Illinois Wesleyan University
RE: Keats’s 21-27 September 1819 letter to George and Georgiana Keats
As I detailed in my introduction to this project and in my responses to earlier letters, Otho the Great played a leading role in Keats’s diligent-yet-destitute summer of 1819. Though economically motivated and precariously constructed, from dogcarts to secret marriages, the Tragedy served as dramatic catalyst for much of Keats’s thinking, behavior, and convoluted circumstances in this chaotic, creative time, and the poet’s summer correspondence—from July to September, with scattered mentions in the months thereafter—is littered with references to the ill-fated play. Yet for this preponderance of subliminal, referential, and thematic appearances, the language of Otho—explicitly quoted or otherwise reproduced—is astonishingly absent from the letters. Indeed, it is not until the very end of Keats’s lengthy journal letter to George and Georgiana Keats (17-27 September, 1819) that the freshman playwright quotes directly from his summer’s dramatic work:
Not as a Swordsman would I pardon crave,
But as a Son: the bronz’d Centurion
Long-toil’d in foreign wars, and whose high deeds
Are shaded in a forest of tall spears,
Known only to his troop, hath greater plea
Of favour with my [Sire] than I can have—
The quotation moreover serves—with theatrical finality—as the six-line capstone to a letter in which the issue of leave-taking, the artful performance of a winning goodbye, is recurrently raised. In this entry, I’ll make evident Keats’s concern with leave-taking and then, drawing on other thematic elements from the letter, focus on the quotation itself, arguing that Keats’s attempt at a moving farewell—though loaded with striking imagery, implied themes, underlying desires, and potential wordplay—still concludes the letter in a way that seems awkward for us, and almost certainly was awkward for its original recipients, George and Georgiana, and then for John Jeffrey.
Keats’s letter provides at least three clear examples of successful, performative leave-taking. One involves Charles Brown’s departure for Chichester and Bedhampton—effectively, the conclusion of that pseudo-marital, homo-professional partnership which bred five acts of defective Tragedy: “…he left me,” writes Keats, with discernible melancholic longing. In bidding farewell to a summer love—a temporary and disposable “bride”—Brown, at least according to his partner’s account, made a slurring, stumbling spectacle of himself:
Brown when he left me “Keats! Says he “my good fellow (staggering upon his left heel, and fetching an irregular pirouette with his right) Keats says he (depressing his left eyebrow and elevating his right on ((tho by the way, at the moment, I did not know which was the right one)) Keats says he (still in the same posture but furthermore both his hands in his waistcoat pockets and jutting out his stomach) “Keats—my—go-o-ood fell o-o-o-ooh! says he (interlarding his exclamation with certain ventriloquial parentheses)—
An intoxicatingly animated goodbye, Brown’s purportedly grand exit was—tragically—a farcical one, as Keats guiltily continues: “…no this is all a lie—He was as sober as a Judge when a judge happens to be sober.” From this confession, it remains unclear whether Brown is the liar, his drunkenness staged for a showy adieu, or whether Keats is really the brief scene’s author, having created the tale out of whole cloth for the much-needed entertainment of his brother and sister-in-law. In either case, Keats, as attentive poet/playwright, demonstrates his affinity for the dramatic art of leave-taking. If, in fact, the skit was Brown’s, Keats evidently admired the gesture, as he meticulously recorded its every irregular pirouette and ventriloquial parenthesis. If, on the other hand, Keats served as the exit’s singular dramaturg and choreographer, then his letter is evidence of experimentation with the flamboyant farewell as theatrical device.
Less ambiguously featured in another of the letter’s leave-taking episodes, Brown is also at the center of a similarly comic departure from C.W. Dilke’s—an amusing incident this time driven by Dilke’s chiding cries. At that mutual friend’s house in Westminster, Keats reports, Brown attended dinner with “some old people,” including “two old women” who “had known him [Brown] from a Child.” These previously acquainted elders were evidently enamored with Charles, as Keats explains, “Brown is very pleasant with old women, and on that day, it seems, behaved himself so winningly…they became hand and glove together and a little complimentary. Brown was obliged to depart early. He bid them good bye and pass’d into the passage—no sooner was his back turn’d than the old women began lauding him.” With this unassuming exit evidently complete, Dilke giddily heightened the moment’s humorous theatricality, “threw up the Window and call’d ‘Brown! Brown! They say you look younger than ever you did!’” Not content with a single comedic outburst, Dilke proceeded to the adjoining wall, followed Brown’s path around “the corner of Great Smith Street,” and “appeared at the back window crying “Brown! Brown! By God, they say you’re handsome!”” Apparently awestruck by the whole affair, Keats took diligent note of the story and could not help but recount the entire exquisitely acted scene to his misfortunate family in “the american world.” Again, Keats is captivated in his letter by an exceptional ending, thrilled by the dramatic art of leave-taking and all its potential to entertain.
