This Week in Keats, Episode 5: ‘When once a man delays a letter’

This Week in Keats
Brian Rejack (Illinois State University) and Michael Theune (Illinois Wesleyan University)

Re: Keats’s 14 Feb 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats

For the latest episode of This Week in Keats, Brian and Mike discuss the etiquette of writing a late reply (something no KLP editor would ever do!), Keats’s playful acknowledgement of his burgeoning fame (“in the west country”), cultural attitudes toward Methodism circa 1818, and an intriguing story about a Keats manuscript and Oscar Wilde.

Letter #53: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 14 (?) February 1818

Happy Valentine’s Day, Keats fans! The only valentine we know Keats sent was one to his brothers, still wintering out in Teignmouth. Of course, we don’t actually know what day Keats sent this letter, only that he probably began writing it on 14 February. Yes, this is another John Jeffrey transcript, so the usual caveats apply: surely there are some mistakes in the act of transcription, and most likely there are significant excisions. Jeffrey himself dated it 16 February, so perhaps it was sent and postmarked on that date (but then again, Jeffrey is wildly unreliable when it comes to dates). In any case, given that early in the letter Keats mentions being “half afraid [the printers] will let half the season by before” they start printing Endymion, and then notes towards the end, “I saw a sheet of Endymion & have all reason to suppose they will soon get it done,” it’s reasonable to assume some time passed in the interval between writing those two sentences. Then again, maybe Keats’s fears were simply misplaced and he was disabused of his worry not long after he expressed it in writing. With Jeffrey it all comes down to this: We. Just. Don’t. Know. Curse you, Jeffrey, for forcing us to remain content in half knowledge!

Images of Jeffrey’s transcript are included below. (Notice the letter is begun below Jeffrey’s transcript of the negative capability passage–we can’t escape it!) He also transcribed some extracts from Horace Smith’s poem,”Nehemiah Muggs–an Exposure of the Methodists,” which Keats sent along with the letter to his brothers. For the text of the letter (but not the poem), head over to Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition of the letters.

For our response to today’s letter, we have a special valentine from Brian Rejack and Michael Theune: that’s right, it’s a new episode of This Week in Keats! Today’s installment includes ruminations on the etiquette of slow (e)mail response, a foray into attitudes toward Methodism circa 1818, and a story of one poem’s afterlife involving Oscar Wilde. Enjoy!

Page 1 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 14 Feb 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 2 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 14 Feb 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Extracts from Horace Smith’s poem “Nehemiah Muggs–An Exposure of the Methodists,” included in Keats’s 14 Feb 1818 letter to this brothers. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Extracts from Horace Smith’s poem “Nehemiah Muggs–An Exposure of the Methodists,” included in Keats’s 14 Feb 1818 letter to this brothers. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Letter #52: To John Taylor, 5 February 1818

Keats continues his work on copying Endymion and delivering it book by book to Taylor and the printers. Today we see him apologizing to Taylor for delaying a bit with Book II. The cause is that, although he’s finished copying it, he wants another day to look it over again, and he’s busy this day with “the affair of Cripps.” Cripps refers to Charles Cripps, a student at Oxford and friend of Benjamin Bailey, for whom Keats had served as an intermediary with Benjamin Haydon. Haydon asked back in October 1817 if Keats would suss out Cripps to see if Haydon ought to take him on as a student. What Keats refers to here is likely his efforts to raise some money from among his circle to help Cripps pay for his study with Haydon.

Not much else of significance to note here, which means it’s time to delve into the realm of insignificance! Yes, it’s time to discuss Keats’s penmanship. Take a look at the word below and see if you can figure out what it is.

Hieppap? Come on, Keats! Help us out!

