Keats to Mrs. Brawne: “a Spirit in my brain … an intellect in splints”

Susan J. Wolfson
Princeton University

RE: Keats’s 24 October 1820 letter to Mrs Frances Brawne (sent from Naples Harbour to Wentworth Place, Hampstead)

Rough billows were my home by night and day

This is my third essay for the Keats Letters Project, the first on a night of exuberance after an evening with Haydon (November 1816), the next on the correspondence of Keats and Shelley in the summer of 1820, about poetry and plans for Italy, and this last, from Italy, a wavering between spirit and stress, wit and misery. It’s hard to verge on the conclusion in Keats’s correspondence, tearfully knowing where it goes from here.

For all the poetry in the wording that I take for the title of this essay, a Spirit in my brain … an intellect in splints, it was not the first thing Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne’s mother about his state of mind on the fourth day of a ten-days’ quarantine in Naples Harbor. The arrest was due to reports of outbreak of typhus in London that had the Italian authorities keeping everything English off shore (for 6 weeks, of which their brig had already logged in 5). Keats did not set foot on the ground until 31 October, his 25th birthday (and the day before the twentieth anniversary of beloved Fanny Brawne’s christening). Naples Harbour was in effect, his sixth home since early May–a rapid compression of a life’s pacing that, ever since the death of his father, had made every “home” thereafter a fragile stability, ever temporary.

Joseph Severn’s watercolor of the Maria Crowther, Keats’s conveyance to Italy and his temporary quarantine home upon arrival in Naples. Image via the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust

When Charles Brown let his home Wentworth Place, where Keats was his guest, going off, as usual, to Scotland, Keats had to move out for the time being. His new lodging (from May 4) was a meager bed-sit at 2 Wesleyan Place, at the edge of Kentish Town. The only advantage was its proximity, a mile or so up the road, to Wentworth Place, where the Brawnes lived (renting Charles Dilke’s half of Wentworth Place), and close by, just around the corner, the home of his loyal friend Leigh Hunt, at 13 Mortimer Terrace. When a spate of violent pulmonary attacks on 22 June made it clear that he could no longer care for himself in safety, or his landlady’s security of this, kind Hunt coaxed him to move in with his family.  They did their best with comfort and care, but the household was busy, boisterous, and sometimes chaotic, and Keats’s room upstairs, the sun slamming its roof during an oppressive heat spell, was no great refuge. His health worsening, the doctors called in let his blood, and advised that he needed to spend the winter in Italy. Keats knew in his heart that this would be his final home.

Already precarious, the situation with the Hunts boiled over when a note from Fanny Brawne was intercepted by a servant, delivered to Keats days later. Feeling humiliated and violated, against Hunt’s pleas, he packed up his few belongings, books among them, and dragged himself to the Bentleys’ lodgings on Well Walk, Hampstead, where he had rooms with his brothers for much of 1817 and 1818 (moving in with Brown after Tom died in early December). Finding the lodge dark by the time he arrived, he made his way over to the Brawnes.[1] Mrs Brawne took him in, and for his last month in England, Keats’s fourth residence since early May felt like a home:  back at Wentworth Place, with a caring, maternal Mrs Brawne, amusing siblings in Tootts (Margaret, age 11) and Sam (just 16), and not least, complete proximity to the love of his life, Fanny (just 20), with no chance of interrupted correspondence. He was not exaggerating when he said that it was the only spell of happiness he had known in a long time. 

Back in March, he had described himself to Fanny with a temporal phrase, whilst I am an invalid (L 2:281). Five months on, whilst was delusion and the double edge of invalid keenly felt: physically disabled, existentially false (Plumly 261). For the 2600 mile trip to Naples–too allegorically from pun-ready Gravesend to this New City—Keats’s next home was a small, two-masted sailing brig, The Maria Crowther, his lodging therein (it was a coastal trade ship, not a passenger vessel[2]), cramped quarters for six: the Captain and “his Cat,” his Mate, Keats, Joseph Severn (an artist, portraitist, and his companion), a consumptive Miss Cottrell, age 18, going to her brother, and a robust, middle-aged Mrs. Pidgeon, her companion but rather annoyed at the office. John Taylor, Keats’s publisher, put a shine on it all in a report to Fanny Keats. Her brother was settled in “his new Habitation with every prospect of having a pleasant Voyage” to the warm south (L 2: 338).[3] Habitation it was, minimally: “bad air and a stifled cabin,” Keats described it to Brown after they were safely out of it (2:351), and “at first sight every inconvenience,” so Severn quipped at the front end (340).[4] Miss Cotterell was not only a sad sight but a horrible double. She mirrored Keats in female form, and in this form was also a foil to Fanny (a healthy 18), and revenant of poor Tom, Here … where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies. Keats’s medical experience and nursing of Tom had him thinking her the more afflicted (Severn 339); she thought him worse off (she would outlive him by a few years; Sharp, 148).

The voyage commenced on 17 September was no easy sail, delayed for weeks at the start amid gales and mountainous waves, their room flooded, nearly shipwrecking storms, then along the Iberian coast military turmoils and interventions.[5] Severn’s reports to Haslam (Keats’s oldest friend, from schooldays) rock back and forth, not only about the voyage (ordeal, wonder, terror and adventure) but also about Keats. On the 17th, he called their cozy quarters more endearing “than the most stately Palace”; Keats “seem’d happy … cracked his jokes at tea” and was quite himself (2: 340). On the 19th, Keats “looked well—ate well” and “full of his waggery,” egging Severn on “with his golden jokes” and “plying” him for more. Severn and the Captain went ashore for provisions to complement the Captain’s beef, ham and tongue, stocking their larder with 50 apples and 2 dozen biscuits (i.e. cookies) “&c &c.” The Captain was already so endeared to Keats that he went looking for a goat to supply him with milk. One of Keats’s requests to Severn was for “some things from the Chymists” (341). This (Severn did not specify to Haslam) was a bottle of laudanum (opium in alcohol), ostensibly for sea-sickness. Severn didn’t seem to register that Keats wanted it at hand for the physical agony he knew was coming, and at the end may have meant to overdose.

After the initial bon voyage, Severn’s reports start to oscillate. Everyone got seasick on the 19th, though Keats readily took charge (“he dictated surgically—like Esculapius,” son of Apollo and god of medicine). Keats is “looking better,” then “not so well, then “promising … best possible hopes”: that’s just on 19 September (L 2: 342, 338). The 20th had the ship storm-rocked and drenched, “the waves were in Mountains,” the ship rolled violently, and everyone was frightened, “except Keats he was himself all the time … without even complaining” (343). More than a week on, the ship had still not cleared the channel and Keats’s good humor, maintained for his present company, cracked wide open when he wrote to Charles Brown (30 September).

Joseph Severn’s watercolor, “Moonlight at Sea,” presumably completed during one of the calmer parts of the voyage.

Ever since the middle of August, knowing of his destiny to Italy, he had been trying to reach Brown, hoping he would accompany him with the cheer of good spirits and capable management. He was stunned to find out, while on a land-break with Severn from the Maria Crowther’s slow progress westward on the Channel, that Brown was actually back from Scotland and had made no effort to contact him, let alone accompany him. Keats had put off writing the shipboard letter to Brown until he felt he could “enliven [him] with one heartening hope of my recovery” (344). The 30th was the first time he felt up to pen and paper, and his hopes were not strong. The letter is very clean in a steady hand, comparable to the one to Shelley on 16 August: a single sheet, folded in half, three and a half pages of writing, folded and addressed to Brown at Wentworth Place, their pleasant home, a long, long year before. It was not to be a Pleasant letter however, Keats alerts him (f 1; 399). He begins with a qualified report of feeling easy enough this morning but soon wends to polite disappointments in Brown’s silence. Then the floodgates open, I wish for death every day and night to deliver me—not so much from physical pains as from the pain of losing Fanny. Begging Brown to be a friend to her when I am dead (f 2; 400), he says this in flat certainty, before the letter’s darkest passages:

Is there another Life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? There must be we cannot be created for this sort of suffering. The receiving of this letter is to be one of yours (f 3; 401).

This is about as aggressively aggrieved as Keats gets, a physical wrench with metaphysical thrust.

He tunes the next sentence to pierce Brown with what he says he isn’t saying:

I will say nothing about our friendship or rather your to me more than that as you deserve to escape you will never be so unhappy as I am. (f3, 401)

This is saying much. Having said that the very thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond every thing horrible—the sense of darkness coming over me (f 3), he lets himself say that another horrible loss is Brown, whom he knows he will never see again: I feel as if I was closing my / last letter to you. My dear Brown / Your affectionate friend / John Keats (f 4).

The conclusion of Keats’s 30 September 1820 letter to Brown. Image via Houghton Library, Harvard University.

For all the suppressed anger at Brown’s failure in a final chapter of care, Keats’s signing himself affectionate still bears hope that he is held in Brown’s affections. This wasn’t his last letter (we know) but at the time he thought it was. He folded it up, addressed it, sealed it, then did not send it.

Severn knew none of this. When Brown wrote to Taylor just days later, October 5th, it was pretty much to reinforce Severn’s cheerier narrative of Keats:

his spirits were excellent … with all the bustling wit of a man in saucy health … Neither the boisterous weather, nor his antipathies, nor his anger, will do him harm;–on the contrary they will be of service,–they are good physic to his mind, & will help purge away his apprehensions. (L 2:347)

This was part tact with Taylor, but I think Brown was embarrassed, wanting to believe Severn’s account (which Keats enabled), so as to excuse himself for deficient care.

Naples Harbour: sad heart, sick for home

The next letters we have, from Severn and from Keats, were quarantine ones. Writing to Haslam on 22 October (L 2:348), Severn reports the ordeal of the voyage and the great changes in Keats. The “passage has been most horribly rough,” and “a wonder” that “Keats has lived though it.” Rollins prints this as “th[r]ough” and Severn may have meant this; but he may have meant (then didn’t) to start a clause though it…, to convey a depletion from Keats’s having survived. At one point, he tells Haslam, he was so convinced that Keats “would die on the passage” that he was ready to take him back to London. By the Straits of Gibraltar, and the sight of the vast “topaz” of the Rock, Keats seem revived: “great changes … for the better–he seem’d recovering–at least he looked like it.” Then another collapse: two days on, Keats was sick again, assailed by hemorrhages, coughing up blood, night fevers, violent perspiration, “now in a doubtfull state,” Severn postscripts with a beyond normal ful.

The only solace for Keats was that he had spared Mrs Brawne, and Fanny, from having to see this–and worse to come. His letter to Mrs Brawne mentions Severn writing to Haslam, with his request that Severn tell Haslam to share this with her.[6] He did not know that Severn would spare the Brawnes. For his part, Keats wanted, really, to write to Fanny, in the best spirits he could command. He couldn’t trust himself to compose with required composure if he addressed her directly, so he wrote to her mother with affection, and disciplined deflection. His still living hand could no longer manage the penmanship of his letter to Brown a month earlier, despite his knowing that Fanny would see this letter, then his sister Fanny and his friends in London: the Hunts, Haslam, Woodhouse, Taylor and Hessey. He did his best, with moral determination, to be brief and newsy.

He begins promising just a few words about what sort of Passage we had, and the present Quarantine (f 1). Once he started writing, few words became a story, about 600 words filling up four full pages (one sheet, folded in half, with just enough room for folding up, sealing and address; envelopes were too expensive). He talks about the sea air, the harbor sights and new marvels, about his health and disposition, with frequent callouts to Fanny, and ends with affectionate remembrances.

Williamson, plates xliv-xlvii. Click images to enlarge.

Pages 1 and 4 of the ALS. Images courtesy of John Barnard. Click to enlarge.

The quarantine was double-hinged. It was still Prison Maria Crowther, in hot weather, shut in a tier of ships (f 1), the only relief the harbor breezes and cooling nights. Yet it was also site and scene of new marvels, not least the dazzling Italian light, lucid dawns, vivid sunsets. The deep blue waters bustled with merchant crafts and white-sailed vessels, boats of singers come to greet them; vistas of white houses rose along terraced Naples, interspersed with vineyards and olive orchards, Vesuvius beyond topped in purplish smoke. After weeks of ever more meager rations came a wash of wine, flowers, and baskets of fresh food–vegetables, melons, peaches, figs, grapes, silver fish–purchased or provided. Every day brought some novelty. A year ago Keats had been telling Taylor of his love of the marvellous (as if the sea-nymphs quir’d) … the most enticing and surest guarantee of harmonious numbers (Milton’s epic inspiration)–yet dampened by a sense that Wonders are no wonders to me – I am more at home amongst Men and women (ALS, 17 November 1819).[7] Naples, true to its name, opened a new world, of wonders and marvels among real men and women. Just after asking (for the first time) Mrs Brawne, Give my love to Fanny, Keats is inspired into a psychic imaginary: and tell her, if I were well there is enough in this Port of Naples to fill a quire of Paper … it looks like a dream (f 1).

This is marvellous, but also another hinge. Keats senses his fading away from this new world, no longer at home amongst men, especially: – every man who can row his boat and walk and talk seems a different being from myself – I do not feel in the world (f 1-2). The only thing real, too real, was the vexing, over-sharing Miss Cotterell, not named, but referred to as a young Lady in a Consumption: that mirror of medically known bad symptoms that Keats says preyed upon me with the Knowledge of her complaint – the flushings in her face (f 2).

Keats was determined not to whine to Mrs Brawne, so plays himself theatrically:

I would always wish you to think of me a little worse than I really am; and not being of a sanguine disposition I am likely to succeed. If I do not recover your regret will be softened if I do your pleasure will be doubled (ff 2-3)

The run-on syntax of the last sentence is poignant, as if the second thought barely deserved independent considering in a likely impossibility. Having had Keats in her home for a month, Mrs Brawne knew how to read between the jesting lines, to sense what wasn’t being said on the scriptive surface. Keats knows this. His next interlinear move gravitates to Fanny. I dare not fix my Mind on Fanny, I have not dared to think of her. Thinking of her, he clearly is, by proxy fixations, thinking for hours together of having the Knife she gave me put in a silver-case – the hair in a Locket—and the Pocket Book in a gold net – (f 3): gifts leveled to the lock of hair, not for use (the knife is a penknife) but to treasure, fetishize. To say thinking for hours together is not just clock-time, but magnetic psychic time, as if Fanny, hearing of his treasuring, could feel it, too. Show her this, Keats writes just after (f 3). She could not know that these very gifts could, in a swing of a mood, become instruments of self-torture. He would be writing to Brown a week on, “Every thing I have in my trunks that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear. The silk lining she put in my travelling cap scalds my head” (L 2: 351).

Bodily plight and new delights had Keats wavering between two sensations of self: one, the poor forked creature of inevitable human mortality (Ms K 1.53.259)–poor Tom of King Lear on his mind, and by relay his poor brother Tom; another, unexpectedly, and too late, with the world of Italy all before him, had him in imaginary character, a camelion informant of modern cosmopolitan temper:

O what an account I could give of the Bay of Naples if I could once more feel myself a Citizen of this world – I feel a Spirit in my Brain would lay it forth pleasantly – O what a misery it is to have an intellect in splints! (ff 3-4)

On two elegiac sighs of O, not least of this splints is the soft rotation of this world away from the standard phrase, Citizen of the world.[8] When Keats wrote of the exotic, dreamlike Port of Naples, I do not feel in the world, he meant a stunning strangeness. In this second iteration, he meant this world, of the living. He had already entered that feeling of … leading a posthumous existence that he would describe to Brown at the end of November.