Still more charming, the September letter to George and Georgiana additionally describes an episode in which J.H. Reynolds, hounded by the awkwardness of a deferred farewell, overcame his “predicament” with all the commendable, performative grace of a seasoned mimic. No stranger to the endearing powers of theatrical mimicry, Reynolds was in fact an accomplished—and (presumably) profiting—playwright, having recently “brought out a little piece at the Lyceum.” A one-act musical comedy, One, Two, Three, Four, Five; by Advertisement, Reynolds’s “little piece,” follows the crafty efforts of one Harry Alias, who yearns to marry his beloved Sophy Coupleton. As Sophy’s father, Old Coupleton, has just placed an advertisement in search of suitors, Harry resolves to make himself comparatively marriage-worthy by impersonating a litany of atrocious would-be husbands: a simple premise which serves—primarily—to showcase the mimicking abilities of the play’s young star, John Reeve. While Keats, “being out of Town the whole time it was in progress,” was unable to witness firsthand the comedy’s “complete success,” he, like Reynolds, was undoubtedly familiar with the popularity of such impressionists on the London “stage…loaded with mimics.” Reynolds, for his part, put this familiarity to use in flawlessly delivering what, as Keats describes, “was the best thing he ever said”:
You know at taking leave of a party at a door way, sometimes a Man dallies and foolishes and gets awkward, and does not know how to make off to advantage—Good bye—well—good-bye—and yet he does not—go—good bye and so on—well—good bless you—You know what I mean. Now Reynolds was in this predicament and got out of it in a very witty way. He was leaving us at Hampstead. He delay’d, and we were joking at him and even said, ‘be off’—at…which he put the tails of his coat between his legs, and sneak’d off as nigh like a spanial as could be. He went with flying colours: this is very clever—
Doggedly dallying through a too-long and ill-timed exit—that common scenario which Keats rightly acknowledges as “awkward”—Reynolds unexpectedly employed his skills as a mimic, his knowledge of the mimicking and leave-taking arts. Outshining even those memorable performances by Dilke and Brown, Reynolds’s theatrics, even after so many days, constitute a story that Keats “must tell.” This journal-letter testament, as well as the howling laughter which presumably followed Reynolds’s display, proves the effectiveness of that performative power which so thoroughly captivates Keats: the capacity of a well-executed goodbye to impress and delight an audience.
Given Keats’s evident fascination with laudable leave-taking, then, one has to ask: what kind of goodbye is achieved in the closing quotation from Otho? Curiously, while the close of his protracted journal letter seems a fine and privileged position, Keats chooses for this place of leave-taking honor a passage that is, on its surface, relatively unassuming and strangely forgettable. Occupying lines 24-29 of Act I, scene three, the excerpt is far removed from Otho’s Tragic end—from the hectic onslaught of guilt ridden-suicide and melodramtic demise, and from Ludolph’s unmistakably Macbethian whisper of “To-morrow.” As Keats essentially conceived of this fifth and final act on his own, one might reasonably expect the headstrong poet to quote from the play’s most Keatsian scenes. Spoken by the play’s princely, traitorous protagonist, the selected lines are instead torn from the middle of a dialogue with Sigifred, an officer and friend of the royal turncoat; they don’t close an act, or even a scene. Rather, the explicative passage is unassumingly placed, serving—somewhat clumsily—as stated justification for Ludolph’s undisguised appearance before the Emperor, his father, in the wake of a failed rebellion. What reason, then, does Keats have to include these lines in his letter? What effect do they have as a finale, as an instance of performative leave-taking? Do they constitute, in the spirit of Reynolds or Brown, a winning end? Or is something else—something deeper, though perhaps less whimsical—at play in these half dozen lines of Tragedy?