If you guessed “tresspass,” then you’d be correct! And yes, that extra s is necessary. You might alternatively want to transcribe the word as “trespas,” and your impulse would be a good one. But that long vertical stroke preceding the cursive s is how Keats typically writes out a double s. It looks an awful lot like his p, right? Why, you ask, does the KLP know about this fact, let alone care about it? Well, we just so happen to be stuck in an airport trying to make it through a 3+ hour delay, and what else would you have us do but look at Keats’s handwriting?? Ok, we confess, it’s actually because one of the KLP co-editors, Brian Rejack (who may or may not be the one of the editorial We currently stuck in said airport), has written about Keats’s orthography with respect to negative capability. He’s suggested that one possible mistake John Jeffrey may have made in transcribing the word has to do with the uncanny similarity between how Keats writes p and ss. It’d be really nice if cassability were a word… Anyway, if you ever do work with Keats’s handwriting, now you know to be on the lookout for the p and ss uncanny valley. Otherwise you might end up wondering what “hieppap” means.

You can read today’s letter from Forman’s 1895 edition, although he was working from Woodhouse’s transcript (which you can tell because he has “2nd” instead of “second,” which is what Keats has in the MS. You can see the image of Keats’s letter below.

Page 1 of Keats’s 5 February 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.21). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

The address and postmarks from Keats’s 5 February 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.21). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

American Grandeur

Seth Abramson
University of New Hampshire

RE: Keats’s 3 February 1818 letter to Reynolds

In the nineteenth century, literary America contended with a number of entrenched dilemmas that lasted the century, among them the question of how to canonize American literature and how to dynamically educate younger writers aspiring to one day enter the canon. Both these stateside quandaries—so central to the evolution of American letters—were forecast by John Keats in a letter dated February 3, 1818.

In the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, the “poetry anthology wars” saw American poets striving to extricate themselves from their British inheritance and forge an identity uniquely theirs. For starters, this meant weening American secondary schools and universities off the anthologies of British literature they’d been teaching for years, replacing these with anthologies of American authors often long on names and short (some prominent scholars felt) on literary merit. When the “Fireside Poets” came up with an ingenious solution for nineteenth-century anthologists’ quality-control problem—they became anthologists themselves, anthologizing primarily their own poetry and that of their friends—at least two generations of late-nineteenth century poetry textbooks were born.

The Fireside Poets (Emerson, Longfellow, Bryant, Whittier, Lowell, and Holmes) were so called because their poetry explored largely “domestic” themes. At the time, “domestic” connoted not so much the affairs of a homestead as the inchoate contours of the self, whether at home or otherwise. Thus aspiring poets attending university in the last three decades of the nineteenth century found themselves reading, re-reading, analyzing, and extemporaneously speaking on literary art whose obvious focus was the improvement of the spirit. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that, by the 1880s, certain university figures, indeed not just blocs of students but their professors, too, had begun to rebel.

Harvard professor Barrett Wendell (1855-1921) should be regarded as the father (or perhaps grandfather) of two disciplines: composition studies and creative writing. In the 1880s, his advanced composition courses bucked the then-extant American literary canon by allowing students to write “imaginatively” and to spend as much time in class discussing one another’s work as the work of long-lionized American savants. In fact, Wendell’s classroom—which in short order, once he’d instituted these rebellious pedagogies, became among the most popular on campus—featured writing praxes that look very much like the creative writing workshops of today. One key difference, however, was that unlike the workshops of the present century, Wendell’s urged students to become “citizens of the world” by making their work responsive to major themes in American civics and by writing of places and people that had not habitually been the subject of American authors’ ruminations. Wendell’s was an extroverted ideology that overturned prescriptions for writing, canonization, and civic duty alike.

In writing his friend, English poet and critic John Hamilton Reynolds, on February 3, 1818, Keats chose to muse on how poets might, like “ethereal Pigs,” venture forth into the world seeking “spiritual Mast and Acorns” rather than subsisting on nostalgia (or yearning) for a domesticated heart. He urged Reynolds to cut the words “tender and true” from a recent poem, noting in such a saccharine sentiment a dangerous rapprochement with the Baroque: “[W]here there are a throng of delightful Images ready drawn,” he warns Reynolds, “simplicity is the only thing.” A contemporary poet peering over Keats’ shoulder might well wonder, on what basis did Keats distinguish between “spiritual Mast” and the “tender and true”? Might not the “airy pigs” Keats urges poets to be profitably locate tenderness and truth outside their self-contained spheres of interest? I think yes—as I think Keats is on about process, here, rather than destination. The hard-won tenderness and truth we find in our civil (or not-so-civil) discourse is categorically not the same tenderness and truth we might already be able to divine, but perhaps too easily, in our still-untested selves.

