Dog-carts, Elephants, and the Collaborative Effort of Otho the Great

Adam Cady
Illinois Wesleyan University

RE: Keats’s 31 July 1819 letter to Charles Dilke

Steeped in the writing of Otho the Great, Keats’s 31 July letter to Charles Dilke offers a revealing glimpse into the creative process and interpersonal dynamics which helped to produce “the Tragedy.” Having rid himself of the sickly James Rice—that dispiriting companion whom Keats feared was “in a dangerous state” of health—the poet’s own (mental and physical) condition improved considerably. In the 31 July letter, Keats reports seeing more of the Isle of Wight, offers friendly advice regarding Dilke’s son, celebrates Reynolds’s success, and playfully interacts with Brown at letter’s end. Noticeably free of that melancholic “idleness” which had temporarily hindered his ability to write, Keats is moreover diligent in his work—engaged, once again, in the arduous “Art of Poetry.” Acknowledging this dogged energy and seeming temperamental levity, I nevertheless wish to explore particular aspects of the letter—especially those that pertain to Otho—to inquire further into their meaning and tone. Doing so reveals this letter as darker and more foreboding than it might seem at first glance—a subliminal forecast of Otho’s failure and expression of the tense working relationship shared by the Tragedy’s mismatched co-creators, Keats and Brown, who were by now “well harnessed again to [their] dog-cart.”

While the “dog-cart” may seem an innocuous—if somewhat perplexing to the modern reader—reference, this passing mention says a great deal about the difficult and doomed creation of Otho. A small horse-drawn vehicle and popular Victorian mode of transportation with two (or sometimes four) wheels, the dogcart was originally intended for use in shooting sports, and earlier iterations included a rear box for hunting dogs. Given Keats’s troubled history with horses—his father’s fall and the stormy carriage ride which triggered his most worrisome bout of illness to date—the cart is a potentially loaded symbol and harbinger of Otho’s disappointing flop. Presumably, since he and Brown are “harnessed,” Keats meant for them to be the cart’s horse, but since dogcarts were pulled by a single nag, this is a rather complicated and confounding image. As a closely working pair, united in the passions of their joint creative venture, the two may be metaphorically conjoined—toiling minds melded in the animalistic, horse-like march of creation. At the same time, Keats’s choice of a dogcart over a larger carriage is curious. Though not exactly “harnessed,” might Keats and Brown be associated with the cart’s boxed-in hounds, laboring animals with a singular purpose, confined to a coffin-like space? Or, in the less severely transmogrified state of human travelers, could the toiling duo be linked to certain dogcarts’ tandem riders—in close proximity but back-to-back, each blind to the other’s circumstance? Who, in this case, is the driver, and who is the passenger? Certainly, Keats’s symbolic deployment of the dogcart—this lesser vehicle—hints at some inadequacy in their work, an underlying smallness in the play’s financial motivations, or the impotency of Otho’s convoluted and derivative plot. With a single, easily overlooked phrase, Keats’s dogcart metaphor encapsulates the confusedness of Otho’s routine-yet-strained, financially driven, and ultimately fruitless creation.

Tandem-style dogcart, built for a driver and one passenger. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The loaded symbol of the dogcart, in addition to highlighting the general uneasiness which surrounded Otho, also sheds light on the tonal complexities of a subsequent passage, in which Keats discusses the possibility of their including an elephant in the play. “When Brown first mention’d this,” he writes, “I took it for a Joke.” Despite a theatrical history of live animals and puppetry making Brown’s spectacular suggestion plausible, the various negative implications of the dogcart (as well as the mocking tone with which Keats later belittles his partner’s written attempts at wit) undercut any friendly reference to Brown’s “plausible reasons” or eloquent discourse on the matter. Here, Keats’s seeming thoughtfulness and “serious consideration” stink with sarcasm, as—given the bitterness which I believe subtly permeates the larger letter—the poet likely never wavered in his assessment of the elephant as “a Joke,” and was never in need of “historical referance” to confirm the accuracy of a pachyderm in “Otho’s Menagerie.” Moreover, Keats’s suggestion that Brown’s and his artistic creations beyond the bounds of “the Art of Poetry”—in this case, both their composition of Otho and painting—“shall by next winter crush the Reviews and the royal Academy,” positioned in such close proximity to the elephantine conundrum, seems yet another dig at Brown’s eccentric suggestion. The degree of Keats’s faith in the Tragedy to become a smashing critical success is a matter of debate (complicated further by such puzzling lines as the questionably ironic suggestion in his 14 August letter to Benjamin Bailey that Otho might inspire “a revolution in modern dramatic writing”), but his subliminal linkage of the word “crush” to discussion of Brown’s elephant appears as a deeply Keatsian bit of chiding wordplay: he critiques Brown’s overbearing contributions to the collaboration, his palpable—and perhaps even pulpable—designs.

