Keats, Settling

Adam Cady
Illinois Wesleyan University

RE: Keats’s 23 August 1819 letter to John Taylor

As I detailed in my earlier analysis of the 14 August letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats was passionately committed to solitary self-reliance, vehemently independent, and he dreaded the notion of settling—sedentary dependence on the binding affection of others, or the fixed prudentiality of “domestic cares” (25 July, 1819, to Fanny Brawne). Nevertheless, as the “dog-cart” labors of Keats’s diligent summer drew to a necessary close, so, too, did the poet’s accounts grow dangerously barren, making his paramount ideal of unsettled life increasingly unfeasible. Embroiled in the economically debilitating ordeal of an aunt’s “threatened chancery suit” (which promised to keep Keats’s inheritance out of his reach even longer than feared), his financial circumstances were dire, and, in his 23 August letter to John Taylor, Keats embarrassedly remarks, “I have been rather unfortunate lately in money concerns.” Thus, Keats was “forced by necessity” to rely on the goodwill and the sometimes questionable talents of his companions, as he begged for payment from Taylor and regrettably “engaged” with Brown in a Tragic collaboration. Amid financial desperation, the preferably unanchored and self-sufficient poet had no choice but to settle—and he did so in a spectacularly strange, domestic fashion, fraught with the humiliating echoes of traditional and repressive gender roles.

The first in a series of pitiful settlements, Keats’s 23 August letter to Taylor is written—primarily—with the admittedly “harsh, distant & indelicate” intention of settling—at the very least, alleviating—the poet’s worsening economic woes. Though he apologizes for the harshness of his “business manner of wording and proceeding,” Keats’s destitution was such that—beyond a mere “desire of order and regularity”—his very survival may have depended on this straightforward entreaty for funds. As their mutual companion Richard Woodhouse notes in his 31 August, 1819, letter to Taylor—who, alarmed by what he read in Keats’s request, had forwarded it to this common friend—Keats was inadvisably generous with friends, prone to the careless granting of unaffordable loans: “I wish he [Keats] could be cured of the vice of lending—for in a poor man, it is a vice.” Suddenly—excruciatingly—aware of this vice’s debilitating repercussions, Keats writes to Taylor that, in the unanticipated absence of other funds, his livelihood is regrettably contingent on the swift delivery of new and generous advances: “…I relied a little on some of my debts being paid—which are of a tolerable amount—but I have not had one pound refunded.” While understandable and fiscally responsible, Keats made such requests for repayment with problematic infrequency, and seems noticeably pained in his letter by the necessity of collection. His few, ineffectual appeals to outstanding debtors having failed, Keats—forced to settle and degradingly rely on the charitable impulses of his friend—now turned to Taylor for relief.

Still, no instance of Keats’s forced settling is quite so debasing or awkward as the financially necessary professional and personal relationship which Keats shared with Charles Brown. As I described in my introduction to this project, as well as in my response to the 31 July letter, Keats and Brown were woefully imperfect, imbalanced partners; and while Keats’s name now occupies a prime place amid the canonical catalog of English literary masters, the grave budgetary circumstances which motivated Otho the Great’s conception and creation effectively reduced Keats to the cheaply artistic position of an overqualified stenographer or poetic translator. Yet beyond the embarrassing inadequacies of this mechanical writing process, further, more pressing disparities—namely, Brown’s superior fortune—eventually left Keats the lesser, passive half of a bizarrely gendered dynamic: a strange kind of marriage which—in a predictably, though also ironically, heteronormative fashion—cast John Keats as the stereotypically subjugated bride and Charles Brown as his breadwinning groom.

With Otho’s tragic verse as the eventual defective offspring of their painstaking labors, the pair worked in close collaboration through much of the summer of 1819—were indeed united in a secret engagement, as Keats remarks to John Taylor: “We have together been engaged (this I should wish to remain secret) in a Tragedy which I have just finish’d.” Of course, both Keats and Brown were, around this time, additionally mired in the chaos of separate, secretive romances: Brown, with a possible clandestine marriage to his (perhaps illegitimately) impregnated Irish lover, Abigail O’Donohue, and Keats, with his disconcerting passions for Fanny Brawne. Nevertheless, the cozy cohabitation and single-minded laboring which birthed Otho constituted a similarly intimate (though noticeably less lustful) affair, especially given their couple-like conjoining of resources and sharing of financial burdens. It is difficult, then, even though the procession of romantic milestones is a little off (a proposal begins an engagement), to not read Keats’s next statement as a confirmation of their union: “Being thus far connected, Brown proposed to me, to stand with me…” Keats himself may have been swept up by his own figuration: he initially, mistakenly, calls his offered “Bill” a “Bond,” a financial and marital term.