In making his argument, Keats affixed himself to an easy target: Wordsworth. Keats admires his peer’s “imaginative” and “domestic” passages, but not the egotistical philosophies a fixation on the domestic—or one’s unaided imagination—might invoke. The danger Keats apprehended in 1818 is still with us today; how much of contemporary literary debate begs the question of whether and when it’s acceptable for a poet to turn personal “speculations” into something one “broods and peacocks over”? In an American political moment when the ordinarily political act of poetry-writing feels ever more contingent and ever more tangential to real-time political outcomes, ought poets not be afraid they will, as Keats warned, “make a false coinage” of their esoteric speculations and thereby “deceive themselves” into a sad facsimile of relevance? And is there not an equal danger that our speculations on the vagaries of the human spirit will quickly turn to moralizing, in the form of poems that “have a palpable design upon us, and, if we do not agree, seem to put their hands into their pockets”? My own sense is that in 2018, as in 1818, the Scylla and Charybdis of the poet is a poem too enamored of its own inward gaze and then, across a broad strait, another poem that gazes creepily at its readers, smirking condescendingly. How to write something rooted in want but not tethered to self-interest? How to arrest the reader completely, but without the odiously conspicuous manipulations we call “mere artifice”?

Keats again offers us, in reply, the poet as “airy pig”—a flying squirrel-like figure cast out from its tree on an adventure whose domestic origin-point is tacit and whose halts and advances are both “great and unobtrusive.” In common parlance, we’d say that Keats asks of poets that they be minimally self-conscious “content creators” whose subjects inherently interest readers rather than implicitly demanding, with haughty poetic artifice, that readers develop an interest in them. The poem Keats imagines is not one that seems to “startle or amaze the soul” with the fact of its “poemness” but the quality of its observation of social, political, and moral spheres we all jointly inhabit. Preferable is the “retired flower,” Keats advises Reynolds, to the one beside the highway crying out, “Admire me! Dote upon me!” The former lies not just where we live but where we do, finally, meet one another; the latter has designs on being stored away for a greedy and private consumption.

It is too easy to call this letter a jeremiad against prettiness, or, more broadly, domesticity in the sense that term was understood in poetry in the nineteenth century. Rather, I think Keats encourages poets to compose work whose discoveries poet and reader arrive at simultaneously. There should, in the Keatsian poem idealized here, be less a cataloging (or worse, sanitizing and safeguarding) of one’s immediate spiritual environs than—well—a desire to be a citizen of the world, and to engage with topics of such civic moment they operate equally upon the close and distant, the author and audience, the poet and the farmer or banker. Wendell, for his part, would agree, and so would the students whose idiosyncratic imaginations he turned loose on the world rather than bending them ever more inward toward a rigid canon of moral prescriptions. Perhaps Wendell would likewise have agreed with Keats that there is no reason for poetry’s more studied artifices to “tease [us] with grandeur and merit when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive [in the world].” Keats even invokes Robin Hood and his merry band, perpetually wandering and filled with wonder, as a blueprint for the poet-citizen of his imagination. It puts one in mind of the several decades at the end of the nineteenth century in which the Fireside Poets studiously kept that great Robin Hood of American verse, Whitman, out of the canon.