He knew–Mrs Brawne knew that he knew–that his letter would be read to, read by, Fanny, and he didn’t want, quite yet, to write a self-obituary. So I am about as I was—Give my Love to Fanny, he had said on his first page (f 1), then again right after splints! this: My Love again to Fanny (f 4), as if these repetitions might conjure her, imagine her reading him while he is alive, and alive to her. To brake a skid into pathos, Keats turns to the rest of the family: tell Tootts I wish I could pitch her a basket of grapes–and tell Sam the fellows catch here with a line a little fish much like an anchovy–a brotherly wink, as if he and Sam might try this sometime together. Keats loved those grapes, a joy in the last days of quarantine supplied by Miss Cotterell’s brother, who seemed to have a Porphyroic skill in coming up “with all manner dainties and luxuries.” Recalled Severn, “Keats never tired of admiring (not to speak of eating!) the beautiful clusters of grapes.” In Italy, Keats found a way to have his grape and eat it, too, to burst a grape against his palate fine and find still more—for the moment (Sharp 60).

He ends his letter with a sociable greeting to the Dilkes, then one more run at Brown: mention to Brown that I wrote him a letter at Portmouth which I did not send and am in doubt if he ever will see it (f 4).[9] The letter unsent is yet another proxy–for Brown’s not seeing Keats, for Keats not seeing Brown–and then, by pained association, everyone Keats knew he would never see again, Fanny most of all. He signs off (f 4), my dear Mrs Brawne / yours sincerely and affectionate / John Keats–. Then he breaks decorum to write in the space still available at the bottom of the page: Good bye Fanny! god bless you. These are the last words he’ll ever write to her, a double good bye, first in the idiom and then in the original sense, heartfelt from a theological skeptic.

The conclusion of Keats’s letter to Mrs. Brawne. Williamson, plate xlvii.

I shall feel a load off me when the Lady vanishes, he said to Mrs Brawne of Miss Cotterell. “The Lady vanishes” is a virtual Keats-meme, from Endymion, to La Belle Dame sans Merci, to Lamia, and finally, Fanny Brawne: I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing, he wrote to Brown, even at the thought of leaving her, in that shipboard letter of 30 September (f 3). Fanny fading from person to figure, from figure to a phantom in the fane of the mind, has Keats repeating eternally in doubled syntax: his seeing her and her vanishing, an Orphic torture that renders a horrible parody of a Lover “winning near the goal.” It is traditionally the one who is leaving who says Good bye! (the one staying behind says Farewell!). With Fanny, Good bye! (he’s leaving her) is also, implicitly, her good bye to him, her vanishing.[10] The sensation of a load off me with Miss Cotterell’s parting is a treachery in wording alone. Keats had told his friend Dilke of feeling “an awful warmth about my heart like a load of Immortality” as he was trying to write Hyperion as Tom, loaded under mortality, was dying in the next room. This physical sensation possesses him again, in sheer mortality, in his next letter, to Brown (1 November), when the lady vanishes because Keats has left her in England, and because, in England, has left him. He wrote only two letters after the quarantine, both, again, to Brown, this one from Naples, the day after they disembarked, and one from Rome, 30 November, the last letter he would, or could, write.

The Quarantine became distinctly less pleasant after October 24. British officers came on board to see what was up, then found they could not disembark, and everyone’s quarters became more cramped in what Severn totalized to Haslam, on 1 November, as “loathsome misery … foul weather and foul air for the whole 10 days kept us to the small Cabin–surrounded by about 2000 ships in a wretched Mole not sufficient for half the number” (L 2: 353). When Keats wrote to Brown on his first day on land, he could report, without any restraint, that no load was off him with Miss Cotterell’s distancing. Even as the “fresh air revived me a little,” he couldn’t “relieve the load of WRETCHEDNESS which presses upon me” from the loss of Fanny: “I cannot bear to leave her … My imagination is horribly vivid about her–I see her–I hear her” (2: 351). This is Keats’s rare (I think, unique) indulgence in all capitals, not only to express the load on his heart but also to convey it to, load it on, Brown’s eyes. When Brown transcribed this letter in his Life of John Keats he wanted to add a footnote that this was indeed Keats’s script, and that Keats could not continue writing many words after this. At the other end of the century, 56 years on, Lord Houghton (R. M. Milnes) could say in his Aldine edition of Keats that the story of this poet of “genius and misfortune” could be summed in “brief abstract”: “The publication of three small volumes of verse, some earnest friendships, one profound passion, and a premature death” (ix).

For all this, the social courage that Keats kept up during the passage and kept up during Quarantine continued to animate a life in words: “at my worst, even in Quarantine, [I] summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life,” he remarked to Brown in that last letter to him–the one in which he had confessed, just words before, “I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence,” weakly—maybe even unconsciously—punning past into passed (L 2:360). If his body was concentrating into a past, Keats’s present tense still had him tuned, habitually, to anatomies of language, playing its sounds and signs in the chances of creative fun. Keats’s letters are full of the materiality of this half-life, in which he has somehow managed to be a Citizen of so many worlds, with a verbal management of information, impression and expression, drawing heartbreak into the pulse of a still “living” hand.[11] Severn remembered and recorded several “excellent puns” from the voyage (KC 2: 132). One, from the Quarantine, was a defense of their cabin boy, “a favourite of us all,” at whom an Italian boatman “used to laugh.” When the bilingual Mr Cotterell was queried about one derision, he translated: “the boy laughd like a beggar.” Keats rose up in indignation, of the kind he had mustered in his schoolboy days against the bullies at Enfield, “tell him he laughs like a damn’d fool.” Cotterell was flummoxed at not being able to give the emphatic, profane English damn’d any Italian “equivalent”–at which discovery Keats exclaimed they “are not worth a damn” (KC 2: 136). Scarcely one day on terra firma Italiana, November 2, he was in “good spirits” on finding new resources for word-play: “he made an Italian Pun today,” Severn reports at the close of a letter to Haslam (L 2: 355).


[1] For more on these tumultuous few weeks, see my essay, Keats to Shelley, 16 August 1820: Load Every Rift).

[2] This ship, built in 1810, had been designed for English coastal trade (Lowell 2: 459).

[3] References hereafter to the voyage and quarantine pages in L 2: 338-55 are abbreviated. Even J. H. Reynolds seems to have received and believed Taylor’s best spin, replying (21 September), “I do not know when I have been more gratified at the receipt of a letter than now, for you give me the best of news, full to the brim, that Keats is positively off for a better Lung-land … departed so comfortably, so cheerfully, so sensibly” (KC 1: 155-56).

[4] Below deck, a narrow galley away from the cargo hold, the “low-ceilinged, twelve-foot-wide, horseshoe-shaped stern had been fitted with six bunks, each … barred with vertical struts” for safety in bad weather. “The cabin was like a vault. The bunks were like coffins” (Motion 538).

[5] My account of the voyage draws on Severn’s letters to Haslam, 19 and 20 September 1820 (L 2:338-44, 353-55) and his 1845 recollections to R. M. Milnes, in KC. Narratives based on his reports and Keats’s letters are shaped by Lowell 2: 465-93; Bate 656-70, Ward 374-83, Gittings 595-606, Motion 537-49, Plumly 249-58, and Gigante 359-66.

[6] Rollins’s text transcribes the original, now held by London Metropolitan Archives (L 2: 349-50). I follow Williamson, plates xliv-xlvii, and for f. 1 and f. 4, the ALS (image kindly supplied by John Barnard).

[7] Keats underlined harmonious numbers in his copy of Paradise Lost 3.38 (amidst a longer passage; vol. I, p. 62).

[8] Citizen of the world is a resonant allusion. Oliver Goldsmith’s satirical letters (1760s) were so titled, and Byron’s title-page epigraph for his fame-making Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) took the opening sentence, by 1812 a maxim, from Fougeret de Monbron’s Le Cosmopolite, ou, le Citoyen du Monde (1750; London 1753):“L’universe est une espèce de livre, dont on n’a lu que la première page quand on n’a vu que son pays.” [Translation, for ease of readers, even though Byron himself provided no such assistance: “The universe is a sort of book, of which one has read only the first page when one has seen only one’s own country.”]

[9] Portmouth [sic]. Brown says in his Life of Keats (1836-) that he “received this letter” when he was visiting in the neighborhood of Portsmouth (KC 2:80); Keats says that he didn’t send it. Perhaps it was conveyed without Keats’s knowing; perhaps Severn found it unsent among Keats’s effects and gave it to Brown when he came to Italy in March 1822. If so, this revenant from Keats’s pre-posthumous existence would count in historical time as his last communication.

[10] I owe this distinction to Christopher Miller’s nuanced discussion of the last stanza of Ode to a Nightingale (160).

[11] I am grateful for conversation with my colleague Esther Schor on this broader point, and on many matters more, to Garrett Stewart, John Barnard, and Brian Rejack.

Works Cited

Barnard, John. “Keats’s Letters: ‘Remembrancing and Enchaining.’” Cambridge Companion to John Keats. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. Cambridge UP 2001. 120-34, esp. 127-28.

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Harvard UP, 1964.

Gigante, Denise. The Keats Brothers: The Life of George and John. Belknap/Harvard UP, 2011.

Gittings, Robert. John Keats. 1968; Penguin, 1979.

Houghton, Lord [R. M. Milnes]. The Poetical Works of John Keats. Aldine Edition. London: George Bell, 1876.

Keats, John. Keats’s Paradise Lost, A Digital Edition. On line: (Milton’s Paradise Lost. A New Edition / Adorned with Beautiful Plates. 2 vols., Edinburgh: 1807)

—-. Autograph signed letters, Harvard Keats Collection (HK), Houghton Library. Cited as MsK, by location: collection, ms., sequence (or by f: folio page)

—-. Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder E. Rollins. 2 vols. Harvard UP, 1958. Cited as L

—-. to Charles Brown, 30 September 1820. MsK 1.87.399-402 (ff 1-4)

—-. to Mrs Brawne, 24 October 1820; cited by f (folio) from the plates in Williamson.

—. to George and Georgiana Keats, 21 April 1819 entry. MsK 1.53.259.

—. to John Taylor, 17 November 1819. Morgan Library. Cited by f (folio)

Lowell, Amy. John Keats. 2 vols. Houghton Mifflin, 1925.

Miller, Christopher. The Invention of Evening: Perception and Time in Romantic Poetry. Cambridge UP, 2006.

Motion, Andrew. Keats, A Biography. Faber and Faber, 1997.

Plumly, Stanley. Posthumous Keats: a personal biography. Norton, 2008.

Severn, Joseph. “Biographical Notes on Keats,” October 1845 (?). The Keats Circle: Letters and Papers. 1948; 2 vols. Ed. H. E. Rollins. Harvard UP, 1969. 2:134-38.Cited as KC.

Sharp, William. The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn. Sampson Low, Marston, 1892.

Ward, Aileen. John Keats: The Making of a Poet. 1963; Viking, 1967. Williamson, George C. Keats Letters and Papers. London: John Lane, 1914. On line at Hathi Trust.

Letter #250: To Mrs. Brawne, 24 October 1820

When the Maria Crowther arrived in Naples Harbor on 21 October 1820, its passengers may have thought their journey was over. It had already been somewhat of a difficult passage, having faced storms and unfavorable conditions in the Channel as soon as they reached the sea on 19 September (after sailing down the Thames from London on 17 September. After slow eastward progress along the southern coast (including some backtracking because of poor weather), the Maria Crowther left England for good sometime around 2 October. More bad weather arrived in the Bay of Biscay, as did two Portuguese warships, leading to some worry that the Maria Crowther might be plundered. Such was not the case, and the remainder of the voyage to Naples passed relatively smoothly. Nonetheless, one imagines the passengers were eager to leave their ship when they were instead informed by the Italian authorities that due to a typhus outbreak in London, all English vessels were being forced to remain offshore for 6 weeks. That meant ten more days until the passengers of the Maria Crowther would truly be finished with their voyage.

And so, on the fourth day of ten spent in quarantine aboard the ship, Keats wrote his last direct communication to Fanny Brawne. And most of the communication was indirect, given that he could only muster the psychic fortitude to address Fanny’s mother, and at times specify particular messages to relay to the daughter. Only in the last line of his fourth page could Keats bring himself to address Fanny with these final written words to her: “Good bye Fanny! God bless you.” The devastation conveyed in that brief but double goodbye is matched by the understatement of Fanny’s entry in her copy of Leigh Hunt’s Literary Pocket-Book upon Keats’s departure: “Mr. Keats left Hampstead.” Given Keats’s own focus on vanishing around this time–he writes of Fanny to Charles Brown on 30 September, “I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing”–it is perhaps appropriate that only a vague outline of Fanny’s original inscription remains.

Fanny Brawne wrote “Mr. Keats left Hampstead” in the entry for 8 September (although he actually left on 13 September). Only a faint trace remains. Image via the Keats House Museum

With that we will leave you to read today’s letter to Mrs. Brawne, even if you may need to come prepared with some tissues for your tears. Text of the letter can be read via Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 edition of the complete works, or via The Keats Letters, Papers, and Other Relics (1914), edited by George C. Williamson. It features a transcription of the letter and facsimile images of the MS, which we reproduce below. And if you would like to know more about Keats’s journey to Italy, check out this wonderful resource from The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, “John Keats’s Final Voyage.

Once you’ve read the letter, then check out Susan Wolfson’s latest essay for us, where you’ll learn much more about the letter and Keats’s circumstances during this final part of his life.

Williamson, plates xliv-xlvii. Click images to enlarge.

“To go on for ever”: Keats to Charles Brown

Jeanne Britton
University of South Carolina

RE: Keats’s 30 September 1820 letter to Charles Brown

When Keats writes to Charles Brown on 30 September 1820, he is setting out for Italy on the Maria Crowther, a small merchantman meant to carry freight, after knocking around in the channel due to bad weather. The Crowther sailed from the Thames on the morning of 17 September and was delayed the following day at Gravesend, where it so happens that Brown’s boat had also stopped. Brown had heard news of Keats and quickly sailed from Scotland; their boats were, he later learned, “‘little more than a stone’s throw from each other’” (cited in Bate 659). Keats’s addressee is again near but out of reach on the date of the letter’s composition, after the Crowther, beset again by bad weather, stopped this time at Portsmouth. Keats and Joseph Severn disembarked and traveled to Bedhampton, where they visited John Snook and his wife (Charles Dilke’s brother-in-law). Brown, after having sought Keats in London, was then staying in nearby Chichester. The letter’s reflections on impending loss and absence are even more acute in light of these two instances of its addressee’s recent but unreachable nearness.

On the date of the letter, Keats returned to the boat and, according to Severn’s account, wrote “Bright Star” in his copy of Shakespeare’s Poems and penned this letter. The dating of the poem’s composition—as opposed to what, despite Severn’s account, is now seen as a copy—has been inconclusive, but its resonance with this letter, as Severn suggests, is pronounced.[1] The pain of this letter, and all the late letters, is vivid. In the second half of this piece, I’ll turn away from the realities of Keats’s illness and death and instead adopt Keats’s own coping mechanism during his time in quarantine in Naples: summoning up a pun. The pun is provided by a recent novel imagining a longer life for Keats, Paul Kerschen’s Warm South, and I follow its implications in order to speculate about ties between Keats’s fixation on transience and permanence and the culture of printed views of Rome.

“Eternally Vanishing”

“The time has not yet come,” he begins the letter to Brown, “for a pleasant Letter from me” (LK 2:334). He acknowledges Brown’s proximity both at the moment of writing and earlier on the stymied voyage: “I was very disappointed at not meeting you at bedhamption, and am very provoked at the thought of you being at Chichester to day” (LK 2:345). He then expresses heartfelt sadness about his lost hopes, naming—but perhaps not naming—“the very thing” that makes him wretched.