Where Keats introduces the pretty concepts of proposal, bonds, and engagement, though, the marriage is really certified by Brown’s contribution to the letter. In yet another act of collaboration, Brown, on the letter’s doublings, finalizes and signs the contract. With no hemming, hawing, or “hammering” to be found, Brown’s is the husband’s contribution. His is the masculine, straightforward approach, and—all business—he is the one who knows that what he and Keats are creating is in fact a “Bill.” (Given the fact that there are no other crossed out words in Keats’s letter, one imagines that either Brown suggested the change after reading over what Keats wrote, or else that Keats recognized his error after having read Brown’s “Bill.” In either case, it was Brown who was in the know.) Acting, then, as a benevolent patriarch, Brown oversees the remedying of Keats’s destitution and past “vices,” and guarantees the soundness of Keats’s bill by bestowing upon his friend/betrothed that most traditional of marital offerings: his name: “…Keats especially would be uncomfortable at borrowing unless he gave all [he] in his power; [&] besides his own name to a Bill he has none to offer but mine, which I readily agree to…. It is therefore to be considered as a matter of right on your part to demand my name in conju[n]ction with his.”  Brown’s professionalism, however, is so front-facing—so over-emphasized—in the letter that he, too, is likely compensating for the strangeness of his implicitly gendered relationship with Keats. Most notably, right after stating that he will gladly add his name to any of Keats’s bills, Brown is sure to parenthetically underscore that he is “speaking in a business-like way,” perhaps registering some awareness of his gesture’s romantically inflected nature.

Whether or not Keats’s and Brown’s suggestive use of matrimonial terminology was entirely conscious (perhaps even a shared running joke), the consistent tonal seriousness of the 23 August letter, paired with some crucial symbolic shifts near the close of Keats’s contribution, suggests the genuine soberness with which Keats internalized his unwitting femininity. Although the letter begins as a businesslike request for payment, the repeated admittance of his pitiful economic state—his reliance on debtors and wifely ties to Brown—seems to weigh on Keats, who, in a presumably subconscious effort to compensate for his stereotypically ladylike condition, turns to more masculine symbols and subject matter. Even while inquiring after monetary scraps, Keats—sure of his own chameleonic literary skill—boastfully assures Taylor that, given certain artistic compromises, his writing could effortlessly charm the masses: “I feel every confidence that if I choose I may be a popular writer.” Obstinate in his adherence to high-minded artistic standards, however, Keats would rather solicit his friend—pitifully—for the means of his survival—quite possibly, would rather starve—than capitulate to the whims of the reading public: “Who would wish to be among the commonplace crowd of the little-famous–who[m] are each individually lost in a throng made up of themselfes? is this worth louting or playing the hypocrite for? To beg suffrages for a seat on the benches of a myriad aristocracy in Letters?” Delivered with a flair of braggadocious machismo, Keats’s hardline stance against so-called “popular writers” is particularly impactful here, given the poet’s regular association of popular and female authors: “the drawling of the blue stocking literary world” (14 August, 1819, to Benjamin Bailey).

Though Keats certainly disliked and disrespected a number of more marketable men in his field, the poet’s exceptional disdain for women contrasts sharply with his wifely relationship to, and financial dependence on, Brown—an emasculating predicament ineffectually offset by Keats’s proclamation of faith in the romanticized manliness of solitude and pride: “…‘How a solitary life engenders pride and egotism!’ True: I know it does but this Pride and egotism will enable me to write finer things than any thing else could—so I will indulge it.” Moreover, amid all this theoretically redeeming bravado, Keats not-so-subtly compensates by injecting his letter with a thoroughly masculine and militaristic metaphor: “Just so much as I am hu[m]bled by the genius above my grasp, am I exalted and look with hate and contempt upon the literary world—A Drummer boy who holds out his hand to a field marshall—that Drummer boy with me is the good word and favour of the public.”

