David Sigler (University of Calgary) and Anna Shajirat (Quincy University)
Re: Keats’s 6 July 1819 letter to Fanny Keats
I’m so happy to have the chance to correspond with you about Keats’s letter of 6 July 1819, to his sister Fanny Keats. To supply some context for those reading along: Keats was writing from the Isle of Wight, where he was staying with his friend James Rice, “to try the fortune of my Pen once more.” He has been feeling sick, and is about to begin a flurry of love letters to Fanny Brawne.
There’s a lot in this 6 July letter for us to think about, I think, including Rice’s hams, abundant lobsters, imaginary guitars, the surprising gallantry of “common french people,” and Keats’s delight in “creepers” but concurrent dread of peeping at women in windows. I’m excited to read your thoughts on it all! Yet I thought we might start at the very beginning: I note that, among so much else, Keats is sending a letter about receiving a letter. “I have just received another Letter from George,” he writes, yet “I cannot inclose it to you as I could wish, because it contains matters of Business” to which he may need to refer in the coming week. Which is to say that, among other things, Keats is sending a letter about receiving, and not sending, a letter. Is that something that we could think about a little bit? Your thoughts on such arrangements, and on all other summertime Keatsian anxieties and pleasures, will be to me most welcome.
very much look forward to writing and thinking together about this letter. I
think you’re right to start at the beginning, though it’s tempting to dive
right into “romantic old maids fond of novels” and “widows and
aunts or anythings given to Poetry and Piano-forte” in addition to the
humorous and curious bits you point out.
that this particular letter seems very much to be not just about receiving a
letter, but about letters and writing and their play with presence and absence
more broadly. Keats is ostensibly keeping the letter from George because of
“matters of Business,” but as he notes at the end of his letter,
“a Letter is a great treat to me here.” This seems to indicate that
the letter from George serves a number of functions beyond business. From
Keats’s later comment about letters, I think we can understand the letter from
George as a source of comfort and presence, as a letter that figures the many
forms and functions of letters. And yet, that letter appears in Keats’s letter
to Fanny as an absence, a negation. He discloses the letter only to foreclose
At another point in the 6 July letter, Keats writes of George’s letter as a distraction from work and wonders whether he should have waited to write to Fanny “for a day or two if Georges Letter had not diverted my attention to the interests and pleasure of those I love.” Letter-writing stands for the interests and pleasure of those Keats loves while professional writing stands for — what? Is work-writing in direct opposition to letter-writing as a form of communion with loved ones? Keats goes on to assure Fanny that “when I do not behave punctually it is from a very necessary occupation, and that my silence is no proof of my not thinking of you or that I want more than a gentle philip to bring you image with every claim before me.” What is the relationship between work-writing and letter-writing here? Between silence, thought, and images? These relationships seem to speak not only to letters and writing but, again, to absence and presence. Perhaps Fanny’s imagined image before Keats’s eyes can lead us into a discussion of that curious comment about a pretty face in a pretty window?
All the best,
observation about the letter from George is excellent. It is as if Keats is
enclosing the absence of the letter in his letter to Fanny, rather than simply
not enclosing the letter, and in enclosing this absence and returning it into
the circuit of the post Keats crosses the boundaries between business and
pleasure that he had just started to maintain so vigilantly.
who has ever bought a document shredder should despair at Lacan’s observation
from his “Seminar on the Purloined Letter”: “Cut a letter in small pieces, and
it remains the letter it was” (39). That’s the same issue here: by announcing
the temporary unavailability of the letter from George, given how it will be or
may be needed for the purposes of business, he doesn’t at all stop that letter
from arriving at its destination; rather, he invites us to think more carefully
about the way that the lack of an enclosure can be an enclosure all the same.
Which is to say that the letter from George remains, in its absence, a
supplement to Keats’s letter to Fanny: it adds nothing and arrives only in
being deferred. It is, to borrow from Lacan again, “a letter which has been
diverted from its path; one whose course has been prolonged” and,
now, “set aside” for purposes of business: in this quite literal or
etymological sense, it is indeed a “purloined letter” (43). And yet the
letter’s arrival to John Keats has “diverted [his] attention” away from the
business that it can make possible. Its presence has deferred the work of
business, but now the pressing work of business must defer the itinerary of the
letter, and hence it must be known only by its absence in the poet’s correspondence;
it must remain present for now in case it might be useful later, “for the week
to come.” Yet it begins to generate a share of surplus enjoyment that, as you
observe, seems to exist beyond any function that it might have, for the week to
come, in matters of business. Keats’s own absence from Fanny is, he says, a
matter of business: his pen, which writes both the poetry and the personal
correspondences, is supposed to be an instrument of possible “fortune” to the
poet. Hence he has taken up temporary residence at the Isle of Wight. Yet the
letter pertains to pleasure rather than business, offering an account of
lobsters and voyeurism, and presumably this is why the letter from George
cannot yet be enclosed.