Certainly, after the labored reconstruction of so many memorable farewells (“You see,” Keats remarks to George and Georgiana, after recounting Brown’s heckled exit from Dilke’s, “what a many words it requires to give any identity to a thing I could have told you in half a minute.”), the poet must have been acutely conscious of his letter’s inevitable end, and presumably felt the quotation a clever and/or poignant means of taking his epistolary leave. With evident faith in the six-line excerpt, Keats is, it seems, especially proud of that underlined phrasing—his martial image of a proud Centurion, emphasized by italics in Rollins’s transcript, “whose high deeds / Are shaded in a forest of tall spears, / Known only to his troop.” Although this lethal thicket offers a somewhat striking vision, given Keats’s poetic prowess—including the stunning language of that same year’s romances and immortal odes—the conjuring of “tall spears” is hardly an exceptional or unprecedented accomplishment. Rather, Keats’s authorial pride—his particular (and arguably peculiar) selection of lines—may relate to the same letter’s commendation of “Pun-making,” which, the poet laments, is a sadly unprofitable venture: “As for Pun-making I wish it was as good a trade as pin-making—there is very little business of that sort going on now…. I wish one could get change for a pun in silver currency.” Despite the regrettably low returns of such witty wordplay, that proud Centurion’s trustworthy “troop,” may in truth double as the Tragedy’s imagined, review-crushing troupe. After all, Keats still clings in his letter to misplaced hope of a profitable staging for Otho, and precedes the quotation with optimistic anticipation of actor Edmund Kean’s return to London: “The report runs now more in favor of Kean stopping in England. If he smokes the hotblooded character of Ludolph—and he is the only actor that can do it—He will add to his own fame, and improve my fortune.” While Keats identifies with the mortally lovelorn Ludolph, Kean, with all the versatile personality of an accomplished actor, might choose to embody that prince’s imagined, more favorable officer. If—and only if—Kean should lead, like “the bronz’d Centurion,” a cast of West End players—a stalwart troupe—Keats’s misfortunes could be mercifully alleviated. Situationally subordinate to this fantasized knight and his troops/troupe, Keats is, like Ludolph before his imperial “Sire,” second to another, preferable man, whose favorability could resolve a mounting Tragedy.
Still, such dubious pun-making is hardly the leave-taking limit of the half-dozen lines’ potential for dramatic effect. Given the Keatses’ taxing parental deficit—their father’s untimely fall from horseback, which, through various convoluted means, still burdened the siblings via a “threatened chancery suit” (23 August, 1819, to John Taylor) and strained dealings with Richard Abbey—the quoted passage’s theme of sons and sires is striking, even if unintentional. In the context of Otho, Ludolph’s argumentative deployment of a “bronz’d Centurion” implies that an imagined, anonymous officer would have greater standing with his (abundantly forgiving) father than himself—a befuddling notion of father-son relations which may stem from Keats’s own lifelong lack of paternal affection. In addition, throughout the September letter, Keats returns to the settling complexities of fatherhood: from Joseph Severn’s uncertain siring of “a little Baby,” to Dilke’s relentless fretting over his son. With regard to this latter case, Keats references Dilke’s earlier reporting on the child, “so much oppress’d at Westminster,” and dismissively writes of the ongoing crisis, “Dilke is entirely swallowed up in his boy: ‘t is really lamentable to what a pitch he carries a sort of parental mania…. I suppose I told you some where that he lives in Westminster, and his boy goes to the School there. where he gets beaten, and every bruise he has and I dare say deserves is very bitter to Dilke.”
Rudely disregarding these youthful troubles (Keats was, after all, a notorious schoolyard brawler), Keats’s heartlessly unsympathetic attitude toward the beaten and bullied boy may be contrasted with his anecdote about next-door neighbors: a pair of children and their parents, “an old Mjor [Major] and his youngish wife.” After laying out, in dramaturgical manner, the “dramatis Personae” and setting for his story, Keats details the confusion which followed an anonymous rapping at his door—a kind of playful “knock-knock ditching”—and he ends the domestic whodunnit thusly: “…I have discovered that a little girl in the house was the Rappee—I assure you she has nearly make me sneeze. If the Lady tells tits I shall put a very grave and moral face on the matter with the old Gentleman, and make his little Boy a present of a humming top.” While his opinion of the Major’s daughter remains somewhat sour, Keats’s promise of a gift for her brother conflicts with that stern approach to parenting advocated in his judgemental discussion of Dilke. George, too, was a new father, and John, near the end of his letter, relishes the “Idea of Proximity” to his “little niece” in America. Abandoning that earlier espousal of the need for cold, unattentive parenting, he asks—sweetly—of George and Georgiana, that wedded paradigm of settling “domestic cares” (25 July, 1819, to Fanny Brawne), “Kiss her for me.” As with (what I argue is) the complexly significant quotation from Otho, the larger September letter reveals Keats’s conception of a proper upbringing as transitive and confused; it lacks a firsthand framework or replicable real-world model, as George certainly would have known. In appealing to the issue of fatherhood, then, Keats’s choice of concluding quotation reflects certain broader, disoriented concerns and, keeping the intended audience in mind, resonantly calls upon a shared familial history with George.