Regardless of Keats’s precise attitude toward dogcarts or elephants—or any of the poet’s specific, subconscious anxieties—both mentions hint at significant trouble in his working relationship with Brown, and that same tenseness which permeates these passages is evident near the end of the letter, when their collaboration is actually visible on the page. Whereas the process of writing Otho (described in greater detail in my introduction to this project) was largely mechanical, one imagines a more intimate occasion for this letter’s being penned. With the two temporarily unharnessed from their respective assembly-line assignments, Brown is no longer just the deliverer of outlines, and seems to lurk over Keats’s shoulder, waiting for his opportunity to add some quip or personal flair. And, when Keats gives gossipy mention of Brown’s affair with “one Jenny Jacobs,” insinuating that his collaborator’s risqué escapades will soon result in a child (“I am affraid thee [there] will be some more feet for little stockings”), Brown is quick to offer—in his own hand—a spirited reply: “—of Keats’ making. (I mean the feet.).” Of course, Keats was producing poetic feet at this time, and the reference to offspring may be part of a running joke which imagines their professional partnership as a kind of marriage—a domestic comedy dynamic explored more fully in Keats’s 23 August letter to John Taylor. Still, regardless of any clever (if intentional) double entendre, Brown’s interjection—namely, its clunky parenthetical to clarify that Keats will be making “the feet” and not the stockings—exemplifies Brown’s forced sense of humor. His failed “piece of Wit,” according to Keats, was painstakingly considered (“long a brewing”), though Brown rejects this as “a 2d lie.” When Keats responds with outstanding praise for his compatriot, his sarcasm is palpable and sharp: “Men should never despair—you see he has tried again and succeeded to a miracle.” In a handful of collaborative sentences, one can detect a hint of the antagonism that may exist between Keats and Brown—the underlying resentment which Keats, as a prodigious-yet-impoverished poet, may have felt toward the less-extraordinary half of Otho’s creative duo.

Immediately following this fraught exchange, Keats’s concluding message to Dilke is likewise biting and sardonic, indicative of the increasing possessiveness and individual verve with which Keats would write the concluding act of Otho. Keats largely ignored Brown’s outline for the fifth and final act of the Tragedy (perhaps the most redeemable bit of drama that the play has to offer), and proceeded to populate its dramatic verse almost exclusively with his own ideas. Thus, while not entirely reflective of Otho—this is, indeed, Keats’s letter, and he is merely reclaiming ownership of the text—the strict closing note indicates what may be the poet’s growing desire for authorial supremacy over Otho: “…as I have a right to an inside place in my own Letter—I take possession.” Having already undermined Brown’s strained contributions to the letter, Keats’s domineering farewell to Dilke further guarantees the poet’s textual dominance, and mirrors that petty assertion of creative authority which would similarly finish Otho. In this same resentful and precarious manner, it seems, the imbalanced pair proceeded with their “dog-cart” labors—that ill-fated endeavor of Otho the Great, which went on “sinkingly.”