does a letter belong? Does a letter that pertains to Fanny’s pleasure, and
John’s business, and the business of John’s memories of Fanny’s memories of
pleasure, remain in any meaningful sense “George’s letter”? Yet here (as you
suggest) is where it gets tricky! Because the letter, seemingly indispensable
for the business to come, refers its recipient to remembered personal
pleasures: not his own personal pleasures, or his
pleasures personally, but the personal pleasures of “those I love.” These
pleasures of the other, archived and activated in and by George’s letter,
become John’s own pleasures, and that relayed pleasure is what the poet seeks
to account for by enclosing the absence of the enclosure to his sister: this
new letter must index those pleasures—John’s, George’s, Fanny’s—but not pass
them along at this time, if the work of business is to be able to proceed
unabated. Caught between his memories of other people’s pleasures, and the
record of those memories that must not be sent along if business is to be done
in the week to come, the letter from George begins to refer to a kind of
surplus enjoyment that can only be retained by giving it away. Caught between
the work to come and the pleasures remembered, it makes sense that Keats is finding
it hard to “behave punctually” in his correspondence: Keats is enclosing the
nothing that is the substance of the letter, once its
relevance for business has been stripped away—a nothing that Keats is retaining
by sending away and attributing to others when it is his own. In this sense
Keats’s letter to Fanny is a record of the absence of a record of her own past
pleasures that are to be awaited by Keats: which is to say that Fanny Keats is
receiving a letter that has not been enclosed rather than not receiving an
enclosed letter, and thereby receives her own message, her own past pleasures,
written in reverse.
the pretty face that Keats dreads to see in a pretty window: I am most eager
for your thoughts. My preliminary questions are: is it true that pretty faces
are more likely to be found in pretty windows? It is possible to look at a
window and through the window at the same time, to find out?
Is there a difference between being afraid and “almost afraid” to peep in
a lady’s window—what level of fear is suggested by “almost afraid”? And of
course the main question: what is to be feared from meeting the gaze of a
pretty face in a pretty window—if in fact a “face,” as opposed to an eye, can
exercise a gaze at all? Your thoughts on these and other fenestral matters will
be very welcome.
for your compelling questions about the pretty face in the pretty window. I,
too, read the “almost” qualifying “afraid” as key,
particularly from a Lacanian perspective. Interestingly, when I first skimmed
the 6 July letter, I missed entirely the fear that Keats associates with
peeping into windows. I understood the meaning to be that Keats desired to
see a pretty face in a pretty window. But if we think about desire in a
Lacanian sense, then the “almost”-fear that Keats articulates
ultimately amounts to much the same thing. Desire maintains its charge
precisely because the fulfillment of that desire is blocked, because the
“fear” of enjoyment/jouissance outweighs any pleasure it might offer.
Keats’s almost-fear, then, nicely illustrates the paradox of Lacanian desire,
which relies upon both attraction and repulsion. To answer your question
directly: there is in fact no discernible difference between being afraid and “almost
afraid” if we think of fear and desire—the fear of desire and the desire
of fear—as intimately linked.
of the pretty face in the pretty window that Keats fears/desires maps nicely
onto Lacan’s discussions of the anamorphic skull that both disturbs and
structures Holbein’s The Ambassadors. In Seminar XI, Lacan
interprets the skull as a figure for “the subject as annihilated”
(88). The desiring subject of lack and language is “annihilated” not
only through its alienation from jouissance, but, in Seminar XI, through the
gaze, which disrupts the subject’s agency and autonomy by revealing that
“I only see from one point but in my existence I am looked at from
everywhere” (72). The fear that Keats experiences in the imagined gaze of
the pretty face in the pretty window is the fear of the subjective annihilation
that comes with the infinite gazes of others, which cast into relief the
subject’s own finite vision and fractured being.