Yet in spite of all his blustering chauvinism—despite presenting himself as the illustrious and dignified “field marshall”—Keats, in the context of Brown’s own words, still resembles that unremarkable, unknown, and powerless “Drummer boy,” if not some soldier’s downtrodden wife.  A visible instance of collaboration reminiscent of a co-written passage in the 31 July letter to C.W. Dilke, Brown actually writes his clarifying note to Taylor—his 23 August letter—on a portion of Keats’s entreaty for payment. Whereas, in the 31 July letter, Keats is driven to reclaim “possession” of his correspondence, now Brown’s intrusive manner of writing goes virtually unchecked by the now-destitute and dominated poet. Keats’s postscript serves mainly to confirm what Brown has written, though it also exceeds such propriety, concluding with Keats’s endeavor to uphold his reputation as unsettled. In reality, Keats asserts, he is a fickle companion: “Had I to borrow money from Brown and were in your house, I should request the use of your name in the same manner.”

With such weirdness permeating both Keats’s and Brown’s respective sections of the letter, it should come as no surprise that its initial recipient found the correspondence somewhat troubling. Having been forwarded the letter, Woodhouse, in his 31 August reply to Taylor, attempts “with [his] usual disposition to understand” the complex and irregular “terms” in Keats’s distracted request. Still, neither Woodhouse nor Taylor seems especially concerned with the secret and strictly gendered relationship in which their friends are evidently engaged. Whether they—somehow—failed to notice the peculiar couple’s pseudo-marital dynamic, or whether the issue was simply too bizarre—too taboo—to even address, is unclear, but Woodhouse’s letter dwells primarily on what likely was Taylor’s main concern: the tangentially related issue of Keats’s pride. Whereas Taylor, in his prior letter to Woodhouse, apparently expressed his discomfort with the young poet’s self-described and flaunted “Pride,” Woodhouse is generally unconcerned by Keats’s youthful (and deserved) cockiness, confident in Keats’s personal integrity, as well as his poetic prowess. For Woodhouse, Keats is describing “literary Pride,—that disposition which arises out of a Consciousness of superior & improving poetical Powers.” Offering to “spare £50” to aid in Taylor’s loan to Keats, Woodhouse is evidently willing to overlook—in fact, he aims, as much as possible, to sever, to cure—those temporary bonds and compensating sensations of Pride which accompany a symbolic marriage or financial desperation; prescient, observant, he recognizes the ability of Keats, under more favorable economic circumstances, to join the ranks of history’s greatest writers—to remain unsettled, ethereal, free: “Whatever people [say they] regret that they could not do for Shakespeare or Chatterton, because he did not live in their time, that I would embody into a Rational principle, and (with due regard to certain expediencies) do for Keats.”

Keats as a Lover of Fine Phrases

Adam Cady
Illinois Wesleyan University

RE: Keats’s 14 August 1819 letter to Benjamin Bailey

In his 14 August 1819 letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats again touts the diligent productivity of his summer on the Isle of Wight, and claims to have generated—by that time—some “1500 Lines” in “two Months.” Having subsequently “removed to Winchester for the convenience of a Library,” Keats’s creative efforts were ongoing, fruitful, and, despite any earlier idleness or creative differences between the poet and his dramatic collaborator, Charles Brown, Keats had completed “two Tales, one from Boccacio call’d the Pot of Basil; and another called St. Agnes’ Eve on a popular superstition.” He had moreover penned the first half of “Lamia” and “parts of [his] Hyperion,” as well as “4 Acts of a Tragedy,” Otho the Great. Excepting occasional walks on the island and outings with Brown, Keats was, by mid-August, totally immersed in—consumed by—this outpouring of poetic verse, reading and writing with quasi-maniacal fervor, and he passionately informs Bailey, “I look upon fine Phrases like a Lover.”

For the most part, readers of the 14 August letter have treated this spirited declaration—the notion of Keats as a Lover of fine phrases—as a charming affirmation of Keats’s affection for literature. Indeed, the statement’s immediate context bears this pleasant interpretation out, as Keats has just expressed his ever-growing wonder at the magnificence of “Shakespeare and the paradise Lost” and declared, “a fine writer is the most genuine Being in the World.” We know, too, that Keats—since his youth—was prone to fall in love with exceptional language, as the poet’s early friend Charles Cowden Clarke, in his Recollections of Writers, recalls  that Keats pored over Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene “‘as a young horse would through a spring meadow—ramping!’,” and furthermore, “he especially singled out epithets, for that felicity and power in which Spenser is so eminent” (126). Clarke also recollects “the teeming wonderment of [Keats’s] first introduction” to George Chapman’s translation of The Odyssey, which famously inspired the sonnetic outpouring of fine phrases “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (130). Moreover, Keats was a notorious mimic, often borrowing from the loveable phrases of other, emulatable writers—a fact to which the bulk of the footnotes in any critical edition of Keats’s poems and/or letters testifies. 