Walter Jackson Bate cautioned that it is too easy to read “the very thing” he so emotionally describes in this letter as his hopeless love for Fanny Brawne; Keats might instead be referring to the writing of poetry (662). “The very thing which I want to live most for,” he writes, “will be a great occasion of my death. […] Were I in health it would make me ill, and how can I bear it in my state?” When he does name her, it is in conjunction with an explicit anticipation of his death: “it is for my sake you would be a friend to Miss Brawne when I am dead” (LK 2:345). Recalling a letter to her from July 25, 1819, this joining of his death and his beloved suggests a practical resignation to the inevitable instead of his earlier fantasy: “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.” “I will … pray to your Star like a He[a]then,” he closes that letter, signing off with “Your’s ever, fair Star” (LK 2:133).

“Ever,” “for ever,” and “eternally” are key terms in Keats’s poetry; in today’s letter, they evoke in particular the desire for permanence in eroticism and death that “Bright Star” articulates. The letter continues: “The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond every thing horrible—the sense of darkness coming over me—I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing” (LK 2:345). This eternal watching resembles that of the immortal star and its “watching, with eternal lids apart” (CP 247, l. 3), a specific form of unending existence that the poem rejects. And clearly, a continuous, eternal departure is not a desirable release from death. This passage in the letter also seems to invert, Brendan Corcoran proposes, the idea that Keats is actually departing Fanny. Instead, he figures himself as Orpheus while Fanny becomes Eurydice, who is “eternally vanishing” into death (346). In his last letter to Fanny, written in August before he set out for Italy, he tells her to “Suppose me in Rome—well, I should there see you as in a magic glass going to and from town at all hours” (LK 2:312). As Susan Wolfson recently observes of that letter, “The pain was not just leaving her, but of her, gradually, inevitably, leaving him. […] Call it death in life, or death & life.” 

Although he does not write directly to Fanny again, Keats tells Brown in this letter that he is committing to write to her for the possibility that death might claim him in the act: “A sudden stop to my life in the middle of one of these Letters would be no bad thing for it keeps one in a sort of fever awhile.” Contemplating the fatigue of “a Letter longer than any I have written for a long while,” he decides that “it would be better to go on for ever than awake to a sense of contrary winds.” Keats continues, on the back of the letter, by thinking of the contrary winds that have already made “[t]he Captn the Crew and the Pasengers” of the Maria Crowther “all illtemper’d and weary” before leaving the Channel (LK 2:346).

These phrases also echo those of “Bright Star” in their suggestion of immortality that breaks through, rather than transcends, death. Better, indeed, would it be to “go on for ever,” as the letter puts it, and remain, as “Bright Star” concludes, “Awake for ever in a sweet unrest […] And so live ever—or else swoon to death” (CP 247, ll. 12-14). The sadness of “I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing” and its continual loss is shifted to the semblance of “for ever” while writing a long letter, the “sort of fever” that dying in the act of writing such a letter to Fanny might bring. Letter-writing seems to offer an alternative to the prolonging of life in “Bright Star,” to create another reality of permanence and presence. In the moment of writing to Fanny, with all the physical and emotional strain the act would bring, he could “go on for ever.” 

“I feel,” he concludes this letter to Brown, “as if I was closing my last letter to you.” His actual last letter to Brown—or to anyone else, as far as posterity knows—will come two months later, on November 30. There he notes that while aboard the Maria Crowther he had, “even in Quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life” (LK 2:360). It is with a pun, perhaps a desperate pun, that I turn to other expressions of the desire for permanence and presence in the midst of transience and decay.

Engraving, Keats, and Engraving Keats

Paul Kerschen’s recent novel Warm South imagines a longer life for Keats. Waking after a difficult night, standing up after the awkward bow, he finds his illness was, as his doctor James Clark had suspected, a disease of the stomach. The fictional Fanny Brawne later writes to Keats in Rome: “When I shut my eyes I see Curiosities—you know Italy for me is engraved pictures in Travel-books.” “Now,” she writes, “I fancy my John engraved there with the rest” (Kerschen 89-90).

He is in reality, of course, in an almost unbearable pun, “en-graved” in the Protestant cemetery there. On one hand, this fictional alternative engraving of Keats–through Kerschen’s Fanny Brawne–places the living poet within the popular medium whose second-hand nature was a source of his own inspiration and his critics’ disdain.[2]

On the other, this potential double meaning also suggests a confluence rather than a distinction—that the art of engraving, which captures the factual present before it fades, and the fact of individual human death might enact something similar. Keats often hints that through art, death as an end to life achieves a kind of permanence beyond human death. As a visual trick that resembles Keats’s own vision of Eurydice’s eternal vanishing in today’s letter, or the magic glass he mentioned in August, this imagined engraving / en-graving offers a way to keep Keats before our eyes in an eternally posthumous life.

Those engraved pictures that, in the mind of the fictional Fanny and the historical Keats, stood for Italy likely included the well-known Views of Rome by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778). Piranesi is probably known to readers of the Keats Letters Project for his imaginary prisons that Coleridge describes to de Quincey. He was also a prodigious and innovative artist whose works included, among over a thousand images, the views of modern streets and crumbling ruins that grand tourists brought back from their travels to the eternal city. Piranesi intended with his engravings to capture the remains of ancient architecture and art as they were being lost to time and plunder (including his own). He depicted overgrown ruins with a sensuousness that, in keeping with earlier notions, made stone seem to be alive. Piranesi’s efforts to keep Rome’s disappearing ruins before the eyes of antiquarians and tourists suggest that his chosen medium of engraving might, as Keats’s verse often seeks to do, arrest the progress of time. Biographically and thematically, Piranesi did not engage with death in the direct ways that Keats did. In his engravings, though, his aspirations to immortality—for his art and its subjects—appear with forceful insistence. In the image below, Piranesi weaves engraving tools through a snake biting its tail. In opposition to the lowly reputation for engraving, this image suggests that his chosen medium can bestow the kind of immortality that the unending circle of the self-consuming snake suggests (Minor 129-30).

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, from Lapides capitolini, sive, Fasti consvlares triumphalesq[ue] Romanorum ab vrbe condita vsqve ad Tiberivm Caesaram. (Rome, 1762). Source: Internet Archive.

There are many reasons to consider his visual works alongside Keats’s poetry: their relationships to the culture of museums, their interests in the fragment as a poetic and material form, or even the “architectural” quality of Keats’s verse (Vendler 10) and Piranesi’s innovative representations of architectural space. More specifically, there is the old-fashioned proposition of a number of Victorian scholars that the model of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” was, as Harry Buxton Forman puts it, “a somewhat weather-beaten work in marble, still preserved in the garden of Holland House, and figured in Piranesi’s Vasi e Candelabri.” Because Piranesi depicts only one side of this urn (in the center of the first image below), as opposed to others that he shows from different angles, the first engraving below may have inspired Keats to draw from another, second below, that was included in the same two-volume work (Forman 2:115).[3]

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, from Vasi, Candelabri, Sarcofagi, Tripodi (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1837-9). Source: University of South Carolina, University Libraries, Digital Collections.

A more meaningful if also more tenuous connection—one that is, to be sure, not unique to these two artists—is the point that I think the “engraved” pun helps to strengthen: a shared effort to achieve immortality and permanence through careful attention to the fleeting nature of human life and humanity’s works. Keats’s final days in Rome and his proximity to Piranesi’s subjects, in addition to his final months and death a few steps from Piranesi’s home and workshop, lend support to this connection.

Piranesi’s views of the eternal city continue to serve as souvenirs. For sale in the gift shop at the Keats-Shelley House Museum is his “Veduta della Piazza di Spagna,” which includes the house itself, to the right of the steps. Keats’s room is almost visible through the corner window second from the top. The fountain in the foreground, la Fontana della Barcaccia, provided the sound that reminded him of the phrase from Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster (“all your better deeds / Shall be in water writ”) that reappears on his tombstone, which reads “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, from Vedute di Roma (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1837-9). Source: University of South Carolina, University Libraries, Digital Collections.

Many of the shops around the Spanish Steps and in the neighborhood of the Trinità de monti sold prints; Keats and Severn’s landlady, Anna Angeletti, as well as her recently deceased husband, drew and engraved (Bate 673). Although he barely saw the city, he did occasionally ride a borrowed horse, and he would walk near the house at 26 Piazza di Spagna, likely along the streets that were filled with print-shops. Perhaps, if he ascended the steps and turned right on the Via Sistina, he may have passed, at number 41, Piranesi’s former home, workshop, and informal museum. (By 1820, the address was occupied by Bertel Thorvaldsen, a well-known sculptor whose subjects included Byron and Walter Scott.) Severn visited the Protestant cemetery in early 1821. Keats was pleased when he described it as full of violets and bordered by the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, a frequent subject for Piranesi.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, from Vedute di Roma (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1837-9). Source: University of South Carolina, University Libraries, Digital Collections.

Keats articulates in verse and letters an intense desire for proximity, for palpable presence, that is often specified with details about posture or stance. In a journal letter to George and Georgiana of 14 February–3 May 1819, he carefully describes his own posture as he writes—“sitting with my back to [a wax taper] with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet.” He then wonders “in what position Shak[e]speare sat when he began ‘To be or not to be,’” noting that “such things become interesting from distance of time or place” (LK 2:73). In many of Piranesi’s views, such as that of the Pyramid above, human figures provide a sense of scale but also lean against illusionistic captions, or serve to annotate by gesturing to the monuments depicted in the image. Marking distance while seeking presence, the gestures and postures that Keats describes and that Piranesi depicts suggest an effort to simulate, “from distance of time or place,” immediacy and presence.

It is of course not unique for artists to be concerned with posterity, permanence, and fighting against the ravages of time. But the presence of absence, and the living through death that we see in Keats appears in a different light in Piranesi’s works. If the artistic medium of engraving was put to use in order to preserve Rome’s disappearing past, then to imagine Keats slipping into an image produced by this medium suggests a particular and, I think, appropriate kind of immortality for him. The English pun, desperate as it may be, additionally hints at the immortality achieved in, through, and with death that Keats articulates in “Bright Star” and this letter. Letter-writing, instead of the poem’s astronomical metaphor, seems on this day to offer an alternate reality of eternal presence that might let him “go on for ever.”

Contributor’s Note:
Jeanne Britton is Curator in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina. She is the author of Vicarious Narratives: A Literary History of Sympathy, 1750-1850 (2019) and the principal investigator of The Digital Piranesi (


[1] On the dating of “Bright Star,” see Gittings (415), Sugano, and Corcoran.

[2] On the inspiring element of engravings and other mediated representations of art, Scott and Jack remain insightful sources. See also Levinson.

[3] This conjectural history of the Grecian Urn is written in footnotes. Arthur C. Downer, in his 1897 edition of the odes, specifies the particular engravings that Forman describes and that are reproduced above (37-8). William Thomas Arnold also weighs in on this possibility in his earlier collected edition of Keats’s poetry, citing correspondence with A. S. Murry of the British Museum: “supposing Keats to have got his knowledge from Piranesi’s work, which must have been common enough in this country, one might imagine that having failed to find the other side of the Holland urn, he had taken in its stead another engraving in the same volume, from an urn in the Borghese gallery” (xxii). Woodcuts by George Scharf said to be based on the works depicted in Piranesi’s engravings are printed alongside the ode in the illustrated collection edited by Richard Monckton Milnes, the author of Keats’s first full-length biography (309, 310).

Works Cited

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Harvard UP, 1963.

Corcoran, Brendan. “Keats’s Death: Towards a Posthumous Poetics.” Studies in Romanticism 48.2 (2009), pp. 321-348.

Jack, Ian Robert James. Keats and the Mirror of Art. Clarendon P, 1968.

Gittings, Robert. John Keats: The Living Year. Harvard UP, 1954.

Keats, John. Complete Poems. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Belknap P, 1982. [Cited as CP]

——. The Letters of John Keats. 2 vols., ed. Hyder E. Rollins. Harvard UP, 1958. [Cited as LK]

——. The Odes of Keats: With Notes and Analyses and a Memoir. Ed. Arthur C. Downer. Clarendon P, 1897.

——. Poetical Works of John Keats. Ed. William Thomas Arnold. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, and Co., 1884.

——. The Poetical Works and Other Writings of John Keats. 4 vols., ed. Harry Buxton Forman. London: Reeves & Turner, 1883.

——. The Poetical Works of John Keats. Ed. Richard Monckton Milnes. Illus. George Scharf. London: Moxon, 1854.

Kerschen, Paul. Warm South: A Novel. West Hartford, Conn.: Roundabout P, 2019.

Levinson, Marjorie. Keats’s Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style. Blackwell, 1988.

Minor, Heather Hyde. “Engraved in Porphyry, Printed on Paper: Piranesi and Lord Charlemont” The Serpent and the Stylus: Essays on G. B. Piranesi. Edited by Mario Bevilacqua, Heather Hyde Minor, and Fabio Barry. U of Michigan P, 2006. pp. 123-147.

Scott, Grant F. The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts. UP of New England, 1994.

Sugano, Michio. “When Was ‘Keats’s Last Sonnet’ Written?” Studies in Romanticism 34.3 (1995), pp. 413-440.

‘I have accepted the assistance of a friend…’: Fanny, Fanny, and Keats

Amy Wilcockson
University of Nottingham

RE: Keats’s 11 September 1820 letter to Fanny Keats

A man reclines on a Sopha bed, with a woman seated by his side. She is holding a quill pen and paper, listening intently to every whisper the man makes as he slowly, painfully, dictates to her. The woman dips the quill in an inkpot on a table next to the bed, and begins: ‘My dear Fanny’, ending the ‘y’ with a flourish. She continues to listen and write, covering the page with her long looping handwriting as the man recounts his final goodbyes to a most beloved sister. The woman pauses as the man coughs, bringing a handkerchief to his lips. A spot of red lingers on the cloth as he brings his hand stiffly back down to rest by his side. Both ignore this and continue slowly. ‘I am as well as I can expect’, the man says, ‘…and feel very impatient to get on board as the sea air is expected to be of great benefit to me’ (Letters 2: 332). The man and woman both know this not to be true but carry on the charade anyway. For John Keats, and his fiancée Fanny Brawne, both knew that his upcoming voyage to Italy was one that he would probably never return from. The letter being written was to John’s sister, Fanny Keats. It was his last epistle to her, as well as one of his final letters.

Keats sent forty-two letters in total to his youngest sibling Fanny, the first dated 10 September 1817, when she was fourteen and he twenty-two, and the last almost exactly three years later, on 11 September 1820. In his first letter, Keats jocularly told Fanny to ‘preserve all my Letters’ so that in later times ‘when things may have strangely altered and god knows what happened, we may read over together and look with pleasure on times past’ (Letters 1: 156). Separated from her brothers and only being allowed to see them occasionally, Fanny did as Keats asked. She carefully read, re-read, and preserved her brother’s letters, thus providing us generations later with the most comprehensive set of epistles from Keats to any single correspondent.

Characteristically, Keats’ letters to Fanny contained news and gossip about their family and friends, particularly their wayward brothers Thomas and George, alongside giving brotherly advice. In later letters, Keats includes frequent references to his own health, and enquiries into Fanny’s state of well-being. This focus on health, from Keats worrying about his ‘throat [not] being well enough to warrant…walking’, to detailing his more serious complaints, was a common topic of conversation in Romantic-period correspondence (Letters 2: 121). The Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, frequently treated his correspondents to descriptions of his rectal prolapse, recounting tales of his ‘rectum which is right in Latin [but] certainly wrong with me’ (Southey: Letter 3269). His fellow poet, Thomas Campbell, generally opened his letters with descriptions of his various ailments, including rheumatism and painful venereal disease, which left him ‘pissing razor blades’ (MS. Eng. Misc. d.184, f.13, Bodleian Library). As George C. Grinnell has stated in his fascinating study of Romantic health, this was a culture with an ‘obsession with health and illness’ (5). Keats was no exception to this and was probably particularly acute to possible ailments due to his medical training. Of course, by the time this letter to his sister was written, Keats was suffering from tuberculosis, which he ultimately succumbed to only five months afterwards.