Whether such a resonant reading of the letter was even possible for the recently emigrated Keatses remains doubtful, however. Amid the multifarious journal entries which comprise this letter, Keats acknowledges his wandering, unanchored writing style, and suggests that George and Georgiana consider the days-long epistolary project in its entirety: “If I say nothing decisive in anyone particular part of my Letter. you may glean the truth from the whole pretty correctly.” Yet to conclude—so definitively—the letter with “a half dozen lines…as a specimen” of Otho seems to undermine the lenient suggestion of surface-level reading. Inevitably, the excerpt, with its paramount leave-taking status, demands to be considered as an overarching frame—a reflective climactic or epilogical passage, from which the letter’s true intentions and meanings may be gleaned. When George and Georgiana received this dense piece of diaristic correspondence, neither had read Otho, and would hardly have known the intricate relations or machinations which define its convoluted plot. Devoid of all context, the quotation can hardly be said to speak for itself, and, aside from its evidently impressive imagery and potentially instructive pun, there is little to be said for the passage’s literary value. And without sufficient foreknowledge of Ludolph and Otho’s violently strained relationship—the years of alienation and the thwarted rebellion which precede the occasion of Ludolph’s quoted utterance—George likely failed to surmise the excerpt’s connection to a central, preoccupying theme of fathers and sons. What exactly is the couple reading, then? What possible message could George and Georgiana take from such an uncontextualized fragment of unimpressive Tragedy? In truth, Keats, their “anxious and affectionate Brother,” regardless of any governing fascination with the dramatic act of leave-taking, seemingly underperformed—appears to have clumsily missed the mark—in constructing his goodbye. A near-certain flop with George and Georgiana, Keats’s ideally familiar and forgiving audience, the letter’s concluding lines are outshined by more accessible performances, by the “clever” mimicry of an amateur’s spaniel impression.
Far more upsetting than the Keatses’ probable misreading or John’s botched attempt at inspired leave-taking, however, is the real conclusion of those diligent “dog-cart” labors and financial worries which bred Otho in the summer of 1819. Although the September letter is not the definitive end of Otho in Keats’s correspondence, this letter does mark the end of Keats’s creative engagement with the play; beyond the relative hopefulness of these collected journal entries, the Tragedy becomes a matter of business. By the time the warm days had finally ceased and given way to that season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Drury Lane and Covent Garden had both definitively refused to stage Otho. Edmund Kean never took the role of Ludolph, and, without a worthy troupe or consenting theater, the Tragedy was doomed to wallow—unperformed, unconsummated—in futilely penned manuscript.
Ensuring the perpetuation of this unfortunate state, John Jeffrey’s transcript of the September letter to George and Georgiana—for decades, the principle, accessible version of this massive and multifaceted letter—radically reconstructs and reorganizes Keats’s original. Though he was a woefully undisciplined, unscholarly transcriber of the poet’s actual words, Keatsians admittedly owe an unpayable debt to Jeffrey (Georgiana’s husband after George’s death in 1841) for his prescient recognition of the letters’ historical and literary value. Still, in the first volume of The Letters of John Keats, Rollins uses the September letter as a particularly egregious example of Jeffrey’s shortcomings as an amanuensis. Whereas the corrected transcription in Rollins’s second volume spans over thirty printed pages, Jeffrey reduces it to about two-and-a-half, omitting whole pages, paragraphs, and poems. Perhaps for the sake of protecting Georgiana, Jeffrey also extends Keats’s theme of willful, performative optimism by eliminating anything which might reflect poorly on the poet and noticeably lightening the letter’s mood. For instance, Keats’s suggestion that Dilke’s tormented son actually “deserves” his mistreatment is removed from the transcription of that same passage, while necessary talk of faltering finances is noticeably trimmed. Most incredibly, Otho the Great is completely absent from Jeffrey’s version of the letter. There is no talk of Kean or Covent Garden, no misplaced hope in the Tragedy’s profitability, and—astoundingly—no six-line quotation. Whether these omissions are attributable to laziness, concern for Georgiana’s delicate sensibilities, or a desire to whitewash Keats’s legacy (Otho, after all, represents a singularly disastrous endeavor in the midst of an otherwise breathtaking career), Jeffrey’s outright dismissal of the Tragedy saturates—naturally—those numerous explorations of Keats’s biography and epistolary practice which have readily disregarded the play as unimportant or undeserving of serious attention. Jeffrey’s initial careless—perhaps even contemptuous—treatment of the “Tragedy in 5 Acts” has been echoed in longstanding popular neglect of Otho the Great. Even with access to greater, more reliable transcriptions, the place of Otho in Keats’s letters has—until now—remained virtually unstudied, and therefore unrecognized for what it is: one of the many “awkward bow[s]” Keats will acknowledge having taken in his final extant letter.