Keats’s attunement to what would become the dynamics of making Otho and the contours of the final product stands in contrast to other moments in the letter where his sense of the interweaving of past, present, and future is less perspicacious. Keats is noticeably unable to foresee his life’s remaining tribulations, to reckon with or acknowledge the future as a profound and overwhelming force. Regarding Rice, Keats complains that he “cannot bear a sick person in a House especially alone,” though he would soon enough enter such a terminal and “dangerous state” of health—as Tom Keats had less than a year before. Likewise, in addressing the news that Dilke’s son is having trouble at school (“so much oppress’d at Westminster”), he dismisses the burdensome power of time to transmit such woes well into adulthood, suggesting, “His troubles will grow day by day less, as his age and strength increase.” For Keats, though, the youthful sorrows of orphandom, poverty, and chronic illness persisted to his untimely death. Composing and then producing Otho was meant to resolve at least one of these issues, and perhaps the closer relationship that would emerge as a result of collaboration with Brown might help to alleviate the loneliness caused, in part, by another. However, in this letter, though he dresses them in typical bravura, Keats intimates the desperate toll the future will demand of him. Despite his statement that if he were a father with concerns for a son he “would strive with all [his] Power not to let the present trouble [him],” the present already is troubling. Keats can feel the clouds of circumstance gathering.

“Consumption,” Desire, and the Refuge of Death in the 25 July 1819 letter to Fanny Brawne

John C. Leffel and Karla Alwes
SUNY Cortland

Re: Keats’s 25 July 1819 letter to Fanny Brawne

Keats’s letter of 25 July 1819 to Fanny Brawne makes a series of rhetorical and thematic moves which anticipate (and link the epistle to) other notable letters to Brawne as well as several of his poems. Most profoundly, the letter offers an early example of the intimate, vexed entanglement of disease, death, and desire that punctuates the late letters and poetic efforts. Though penned before he experienced the infamous hemorrhage from the lungs (3 February 1820) that offered to Keats the clearest signal of his serious illness and impending death, the letter reveals how a series of preoccupations and personal oppositions (sickness and health; “liberty” and constraint; love and death) were already centering around the capacious and slippery trope of “consumption” in the letters and poems well before the harrowing blood-spitting episode, described by Brown, offered the definitive sign of “consumption” that prompted the poet’s self-diagnosis.

Keats begins by expressing his “sorrow” over Brown’s recent account of Fanny Brawne’s “ill health.” What is striking here is how quickly Keats turns from solicitude over his beloved’s condition to a bluntly direct expression of his own dis-ease, tethering it to his impatience to be with her: “Brown to my sorrow confirms the account you give me of your ill health. You cannot conceive how I ache to be with you: how I would die for one hour—for what is in the world?” The “confirm[ation]” of Brawne’s reputed ill health prompts a melancholic focus on Keats’s own “ache[s],” which have been transmuted into expressions of his sexual frustration: he would willingly “die for one hour” with Brawne. But there is more going on here than merely the hyperbolic rhetoric of an impatient young poet in love.  

Indeed, in many of his letters to Fanny Brawne, Keats poses the question of a metaphoric death or dying, of the soul as well as the body. Further, “dying” is early seen as a gateway to the imagination. “I look upon fine Phrases like a Lover,” Keats writes to Benjamin Bailey a few weeks later, thereby associating the active, and often disappointing, imagination with love that also disappoints. The allusion to death as a part of the “luxury” of love and lovers is first seen in “Sleep and Poetry,” in which he asks to be able to “die a death of luxury” so that his youthful spirit may follow Apollo, at whose altar Keats notably begins and ends his writing career, “like a fresh sacrifice.” This notion of a willful “sacrifice,” of a “death of luxury,” which we encounter in Keats’s insistence that he would “die for one hour” with Brawne at the beginning of the 25 July 1819 letter, reemerges towards the end of the epistle when he writes, “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.” Like so many of the poems, this letter places death (or more specifically dying) at the center of a richness of delight: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die,” the speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale” tells us. The rich immediacy of the “now” of the nightingale ode becomes, in the letter to Brawne, “the hour of my death.” Along with her “Loveliness,” the precise moment of his death is one of the “two luxuries” over which the poet may “brood” in his walks, evincing most likely a mood similar to that which prompted the writing of the letter itself.