His final letter to Fanny tells much about the poor state of his health. Keats discusses leaving for Italy ‘in the hope of entirely re-establishing [his] health’, and his sorrow at not seeing his sister before he leaves. He recounts his plans of visiting Naples and then Rome, and his relief at leaving the ‘cold; wet, uncertain climate’ of England behind him. However, what I find particularly interesting is the contrast in tone between this letter and the epistles Keats was writing to other correspondents around this time. Keats is consoling and seeking to alleviate Fanny’s worries in both this 11 September letter, and in his previous one to her, written three weeks earlier on 23 August. On hearing she has been suffering from low spirits, Keats advises his sister to ‘not suffer Your Mind to dwell on unpleasant reflections—that sort of thing has been the destruction of my health’ (Letters 2: 329). He provides brotherly advice, knowing with the failure of his own health that Fanny’s ‘chief care’ should be her own (Letters 2: 330). In his 11 September letter, Keats continues in this comforting vein. He stresses twice that it is not ‘illness that prevents me from writing’, but because he has been ‘recommended to avoid every sort of fatigue’. A few lines later, he states that ‘if I feel too tired to write myself I shall have some friend to do it for me’. Again the insistence that he is not too ill, only tired, creates the impression of a caring older brother not wanting to make his sister’s health any worse, and so he shields from her the real state of his own. This sense of Keats protecting his sister’s feelings is emphasised by the switch in tone from reassuring when corresponding with her, to despairing when writing to his friends.

The 11 September letter to Fanny, and the next letter by Keats to his friend Charles Brown on 30 September were written nearly three weeks apart. However, when placed next to one another as they are in any letter edition, the difference is nothing short of striking. His letter to Brown begins: ‘The time has not yet come for a pleasant letter from me’, before Keats goes on to discuss the impossibility of ‘one heartening hope of my recovery’ (Letters 2: 344). After the soothing feel of his letters to Fanny, the letter to Brown and the three that follow jarringly demonstrate Keats’ negative reaction towards his new ‘posthumous existence’ (Letters 2: 359).

As someone who spends a large amount of time reading and editing correspondence as part of my research, this letter fascinates me for another reason. As demonstrated in my attempt at creative writing at the beginning of this piece, the 11 September letter was not actually written by Keats himself. Instead, it was transcribed for him by his fiancée Fanny Brawne. This was one of the first instances of a message from Brawne’s pen to Fanny Keats but was certainly not the last.

Thinking no doubt of his fiancée’s well-being, as well as his sister’s, Keats asked Brawne to write to Fanny ‘when I am gone and to communicate any intelligence [you] may hear of me’. Only one day after Keats left for Italy on 17 September 1820, Brawne wrote a letter to his sister. This was the start of a close and confidential relationship. Almost immediately, in a letter dated 6 October 1820, Brawne sent Fanny ‘her most affectionate love’ (Brawne: 8). By 1 February 1821, she was referring to the younger girl as her own ‘dear Sister’ (Brawne: 15). It is also in these letters to Fanny that Brawne’s feelings for Keats are made plain, as she writes ‘If I am to lose him I lose every thing and then you, after my Mother will be the only person I shall feel interest or attachment for—I feel that I love his sister as my own’ (Brawne: 16). Keats’ letter of 11 September was therefore vital for initiating the correspondence and ensuing friendship between the two foremost women in his life. It also provided his fiancée and sister with a clear link to the only other person who would share their immense grief at his death. Did Keats instigate their relationship for this purpose – just in case? It is comforting to think so.

Indirectly, Keats also provided the means for the revival of his beloved Fanny Brawne’s reputation. The letters I have quoted from above, plus a further twenty-nine from Brawne to Fanny Keats, were edited by Fred Edgcumbe in 1936. In his introduction, Edgcumbe tells of the mysterious benefactor who gifted Keats House, Hampstead, in 1934 a large collection of letters and books relating to the poet. In the midst of this treasure trove were the letters from Brawne to Fanny, the discovery of which not only sent shockwaves through Romantic circles, but also made scholars reassess their opinions of Keats’ fiancée. Formerly considered unworthy of Keats’ love, Brawne’s letters demonstrate her real passion for Keats, her pain at his death, and her consideration and kindness towards Fanny. Potentially none of these aspects of Brawne’s character would have been recorded if Keats had not initially urged her to write to his sister.

Despite being a short letter, not humorous or full of detail like those to his brother George, or full of feeling like those to Brawne, Keats’ 11 September letter to Fanny is not just hugely informative but, I think, moving as well. This epistle reveals much about the poet’s character and, because it established the future correspondence between Keats’s sister and fiancée, it has had a huge impact on later perspectives of his life and loves. It also determines Keats’ fondness and concern for his sister. Edgcumbe states that ‘from Keats’ letters it is evident that there was little intimacy between the brothers and their sister’ (Brawne: xxiv). This letter proves Edgcumbe wrong. Although Keats never wrote to his sister personally again, through Brawne she was kept updated on the twists and turns of his journey to Italy, and the precarious state of his health. Brawne herself stated in a letter of 27 March 1821 that Keats was no longer reading either her or his sister’s letters, leaving them unopened and eventually taking them (literally) with him to the grave (Brawne: 20). In his last letter, to Charles Brown on 30 November 1820, Keats’ final thoughts were remarkably not of Brawne, but of his sister. Keats asked Brown to send Fanny a note updating her on his progress, before declaring she ‘walks about my imagination like a ghost’ (Letters 2: 360). To the last, Keats was always Fanny’s protective big brother, concerned about his sister’s well-being and mindful of her feelings. It is the bright, considerate, and very human side of Keats which comes to the fore in his concluding correspondence with Fanny, the final letter of this kind before feelings of pain and regret came to dominate his remaining four letters.

Contributor’s Note

Amy Wilcockson is a PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham, and a Keats-Shelley Association of America Communications Fellow 2020/21. She is currently working on her thesis, an edition of the letters of the neglected Scottish Romantic poet, Thomas Campbell (1777-1844).

Works Cited:

Brawne, Fanny. Letters of Fanny Brawne to Fanny Keats [1820-1824].Ed. Fred Edgcumbe. London: Oxford UP, 1936.

Campbell, Thomas to John Richardson. 16 December 1800. MS. Eng. Misc. d. 184, f. 13. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Grinnell, George C. The Age of Hypochondria: Interpreting Romantic Health and Illness. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Ed. Hyder E. Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.

Southey, Robert. Letter 3269, Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 21 March 1819. The Collected Letters of Robert Southey, Part Six. Ed. Ian Packer and Lynda Pratt (Romantic Circles Online) [Accessed: 28 August 2020].

In short I love you

Brian Rejack
Illinois State University

RE: John Aitken’s 17 August 1820 letter to John Keats
(read Aitken’s full letter here)

Imagine for a moment that you are a bank clerk in Dunbar, Scotland in the summer of 1820. Your name is John Aitken, you are twenty-five years old, and you currently nurture some as-yet unrealized literary aspirations (you’ll edit some literary magazines in years to come). Your favorite contemporary poet has just published his third book, and you’ve read it and luxuriated in its store of beauties. You may even now be predicting that this latest volume will secure the lasting fame of this young poet–born the same year as you–despite the treatment his first two books received from that mischievous band of quizzers over at Blackwood’s Magazine, among other reviewers. And just in the last week, you’ve confirmed what you already suspected from reading his poems: he is in ill health, “inhabiting a sickened and shaken body,” as Leigh Hunt posed it in his review of the new volume. This revelation has given you an idea, though. You have a house, a younger sister who tends it (let’s hope you at least pay her well), a truly impressive library (upwards of a thousand volumes!), and the perfect hot and dry climate to support the convalescence of a consumptive poet (ok, the climate may not be ideal). You make the decision: it is time for you to write a letter to John Keats.

I begin with this second-person exercise because what has always fascinated me about John Aitken’s letter to John Keats, written two hundred years ago today, is simply this: what was that guy thinking?! I get the whole affective-connection-to-an-author thing (I think my own orientation toward Keats testifies as much). Aitken’s fan letter, though, is on a whole other level. He signs off as “your real welwisher,” which really is an understatement. Aitken offers a good deal more than praise of the poetry and hopes for the poet’s health: he invites Keats to come live with him (and be his love, but we’ll get to that). Although Aitken wouldn’t know it at the time of his writing, Keats had just the previous day written a response to another invitation urging him to spend the winter elsewhere than London. That invitation, however, was from Percy Shelley, and it posed two significant advantages over Aitken’s: 1) it was an invitation from a known person, a friend even (though not a close one), and 2) it was an invitation to go to Italy, whose climate surely exceeds that of East Lothian, at least in terms of suitability for recovering from tuberculosis.

Aitken, though, seems not to have viewed these two factors (his residence in a more northern clime than London’s and his status as a complete stranger) as the most significant hindrances to achieving his aim. No, he chose instead to make sure that Keats wouldn’t be turned off by an invitation from a countryman of the writers of Blackwood’s! So Aitken begins his letter. He apologizes for the “manifest baseness of conduct” from the likes of John Gibson Lockhart and John Wilson. Aitken even claims that he’s defended Keats to the Blackwood’s gang directly: “some that are {c}onnected with it, know well, how much, by every means in my power, I have endeavoured to soften its illiberality.” To Aitken’s credit, it appears that he really was telling the truth about his efforts. About a month after Aitken sent his letter to Keats, while he was likely eagerly waiting for a reply from the poet to arrive at the East Lothian Bank, he instead received a reply from another of his correspondents: no less than Z himself, the writer of the Cockney School essays in Blackwood’s, John Gibson Lockhart.

In Andrew Lang’s biography of Lockhart, he quotes a letter to “a Mr. Aitken, in Dunbar,” written on 15 September 1820, in which Lockhart claims to have “already attempted to say something kind about Mr. Keats, in Blackwood’s Magazine, but been thwarted.” Presumably Lockhart was responding to a letter from Aitken exhorting him to defend Keats. Lockhart did, in his review of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound in the September 1820 issue, at least give Keats a bit of mild praise (while still ultimately deriding his “Cockneyism” in fairly choice language). What’s remarkable about Aitken opening his letter with this extended apologia for, essentially, all of Scotland and especially its literary culture, is that he imagines that factor–his shared national heritage with Lockhart–will be the greatest barrier to his entrée into Keats’s intimate private life.

Undeterred, Aitken moves to his main topic: inviting Keats to come to Scotland to live with a total stranger. It’s a tough ask, and Aitken seems to recognize as much. First he explains how he even knows that Keats’s health is a problem. For one, Aitken read in Leigh Hunt’s Indicator that Keats was ill, a fact Hunt disclosed by “tak[ing] a friend’s liberty” in revealing the information to his readers, to which I say, I don’t know that it was really your liberty to take, Leigh. Also, why you do always have to nitpick in your reviews of Keats?? Don’t you realize that’s not how the game works? Friends write glowing reviews, enemies write vicious attacks.

But back to Aitken. To further prove that he truly knew Keats, and that he had “real interest for [Keats’s] welfare,” Aitken claims that the news from the Indicator was just a confirmation of what he already knew from reading Keats’s latest volume of poetry: “I guessed that all was not well with you–and I heard the parting beauty of the Swan’s adieus in your numbers.” Whether or not Keats would have appreciated such a reading of his numbers is another question altogether. But now that Aitken has offered his explanation of how he knows about Keats’s current state, he’s ready to dive right in to the request itself. Of course, he seems to recognize that it’s all a bit… weird? In the process, though, his hesitation and ambiguity just make things even more awkward.

Note for instance how he offers what could be described as the first attempt at his proposal to Keats:

Would that it were in my power to yield you one real feeling of pleasure,–that aught within the reach of my influence could be welcome to you,–that I were a brother or a bosom friend to you, that by participation, any of your cares might be lessened.

Not exactly a clear invitation! Aitken continues, apologizing for Scotland some more, noting that he realizes Keats may think it a place “where kind-hearts, and sunshine and loveliness and sympathy are equally rare,” but hoping to figure out how to “assure you that such is not the case.” A bit more prevaricating on the question, and then finally, the first clear statement of what this letter is all about: “But still I must endeavor to bring you to Scotland.”

Why is this letter filled with so much explanation, apology, and misdirection? The answer is really quite simple: Aitken is in love. And it’s not just any kind of love, but love for someone who feels intimately close to him despite the two never having met or even corresponded. Call it modern celebrity, call it fandom, call it an affective manifestation of romantic-era print culture. Following Deidre Lynch, and Ann Wierda Rowland and Paul Westover, among others, we might call it simply “author love,” and note that there have been some torrid cases of it directed Keats’s way (here’s looking at you, Louis Arthur Holman ). One thing is certain: Aitken’s got it, and he’s got it bad.

The word love creeps into this letter rather slowly and covertly. Its first appearance is via “loveliness,” when Aitken claims that Scotland is not in fact devoid of that characteristic–one imagines he might even venture to say that it increases, or surely would with Keats’s presence there. Love recurs soon after in another and more directly negative formulation. After posing the matter plainly, that Aitken is inviting Keats to Scotland, he returns to the letter’s initial obstacle, and notes once again that Scotland is “a land which you cannot love.” If loveliness threatens to be in short supply, and if Keats cannot love the country itself, then where is the love to be found?

Once again it takes Aitken a while to get there, but we’ve established that that’s how he operates by this point, no? There is some more misdirection as a “younger, amiable sister” is introduced, but the main point of mentioning her seems to be that she is Aitken’s housekeeper (she is neither named nor mentioned again). Between his anxious questions (“Will you be persuaded to make the experiment?” and “Need I say more?”), we find also the offer of a “select and extensive” library, and the promise of “soothing affection, real sterling, Scottish kindness, and hospitality.” And then we reach what Aitken has clearly been (excuse the pun) aching to articulate from the start.

As we all know, it’s dangerous to ask “need I say more,” because once you offer the question, you’ve immediately created the need. Aitken’s subsequent more is a tortuous looping of negation: “but more I cannot say than this that there is nothing selfish in my request.” Another dangerous clause. Surely something selfish will soon follow. But first Aitken defends his selflessness by explaining that his request is due to the “amiable qualities of [Keats’s] heart” (which Aitken has judged from the poems), and because of his desire that Keats’s literary talents continue to be nurtured (presumably for the good of literary history and what not). This claim leads, naturally, to the clarification that serves as my essay’s title, and the phrase that I, like Aitken, have been putting off for far too long: “In short I love you.”

The section of Aitken’s letter with the fateful sentence

Imagine again that you are John Aitken. You’ve just written the words “In short I love you” in a letter to John Keats, a man you don’t know but a poet you do. What comes next? How do you recover from such a bold show of vulnerability and intimacy? How do you convince the man you love but don’t know that your confession of love is not selfish at all but actually quite the opposite? Are you starting to think that this letter may have been a bad idea, or have you instead begun to write yourself into thinking that this fantasy may just become reality?

Of course, I know that Aitken’s full syntax reads “In short I love you … for yourself alone,” and that he means to say that the invitation is a selfless act demonstrating his high esteem for Keats. But how does one not stop with a bit of a shock when reading the first part of the sentence? Aitken certainly doesn’t do himself any favors by structuring the sentence as he does, with an additional clarification in between dashes and parentheses. Even though the sentence is trying to get to “for yourself alone,” it sure works pretty hard to delay that arrival.