However, if we consider the preceding letter—his 5, 6 August letter to Fanny Brawne—the idea of Keats as a lover of anything becomes murkier and less appealing. In that earlier bit of fraught correspondence, the great Romantic declares his inability—likelier, his unwillingness—to pen “proper downright love-letters.” Additionally, though it may be tempting to imagine the extraordinary poet as some inhuman deity of the written word, Keats is painfully human, as he writes to Fanny, “I am not one of the Paladins of old who livd upon water grass and smiles for years together.” As a lover, Keats has material and selfish needs, which override romanticized notions of love as a pure or selfless endeavor. In fact, Keats tells Fanny precisely what kind of love theirs must be: one that is literally unsettling: 

…god forbid we should what people call, settle—turn into a pond, a stagnant Lethe—a vile crescent, row or buildings. Better be imprudent moveables than prudent fixtures—Open my Mouth at the Street door like the Lion’s head at Venice to receive hateful cards Letters messages. Go out an[d] wither at tea parties; freeze at dinners; bake at dance[s,] simmer at routs. No my love, trust yourself to me and I will find you nobler amusements; fortune favouring.

Unsatisfied with the “settled” condition of domesticity, Keats’s attachments to Fanny must never be debilitating. Though his passion for Brawne burns bright, personal preeminence is the poet’s primary concern; their love must not—in any way—interfere with Keats’s autonomy, his mobility, his capacity to control. 

Of course, in addition to describing an ideally unsettled romance with Fanny, Keats reveals—in that same 5, 6 August letter—exactly what kind of lover he is. At this time, Keats was mired in the writing Otho—his thoughts so thoroughly consumed by the Tragedy that he actually describes seeing Fanny “through the mist of Plots speeches, counterplots and counter speeches.” Eager to demonstrate the relative mildness of his emotions, though—his supposedly restrained passions for both Fanny and the written word—Keats assures her, “The Lover is madder than I am.” The “Lover” (with a capital “L,” as in the 14 August letter) here is meant to be Ludolph, the tragic protagonist and erratic prince whose betrayal and downfall comprise the central plot of Otho. And though Keats is reportedly less crazed than that passionate royal, Ludolph’s conception of love is so thoroughly corrupted that, when Keats compares himself to the prince, there is the conspicuous implication that—as a lover—Keats is still sufficiently mad. To begin, Ludolph’s affections are astoundingly fickle, as he readily abandons all tenderness for his former, supposedly disloyal fiancee,  Erminia—even naming her once as “Satan” (Act III, scene 2, line 78). In place of Erminia, the prince dotes over “fair Auranthe” and, “bewitched” by her, develops a severe and suicidal kind of love: “Soft beauty! by to-morrow I should die, / Wert thou not mine” (Act III, scene 2, lines 14-15). With either woman, Ludolph’s sense of love is also deeply possessive; even modest lapses are unforgivable, and he regularly refers to Auranthe as “mine,” an object to be owned and admired: “Auranthe I have! O, my bride, my love! / …All mine!” (Act III, scene 2, lines 6, 12). The central Lover in Otho, then, is no mere admirer of women, but is truly an obsessive and overbearing suitor. Love, in the preoccupying context of Keats’s Otho the Great, is a kind of problematic domination, contented by control.

When, in his next letter, Keats refers to himself as a “Lover” of fine phrases, he is still in the midst of writing Ludolph’s Tragedy, and likely maintains the maladjusted prince as a fictional template of love’s poisonous potential. If this is the case, Keats has conceded that, at least where language is concerned, he is really just as mad as Ludolph, and recognizes himself—his own love of fine phrases—as being similarly possessive and domineering. For example, in Otho, Keats—ever the chameleon—employs “over forty borrowings from seventeen of Shakespeare’s plays,” taking repeatedly from the Bard in what amounts to a pale imitation of grander tragic and historical dramas (Motion 422). Beyond paying homage to the canonical likes of King Lear and Macbeth, Otho the Great is so thoroughly Shakespearean that to claim the Tragedy as a wholly original work requires a significant degree of authorial gaslighting. In concluding the play with Erminia’s cry to “Take away that dagger” and Ludolph’s dying utterance of “To-morrow,” Keats does not refer or allude to, but rather takes possession of immortal Shakespearean soliloquies: Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” and, “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” Though “borrowing” from Shakespeare, Keats is never satisfied with the poetic polyamory of their shared language and must make these words—so many of the Bard’s fine phrases—his own. 