I might be smitten with Keats’ vision were I not aware that, in 2018, we enjoy an unprecedented opportunity for those whose stories have heretofore been erased, told by oppressors, or left at the margins to make central what was once suppressed. It is no one’s place to say to the poet of color or the woman poet, to the transgender poet or the gay or lesbian poet, to the poet processing trauma in situ or the poet for the first time finding an unyielding voice of resistance and defiance, that their earnest and hard-won speculations on the mysteries of the self, so long discouraged or discounted, are self-indulgent. In fact, it is white men like Keats whose prescriptions would today seem to us self-indulgent, the product of a time when literacy was still largely for the white, male, and landed. At the time he wrote Reynolds, Keats’ complaint bespoke a generous rebelliousness within his social and professional class; today, the same words might well strike us as boorish and coercive.

Keats also wrote Reynolds during one of his nation’s brief respites from war, so it may have seemed natural to him to think, in 1818, that there was plenty of time for intermittently engaged citizen-adventurers to litter the literary landscape of his homeland. In 2018, sporadic political mischief, ensconced in the carefree life of a vagabond, just won’t do. That ethos is every bit the indulgence of Wordsworth lounging beneath a bough and dreaming of “Old Matthew.” To be merely an observant “citizen of the world,” as Wendell put it, or like the eternally wandering Esau, as Keats did in his letter to Reynolds, falls short of what America wants today: a defender of the lawful and good world a nation’s citizens (and, too, countless noncitizens) have built. Brave and persistent engagement is what America wants from its poets—but in saying so we must indulge the possibility, too, that America doesn’t ask that that engagement come in the form of a poem.

More than sixty years before Wendell challenged the American canon with his primordial creative writing workshops, Keats anticipated the dangers of a certain sort of complacency which, I’d argue, we find in the very fact of “canon” itself as well as the breed of “domesticity” that won itself canonization in the late nineteenth century. What he could not anticipate were the dangers poetry itself would face—both the art and its practitioners—two hundred years hence. But I nevertheless find in his February 3 letter some guidance for poetry and poets today, and perhaps where I least expected it: his likely tongue-in-cheek rendering of the poet as “airy pig” or flying “squirrel,” that is, one who leaves the safety and comfort of home on a purposeful rather than contented adventure. In 1818, the spiritual nourishment such a poet might seek was, well, whatever it was—without being a better historian than I am, I’m certain I can’t properly reconstruct it. But I do know that today, in these dark hours of American history, sufficient nourishment for the poet’s soul is not—or not necessarily—to be found in any poem, whatever its provenance or artifice or “unobtrusive grandeur.” Wendell taught his students to be citizens first and writers second, expecting, one imagines, that the trials of fully inhabiting the first role inexorably alter the potentialities of engaging the second. Just so, what Keats warned Reynolds of was putting poetry before the world—which in a contemporary context means putting poetry before the responsibilities of citizenship or (as applicable) one’s commitment to the rights of a “citizenry” broadly defined.

I wrote several years ago that poetry is in the midst of a Golden Age, and thereafter wrote a book of poetry by the same name. In neither case did I mean to say that this is a Golden Age of poems—history will decide that—but rather a Golden Age for those with the intuition, nerves, and bountiful ingenuity of poets, and a Golden Age for the communities that people of this sort have the power to create (and yes, too, for the initiatives their communities can support) should the polis and citizenship be placed ahead of any one person or his private “speculations.” I don’t at all believe poems to be the necessary byproduct of any of this; I do, however, see a dynamic pedagogy—a dynamic poetry-writing pedagogy—as the fount from which what poets must do off the page in today’s America can spring. We must learn poetry to exceed it, I think, and to me that’s the message Keats sent to Reynolds in 1818, and that Barrett Wendell sent his students at Harvard in 1888, and that America itself now sends to its poets, whoever they are or ever hope to be, in 2018.

Seth Abramson is a poet, professor, attorney, and political commentator. Read more about him here.