What Aitken has to say in his parenthetical is also somewhat detrimental to his attempt to claim selflessness in his motives. Note to all letter-writers: be wary of striking through “will” and replacing it with “must”! Telling someone they “will must” love you “of necessity,” is probably not going to be all that well received. Aitken, though, seems as assured of Keats’s (future) love for him as he is of his for Keats in that moment.

Having confessed his love, and predicted demanded its return, Aitken can now proceed to logistics, and he runs through a few different travel options. He even imagines himself at the end of Keats’s future journey, should Keats come “by any of the land conveyances,” and thereby “pass through our ancient Town.” In that case Keats would find Aitken “on the watch, as impatient to meet with you as if you were a young Lady.” Who knows what Aitken himself thought or imagined about the destined love between him and Keats, but it’s clear from this comparison (and really from the whole letter) that he understands the erotic component of desire at play here, even if there are limits on what could be articulated precisely on that score (and when can desire ever be articulated precisely anyway).

It’s hard for me to decide what is the most touching part of his letter, or the most pitiful, or maybe both at the same time, but surely in the running for either or both would be his penultimate sentence: “I trust you will write me, and that your letter shall not, at least, state decisively that you will not come; as I have almost persuaded myself that you will in earnest visit me.” We know, of course, that Keats did not travel to Scotland, but to Italy (though not to Shelley). And even Aitken would have figured out pretty quickly after sending off his missive that the wished-for meeting would not happen (Hunt refers to Keats’s departure for Italy in the Indicator‘s 20 September issue). One question remains for us, though: did Keats write a reply to Aitken?

Call me a cynic, but I found myself deeply skeptical the first time I noticed in Hyder Edward Rollins’s edition of the letters the claim that “Keats must surely have replied.” (Who knew Rollins was a romantic??) In the last few weeks before he left England, Keats was rather busy, not to mention physically ill and mentally distressed, and I find it hard to believe that responding to Aitken’s letter, as lovely and sincere as the invitation may have been, would have been a high priority. First there is the question of whether Keats simply found the letter a bit… creepy? Or even just overly forward, if well-intentioned? Perhaps the letter was well-received, and Keats did at least want to send a note of thanks, or maybe ask a friend to write a note to Aitken on his behalf. But if such things had happened, would John Aitken not have done everything in his power to ensure that his own personal Keatsian relic end up in the hands of someone who would care for its journey into posterity? Given that no such letter currently exists in this particular moment of posterity, sadly for Aitken (and for us), I think it’s likely that no reply came.

So let’s try this one more time. Imagine we are John Aitken. We have sent our letter to John Keats. We go to work at the bank, and we believe know that a letter in reply from Keats is on its way to us. Each day when the mail coach comes through our part of our ancient town, we watch and hope to catch a glimpse of the one we love. We wait.

Keats to Shelley: Load every rift

Susan J. Wolfson
Princeton University

RE: Keats’s 16 August 1820 letter to Percy Bysshe Shelley

I. Incident of the Letter

It wasn’t the letter that Shelley sent Keats, care of Leigh Hunt, inviting him to Pisa, dated 27 July 1820. This arrived in the London post office on August 10, went to Hunt’s Examiner offices on Friday August 11, and then on Saturday to Keats, living with the Hunts at 13 Mortimer Terrace, at the edge of Kentish Town.

It was the miscarriage of another letter, a note from Fanny Brawne that Keats received later that Saturday: “some one of Mr Hunt’s household opened a Letter of mine–upon which I immediately left–,” he told his sister on Sunday, reporting his abrupt change of residence to Hampstead (LK 2:313). The note had been there since Thursday, August 10. Mrs. Hunt gave it to a maid to bring to Keats upstairs. The maid broke the seal to sneak a peek, quit her post on Friday, handing it to nine-year old Thornton Hunt to deliver (Ward 365). Soiled and crumpled, it reached Keats on Saturday. It was all an “accident,” he concluded by the next day, the 13th, and according to Mrs. Hunt, the purloined letter “contained not a word of the least consequence” (LK 2:313n2).  By the 23rd, he would have unwritten this whole chapter: “The Seal-breaking business is over blown,” he assured his sister, with a rueful pun on the verb: exaggerated, and passed (LK 2:329).

But on the 12th it felt like an invasion of privacy–his engagement to Fanny was still “secret” (LK 2:321)–sufficient to catalyze the increasing pressure at the Hunts’ busy household (five raucous children, servants) amid oppressive hot weather and noisy street life on the Terrace. At the end of a hectic week of coughing up dark blood, then advised that he must go to Italy for the winter, the letter-accident “made me nervous,” Keats tells his sister (313). A tactful understatement: he had wept for hours, inconsolably, then packed up his few books and belongings and staggered a mile or so along Hampstead Heath to Hampstead village, heading to the Bentleys’ lodgings at Well Walk, the brothers’ home years before (and where Tom had died). By the time he arrived, it was too late to inquire, so on he went to the Brawnes at Wentworth Place (he had recently lived next door, with Charles Brown). Mrs. Brawne, seeing his feverish exhaustion, took him in. There Keats lived until he left for Italy, under the care and affection of the household, especially the motherly Mrs. Brawne.

Having written to his sister and to his publisher John Taylor Saturday (the 13th), Keats finally felt able to send a note over to Hunt via Fanny (folded and sealed), with embarrassment for his “lunes” (the underlining is an inflection of wry self-reading). “I hope to see you when ever you can get time for I feel really attach’d to you for you many sympathies with me, and patience” (ALS Berg; LK 2:316).  Hunt sent a note back right away, cajoling Keats’s coming relocation with an affectionate Italian, “Giovanni mio,” promising to visit that very day “& most probably every day,” expressing relief at Keats’s attachment, with reciprocal assurances to him of “how much I am attached to yourself,” and signing, “Your affectionate friend” (ALS; LK 2:317).

Keats’s 13 August 1820 letter to Leigh Hunt

For all this repledging, however, it’s clear that Keats was cut to the heart by the thought of other eyes on his correspondence. So I confess to pained contradiction on this bicentenary of reading (scanning and commenting on) his letter to Percy Bysshe Shelley, even though he wrote it with such formal courtesy that he must have imagined it being shared (with Mrs. Shelley certainly, most likely others in their circle). But here we are, 200 years on, when Keats could not possibly have imagined his fame, or the massive undoing of all manners of privacy that follows.

II. The Last Summer

1820 was Keats’s last summer, and he knew it on his pulses.[1] A severe hemorrhage on June 23 (LK 2:300) had him stumbling from 2 Wesleyan Place over to Hunt’s, a few doors away, for help. He returned to his rooms at Wesleyan Place, then started vomiting blood. On the alarm of his landlady, Hunt raced over and insisted that Keats move in with him. The pulmonary attack went on for almost a week. The physicians called in prescribed repeated bleeding (Motion 520), further weakening him. Worse, they advised Keats to “contrive to pass the Winter in Italy” (LK 2:305). From here on, his new name was “Poor Keats!”–everywhere in letters and reports. Joseph Severn, who had done portraits of him and would accompany him to Italy, told their friend William Haslam, “Poor Keats … his appearance is shocking and now reminds me of poor Tom” (306), dead from consumption, December 1818. John and Maria Gisborne, friends of the Hunts and the Shelleys, visited on June 24 and again on July 12. Maria was aghast at “the sight of poor Keats, under sentence of death. . . . He never spoke and looks emaciated” (2:305n2). John sent a report right away to Shelley.

The thought of Fanny in this illness was so agonizing to Keats that even to see her (she visited daily) was torture. The note she sent on August 12 was a response to his having told her, “I cannot bear flashes of light and return into my glooms again … To be happy with you seems such an impossibility!” (Berg ALS, f.2). Folded and sealed, so ”that no eye may catch it” (f.1), this was his last (known) letter to her. The pain was not just leaving her, but of her, gradually, inevitably, leaving him: “Suppose me in Rome–well, I should there see you as in a magic glass going to and from town at all hours.” In this psychic imaginary, he could “see nothing but thorns for the future” (f.3). Call it death in life, or death & life. He had been tormenting himself all summer about her affection and loyalty; and Brown, he told her, was “doing me to death by inches” by teasing her into “flirting” with him. If she couldn’t imagine the “pang” to his “heart,” Brown, notwithstanding all his generosities, he was sure, had not minded his “heart having been made a football” (5 July; LK 2:303-4).

The beginning of Keats’s last known letter to Fanny Brawne

This was the season in which Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems was published. Keats kept his “spirits” up about it amid “very low hopes” for material success. “This shall be my last trial,” he was able to confide to Brown on June 21; “not succeeding, I shall try what I can do in the Apothecary line” (LK 2:298)–a grim echo of Blackwood’s snark that he never should have left this line at all: “It is better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John” (Z, 3:524). Copies of the volume arrived at the Hunts’ on June 28, ahead of the debut on July 3. Some pieces were placed this summer in the Literary Gazette and London Chronicle (LK 1:58-59; Gittings 582). Most of the first reviews were praising: Literary Gazette, an especially influential one in the Edinburgh Review by Francis Jeffrey, Charles Lamb’s in New Times (Hunt reprinted this in The Examiner), and of course Hunt’s in the Indicator. “My book has had a good success among literary people, and, I believe, has a moderate sale,” Keats told Brown on August 14, his first full day with the Brawnes (LK 2: 321). Word of mouth was helping: “I have been delighted with this volume and think it will even please the Million,” Severn told Haslam on July 12 or so, a week after it was out (2:306). Haydon added a cheer: “I … really cannot tell you how very highly I estimate [the poems]–they justify the assertions of all your Friends regarding your poetical powers I can assure you” (308). But if Keats and friends were hoping to relaunch his career, space in the press at large was riveted by the scandal of Princess Caroline claiming her station as Queen, while George IV was pressing a suit of adultery. Sales, even at 7s.6d., were modest, and never cleared the first edition.

By the summer, Brown was off again to Scotland, and news of Keats’s brother George in Kentucky brought another set of cuts by inches. Despite some optimistic business prospects in mid-June, his finances had taken a dive, and he was begging John for help, not understanding how dire his plight. Keats was worried about his sheer ability to keep writing. Mrs. Brawne tried to be encouraging about the Italy cure, and was ready on his return to welcome him into marriage and her household. In brief intervals of relief, Keats tried to cheer himself. But his heart had sunk.

On August 14 he sent Taylor his “Testament”: “All my estate real and personal consists in the hopes of the sale of books publish’d or unpublish’d.” He and Brown were to be the first creditors: “pay my Taylor the few pounds I owe him,” Keats punned, before rendering a final sentence in perfect iambic pentameter, “My Chest of Books divide among my friends” (LK 2:318-19).[2] Though no pun, My Chest was sadly double bound. “My dear Taylor,” he wrote just the day before, “My Chest is in so nervous a State, that … writing a Note half suffocates me … every line I write encreases the tightness of the Chest” (ALS, Pierpont Morgan Library; LK 2:315). He wanted to take care of business: “many Letters to write if I can manage them,” he told his sister August 13 (2:314). Ten days on, in a last letter to his dear, and oldest friend Haslam (23 August), he tells the tale again: “I could say much more than this half sheet would hold, but the oppression I have at the Chest will not suffer my Pen to be long-winded” (2:331). He could barely breathe, let alone inspire his Pen. Friends were raising funds for his trip to Italy and the needed medical care. He would never see Brown again, and he knew by the time Shelley’s letter arrived that he would be bidding farewell to everything and everyone he knew.

III. “Young Poets”

The correspondence of August 1820 between Keats and Shelley is no stand-alone diptych, then. It resonates not only in this last summer, but also across a train of four years. Hunt first brought the two together in a signal essay in The Examiner, 1 December 1816 (466: 761-62): Young Poets–the generation for the new century. Shelley was already out there, with heat, from Queen Mab, his Alastor volume, Laon and Cythna, and fierce political pamphlets. Keats had just one publication, a sonnet in The Examiner, back in May. Young Poets hosted his second, On first looking into Chapman’s Homer. The two met in the flesh at Hunt’s place in Hampstead on 12 December. Keats visited Shelley on his own on 15 February 1817, met him again at Hunt’s in October, and called with Hunt in November (JMS 150, 164, 185; LK 1:168).

Hunt nurtured group-spirit, and hosted a sonnet-writing contest on February 4, 1818 (KL 1:271). Endymion may have begun as a contest on steroids, an epic-flexing compact with Shelley in spring 1817 to write a long poem in six months (Medwin, 178-79). Keats began right away; but by October he wanted to keep Shelley at a distance, not from any stigma, but from likely supervision (however well-meaning). He was protective of “my own unfettered scope”–a metaphysics that Shelley might be prone to Alastorize, along with the “vexation” of “corrections and amputations” (MsK 1.13. 42; JK 62). Even so, he felt for Shelley’s abuse in the reviews of Queen Mab, with likely lashes for The Revolt of Islam, the tamer version of (the suppressed) Laon and Cythna. “Poor Shelley,” he writes to his brothers on 27 December, “I think he has his Quota of good qualities, in sooth la!!” (camping Cleopatra as she is trying, ineptly, to help Marc Antony into his armor after a night of debauchery; JK 78). Mindful of Z’s skewering of Hunt in Blackwood’s launch of the “Cockney School” series in October, and noting himself in its epigraph as a coming target, Keats felt a twinship. “Does Shelley go on telling strange Stories of the Death of Kings?” he joked to Hunt, 10 May, as he was trying to get on with Endymion: “Tell him there are strange Stories of the death of Poets–some have died before they were conceived.” Mary Shelley (not yet the famous “Author of Frankenstein”), he said, should “procure some fatal Scissars and cut the thread of Life of all to be disappointed Poets” (f. 3).

The last correspondence between the two poets was the letter Shelley sent on 27 July 1820 inviting Keats to Italy, and Keats’s reply on 16 August, with sincere thanks for his care and attention, with “the hope of seeing you soon.”

IV. “Distant Correspondents”

Keats did not send his reply to Shelley by international post, but trusted it to the Gisbornes, with a copy of the 1820 volume. Departing from Dover September 3, they arrived in Leghorn around October 10, and left Keats’s package with Mary’s sister, Claire Clairmont. Shelley collected it on 17 October (MSJ 335)–that is, two months on from its composition.

Writing a letter in “my Now,” Charles Lamb is acutely, cutely, aware that its reception–“your Now”–involves a “confusion of tenses,” with no way around the splayed temporality. It is a “grand solecism of two presents, … a degree common to all postage” (282). If this splay seems remote in our day of instant messaging and rapid-response email, a solecism was inescapable back then. At the time of writing his letter,  27 July, Shelley may have meant what Keats understood, an invitation to join his “household” (Clarke 151). Shelley seemed to be still in this groove after receiving Keats’s letter. “Where is Keats now? I am anxiously expecting him in Italy,” he wrote to Marianne Hunt (and implicitly to Leigh) near the end of October 1820, having heard nothing since. Where, indeed? The “Keats” of the mid-August letter, written at the Brawnes and mustering energy, good humor, and “the hope of seeing you soon,” had deteriorated by the time Shelley was asking this question. The voyage to Italy had been a near-death ordeal itself. Having boarded on September 17, enduring severe storms and then quarantine in Naples harbor, Keats had disembarked only on 31 October, his 25th birthday, and reached Rome, quite the worse, on November 15. The “Keats” of mid-August was a creature from another time, another place, another “Keats.”