This kind of possessive repurposing—this affectionate thievery—is so often the case with Keats, who, from turning the Christian vale of tears into a “vale of Soul-making” (21 April, 1819, to the George Keatses) to remaking the nonsense phrase “T wang-dillo-dee” from The Beggar’s Opera into his own term of quasi-philosophical critique (13-28 January 1820, to Georgiana Keats), routinely reshapes that which attracts him into what he truly wants. Interestingly, this dynamic is also present in the 5, 6 August letter to Fanny, as, with playful blaspheming, Keats transforms Christian tradition into a carnal, paganistic exaltation of his beloved. Excited by the unholy potential of his move from Wight to Winchester (“a cathedral City”), Keats tells Fanny, “I shall have a pleasure always a great one to me when near a Cathedral, of reading them during the service up and down the Aisle.” Just before announcing his desire to remain unsettled, Keats likewise borrows from the Anglican liturgy to make his own profanation. Whereas the Book of Common Prayer states, “Beseech thee to hear us, O Lord God,” Keats takes possession of the reverent utterance and twists it to his irreverent liking, rebirthing the saying as a prayer to Venus, pagan embodiment of physical, erotic love: “Beseech thee to hear us O Goddess.”

I am hardly the first to note the complexity of Keats as a lover—of women or language. For instance, in his essay on “Women and Words in Keats (with an Instance from La Belle Dame sans Merci),” author Ronald Tetreault calls attention to much of the same difficulty in Keats’s life and work: 

Keats’s inclination to “look upon fine phrases like a Lover” is the key to a whole system of substitutions in his text which draws a likeness between loving and writing and treats woman as a trope for truth and language. When he wrote as he loved, his text was driven by an insatiable hunger for beauty and truth. That these might serve ends of their own quite apart from the satisfaction of his own desires seems unnerving to Keats; that women might have desires and that words might have powers beyond his control is a prospect he wants to deny because it brings his own power as a man and a poet into question. More than killing the things he loves, he fears being consumed by them. He locates a desire in woman and an energy in the word which threaten to overwhelm his own. Yet when he tries to fix women or words for his own purposes, he finds them slipping away into time. (67)

But it does seem to me as though this complexity should not—in light of reading the letters together and beside Otho the Great—seem surprising. Rather, it feels anticipated, announced, and confirmed. In fact, Keats’s fearful, unsettled notion of love is carried through the 5, 6 August letter to the conclusion of his 14 August letter, and then is picked up—yet again—as a theme in the 16 August letter to Fanny Brawne. Writing to his recently married friend Bailey—now, tragically, one in a pair of “prudent fixtures”—Keats is noticeably awkward and apprehensive in closing his letter: “you have been married and in congra[tu]lating you I wish you every continuance of them—Present my Respects to Mrs Bailey. This sounds oddly to me, and I dare say I do it awkwardly enough: but I suppose by this time it is nothing new to you.” Although Keats delays as long as possible, the subjects of contented love and marriage—of dangerously settled domesticity—must finally be broached (Keats was four months late in wishing the newlyweds well). Tagging on greetings from Brown and a reminder of their address in Winchester, Keats stumbles—flustered—to a hasty farewell. In his next letter, written (once more, “through a Mist”) to Fanny, Keats is no less callous or frightened by the notion of settling, and proceeds, “like so many strokes of a Hammer,” to coldly suffocate Fanny’s hopes for tender, amorous, “proper downright love-letters”: “I can no more use soothing words to you than if I were at this moment engaged in a charge of Cavalry—Then you will say I should not write at all—Should I not?” Though he remains—presumably—an admirer of fine phrases, love, marriage, and “domestic cares” (25 July, 1819, to Fanny Brawne) are such thoroughly terrifying prospects that even the most wonderful language is not enough to dissuade Keats from his avoidance of love and its imprisoning qualities: “I am not happy enough for silken Phrases, and silver sentences.”

Works Cited

Clarke, Charles Cowden and Mary Victoria Novello Clarke. Recollections of Writers. C. Scribner’s sons, 1878.

Motion, Andrew. Keats. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Tetreault, Ronald. “Women and Words in Keats (with an Instance from La Belle Dame sans Merci).” The Mind in Creation: Essays on English Romantic Literature in Honour of Ross G. Woodman, edited by Douglas Kneale, McGill-Queen’s Press, 1992, pp. 58-73.