The letter further emphasizes the richness of the nexus between love and death when the writer asks to “take a sweet poison” from his lover’s lips, one that will send him out of the world, a world that “batters too much the wings of my self-will.” Interestingly, despite the emulation known to exist for Keats as to his predecessor Shakespeare—allegedly he would set up a portrait of Shakespeare on his writing table as a signet of inspiration, sometimes, as in April 1817, rearranging the décor of an inn to write under the watchful eye of his “Presider”—Hyder Rollins’s note to the allusion here suggests Pope’s “Still drink delicious poison from thy eye” (22), from “Eloisa to Abelard.” Notwithstanding that the “eye” is not the “lips” (which also played a role in Keats’s Endymion, serving as “slippery blisses”), the lines from the death scene in the final act of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet seem to have the stronger claim as source. When Juliet discovers the dead Romeo, she kisses him, believing the cup of poison she finds in his hand may still “hang on” his lips, to make her “die with a restorative” (V. iii. 164-66). The final kiss between the lovers becomes the “tonic” that cannot, unhappily, prove deadly to Juliet, who finds her true “restorative” in the phallic dagger instead. The sensuality with which the young Keats bathes his poetry thrives in his letters, thereby necessitating the prominent use of lips as portal to the “life of sensation” he seeks in his writings as well as in his own life. Immediately preceding his death with a kiss, Romeo ironically calls his lips “the doors of breath” (V.iii.65). The lovers have died “a death of luxury” in the hour of their deaths, the same that Keats broodingly seeks to possess for himself. In an earlier letter to Fanny Brawne (1 July 1819) he asks his lover to “write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been.” The too-empty cup from which Juliet tried to drink the poison becomes more sensual, with her lips “touching” Romeo’s in the same way Keats asks to “touch” the shadow of Fanny Brawne’s kiss through his own. While both Romeo and Juliet die with a kiss, the young Keats will succumb to his own death, in less than two years, with neither kiss nor love to comfort him.

“You absorb me,” Keats tells Brawne in the letter of July 25. He is “absorbed” in the same way he believes a poet to be. In a letter to Richard Woodhouse (27 October 1818), Keats tells him that the poet

has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character… 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….When I am in a room with People,…then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated.

Fanny Brawne, who “absorbs” (he will use the same verb later, in the 13 October 1819 letter) Keats’s identity into her own, becomes, like the “fine Phrases” that Keats looks upon “like a Lover,” the object of his imagination and passion. In short, she becomes poetry to the poet whose identity is “in a very little time annihilated.” The poetry is fed by a sometimes recalcitrant imagination; a similar fear of losing her love is also made manifest in his letters to Brawne. She, and the imagination itself, too often become a “deceiving elf” for Keats, when the “fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is fam’d to do” (“Nightingale,” 73-74). The diminutive term “fancy” (for imagination) invokes what he believes to be a salubrious effort to separate the power of the imagination from the poet’s own—an attempt at denial?—and in this letter of 25 July the separation desired is from his propensity to allow himself to be “hurt” and “absorbed” through his love for Fanny. “I wrote myself your vassal,” he says to her, but “burnt the Letter as the very next time I saw you I thought you manifested some dislike to me.” He goes on to mention a part of a previous letter from her “which hurt me.” He has been absorbed by Fanny, but not so his pain.

In the 1 July letter Keats asks Brawne if she is not “very cruel” to him, a common antecedent to the melancholy that subsequently occurs in the later letters to her. He seeks a consoling letter from her, one that will be “rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me.” The metaphoric potion sought in this letter, like the potion Juliet hoped for, would take him away from the “sort of pain” that “should haunt him,” as does death, because of the perceived cruelty from the woman from whom he needs everything. As the Dreamer in “The Fall of Hyperion,” who quaffs “a cool vessel of transparent juice, / Sipp’d by the wander’d bee” and falls into a “cloudy swoon,” or the Demeter figure of “To Autumn,” who is “sound asleep, / Drows’d with the fume of poppies…”, the poet himself seeks the escape that only the “intoxication” he receives from Fanny Brawne may provide.

The prevailing emphasis on dis-ease and “pain”—or, more specifically, strategies for coping with or escaping from that pain—is precisely what links the 25 July letter to the poetry and to other epistles to Brawne. When Keats writes that “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute,” he stages a fantasy that he returns to several times in the late writings: to satisfy his frustrated sexual desire for Fanny (to “possess” her “Loveliness”) and to escape his mental and physical sufferings and illness through Death at the same “minute.” We see clear parallels here to notable passages from the poems, particularly the eroticized encounter with Death from stanza 6 of the nightingale ode: “Darkling I listen; and, for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death, / Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, / To take into the air my quiet breath” (l. 51-54). Ten days or so before the 25 July letter, in a letter which Rollins tentatively dates as 15 July 1819, Keats makes a similar move: complaining of his “irritable state of health,” he addresses Fanny as his “sweet Physician” before confessing that “you and pleasure take possession of me at the same moment. I am afraid you have been unwell. If through me illness have touched you (but it must be with a very gentle hand) I must be selfish enough to feel a little glad at it. Will you forgive me this?” As in the “Ode to a Nightingale,” illness, desire and death have become fascinatingly, even perversely, entangled.