The two Keatses have a reciprocal in two Shelleys: one of warm invitation, for hospitality, care and fruitful conversation; one more reluctant, even averse to intimate involvement. Shelley’s inquiry to Marianne Hunt projected utmost generosity–even amid domestic drama, with toddler Percy Florence underfoot (hard as it is to imagine the dull, corpulent Victorian gentleman at this stage):

I shall take care to bestow every possible attention on him. I consider his a most valuable life, and I am deeply interested in his safety. I intend to be the physician both of his body and his soul, to keep one warm & to teach the other Greek & Spanish. I am aware indeed in part, that I am nourishing a rival who will far surpass & this is an additional motive and will be an added pleasure. (LS 2:239-40)

The Keats who called to “Physician Nature” to relieve him of wanting to write poetry (still in a poem) could not have conceived a better ally in human nature, genuinely selfless. While Shelley may have been spinning Shelleyan romance (every sentence, every clause, begins with I), the impulse was genuine, and he would have had no reason to playact for Hunt’s wife. He sent a follow-up invitation, which reached Naples in early November (LS 2:268n), after Keats had departed for Rome.

Well, that was then: Shelley first in the July now, then in the October now. As Lamb recognizes, a sincere truth may “un-essence herself” in the long interval of correspondence (283). By St Agnes Eve, January 1821, Keats’s body was beyond the help of any mortal physician, and Shelley was immersed in (ever new) turmoil. He was falling in love with Teresa Viviani and out of love with Mary; then Edward and Jane Williams arrived, and he was falling in love with her. On 18 February 1821, just days before Keats’s death, Shelley, innocent of this end, clarified (or revised his memory of) his initial invitation: “I have written to him to ask him to come to Pisa, without however inviting him to our own house,” he wrote to Claire; “We are not rich enough for that sort of thing. Poor fellow!” (LS 2:221n). Then, hearing how poor Keats really was and still thinking him in Naples, he wrote again (another lost letter), urging him to Pisa and into his care (LS 2:268n).

V. “My dear Keats … Yours sincerely P. B. Shelley”

The letter sent from Livorno/Pisa on 27 July 1820 was affectionately addressed “My dear Keats” and was signed, “Yours sincerely, P.B. Shelley” (LS 2:220-1). Shelley used good-quality, 8×10 “wove paper,” writing in a hasty scrawl, and mailed it “to the care of Leigh Hunt, Esq.” at The Examiner. Hunt knew what it was, and brought it immediately to Keats.[3]

The first page of Shelley’s letter to Keats. Courtesy of Leslie Morris at Houghton Library, Harvard University.

The second page of Shelley’s letter to Keats. Courtesy of Leslie Morris at Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Keats’s plight was already a conversation, news of his “consumptive appearance” quickly conveyed by the Gisbornes to Shelley, and murmured among his friends at home. However genuinely concerned these circuits, Keats knew the grammar: his collapse would be attributed to weakness, sensitivity, even an inability to take a bad review. Shelley begins tactfully by framing the case otherwise: “This consumption is a disease particularly fond of people who write such good verses as you have done.” He sets Keats in the noble company of “english poets,” but then, unfortunately, with more climatizing more than canonizing: “an English winter” helps this disease to “indulge its selection.” Shelley may have sensed that such “joking” was off key, so he turns “serious” about a winter in “Pisa or its neighbourhood”: “Mrs Shelley unites with myself in urging the request, that you would take up your residence with us.–” We may sense the germ of Shelley’s later tempering to Claire: with us is a bit ambiguous. It could mean at our home, or just Pisa. Without specifying the hospitality, Shelley shifts from the subject of “your health” to tour-promoter, ready to declaim “about the statues & the paintings & the ruins–& … about the mountains the Streams & the fields, the colours of the sky, & the sky itself —-”

If his catalogue seems halfway to prose-poetry, both in litany and lilt, it’s a fine preview of the poet-to-poet conversation Shelley promises, and to which his letter now turns. In preparation for his visit, he tells Keats that he’s gone back to Endymion with fresh interest. He doesn’t mention that when he first read it, he’d been disappointed, and even wrote on 6 September 1819 to James Ollier, the publisher who had dumped Keats after some notably harsh reviews and the poor sales of the 1817 Poems, with implicit endorsement of his spurn:

much praise is due to me for having read [it], the Authors intention appearing to be that no person should possibly get to the end of it. Yet it is full of some of the highest & the finest gleams of poetry … I think if he had printed about 50 pages of fragments from it I should have been led to admire Keats as a poet more than I ought, of which there is now no danger. (LS 2:117)

Yet: the superlatives suggest that Shelley still saw gleams worth the salvage, despite his whiff of improper, class-inflected value in “more than I ought.”[4] Keats had promise, if only he had better examples–namely himself, and he asked Ollier to put Keats on the gratis-copy list for all his works. Sometime in early 1820, Shelley picked up Endymion again; though he still saw rubble, he would encourage Keats about the gems: “I have lately read your Endymion again for & ever with a new sense of the treasures of poetry it contains, bu though treasures poured forth with indistinct profusion.–” He wonders if the low sales were due to a lack of discipline–forgetting, weirdly, that the same reviews that had targeted him for political views, had also taken similar aim at Keats (Hunt’s proxy).

By another measure, however, Shelley had hit on an accidentally productive effect: instead of a distinctly assembled “Long Poem,” here was a new genre for long-form work, an anthology of treasures to go back to, poetic capital as cultural capital (Rovee 995). Keats himself suggested that a long poem offered “the Lovers of Poetry … a little Region to wander in where they may pick and choose and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second Reading” (MsK 1.13.43; JK 61). Not ready to theorize his reading of Keats’s admirable “fragments” on this template, Shelley tries to Shelleyize Keats. “I feel persuaded that you are capable of the greatest things,” he assures him, mentioning his request that Ollier “send you Copies of my books” (not thinking of any sting to Keats). He means Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci–saying of the last, with affected modesty, “below the good how far! but far above the great!” This is last line of Thomas Gray’s Progress of Poesy (1757), describing the ever young spirit of Poesy rising “Beyond the limits of a vulgar fate, / Beneath the Good how far–but far above the Great” (121-23). Gray’s counter-intuitive grammar elevates Platonic Good above the vagaries of vulgar social judgment about what’s Great. (I thank Susan Stewart and Marshall Brown for helping me sort this out). Gray’s scale, says Paul Fry, means to promote “human virtue flourishing in a state of liberty,” but rhetorically it amounts to “the most boastful ending to be found in any major ode in English” (88). This is the line into which Shelley’s quotation, pretending to matters of style, only half ironically, draws himself.

Unironically, Shelley means to model a worthy example: “In poetry I have sought to avoid system and mannerism; I wish those who excel me in genius” (he flatters Keats) “had would pursue the same plan.—-” This “had” is a small tale in itself: Shelley starts to mark Keats’s fault, then shifts to a tense of reform. In the visible scripting, Keats can read it both ways. Yet Prometheus Unbound is a kind of weird invocation. It is full of system and mannerism, and also something of a treasure trove: an anthology of every poetic form, theme, and image system that Shelley had ever entertained and polished up–and so closer to Endymion than he might realize.[5]  

Shelley closes his letter most cordially, with “anxious wishes for your health happiness, & success … in whatever you undertake.” Rereading the letter, Shelley goes back, and inserts a parenthesis urging Keats, after the trials of the summer, to take seriously his urging to Italy: (if you think it as necessary as I do).[6] This was sincere care and concern, but the impression on Keats was an equally strong wish for his poetic reform. Keats, to whom Hunt conveyed “a copy of the Cenci, as from” Shelley (so Keats thanks him), responds kindly, and in kind.

VI. “My dear Shelley, … most sincerely yours, / John Keats–”[7]

Keats always felt condescended to by Shelley, titled, more established, and still publishing with the firm that had jettisoned him. “So it matters,” as John Barnard astutely comments, “that Keats addresses Shelley as a social and intellectual equal” (125-26). His letter is more beautifully scripted than Shelley’s to him. He took pains with it, material as well as compositional. He could expect it to be shared with others (Mary Shelley, Hunt) and he wanted to match Shelley’s evident care. It’s a clean letter, not one of those cross-written mazes–per-page postage being spared by the Gisbornes’ transport. Shelley wrote on two sides of one leaf. Keats used one leaf, too, and like Shelley folded his page in half, to use three sides, the fourth for the address. He was careful to secure its privacy, folding his already folded page twice more, from the top and the bottom, so as entirely to obscure the first page of writing, then folding twice more, from the left and the right, for sealing, so that the only writing that remained was P_ B_ Shelley Esqre. (the large two-page plate in Motion, 528-29, lets you trace these moves–or click here for digital images of the entire letter).[8]

It’s such a circumspect letter, in tact and etiquette as well as in its weighted, word-crafted conversation, that I think Keats must have pre-drafted it, then fair-copied. It doesn’t seem ex tempore–no corrections or cancellations. It certainly was a keeper in the Shelley family (it was privately held by them until 2004).[9] With Shelley’s letter right “beside me” as he writes (f.1), as if in real time conversation with this distant correspondent, Keats thanks him for the kind invitation and readily concedes his plight. But he resists feeding Shelley’s narrative of his “dangerous” state and the “consumption” to which young geniuses are prone. As close as he gets is wry politeness: “if I do not take advantage of your invitation it will be prevented by a circumstance I have very much at heart to prophesy.” Rather than dwell on this misgiving heart, he delivers a stoic scenario, going to Italy “as a soldier marches up to a battery” (f.1). He had auditioned this for Taylor in that 13 August letter, promising (amid horrible haunting) to endure “the Journey to Italy … with the sensation of marching up against a Batterry” (LK 2:315). He assures Shelley that his distress is mostly in anticipation: “My nerves at present are the worst part of me, yet they feel soothed when I think that come what extreme may, I shall not be destined to remain in one spot long enough to take a hatred of any four particular bed-posts” (f.1). How like Oscar Wilde saying of his last bed-post site, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” Keats is determined to write comedy for Shelley, to disarm him of pity and condescension.

He then pivots to his preferred conversation, about poetry, responding to Shelley’s assessment of Endymion as a kind of accident with promise, and offering Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci as examples of how Keats might invest poetic treasures for better gains. Keats (we know from Fanny Brawne) read The Cenci with great care (LK 2:322), making numerous notes (as he had with Paradise Lost) in preparation for a seminar with Shelley on principles and practices. The Cenci had a number of positive reviews, many of which Keats could have read, and it was the best seller of all Shelley’s volumes.[10] Prometheus Unbound (published in mid July) was not yet in Keats’s hands, but his interest was keen, given his Hyperion project, abandoned for several months, but not out of mind.

On the question of “treasures poured forth,” Keats is no slacker, but an aggressive theorist. He doesn’t take up the politics or polemics of The Cenci, qualifying himself only for “the Poetry, and dramatic effect” (f.2). Maintaining disinterest on Shelley’s “purpose”–what Keats calls, with a jab at Shelley’s principled atheism, “the God”–Keats invokes aesthetic intensity, describing it as “the mammon”–the party to which he’ll sign on. He writes this word again with a capital M, implying his God-function: “an artist must serve Mammon.” It’s a cheeky, even outrageous, reversal of Jesus’s sermon on God and Mammon in the Gospels (Luke 16:1-13; Matthew 5:24). Keats, I’m sure, has the one in Matthew in mind (another verse supplies his epigraph to Ode on Indolence): “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” As “an artist,” Keats is happy to serve Mammon, laying up his treasures not in the transcendent heaven of magnanimous polemics, but in the veins of poetry.

He calls this “’self concentration’” (he puts this in quotation marks), and concedes an equation to “selfishness perhaps” (f.2 [no quotation marks]). By this last noun, Keats does not mean stinginess. Haydon, who ought to know, described him as “the most unselfish of human creatures”; he “would have shared his fortune with any man who wanted it” (Taylor, 2:10). Keats means aesthetic self-respect. This form of “self” is a different register, and value, from its antonym of “no self” in his parsing of “poetical Character” to Richard Woodhouse, on 27 October 1818. Assuring him that bad reviews had not wounded him, Keats contrasts his no-self to “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime”–the habit (so iconic as to be eponymous) of imprinting his poetry with his character as a “virtuous Philosopher,” and so limiting a capacity to imagine any other consciousness (MsK 1.39.139; JK 276). That’s one kind of self concentration: self-important. It’s not the self-concentration that he means when he is describing the commitments of a true artist. Keats sees in Shelley’s magnanimity of purpose a similar constraint by virtuous philosophy, if not Wordsworth’s particular (eponymic) brand.

The section of Keats’s letter with his famous exhortation to Shelley: “‘load every rift’ of your subject with ore.”

Keats is as polite and deferential as can be: “You I am sure will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist and ‘load every rift’ of your subject with ore” (f.2). Keats, the artist of this very sentence, nicely loads ore into more. His marked quotation arcs (purposefully) over another Mammon-site, prior to the King James Bible: the Cave of Mammon that tempts Spenser’s Knight of Temperance, Sir Guyon, in The Faerie Queene (II.VII.28).  

Emboss’d with massy Gold of glorious Gift
And with rich Metal loaded every Rift,
That heavy Ruin they did seem to threat.

Spenser’s very words are loaded with magnificence over magnanimity, a sensation of imminent ruin part of the thrill of beholding such laden, glorious riches, in the sound of the words no less than in the image rendered: Emboss’d, massy, Gold, glorious Gift. The allure of Metal loaded is loaded with a phonic slide between the two words, with a hint of all. As Marjorie Garber comments, “loaded tells a story of abundance, excess, danger and desire” (1).

It’s a sign of Keats’s admirable discipline of any prompt to self-pity that he didn’t glance at the “metal sick” in Hyperion’s palate, as he realizes his doom (1.189). He reads as an artist and goes for the perilous load of gold, in conscious delight of tempting a macrostructure (call it “purpose”) to implode, however appalled a Christian Knight ought to be. As he (and Shelley no doubt) knew, Milton, the poet of magnanimous Christian argument, was addicted to Spenser’s Cave of Mammon. Milton invokes it in Areopagitica as a sagely existential temptation, Guyon in a situation where “he might see and know and yet abstain.” Keats sees in Spenser (and in Milton, too) a covert attraction to what is being abstained. He marked a passage in Paradise Lost (I: 22) about Mammon in Hell, sensing a lode of “metallic ore” (1.675; catching the riff on Spenser, he underlines this phrase), then leading a mining expedition. In one of his funniest supplements, Milton imagines Mammon’s ready training for this:

… e’en in Heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,
That ought divine or holy else enjoy’d … (1.680-82)

Keats marked this with downward lines in his left margin. From Spenser to Milton, he grasps the ambivalence (loaded with or) of describing worldly riches with a framing of a moral argument.

Keats’s alertness draws on his own mine of loaded words. Not that Shelley was keyed into it, but we can see Keats drawing, with variable pressures, on his lode. He sees “the grandeur of the ode, / Growing, like Atlas, stronger from its load” (Epistle to Charles Cowden Clarke 63). For a different god, load is the word he wants for the agony of a pressure to speak without knowing the words: “to load / His tongue with the full weight of utterless thought” (Hyperion 2.119-20). By setting load at the end of the line, Keats pauses it with metrical weight against the blank space beyond, then measures out eleven syllables of the next line, with meta-poetic force at a double-stressed full weight. In The Fall of Hyperion, the poet-dreamer is trapped in a nightmare, where “I bore / The load of this eternal quietude” (I.389-90). Even in erotic luxury, load weighs with intensity. Endymion recounts a dream-state of lovemaking in which “each moment might be redeem’d / And plunder’d of its load of blessedness” (1.659-60)–a poetic for Endymion itself (what Shelley would discipline). In To Autumn, the season’s easy, luxuriant strain is “to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run” (3-4). For Keats, load is a keyword for concentration.