Keats’s almost-fear indicates, the gaze plays with and depends upon desire as
much as fear. Elsewhere in Seminar XI, Lacan figures the gaze as the objet
petit a, the object-cause of desire. He explains that “in our relation to
things, in so far as this relation is constituted by the way of vision, and
ordered in the figures of representation, something slips, passes, is
transmitted, from stage to stage, and is always to some degree eluded in it—that
is what we call the gaze” (73). This definition of the gaze, it seems to
me, could essentially serve as one for Lacanian desire and its relation to the
objet petit a. So far, I have been discussing the gaze in terms of desire, but
I would be curious to hear your thoughts about how the drive is operating in
Keats’s almost-fear of the pretty face in the pretty window. I am also
interested in getting your take on the ways enjoyment and/or fear—even horror—figure
into the gaze Keats imagines.
else I would be interested in discussing is the way that gender works in
Keats’s and Lacan’s conceptualizations of the gaze. In the letter, the gaze is
very much tied to the “feminine”: the face and the window are both
“pretty.” In much the same way, Lacan links the gaze to women
throughout Seminar XI. What do you make of these parallels? How is gender
working throughout Keats’s letter, not necessarily limited to the gaze? How
does gender for Keats speak to gender for Lacan?
All the best,
No doubt about it—Keats’s dread of peeping into the Bonchurch cottage windows is closely related to his anxiety about gender identity, caught up as it is in the current of desire, so you are pointing us in the right direction for sure. Keats is such a creature of gender-based anxiety, as so many Keatsians (e.g., Anne Mellor, Joel Faflak, Susan Wolfson, Rachel Schulkins) have observed before. This imagined scene is certainly no exception. How does the scene work, and what does he fear? You’ve given me a lot to think about with those questions—but, as Slavoj Žižek recently said to his loathsome interlocutor in Toronto, “That’s life.” I think the main thing that Lacan stresses in Seminar XI—here I’m thinking of the session with “The Ambassadors” that you mention and also the session immediately before it—is that the gaze and the look are two quite different things. That seems like an important insight for this imagined and dreaded scene in Keats’s letter. Challenging Sartre’s model of the gaze, Lacan says: “the gaze that surprises me and reduces me to shame … is, not a seen gaze, but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other” (Seminar XI 84). This brings us directly to Keats’s letter: the interesting thing to me here is how Keats is assuaging his fear of seeing a woman by writing about that fear to another woman, his sister Fanny. For Lacan, the central anxiety in encountering the scopic drive is that: “I see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides” (Seminar XI 72). The eye that looks belongs to the subject, while the gaze, disquietingly, arrives from the object of one’s vision. It is “that gaze that circumscribes us,” in the sense that it reveals “where the split in the subject lay” (Seminar XI 75, 70). It presents us with our own lack and affixes us in place, and yet, in the process, “something slips, passes”—and this excess is, I think, the especially dreadful part (Seminar XI 73).
Picture now the scene that Keats draws for Fanny: The houses at Bonchurch are “Fit abodes, for the People I guess live in them, romantic old maids fond of novels, or soldiers widows with a pretty jointure—or any body’s widows or aunts or anythings given to Poetry and a Piano forte.” It’s important for the structure of the scene that the houses, windows, and faces are multiple: he is being gazed at from all sides, potentially. I love Keats’s formulation: it’s not that the houses are (I guess) fit abodes for the people that live in them, but rather that the houses are fit abodes for the people (I guess) that live in them! That is, the suitability of these houses for their inhabitants is never in question, but we have no idea who lives in the houses. I have no doubt that they find the houses suitable—but I wonder who they are! Keats then begins to fantasize about who might be indoors. In his fantasy, the inhabitants are always women, and they love effeminate artforms like novels and the piano, and for one reason or another they are all peculiarly sexually available: “romantic old maids fond of novels, or soldiers widows with a pretty jointure—or any body’s widows or aunts or anythings given to Poetry and a Piano forte.” These houses are filled, it would seem to Keats, with “any body’s … anythings”; their multiplicity and blankness is, apparently, how he knows that they want poetry, novels, and music. It is of course fascinating to think about how and why Keats is so ready to associate these domestic spaces with femaleness: he seems to have so thoroughly accepted the cultural association between woman and domesticity that he cannot even imagine that a man might be indoors. In that sense, these women are like the hams that James Rice has acquired: Keats doesn’t think that they are a wrong thing to have in a house.
Lacan, “The gaze is presented to us only in the form of a strange contingency”
(Seminar XI 72). That is, we never encounter it directly. It is
constructed in our fantasy of the Other. We can see this in the language that
Keats uses, here: “I am almost afraid.” As you rightly say, this is the
language of desire—the language of exercising one’s own lack. Being “almost
afraid,” he speaks in the conditional of his desire: ““If I could play upon the
Guitar I might make my fortune with an old song…”. It’s a wonderful line
because, on the one hand, he imagines seducing all of these unseen women with
his melodies; and yet, on the other hand, he imagines them as particularly
“given to poetry.” That is, Keats is giving what he doesn’t have (guitar
skills) to someone who doesn’t want it (the women, who, we are meant to
understand, prefer making their own music at the piano), and doing so in the
conditional: it’s too bad that I am an incredibly talented poet, he seems to
lament, because what these women desire is poetry—and I cannot for
the life of me play the guitar! As you already observed, this is the language
of desire at its purest, and it seems to be an elaborate way to investigate his
own lack—as pointed out by the gaze that might one day confront him from their
windows—as it intersects with his own fantasy of professional incompetence.
