects an embodied writerly present to a readerly future in which that present, together with all the time that has intervened while the letter has been en route, will have become a shared past. The letter cleaves together sender and recipient in a time and place that exist, in their fullness, nowhere but in the letter—and in the improper time that an exchange of letters makes possible.

In this sense the vicissitudes of the familiar letter’s channels of distribution (the postal service, transatlantic shipping lines, wagon routes into the American continent) occasion a set of tropes of intimacy that distinguish it from its twenty-first century digital equivalents: the text message, the tweet, even the email, all of which presume a more or less instantaneous transmission of a message. (Think of how the technology of instant messaging accommodates this aspect of its circulation: push notifications, read receipts, the pulsing ellipses that indicate your correspondent’s composition in real time.) Texting a distant friend or absent lover can give you the feeling that you are once again with them, but the grammar of texting and its allied technologies, grounded as they are more firmly in the present tense,tends to exchange the elasticity of epistolary time for something more literal.“Tends to,” I say, for surely digital correspondences borrow from their epistolary prehistory. Yet the very form of the text message insists: You are there, I am here, and though I may know how you feel (or, with a picture, what you see) right now, because that right now is so fixed in its time and place, I recognize it also as one in which we are apart.

Letters, by contrast, are always acknowledging, lamenting, and compensating for their belatedness, nowhere more characteristically than in their future perfect declarations. You will have been prepared, before this reaches you, for the worst news you could have. These lags and delays create the possibility of certain hazards (“crossed” letters, e.g.) and missed connection: when Emily Dickinson, for instance, writes from the family home in Amherst to her brother Austin at Harvard, she adds this postscript: “Mother is frying Doughnuts—I will give you a little platefull to have for your tea! Imaginary ones—how I’d love to send you real ones” (72). She can’t send the real ones because the donuts, for one thing, fresh from the fryer, wouldn’t survive the duration even of their brief journey, not without being transformed into some sadly diminished thing, drained of the heat that their mother’s attention (and fryer) had once imbued.

And yet, just as letters lament their insufficiencies, they call attention to their status as objects in themselves and thereby allow for triangulated intimacies that traverse both temporal and spatial separations. Though for Austin the donuts must remain imaginary, the letter is quite real, a physical object that was made in the same home in which those donuts were fried (and eaten) and that was then passed along through asocial network that began with his sister’s hands and ended with his. That same winter, writing to Austin’s wife, Susan, Dickinson described the network through which a letter passes as though it were itself a poem: “Yet, Susie,there will be romance in the letter’s ride to you—think of the hills and the dales, and the rivers it will pass over, and the drivers and conductors who will hurry it on to you; and wont that make a poem such as ne’er can be written?” (79). For Keats, too, the physicality of a letter was often a substitute for an absent body, the embodiment of a separation, and consolation for interpersonal distance. Six months after Tom’s death, he asked Fanny Brawne to “write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been” (II, 123). Two weeks later, he confessed that he had done more than kiss: “Do not call it folly, when I tell you I took your letter last night to bed with me” (II, 129). These deprecatory gestures (“at least,”“do not call it folly,” etc.) acknowledge the limits of the intimacies that they conjure even as they insist upon the desires that they name.

In the case of John’s letters to George and Georgiana in America, because the distance between sender and recipient had become so wide, because the route the letter would have to take so uncertain, and because the delays brooked by Keats’s diaristic method so much the greater,letters both strained the capacity for epistolary consolation and discovered new resources for redressing the pains of separation. When Tom died, that strain became still more palpable; Tom’s death and George’s move began to serve, in John’s writing, as ways of thinking each about the other. Here, first, was how Keats addressed his brother’s death:

The last days of poor Tom were of the most distressing nature; but his last moments were not so painful, and his very last was without a pang—I will not enter into any parsonic comments on death—yet the common observations of the commonest people on death are as true as their proverbs. I have scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature of other—neither had Tom. (II,4)

Just a few lines later, and with little more than a description of his plan to share lodging with Charles Brown as transition between the two topics, John had moved on to brooding over the distance that separated him from George:

The going[s] on of the world make me dizzy—there you are with Birkbeck—here I am with brown—sometimes I fancy an immense separation, and sometimes, as at present, a direct communication of spirit with you. That will be one of the grandeurs of immortality—there will be no space and consequently the only commerce between spirits will be by their intelligence of each other—when they will completely understand each other—while we in this world merely comp[r]ehend each other in different degrees (II, 5)

The certainty with which John imagined Tom’s “immortality” doubled as a balm for the pain that George’s absence provoked. That conflation allowed John to feel two things at once: impossibly removed from George, whose only presence in John’s immediate life was as a mere notion, a ghost like the one Tom had become, and, at the same time, because he knew George so well, a spirit of which he had, wherever George happened to be, immediate and complete intelligence.

Or was it the other way around? Had John’s understanding that George was simultaneously far and near provided, by implication, the assurance that Tom might be, too? In trying to write his way into copresence with one brother, was Keats trying to create a space in which he could feel close to the other? The kind of knowledge upon which John’s feeling of proximity to George depended was, as he went on to explain it, embodied:

I have been so little used to writing lately that I am affraid you will not smoke my meaning so I will give you an example—Suppose Brown or Haslam or any one whom I understand in the n{e}ther degree to what I do you, were in America, they would be so much the farth{er}from me in proportion as their identity was less impressed upon me. Now the reason why I do not feel at the present moment so far from you is that I rememb{er} your Ways and Manners and actions; I known you manner of thinking, you manner of feeling: I know what shape your joy or sorrow w{ou}ld take, I know the manner of you walking, standing, sauntering, sitting down, laugh{ing,} punning, and evey action so truly that you seem near to me. (II, 5)

According to Keats, the kind of fraternal knowledge he has of George has left an impression, one that can survive a separation. Earlier, while Tom was still alive, John had used similar language to describe the effects of their proximity: “I wish I could say Tom was any better. His identity presses upon me so all day that I am obliged to go out” (I, 368-369). Knowledge leaves a mark, and, whether it consoles or aggrieves, it is carried in the body of the knower. This is gestural knowledge, knowledge of “the manner of,” which means that though it is gained in proximity, it persists at a distance. John has been stamped with George’s gestures, and so, even with George in faraway Kentucky, he can be reanimated, “walking, standing, sauntering, sitting down, laugh{ing,} punning,” within John’s own somatic experience. And if John can do this with George, can they not both do the same with “poor Tom”? If one of the “grandeurs of immortality” is that “there will be no space,” might not another be that there will be no time?

In the letter’s improper time, the three Keats brothers find themselves, once again, in the same room. Having reassured George about the ease with which he can conjure, even across the Atlantic, his brother’s living and being, John suggests an exercise that will allow George to do the same:

You will rem{em}ber me in the same manner—and the more when I tell you that I shall read a passage of Shakespeare every Sunday at ten o Clock—you read one {a}t the same time and we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room— (II, 5)

The dream here is one of simultaneity: Shakespeare functions as the triangulated object through which the distant brothers can connect. Like separated lovers who, while talking to each other on the phone, look to the night sky and see, at once and as though together, the same moon (the very same!), these brothers, John and George, will discover copresence by reading the same talismanic text, on the same day, at the same hour. The fact that that day and hour were customarily reserved for church going is all to the point: John was proposing a form of secular worship that would double as a form of fraternal communion.

And yet. With one brother in London and the other in Kentucky, what did “Sunday at ten o Clock” even mean? Surely John understood longitude well enough to know that his Sunday morning would not coincide with George’s. If, for that matter, the idea was to convene over the same passage from the same text, why had John not specified which passage of Shakespeare the brothers should read? One way to understand the imprecision of John’s plan is to consider the imperfection of its reward: “we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room.” How near was that? On the one hand, Keats is promising a thrilling kind of proximity: the ocean between them suddenly swept away, John and his brother find themselves within reach of the sound of each other’s breath, the heat of each other’s body. On the other hand, these bodies cannot touch. They cannot, after all, see. If they are blind, then to them the room is dark. And they are not described here as “brothers” or “men” or “souls”; they are, simply, “bodies.” Set against and dimly legible beneath the consolation of the imagined room in which John and George can sit together, in the elastic and alternate temporality this letter inaugurates, is another room in which the brothers might imagine being joined by Tom, whose cooling body John had lately left. Such a room would more properly be understood as a tomb, a darkened space within which the brothers might be rejoined, in a time that will have no end.