There is another Mammon-mindedness in Keats’s letter, though not under this particular word, namely, material money. One of the songs in the 1820 volume, Robin Hood, jests that one richness, honey (fated to rhyme), “Can’t be got without hard money!” (p. 135; just before To Autumn). Keats had declined the sure money of an apothecary profession to hazard life as an artist. Unlike Shelley, he didn’t have the safety net of an annuity. He had to care about the market, the force of reviews, and immediate sales and esteem as a credit for a publisher’s confidence. This is no cynical caving into Mammon (as some endowed professors have argued). Mammon is a figure for thinking; the market is real. In an ideal world, a 21-year-old poet would be able to take time to refine, fine-tune, and publish later than right away. But in distinction from abstract “Fame,” Keats had to “hope of gain” (f.2) in material accounting. He tells Shelley that he would “willingly take the trouble to unwrite” some of his earlier ventures, save the hit to “Reputation” (f. 1), and suggests that Shelley take the time to do his best–though he imagines, in signature Shelleyan terms (Barnard 126), “The thought of such discipline must feel like cold chains upon you, who perhaps never sat with your wings furl’d for six Months together” (f. 2).

Still polite, Keats ironizes this advisory role for the poet who advised him to invest his poetic “treasures” with better sense. “Is this not extraordinary talk for the writer of Endymion? whose mind was like a pack of scattered cards–” (f.2). He claims some progress: “I am pick’d up and sorted to a pip.” He cartoons himself as the epitome of discipline, a Monk in the “Monastry” of “Imagination,” devoted to his study and withdrawn from worldly polemics. He gently dares Shelley to understand him by a “camelion” stretch of intellectual and aesthetic sympathy: “you must explain my metapcs to yourself. I am in expectation of Prometheus every day.” He’s referring to Prometheus Unbound, but might have used the name to suggest that only a patient sufferer such as Prometheus could really be an example to Keats these days.

The conclusion of Keats’s letter to Shelley

He reminds Shelley of his telling him “not to publish my first-blights” (f.3), knowing that Shelley convinced the Olliers to do so, to unhappy consequence. Then comes his remarkable confession that the much anticipated Lamia &c “would never have been publish’d but from a hope of gain; so you see I am inclined enough to take your advice now” (f.3). With this self-ironizing–part wry, part rueful–Keats thanks Shelley again for his “kindness” and sends his thanks and respects to Mrs. Shelley. He doesn’t write to Shelley again, and it’s the last time Shelley’s name appears in his correspondence. Clarke recalls Keats saying that he really meant to decline Shelley’s invitation, as he had in 1817, from the “sole motive” of feeling that he could not be “a free agent, even with such a circle as Shelley’s” (151). It’s the second time Keats averted an invitation from Shelley on this principle. He wanted to keep writing. His way.

VII. Two After Lives, After words

But while I talk, I think you hear me,–thoughts dallying with vain surmise–
Aye me! while thee the seas and sounding shores
Hold far away.

So Lamb (284), with an ironized echo of Milton’s “dallying with false surmise” in Lycidas (153-55), indulges the enabling fiction of letter-writing and its patent illusion.

Across the seas on the shores of Italy, Shelley began reading the Lamia volume on 18 October 1820, diving into Hyperion and reading the rest the next day (MSJ 335-36). “Hyperion promises for him that he is destined to become one of the first writers of the age,” he exclaimed to Marianne Hunt (LS 2:239-40), sharing his praise with T. L. Peacock, Claire, and Byron (Reiman, 416-17). He even started (but didn’t send) a letter about it to Gifford, editor of The Quarterly, host of J. W. Croker’s influential hostile review of Endymion (LS 2:252). “I consider the fragment of Hyperion as second to nothing that was ever produced by a writer of the same years,” he stated formally in his Preface to Adonais (1821), the elegy he began soon after learning of Keats’s death. While Adonais is this honor, it’s also an overdetermined confluence of Shelley’s regrets about failing the care he promised, his genuine affection for Keats, and his readiness to cast “Keats”–call it “Shelley’s ‘Keats’”–to front his own grievances (see my essay on this). Even more: for all its magnanimity, it also bids fair, in its 55 gorgeously crafted Spenserian stanzas, as a work of “treasures poured forth in profusion,” in the form of a self-concentrated Shelley anthology. Describing it to the Gisbornes as “a high­ly-wrought piece of art” (LS 2:294) and confessing to Byron that a “subtle … principle of self” was evident in it (2:309), he was echoing the phrasing of Keats’s letter to him, almost the very words and emphasis. 

Repairing a missed opportunity to teach Keats Greek, he Greekifies Keats at the front of Adonais, not only with this name-epithet but also with two Greek epigraphs, one on the title page from Plato’s Epigram on Aster, the other heading the Preface, from Moschus’s Bion (3). Although he tells a fable of Keats’s demise in this Preface, “poor Keats’s life … poor fellow,” Adonais demotes this contingency from its very first word, to elevate a story of self announcement: “I weep for Adonais.” Shelley’s magnanimous outrage on Keats’s felling by hostile reviews (a story that, to Keats’s detriment, stuck for decades) opens the stage for the performance of his own martyr­dom: “Who in another’s fate now wept his own” (XXXIV).  In this compact, weeping is healed by a genre-shift, from elegy to personal apocalypse. This is the climactic last stanza (LV):

The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

If this poet seems about to book his own passage, the itinerary was legible in The Literary Register’s obituary on Shelley, Septem­ber 1822. It began by noting a “very melancholy and touching … co­inci­dence”: “It would almost seem that the Disposer of events had listened and attended to the poet’s mournful wish” (193-94). Lamb’s solecism of the two nows of distant correspondents collapses, by temporal pressure, into one identity of two poets.

On 1 July 1821, Shelley and Edward Williams (Jane’s husband) sailed from the Bay of Lerici south to Leghorn (near Pisa), to welcome Hunt and his family. Hunt, Byron and Shelley were launching a new magazine, The Liberal, free from British prosecutions. After a week together, for the sail back, Hunt lent Shelley his only copy of Keats’s new volume. After a departure on 8 July, a sudden fierce storm wrecked the boat, no survivors. When Shelley’s body washed ashore ten days later, it was scarcely recognizable. Edward Trelawny guessed Shelley “by the dress and stature.” Then, “Mr. Keats’s last volume of ‘Lamia,’ ‘Isabella,’ &c. being open in the jacket pocket, confirmed it beyond a doubt” (Hunt, 2:333). He hoped to retrieve the book before cremation (the body had been temporarily buried at the shore), but when it was examined, “we could find nothing remaining but the leather binding”–a touching detail of Hunt’s esteem for a publication in plain boards (Letters of Trelawny 12).

Hunt put Trelawny’s full account in Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries (1828) and provided a sequel: “Mr. Shelley’s remains were taken to Rome, and deposited in the Protestant burial-ground, near those … of Mr. Keats” (2: 340). He twinned this to the end of the penultimate paragraph of the next chapter, “Mr. Keats”: “He was interred in the English burying-ground at Rome … where his friend and poetical mourner, Mr. Shelley, was shortly to join him” (2: 442). This chapter’s last sentence, about Keats, might also apply to Shelley’s last day of reading: “I venture to prophesy … that his volumes will be the sure companions, in field and grove, of all those who know what a luxury it is to hasten, with a favourite volume against one’s heart, out of the strife of commonplaces into the haven of solitude and imagination” (2:443).

Shelley was still weighing Keats’s heterodox elevation of Mammon as the God for poets. Writing A Defence of Poetry in late winter 1821 (and not yet aware of Keats’s death), he invests the social agency of poetry (“the poetry of life”) against a world where advances in knowledge were being wielded by the few against the many:

From what other cause has it arisen that the discoveries which should have lightened, have added a weight to the curse imposed on Adam? Poetry, and the principle of Self, of which money is the visible incarnation, are the God and Mammon of the world. (530-31)

Keats’s letter ringing in his head, he would relitigate it, breaking apart Keats’s alliance of Mammon with a self-concentrated Poet and redistributing the terms: Poetry and its Poets as God, and money-making as selfish Mammon. Not only does this move refract Keats (once again) through Shelley’s prism but it also forgets material differences. Shelley was living on an inheritance from previous generations of money-makers, and Keats was trying to stay true to two principles: the poetry he wanted to write, and a “poetry of life” (to use Shelley’s phrase) that could make a living. He first met Shelley just days after Shelley learned of the suicide of his abandoned wife, cast off by his principle of Self. Shelley’s philosophy is not reducible to this sad catastrophe, but Harriet Shelley surely shared the curse of Adam (she wore his wedding ring to the end).

The correspondence of the two poets in the summer of 1820, about the calls of the world in relation to the calls of poetry, was a complex conversation that had not ended with Keats’s death. Shelley kept measuring his own care for poetic riches, weighing what Keats had argued in that memorable letter of 16 August. As committed as Shelley was to a poetry of public action and purpose on the arc of magnanimous principles, he couldn’t stop thinking about its artistic loads and rifts, and in the last hours of his life was rereading Keats’s latest measures, brilliant with such ore.


[1] For more detailed accounts, see Plumly 23-26; Bate, 647-55; Gittings 581-88; Ward 361-68. I thank Garrett Stewart for conversation about this essay, Brian Rejack for sharp copyediting, and Leslie Morris for generously supplying the images of Shelley’s letter to Keats.

[2] This metrical radar is Ronald Sharp’s, in a talk at the Bicentenary Keats Conference, Harvard University, 1995, published 1998 (66); his catch is often echoed and often uncredited.

[3] My quotations follow the Houghton ALS (which has features obscured by Jones’s transcription (LS 2:220-1)). Physical details from Houghton Library. Hunt seems to have recovered this letter from Keats’s papers and some time before 1841, and gave it to George Henry Lewes; by various routes it was later purchased by Amy Lowell, who left it to the Harvard College Library.

[4] Christopher Rovee nicely catches this inflection (995).

[5] For Keats, Shelley, and others in this formation see my “Accidental Anthologies of 1818.”

[6] Neither Rollins (Letters 2:310), nor Jones (2: 221) show (or even note) this parenthesis as an above-line insertion, and so occlude the temporality of Shelley’s review and emphatic addition, which Keats would have registered.

[7] As you can see from the letter-image, there is a triangle-cut from the right margin right after sincerely (where Shelley opened the seal). Rollins reasonably interpolates “[yours]” (LK 2: 323)–Keats matching Shelley’s signature (with an extra most), as in his greeting.

[8] For a succinct report on letter-writing, production, and transmission in Keats’s day, see Barnard 126.

[9] The great grandson of the adopted daughter of Lady Jane and Percy Florence Shelley, the 9th Baron Abinger, sold it to the Bodleian in 2004 (I thank Brian Rejack for this information). Lady Jane Shelley printed it in Shelley Memorials, 142-43. It was loaned to the British Museum in 1937, where Hyder E. Rollins transcribed it; R. Glynn Grylls’s Mary Shelley (1938) has a facsimile plate, opposite p. 126 (L 2:332n). I made my own transcription from the Bodleian ms.

[10] Holmes 594. Hunt’s Examiner and Indicator, and his access to London periodicals would have afforded Keats sense of the reviews, either from the reading or from conversation.

Works Cited

Barnard, John. “Keats’s Letters: ‘Remembrancing and Enchaining.’” Cambridge Companion to John Keats. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. Cambridge UP 2001. 120-34, esp. 127-28.

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Harvard UP, 1964.

Clarke, Charles Cowden. “John Keats.” Recollection of Writers. London: Sampson & c, 1878. 120-57.

Elia [Charles Lamb]. “Distant Correspondents.” London Magazine 5 (1 March 1822): 282-85.

Fry, Paul H. The Poet’s Calling in the English Ode. Yale UP, 1980.

Garber, Marjorie. “Loaded Questions: An Introduction.” Loaded Words. Fordham UP, 2012. 1-5.

Gittings, Robert. John Keats. 1968; Penguin, 1979.

Grylls, R. Glynn. Mary Shelley. Oxford UP, 1938.

Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. Dutton, 1975.

Hunt, Leigh. Letter to John Keats, 13 August 1820. ALS (Williamson, Plate XLIII); transcribed in LK.

—. Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries. 2d edn. 2 vols. London: Henry Colburn, 1828.

Keats, John. ALS. Indicated by archive.

MsK, with locator numbers, Harvard Keats Collection, Houghton Library.

Berg: The John Keats Collection of Papers. The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. Keats to Hunt, 13 August 1821; Keats to Fanny Brawne, August (?) 1820. Identified by folio (pg) number (f).

”alias Junkets.” Letter to Leigh Hunt, 10 May 1817. British Library: Ashley MS 4869.

Letter to P_B_Shelley Esqre , 16 August 1820. Abinger Collection, Bodleian Library, Oxford Univ.; identified by folio number (f). Facsimile in Motion, plate 23; transcribed in L 2:322-23, and JK 425-27.

—. The Letters of John Keats. 2 vols., ed. Hyder E. Rollins. Harvard UP, 1958. Cited as LK, or just volume and page, or just page. Rollins includes letters by others in the Keats circle.

—. John Keats, a Longman Cultural Edition. Ed. Susan Wolfson. Pearson, 2008. Cited as JK.

Literary Register 13 (28 September 1822), review of Shelley’s Adonais. 193-94.

Medwin, Thomas. Life of Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. H. B. Forman. Oxford UP, 1913.

Milton, John. Keats’s marked edition: Milton’s Paradise Lost. A New Edition / Adorned with Beautiful Plates. 2 vols. Edinburgh: 1807 Cited by book, lines; and volume, page.

Motion, Andrew. Keats, A Biography. Faber and Faber, 1997.

Plumly, Stanley. Posthumous Keats: a personal biography. Norton, 2008.

Reiman, Donald H. “Keats and Shelley: Personal and Literary Relations.” Shelley and His Circle, 1773-1822. Vol. 5. Pforzheimer Library/Harvard UP, 1973. 399-427.

Rovee, Christopher. “Trashing Keats.” ELH 75 (2008); 993-1022.

Sharp, Ronald. “Keats and Friendship.” The Persistence of Poetry: Bicentennial Essays on Keats. Ed. Robert M. Ryan and Ronald A. Sharp. U of Mass. P, 1998. 66-81.

Shelley, Lady Jane, ed. Shelley Memorials, From Authentic Sources. London: Smith Elder, 1859.

Shelley, Mary. The Journals of Mary Shelley. Ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott Kilvert. Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.


—. A Defence of Poetry. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. Norton, 2002. 509-35

—. Letter to John Keats, 27 July 1820. ALS Harvard University (MS Keats 4.17.1). See also L 2:310-11, Letters, ed. Jones, 2:220-21.

—. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 2 vols. Ed. Frederick L. Jones Clarendon, 1964. Cited as LS.

Spenser, Edmund. The Works of Mr. Edmund Spenser. 6 vols. Ed. John Hughes. London: Jacob Tonson, 1715. Vol. 3 (The Fairy-Queen, Book 2). The edition Keats read.

Taylor, Tom. The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon. 3 vols. (Longman &c, 1853).

Trelawny, Edward John. Letters of Edward John Trelawny. Ed. H. Buxton Forman. Oxford UP, 1910.

—. “Mr. Trelawney’s [sic] Narrative of the Loss of the Boat Containing Mr. Shelley and Mr. Williams, on the 8th of July, 1822, off the Coast of Italy (Now First Published)” in Hunt, Lord Byron &c. 2d edn. London: Henry Colburn, 1828. 1: 330-35.

Ward, Aileen. John Keats: The Making of a Poet. 1963; Viking, 1967.