It’s all the better because, as he notes, “If I could play upon the Guitar I
might make my fortune with an old song”—he seems not to notice how this wish
undermines his previously-stated “confidence” in his most recent endeavor “to
try the fortune of my Pen once more.” It is a fantasy of getting what he
already has: illness (having come familiar with gallipots, he now fantasizes
about getting Rheumatism) and the artistic skill necessary to woo single
women—whom he dreads to see, lest they see him. (“Two blessings at once!,” I
The contrast between the two settings in this letter is really interesting too: at Shanklin, where he is staying, one looks out at windows; at Bonchurch, as in Soviet Russia, windows see you! It is interesting how, at Shanklin, his own vantage at the window will play optical illusions upon the eye: “Our window looks over house tops and Cliffs onto the Sea, so that when the Ships sail past the Cottage chimneys you may take them for weathercocks.” But at Bonchurch, where looking takes place in the conditional, one is gazed at in the place where one does not see. Fanny, here, is poised to mediate this difference, so he addresses her in the conditional and speaks to her of optical illusions and misperceptions: “You have never seen mountains, or I might tell you that the hill at Steephill is I think almost of as much consequence as Mount Rydal on Lake Winander.” Here, as at the windows of Shanklin, the fateful “almost” of desire produces an asymmetry of vision that confronts the viewer with his or her own lack. This is why I say that it is “not a seen gaze, but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other.” The dynamic reminds me of the looming mountain in Book I of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, in a way.
welcome any further thoughts that you may have on this scene. And I also would
very much welcome any thoughts you may have—if you would—on the rose-picking
“common french people but very well behaved,” who Keats encounters on the
Coach! And also I more have begun to wonder: is Mr. Rice correct to suppose
that ham is not a wrong thing to have in a house? Is the combination of Ham and
Rice a suitable diet for a young poet? I suppose it depends on one’s
disposition—the Shelleys, vegetarians ever, would, I fear, not have agreed. How
important would ham be to a domestic world blessed with abundance of lobsters?
Or, if I might adapt a question from Lacan (admittedly from a quite different
context): “When such a crustacean settles in the midst of those
animals … what does it imitate?” (Seminar XI 99).
eager to share my thoughts on the common but well-behaved French people with
you! Keats’s rendering of this scene seems to me to illustrate some of Lacan’s
ideas about desire, gender, and sexuation. Here is how Keats describes the
scene to Fanny:
There were on the Coach with me some common french people, but very well behaved—there was a woman amongst them to whom the poor Men in ragged coats were more gallant than ever I saw gentleman to Lady at a Ball. When we got down to walk up hill—one of them pick’d a rose, and on remounting gave it to the woman with ‘Ma’mselle voila une bell rose!’
Seminar VII, Lacan writes of the historical phenomenon of courtly love as a
paradigm of sublimation and its relationship to desire. The idealized Lady in
courtly love fills “the position of the Other and the object” (163).
She represents on the one hand the emptiness that structures the symbolic order
(the Thing as traumatic kernel of the real), the truth that there is no Other
of the Other. On the other hand, the Lady represents the object of desire,
occupying the place of the Thing through the process of sublimation, which is
always necessarily introduced “through the door of privation or of
inaccessibility” (149). The Lady in courtly love is at once the object of
desire and the privation/inaccessibility of desire. The common Frenchmen Keats
describes seem to be engaging in their own form of courtly love, which stages
the drama of desire and, in the process, elevates the French woman (notably
absent from Keats’s description of the scene) to the status of the Lady. In so
doing, the Frenchmen place the absent Lady in the position of the Thing and of
the sublimated object of desire. Though Keats is clearly poking fun at the
“ragged” Frenchmen, he also places the French woman in the position
of the Lady, in this case, an English Lady at an English ball. Keats, then,
appears to be participating in this scene of desire on at least two levels. On
one level he sees through the dramatization of desire, through the act in which
the Frenchmen are enthusiastically and unwittingly engaged. Keats’s (Lacanian)
message seems to be: “look at these French fools who cannot even see that
they are at the mercy of the fantasy which sustains desire.” On another
level, though, Keats engages in similar enactments of fantasy, as you’ve
pointed out, in his visions of “old maids,” “soldiers
widows,” and, indeed, Fanny Keats herself. In this sense, Keats is just as
subjected to the dictates of desire — and is equally oblivious to them — as
the Frenchmen he mocks.