Indeed, in his study Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture (1998), critic Jonathan Dollimore cites the 25 July letter in his analysis of what he calls “self-disidentification,” or the “pleasurable death of the self” in Western thought and culture (xxii). And given the centrality of Shakespeare in Keats’s critical and creative imagination, it is intriguing to note the significance of Hamlet to Dollimore’s account:

As Hamlet famously meditated, to die is a consummation devoutly to be wished. From the earliest times, death has held out the promise of a release not just from desire but from something inseparable from it, namely the pain of being individuated (separate, differentiated, alone) and the form of self-consciousness which goes with that—what philosophers like Schopenhauer call the principle of individuation (principium individuationis). In other words, death holds out the promise of a release from the very individuality whose formation would have been unthinkable without it. (xx-xxi)

Hamlet’s parsing of death as a “consummation” in this account—meaning, as Dollimore suggests, “both satisfying climax and being consumed or vanishing into nothing” (xxi)—drives right to the heart of the matter: Keats’s anxieties regarding the “entrammel[ment]” (1 July 1819) of his freedom and individuation and the “absorption” of his identity by means of his passionate, frustrated longing to fulfill his desire. In this light, the 25 July letter encapsulates the larger rhetorical moves and narrative economy of Keats’s controversial late letters as well as of his romances and late lyrics by representing desire as both impeded by and realized through the transmission of disease (and dis-ease), and most powerfully, through death itself, which he figures as the moment in which the longing for the fulfillment of desire and the longing to escape disease and suffering are both “consummated.” For Keats, illness and the subsequent inevitability of death become the condition through which his desire is translated and fulfilled, thus forming the solemnly eloquent relationship between the 25 July 1819 letter of melancholic brooding and the similar letters, above, that speak to the power of displacement, deferral, and unconsummated desire in the poet and his poetry.

Contributor Bios
John C. Leffel is Associate Professor of English at SUNY Cortland. Specializing in British literature and culture of the long eighteenth century, he has published articles on Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, and Elizabeth Hamilton, as well as on the Anglo-Indian marriage market. He is currently completing the chapter on Austen’s Juvenilia for the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Jane Austen, and received a 2019-2020 Huntington Library short-term research fellowship to prepare a critical edition of Edward Topham’s never-published farce of early British India, Bonds without Judgment; or, The Loves of Bengal (1787). 

Karla Alwes is Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at SUNY Cortland. She specializes in the British Romantic period, with emphasis on the works of Keats. She is the author of Imagination Transformed: The Evolution of the Female Character in Keats’s Poetry (Southern Illinois P, Carbondale, 1993), as well as numerous articles on Keats, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, and Katherine Mansfield.  

Works Cited
Dollimore, Jonathan. Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture. New York: Routledge, 1998.

A Correspondence between David Sigler and Anna Shajirat

David Sigler (University of Calgary) and Anna Shajirat (Quincy University)

Re: Keats’s 6 July 1819 letter to Fanny Keats

Dear Anna,

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.



Dear David,

I, too, 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. 

I agree 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 it. 

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,


Dear Anna,

Your 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.

Anyone 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.

To whom 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.

As for 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.



Dear David,

Thank you 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.

The gaze 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.

But, as 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. 

Something 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,


Dear Anna,

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.

For 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 suppose).

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.

I would 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).

Yours sincerely,


Dear David,

I am 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!’

In 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.

I see 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. 

Alas, I 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,


Dear Anna,

How 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.)

I confess 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.

This has 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?



Dear David,

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.

Works Cited

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. 124-126.

Lacan, Jacques. “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter.’” The Purloined 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 Miller. Norton, 1978.