Letter #51: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 February 1818

A remarkable treat for you today: one of the KLP’s favorite letters of 1818, maybe even top 10 all-time! It’s another letter to Reynolds, following up on one just a few days ago. And as with that one, today Keats shares some poems with his fellow poet friend. But before the poems we encounter Keats’s response to two sonnets Reynolds had sent to him. The metaphor he uses to describe reading them leads into one of the more hilariously weird moments in the correspondence, which we extract for your enjoyment here:

I thank you for your dish of Filberts–Would I could get a basket of them by way of desert every day for the sum of two pence. Would we were a sort of etherial Pigs, & turn’d loose to feed upon spiritual Mast & Acorns–which would be merely being a squirrel & feed upon filberts for what is a squirrel but an airy pig, or a filbert but a sort of archangelical acorn.

As Keats often does so well, he pivots from this charming bit of whimsy to serious contemplation about the significance of poetry. (Perhaps we should just say the silly and the whimsical are often very serious for Keats.) This line of thinking takes Keats to Wordsworth and the problems of “poetry that has a palpable design upon us.” It’s a remarkable moment in which Keats forcefully articulates his notion of how poetry should work and what it should do. And it continues his distancing of himself from Wordsworth, from Hunt, and from other modern writers (Keats takes a jab at Byron a bit later in the letter).

Our response to today’s letter comes from Seth Abramson, who situates Keats’s thinking on the role of poetry by looking forward to how similar debates have played out, especially in the American context, over the last two hundred years. It’s an essay you won’t want to miss. Abramson gives a tour de force reading of the letter while also raising the crucial question of how poetry and poets can and should operate in the world of 2018. He claims that Keats arrives in this letter at something like the realization that “We must learn poetry to exceed it.” The KLP is pleased to play even one small part in that educational process by putting Keats and his work in conversation with writers and thinkers like Abramson, alongside the rest of us still trying to make sense of the world two hundred years on.

For the text of the letter, head over to the 1895 Harry Buxton Forman edition, or check out the images of the Richard Woodhouse transcripts below.

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 3 Feb 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 3 Feb 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 3 Feb 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #50: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 31 January 1818

One thing that the letters from the last week or so of January 1818 suggest to us is just how many of Keats’s letters have been lost. We’re fortunate to have as many as we do, but even so, there are lots of hints (and some hard facts) that point toward letters that remain unknown to us. That is, we know about many letters that we don’t actually have in the cultural record. Yes, there’s always the vain hope that new ones will continue to crop up, but we’re on a 20+ year drought now! Come on, universe, send us some more lost Keats letters!

We saw back on 23 January that Keats wrote four letters, and, remarkably, all four still exist (even though one just in transcript form). Well here on 31 January 1818 Keats tells Reynolds that “I have parcelld out this day for Letter Writing.” And yet this letter to Reynolds is the only one still extant. What might have been the others? Keats ends this letter by writing, “I must take a turn, and then write to Teignmouth.” Presumably Keats did return to his task of letter writing after his walk, but alas, no letter to his brothers (then staying at Teignmouth) from this date exists.

Perhaps at this point you’re thinking, “but hold on a sec, KLP–what about that letter to George and Tom from yesterday? Maybe that’s the 31 January lost letter and it was just misdated?” Well, we’re glad that you’re paying attention, and it’s not a bad guess. Here’s the problem: that recently discovered letter has a postmark of 30 January. The Royal Mail doesn’t mess around. “But, KLP, I have another idea: maybe the Reynolds letter is misdated. It’s a transcript, right? Maybe Woodhouse got that one wrong. Yeah!” Well, gentle reader, we’re again very pleased at your attentiveness. But this solution doesn’t pass the smell test either. Yes, today’s letter is from a Woodhouse transcript, but he’s a pretty reliable copyist, and when he includes dates, he tends to get them correct. The other problem is that Keats notes “Hampstead Saturday” at the beginning of the letter. On his 30 January letter to Taylor Keats began with “Friday,” and even though he’s not all that good with dates and days, it seems unlikely that he would have written “Friday” on one of his letters and then that same day written “Saturday” on another. The more exciting conclusion: Keats wrote to his brothers on both the 30th and the 31st! The latter letter could still show up some day…