Keats’s different levels of engagement with the fantasy of desire as playing
with gender in Lacan’s formulations for sexuation. When Keats “sees
through” the fantasy that structures desire, as he does when he observes
the common Frenchmen elevate the absent woman to the status of the Lady in
courtly love, he seems to operate in the female function as Lacan figures that
subject position. That is, he sees that there is no Other of the Other, just as
Lacan’s woman does, even though “she herself is subjected to the other, as
much as man” (Seminar XX: Encore). At the same time, though, Keats also
fills the position of the man in Lacan’s formulations for sexuation when his desire
is mediated by the Other, as when he fantasizes about, in your words,
“wooing single women—whom he dreads to see, lest they see him.” In
this way, Keats seems to inhabit more than one gender in this letter. He takes
on both normative and queer gender identities in his relationships to desire.
He is anxiously, or at least ambiguously, both male and female and also neither
male nor female.
have gotten distracted by gender and desire and have not answered your
questions about hams and lobsters. I’ll turn your questions to me over to you!
“Is Mr. Rice correct to suppose that ham is not a wrong thing to have in a
house? Is the combination of Ham and Rice a suitable diet for a young poet? How
important would ham be to a domestic world blessed with abundance of lobsters?
Or, if I might adapt a question from Lacan (admittedly from a quite different
context): “When such a crustacean settles in the midst of those
animals … what does it imitate?” (Seminar XI 99).”
All the best,
perfect! Yet oh how the tables have turned! It seems that these common French
people—whose parents’ generation had been so quickly and permanently elevated
to the dignity of the Thing—now must exercise a courtly love of their own, and
in the rain no less! Sublimation is cruel indeed. Also, I really appreciate
your point about how Keats is partaking of enjoyment on both sides of the
sexuation ledger in this letter: not because that’s a shock to discover, but
because that’s just exactly the most Keatsian thing. It pleases me that we see
him still working across the aisle, so to speak, even when he is imagining
himself a troubadour-seducer in the most phallic style. And I have just learned
the word trobairitz as a result! I am no medievalist, it is
clear. (As if that were not apparent enough.)
that I have nothing of substance to add on the subject of Rice’s hams. My
asking you was, I admit, a preemptive measure, and I am ashamed of that. If I
may emote for a moment in your confidence, though, I will say that I quite love
how Rice seems to have defended his ham purchase not on the basis of its being
a desirable food, but rather because ham is a not inappropriate domestic
article. Lobsters are clearly the more delicious food, let us admit. Yet I will
agree with Mr. Rice—and I say this as an abashed and secular omnivore, ashamed
of myself certainly, and now for a second time in this paragraph—that hams are
not a bad thing to have in the house. Ok, maybe a wrong thing—but not a bad
thing, at least from my perspective. I am unsure, then, if I agree with Mr.
Rice on this matter.
been very enjoyable! Thank you ever so much for corresponding with me about
Keats; I have learned a lot about Lacan and Keats and this letter in the
process. So: thank you. If there’s one thing to be gleaned from the Keats
Letters Project, it’s that a letter always does arrive at its
destination, so it’s been super fun to talk Keats and Lacan with you in such a
context. Is there anything else that you’d like to add—any corners of this
letter that deserve to be explored—before we humbly offer the honey of our
words to the big Other?
The shame is shared, because I have nothing of interest to say about ham and lobsters either. I suppose we have given our uninteresting selves away in our mutual admissions. I, on the other hand, remain unashamed about my status as an undiscerning omnivore, so let that be a lesson. I have so enjoyed our exchange on Keats and Lacan and am pleased to add our words to the treasure trove of signifiers.
All the best,
David Sigler is Associate Professor of English at the University of Calgary. Anna Shajirat is Assistant Professor of English at Quincy University.
Keats, John. “No. 173: To
Fanny Keats.” The Letters of John Keats,
vol. 2, 1819-1821, edited by Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge UP, 1958, pp.
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Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading, translated by Jeffrey
Mehlman, edited by John P. Muller and William J. Richardson. Johns Hopkins UP,
1988, pp. 28–54.
—. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959–60, translated by Dennis Porter,
edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. Norton, 1992.
—. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of
Psychoanalysis, translated by Alan Sheridan, edited by Jacques-Alain
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