Letter #143: To Fanny Brawne, 1 July 1819

Today (or thereabouts) marks the 200-year anniversary of the earliest extant letter from John Keats to Fanny Brawne. Over the last two centuries that correspondence–or at least the half of it that still exists–has been reviled and revered, with the revulsion coming mostly from readers at the end of the nineteenth century (when the letters were first published) and the reverence coming more consistently from later readers (like those who might have purchased the Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne in 2009, when it was published by Penguin to coincide with the release of the film Bright Star). Considering they were written by a poet who delighted in a contradictory, chameleon-like persona, the letters to Fanny Brawne unsurprisingly feature a John Keats who can be at times cruel, possessive, jealous, and callous, and yet also tender, playful, admiring and unbearably sweet. This first letter is no exception. But first, what is Keats up to when he writes this letter?

Part of the reason is that Keats had been in London for most of the time during which he and Brawne had become acquainted and begun their courtship. They met sometime during fall 1818, and, at least according to some accounts, had come to an understanding about their future by the time Keats spent Christmas day with the Brawnes at the end of that year. Surely there would have been notes sent between the two during the first half-year of their relationship, but for whatever reason, Brawne appears not to have preserved any until we reach the correspondence from summer 1819, when Keats spent significant time away from London. He had departed for Portsmouth on 27 June (and enjoyed quite the storm during the carriage ride), and the day after that sailed for the Isle of Wight. He stayed there with James Rice for most of July, and then moved to Winchester with Charles Brown for the remaining weeks of summer (leading up to his famous composition of “To Autumn” while in Winchester right around the change to that season). As such we have a number of letters from this period when Keats and Brawne are separated.

As Keats had done in previous summers, this trip to the Isle of Wight was undertaken with the aim of devoting himself to writing poetry. In this letter, as we’ll see in others to Brawne, Keats fears that his romantic attachment to her will impede his ability to write. One of those moments when Keats shows himself to be kind of a jerk (even if his tone might be playful), is when he writes, “Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom.” But then immediately after that typical I’m-a-dude-who-needs-to-be-free-to-pursue-my-art moment, Keats goes into what is rightly one of the more beloved passages from all of the correspondence to Brawne (just search for “Keats” and “butterflies” on instagram, and you’ll see):

write me the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days–three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.

Even though modern readers (like us at the KLP, we confess) might swoon at such sincere expressions of young love, Victorian readers tended to feel a bit differently about them. Matthew Arnold is often cited as one of the exemplars of this disapproval: he wrote that the letters were “the sort of love-letter[s] of a surgeon’s apprentice which one might hear read out in a breach of promise case.” Arnold was not the only one, of course. Many responses to the publication of Harry Buxton Forman’s The Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (1878) echoed sentiments like Arnold’s. The objections weren’t just about the act of publication itself, which was seen by some as an improper breach of privacy, but also that the letters reflected poorly upon Keats, who by the 1870s had acquired enough literary status that any tarnishing of his reputation would be met with resistance. The publication of the letters also led to plenty of misogynistic reactions against Brawne herself: these readers assumed that Keats’s volatility and cruelty must have been the result of Brawne’s behavior.

The controversy continued a few years after the initial furor over Forman’s decision to publish the letters in 1878. In 1885 the Lindon family (Fanny Brawne married Louis Lindon in 1833; the couple had three children) decided to sell the original manuscripts of the letters. One attendee at the auction was Oscar Wilde, who wrote a sonnet in which he described the other attendees as “the brawlers of the auction mart.”

Wilde’s sonnet written on the occasion of the sale of the Brawne letters in 1885.

If publishing the private love-letters were a problem, then it seems that profiting off their sale was even worse. Wilde’s conclusion is that “they love not art / Who break the crystal of a poet’s heart / That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.” Well, that hits a bit too close to home here at the KLP… In any case, the result of the letters being sold at auction in 1885 is that they are now scattered across the globe in various libraries, archives, and institutions. The whereabouts of some are entirely unknown–the source for several letters remain Forman’s editions from the 1870s and 1880s.

For the text of the letter we direct you the American edition of the 1878 Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (via Hathitrust). The manuscript is one of those whose whereabouts are unknown. Most likely some lucky auction-goer (or brawler, as Wilde would have it) purchased it in 1885. Here’s hoping it comes back into the public view once again.