But for now we have just one for today. Much of this letter to Reynolds is devoted to sharing poetry with his friend, a practice that will continue in the next few weeks (get ready for “airy pigs” and “archangelical acorns” on 3 February!). Here we encounter Keats’s lyrics “O blush not so,” “Hence Burgundy, Claret & port” (sorry, Keats–but we prefer claret to sunshine, especially in this wintry season), “God of the Meridian” (sometimes consider a second stanza of “Hence Burgundy”), and then finally he copies his “last sonnet.” It’s this last text that’s the most famous of the group: “When I have fears that I may cease to be.”

And with that we’ll leave you to Keats’s poems amid his bits of prose. As mentioned above, we have the letter only in transcript form, which we include below.

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 31 January 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 31 January 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 31 January 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Keats’s Gelding

Arden Hegele
Columbia University

Re: Keats’s 30 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats

This is a recently discovered letter, exciting both for its newly articulated place within Keats’s manuscript archive and for its literary-historical value as it documents the poet’s vacillating emotions on the cusp of the publication of Endymion. The manuscript was found in 1995 in Louisville, Kentucky in the private collection of a family once acquainted with George Keats’s daughter Emma Keats Speed. Sold to a private collector for $70,000, the letter has since been republished with editorial commentary in Romantic Circles by Lewis Dearing (1998) and in Selected Letters by John Keats by John Barnard (Penguin, 2014). But while the text is a recent inclusion in Keats’s opus, the contents of the manuscript have been known anecdotally to the poet’s followers since the nineteenth century: Edward F. Madden saw the letter in Louisville and quoted from it in an 1877 article on Keats (361), while H. E. Rollins mentions this text as “lost” in The Letters of John Keats (Harvard, 1958) (I, 225n). Including this letter in Keats’s epistolary archive, then, satisfyingly resolves a century-long mystery about the poet’s vacillating state of mind as he revised Endymion for publication.

As the letter opens, Keats is revealed in a moment of vulnerability and self-criticism as he anticipates the reception of his first long poem, “which is I think going to the Press today.” The poet’s erstwhile ambitions of producing a quarto edition of Endymion and including Benjamin Robert Haydon’s chalk drawing of himself in the overleaf have been abandoned. “On looking attentively through it,” his publisher John Taylor “changed his mind,” preferring a cheaper octavo volume without the poet’s image, though Keats assures his disappointed brothers that “Haydon will take my Likeness all the same.” As ever, Keats is demoralized by money troubles—the £5 he encloses for his brothers should properly, he says, go to Charles Brown—and the publication of Endymion promises only the faint hope of pecuniary relief. “I am convinced now that my Poem will not sell,” he writes, but since others urge him to “hope,” he promises to “wait about three Months before I make my determination—either to get some employment at Home or abroad or to retire to a very cheap way of living in the Country.”

Keats’s lack of faith in Endymion’s financial prospects emerges out of the grueling project he undertook during most of January 1818 (Roe 206): correcting—or, as he says here, “gelding”—the poem before it went to press. Keats’s rhetorical choice here is perhaps the most striking thing about the letter, in its suggestion of the surgical removal of Endymion’s generative parts. (In fact, the poet’s reference to gelding is so unusual that all modern criticism of the letter engages strictly with this passage.) But does “geld” call back to the term’s Spenserian definition, “to mutilate a book […] by excising certain portions, especially objectionable or obscene passages,” as Lewis Dearing maintains (n7)? Or do we think, with Richard Marggraf Turley, that Keats wants us to consider the more familiar meaning of gelding, “to deprive (a male) of generative power or virility, to castrate or emasculate,” and that in its usage the poet calls up the “castration anxieties flickering beneath the surface of Endymion” (17)? Both significances of this charged term offer new insight into the poetry that Keats is producing at this moment—the register of Elizabethan retrospect and archaism inspires the first dated draft of “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern” enclosed in this letter, while motifs of sexual curtailment and “cold retreat” animate Endymion in its published form (Turley 19).