Contributor’s Note
Kamran Javadizadeh is assistant professor of English at Villanova University, where he works on twentieth-century poetry and the long history of poetry and poetics. He is the author of Institutionalized Lyric: American Poetry at Midcentury (forthcoming from Oxford University Press) and has written essays that have appeared or are forthcoming in PMLA, Modernism/modernity, Arizona Quarterly, and The Yale Review as well as in several edited volumes. With Robert Volpicelli, he is co-editor of “Poetry Networks,” a forthcoming special issue of the journal College Literature.

Works Cited
Dickinson, Emily. Selected Letters. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats: 1814-1821, Volume One: 1814-1818. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

—. The Letters of John Keats: 1814-1821, Volume Two: 1819-1821. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Letter #105: To Charlotte Reynolds (née Cox), 15 December 1818

It’s the holiday season, and you know what that means: awkward social interactions! We can certainly file today’s letter under that category. Here’s what happened. Keats initially thought he’d end up traveling to Chichester to spend Christmas with the Dilke family (and Charles Brown). Figuring as much, he appeared to have accepted two different invitations for Christmas dinner in London, one from the Reynoldses and one from the Brawnes. Hey, we’ve all been there. Someone asks if you want to do something, and to be polite and kind, you offer up some sort of non-committal, “oooh, that sounds lovely!” But then reality hits and you need to reckon with the impossibility of being in two places at once. Keats’s strategy for handling the situation appears not to have been all that wise.

He writes to Mrs. Reynolds (wife of George, mother of John Hamilton, Jane, Mariane, Eliza, and Charlotte) with this ill-conceived explanation: “When I left you yesterday, ‘t was with the conviction that you thought I had received no previous invitation for Christmas day: the truth is I had, and had accepted it under the conviction that I should be in Hampshire at the time: else believe me I should not have done so, but kept in Mind my old friends.” The problem is that it pits the Reynolds family against the Brawnes, and as we’ll see, the Reynolds sisters in particular ended up resenting Fanny Brawne as she and Keats became more and more entangled in each other’s lives. Keats himself also ended up seeing less and less of the Reynoldses, although his displeasure with them had already surfaced earlier. It’s possible, nay, likely, that Keats actually just preferred to spend Christmas with the Brawnes, and this letter was his attempt at making nice with the Reynoldses while also turning down their invitation. In any case, Keats does spend Christmas with the Brawnes, and, well, you know how things go from there! We’ll have plenty more to hear about young Miss Brawne in the coming months.

A quick note on the provenance of today’s letter. It appears that it remained in the Reynolds family for some time. The first printing of it was in Harry Buxton Forman’s 1883 edition, where he notes that he was personally in contact with the youngest sister, also Charlotte, who lived until 1884. Our best guess is that she still owned the letter in 1883 and lent it to Forman for use in his edition. Later the letter was owned by A. S. W. Rosenbach, a collector of rare books and manuscripts who owned a few other Keats items. One of his purchases–of a letter to Fanny Brawne–was memorialized in a cheeky poem by Christopher Morley.

From Chimneysmoke (1921), by Christopher Morley

But we do digress. Today’s letter was acquired by Robert H. Taylor, probably sometime around mid-century (perhaps after Rosenbach’s death in 1952). Taylor bequeathed his collection of materials to Princeton University (his alma mater), where it still resides. For a bit of info on Taylor’s collection and another of Keats’s letters housed within it, check out our post for Keats’s 15 April 1817 letter to George and Tom.

To read the text of the letter, we direct you to Forman’s 1883 edition, where, you’ll notice, he explains his knowledge of the letter coming directly from the younger Charlotte Reynolds.