There is a third way of looking at Keats’s gelding: for its surgical valence, which attests to the lingering effects of his medical training on his literary practice. Anatomical dissection is a common trope of Romantic interpretive activity: consider the young Wordsworth taking the knife in hand and probing to the heart of the living body of society. But by enacting an anatomical intervention upon his own verse, Keats develops here an extraordinary register of editing as a violent form of self-surgery. The emasculatory significance of gelding reveals the poet’s ambivalence towards the procedure: this manuscript-mangling might be necessary to assure the survival of Endymion (at least, Keats’s friends thought so), but it also robs it of its most creative parts. In fact, Keats remained unsatisfied with his editorial intervention, and his anatomical critique persists in the fatal self-diagnosis he performs in the “Preface” to Endymion two months later, where he describes the poem as a “feverish attempt” and condemns this “youngster” to “die away” (147). Richard C. Sha captures the problem succinctly: “Keats’s anatomical training […] was a threat to [his] political and aesthetic stance,” and so it proved, as Keats had feared, in the reception of Endymion (227). Ultimately, his application of medical practice to poetic method would backfire: his appraisal of his own weakness in the “Preface” would set the tone for Endymion’s scathing, medically-inflected critical reviews.

But if the opening of the letter reveals a despondent and desexed Keats, its closing shows the poet revelling in the creative potential of sociable and sexual exchange. The gelded phallus is quickly restored in Keats’s transcription of Horace Smith’s bawdy sestet composed over dinner on a mutual acquaintance, Horace Twiss. An amateur poet, Twiss had a habit of inventing extemporaneous verse over the chamber pot, which Smith lampoons in a scatological investigation of “which flows out the fastest his verse or his piddle.” Keats’s delight in this double-valenced “spouting” recalls the puns on bathroom practices recorded in his letter of 5 January. His evident pleasure in the social occasions that inspired such effusions—especially the Immortal Dinner of 28 December, still in recent memory—leads the letter into more serious consideration of the potational practices of past poets. Introducing his new verses, “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern,” Keats tells George and Tom that “I was thinking of Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher and the rest who used to meet at the Mermaid in days of yore,” and the enclosed poem is a nostalgic reflection on another sort of Immortal Dinner led by the Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen at the Elizabethan watering-hole. The Mermaid Tavern’s status as an iconic site of literary exchange had recently been bolstered by William Gifford’s nine-volume edition of The Works of Ben Jonson (1816), which spread spurious anecdotes about “wit combats” between Jonson and Shakespeare (who was not known to attend the club).

For Keats, these myths of the Mermaid Tavern would strengthen his belief in the power of conviviality to inspire a deeper and more nuanced aesthetic range. This version of the “Lines” is notable for its minor variations, nearly all of which are comparative adjectives: in the poem’s 1820 published form, “Fairer” becomes “Choicer,” and “Richer” is amended to “Sweeter.” Keats’s evident pleasure in these verses’ lively and sociable language inspires him to close with a new optimism, as he advises “my dear Tom and Geo[rg]e” to “trust to the Spring” for the success of Endymion and an improvement in their affairs—an exact, whimsical reversal of his earlier doubts.


Works Cited

Barnard, John. Selected Letters by John Keats. New York: Penguin, 2014.

Dearing, Lewis. “A Rediscovered Letter by John Keats.” A Romantic Circles Electronic Edition (November 1998).

Dobson, Michael, and Stanley Wells. “Mermaid Tavern.” Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 291.

Gifford, William. The Works of Ben Jonson. 9 vols. London: G.W. Nicol et al., 1816.

Keats, John. “Endymion.” Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jeffrey Cox. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 2009. 147-239.

—. “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern.” Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jeffrey Cox. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 2009. 469-470.

Madden, Edward F. “The Poet Keats.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 55 (1877): 357-361.

Newman, Ian. “Keats’s Bawdry.” The Keats Letters Project (January 5, 2018).

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