Williamson, George C. Keats Letters and Papers. London: John Lane, 1914.

Wolfson, Susan J. “The Accidental Anthologies of 1818.” Keats-Shelley Journal 67 (2019): 164-74.

—. “Keats Enters History: Autopsy, Adonais, and the Fame of Keats.” Keats and History, ed. Nicholas Roe. Cambridge UP, 1995. 17-45.

Z. “On the Cockney School of Poetry, No I.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 2 (October 1817). 38-41.

—. “Cockney School of Poetry, No IV.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 3 (August 1818). 519-24.

Letter #241: To Percy Bysshe Shelley, 16 August 1820

Certainly in the rankings of Keats’s most famous and celebrated letters, today’s has to be right up there near the top. We won’t waste too much time giving you background on the letter–you have the good fortune to be able to read Susan Wolfson’s excellent essay for that information instead–but suffice it to say this: Shelley invited Keats to Italy, and this letter was Keats’s response. What emerged was not a direct reply to Shelley’s offer (in fact, Keats’s reply on that score was quite ambiguous), but a deeply considered reflection on some of the most fundamental issues about poetry that Keats explored throughout his correspondence.

If you don’t know the letter, or if you just want to read it anew on its 200th anniversary, fear not. We have a few options for you. You can read the letter in Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 edition of Keats’s complete works, which has the added benefit of including the text of Shelley’s letter to which Keats was responding (Wolfson in her essay engages significantly with Shelley’s letter as well, so it may be worth your time to see the whole text of it). The manuscript of Keats’s letter is at the Bodleian Library, and they have kindly digitized the letter and made the images available. We also include the images here in case you want to practice your skill at reading Keats’s handwriting.

Once you’ve read the letter, prepare yourself for lots of fully-loaded rifts, jam-packed with ores of insight, and go check out Wolfson’s essay!

Keats’s 16 August 1820 letter to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Images courtesy of Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University.

A Tragedy in Five Acts

Adam Cady
Illinois Wesleyan University

Editor’s note: Representing the culmination of Adam’s first substantial foray into Keatsiana, the following semi-autobiographical work fittingly arrives on the one-year anniversary of his first letter-specific contribution to the KLP, as well as Keats’s theatrical and Otho-centric July 31, 1819, letter to C.W. Dilke. Borrowing its name from the subtitle of Keats’s only completed drama, Otho the Great,“A Tragedy in 5 Acts” moreover embodies the dialogical spirit of the KLP, as the stylized epistolary prose-poem is meant as a direct address to Keats himself. For more on the content and context of Adam’s “Tragedy,” please see the introduction, published yesterday on the KLP.

A Tragedy in 5 Acts

to mine vy & ever affectionately, my Brother, as ever, most truly

13 October 2017

Address: John Keats/ Piazza di Spagna 26/ Roma—Italy/ Or Thereabouts
Postmarks: K. GROVE 100; Hampstead—London; or THEREABOUTS

Act I: imprudent moveables

My dear Junketsbeetling o’er the

September 7th

—thank God it has come. I have seen your Comet—stately, stedfast and crossed with nightblue, hanged by the transitive heaventree of diamonds: a tree, evening, and how fares the Prince? On summer’s final feverish breath—aloft and watching—a sleepless patient in cramped unrest & casting for faults in lookingglass clouds, I see this second through double-pained reflection your stellar smile of a Ponderous Saxon. Pressurized—unflappable—these inner organs of metal fowl recede along the velvet firmament, privy to your service—your priestlike task. O dearly Beloved, I don’t believe in baptism—vulgar superstition, or more dreadful cares— but, confronted as I am by your sermon’s sound, I confess the imprint of glories immortal. A splendorous sacrament, your Poesy’s black spell tolls from on high its christening moan—that cosmic homily with power to disturb, to shatter the mirror & raze their walls. A mummering cantor in Jehovah’s favorite choir, yours is the hymn which stirs below us the leviathan leagues—that scrotumtightening sea. Keats! if you’ll have me, be my Confessor, my clerical confidant in all things unhallowed. From this plane existence, let us swoon into To-morrow. Let us, my darling, most distant Companion—let us not what people call, settle. We’ll not—and trust yourself to me—we mustn’t dawdle in stagnant ponds. Nor should we, Keats, freeze neck-deep by hostile shores, but ascend from this wretched brine, toward Eternity’s finer amusements. Shall we chat, then, you and I, with those glory crown’d? Might we swim, Father, in the nights of good-bye? Shall we dance while we can? Shall we go? Should I not?

Ah! but I’ll not deny my damned insecurities: I fear you dread my desperate plea for bathing in Skies—for cleansing heavens. Surely, you ask after my health (not telling me whether your Consumptive fits are tamed). I am quite well, Keats, but you and I, you must understand, are both old Stagers in the picturesque: unless it be something very large and overpowering, we cannot with relish bare bear ourselves. Though I flee the lesser fellowship of that other, American world—the helpless chronology & hellish procession of Patriarch’s ridicule, the shrill paramour, and castrating cares—though I seek singular Achievement in bygone environs, my departure lacks some grandeur without your familiar Genius as its cosmic friend. This sounds, I admit, oddly to me, and I dare say I do it awkwardly enough. Yet you—with me—we’re together engaged in a Spectacle which I am impell’d to finish. Sham! Fool! you undoubtedly deride, with menace and echo double-distilled, my adonized Picture of idle Narcissus which bows to itself & applauds: Hurray for the Goddamned idiot! Your flint-worded choir of kindling Doubts harangues this ranting, tasteless rambler—coxcombical dramaturge incapable of a scene. Lecherous amateur, and you tear at the Gordian thread of my existence, why contaminate this dramatic rite? You beat, you pummel; you crucify me. Have you no fear of hangmen? and then, the tyrant’s righteous parenthetical (Have you no fear of the faggot?). Of course, I know, You will never be a saint! but an enterprising pilgrim nonetheless, think it not blasphemy that I—with you—should propose to stand. Forgive instead dear Adam’s transgressions, innocent but for the satiating hiss. How the—? you ask. Whose fault is it? Well andbutso, much as a letter mailed in the air, old and secret, from a midnight world—perhaps from on High, or from sulfuric Depths—the voices of sirens, sweet murderers of men, whisper to me and mine alone of Autumn and escapades to come. Arise—arise! I took it for a joke, when first I heard their melodious call: the twilight is at hand. Yet they bring through the music such plausible reasons, and discourse so diligently on dramatic effect—Awake! arise! and fearless be—that I am from the shore of the wide world swayed. Adam, a Man, in the hurry of business, my mind is now heaped to the full with Ambitions—awakened, as I say, by Mystery’s anonymous preamble, to the glory & power of your Bright Star’s suggestive flash, and to the Profitable vergance of our unlikely fates. Rapt, I tell you, in the claws of our ravenous drama, I glean at last your fermented heart through the mist of Plots—make out your figure of glistening Maleager through unwritten speeches, counterplots and counterspeeches. As once I lounged in a solitude and silence which you alone should have disturb’d, I am this instant spurred from decadent habits and hitched, darling Keats, to our dog-cart affair—our engagement, I mean, in unfolding forefiveplay. All my thoughts, my unhappiest days and nights, have—I find—not cured me of my love of Beauty: I look upon fine Phrases like a lover, and yours have given me more delight than any thing in the world but yourself could do; indeed, I am astonished that any absent one should have this imperious command over my senses. Even when I am not thinking of you, I receive your influence, and from oystershell reaches of womb-like nightblue, hear our Acts’ clamoring for shuck and scrape of meaty essence—for liberation! and révolution!—an unrealized babe which, like the unnamed Temptation of resonant antiquity, yearns for actualizing sacrifice. Thus, if conception should quench most rapacious desires, we ought to guzzle unto Oblivion. But should our Labours prove sterile, fruitless—should Ambitious designs bare bear no more than the bastard wretch of epiphanic mutterings—I should still like to greet you, Junkets, with a smile. 

Meanwhile, I fear, you urge caution. Is there another, then? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? It is as painful, I know, to be awakened from a fantasy as to emerge the waggling casualty of some careless duo. Should I not?

Winedark sea when wilt thou drown,
The sober doubt and pain?
Christ, if that c—t were in my arms
And I in the earth again!

Ah! my dear, dear John—what shall I say for myself? Forgive this four-Lettered outburst—and know that I cannot think of you without some sort of energy. Though Ambition makes superb kindling for better passions’ Gold inferno (Love of certain nobler pursuits is a religion, for which I might gladly die), I remain excessively unloverlike, ungallant, and begrudge Mel’s settling, domestic bondage. Yes, some days ago, there was that revealing matter of the dog—that grinning elder hound whose evident wellbeing, in the so-sudden aftermath of colossal, totaling wreck, was—reflexive, without hesitation—my foremost concern. She, of course, was bleeding profusely—her aquiline protrusion a gushing wellspring of glinting crimson terror. Yet in clarifying panic—a skittering, unyoked adrenal psychotic—the stout & ebony, spaniel-eared companion of cloudless boyhood days seemed utterly superior—instinctively outweighed the ignoble attraction of her infantile human frailties. Encouragingly composed—instantly forgiving—his pink-tongued & panting smile answered her senseless, hysterical sobbing with unwitting mockery, pure-of-heart and level-headed. Andbutso what’s wrong with Mel, really (and I trust the discretion of your mannish Sympathies), is that she is stupid—flippant, vain, inconstant, proud, childish, and full of fancies. Oh, she’s managed to get by all right, but she hasn’t one peck of intuition. Mel (and I know the generality of women would hate this betrayal of blue-stockinged suffrages)—she appears to me as the drawling child to whom I would rather give a spanking than my—No! no! this is not it either. This piggish dread is moreso dread of—well, I suppose—dread of unchecked contentment. Of placid banality. I’ve had to promise her nothing, it turns out—conceded nothing. It’s all for free. There’s such love, I’ve found—such sinister, satiating love—which loves to love love, and to witness her even now, this side of Jove’s clouds, I should be dissolv’d—or interwreathed—in the gloomier tapestries of her Gorgon’s shape. In her fractured halo, I find your heavenly visage, yet like hissing Caduceus she constricts myself—her palpitating snake some demon’s mistress, or perhaps some demon’s self. She—an anesthetizing Hygeia—I feel her sanitary personage reap in me such sinful indifference, or else degenerate, everlasting denial. With she an unknowing, soft-freckled Nemesis—in her ringlets, a noose of dumb dispassion—I sway, taciturn, above roots of blackened fig—over ignorant reaches of Protean sludge where she slithered & sleepwalked before our tryst—a prisoner, to the lap of unrealised possibility. In such dire climes as these, I ask, What is to be done? She has taken more than a rib, dear Keats, andso Adam—again—made ill by way of Knowledge, I should reject euphoria of the transgressing fallen—shrink at descent of the impotent dove. Who, after all, would wish to be among that commonplace crowd of the little-minded, each individually lost in a throng of incorrigible coupled selves? Is her conventional feminine clay worth louting and playing the hypocrite for? Oh! how a solitary life engenders miserable egotism! True: I know it does, but such Misery and egotism are surely the propellant precursors to exquisite Spectacle—so I will indulge them.

No, Junkets, I hardly sense in you such Trouble, nor do I anticipate from you the corporeal doldrums of grounded existence. Rather, with you, I’m at last self-acquainted, and I realize myself, the singular heir to vast, Unsettled fortune—to near-secure & palpable Greatness. And though I like her society as well as any Underling’s, yours is surely the more invigorating—the most intuitive Other I’ve known. With surgeon’s precision, you excise my shallow Center—unmake my too-pacific state and know me, Keats, as no one has. Ho! from our great, sweet mother Atlantic—her whitened dermis & deeper viridescence—I see now the paleface pallor of seas’ imperious sovereign—the soft-fallen mask of mountains. Beneath, the yawning, green, pastoral stretches of many-a-poet’s birthplace—and then, with dirt and discomfort dressed in pools from the wet night’s stormy protest and glimmering in light of the coming day, the cobblestone stitchwork and circuses and thoroughfares, the public-houses and palaces, the double-Windsored creatures of parasitic habit, the hawkers, thieves, butchers and vagabonds—beckon with promise of environmental virility, intoning our nations’ pond-spanning ethos of Ambition’s necessary meritocratic reward. Yes, my regrettably distant friend, with merciful descent toward the well-tread paths of your former, corporal marching, I’ll soon know the Promise of your enterprising homeland, and make real these visions of elephantine Spectacle—triumph, dear Keats, and, with your Blessing, prosper, amid the cliched fog and chimney-tops which spell that city’s hallowed name: London.

Act II: so much oppress’d at Westminster

Of course, they’ve only English Breakfast here. Remember, remember—12 September—the abortive Guido whose explosive scheming (a Catholic shame) might have spared this present ennui. In a Portcullis broomcloset, I fire the kettle. It smells of gunpowder, treason and plot. Yes, likewise arrested by foolhardy Ambition, this menial brewing was agreed upon with Pride—a misplaced hunger, you understand, which has, by way of misinterpreted Vision or misheard ditty of cerebral Undines, condemned my person to unbecoming service—humiliatingly unspectacular, these damned piddling tasks. And so Ungrateful: I hear it, from your lips to Whomever—but tell me, Keats, would you have me grovel & beg Recognition from a loathsome breed of artless aristocrats? Two o’clock and quite unwell, craning my neck in the window’s corner, I see through the drizzle Liz’s jubilant phallus—her Towering Benjamin, a national disgrace—a scaffold-draped UNESCO relic, like braces on legs of a sickly child; the entirety, in fact, of Parliament’s travesty is wrapped in this tinfoil buttress. A graphic metaphor—a proportional, pictorial representation—it’s as though it might at any second collapse—on Commons, on Lords, come Thundering down. Below them, there, ‘neath Her Majesty’s rubble, in that claustrophobic iron-clad yard that harkens to bastards’ Act of Inclosure, are skittering lanyards, ill-fitted children and their member/master Dogs. Are these, your Countrymen, worth supplication? Servile reverence, in exchange for…what, exactly? Oh! what I’d give for a trustworthy stockpile, an undiscovered undercroft, a capable & intrepid Jesuit! Can’t you hear the quivering Bricks? The concussive Release of mortar-splitting blaze? All the Queen’s horses and all the Queen’s men—Britannia burnt in palatial effigy! Don’t you cherish the Empire’s Fall? And still the roar—I admit—o’er the bubbling, churning kettle is little comfort with ill-equipped cabinet; the Irish, I find—it’s vastly better. Listen, it whistles, and 

It whispers too, that brisk revenge
And service vain and lowly,
Would be profaned by posture pure
Or passions high and holy;
For, Freedom comes from no command,
And needs no Godly chain;
Since palefaced crowds who filch our land
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

(All this, of course, in good humor, dear Keats—wouldn’t want to offend. The sins of the Fatherland—a rancid people—can hardly be blamed on one boyish wordsmith—on a barbarous empire’s exceptional Son.)

Andso Black, for me, and for the milkier rest…Finished yet? the blonde one, this morning, asked. She, the high-heeled & short-skirted—the skin-tight, well-defined—the unpaid Brightonite, was Bussy (short for? I never did ask). A tad hoarse (tealess), her voice then lapped—it rolled & receded, with seaside Vintage—a Boardwalk amusement on auricle shore. Perfect, she said, and she (practically) is. Just how I like it, and I watched her ebb. Hannah, meanwhile, lingered on. The former, her fairness—phantasmagoric—holds Sussexual qualities yet unexplored, but Hannah—her emerald, kaleidoscopic eyes, like gold-flecked maelstroms or puckering cosmos—is clover honey’s fleshy glide. Thank you, she says, and she takes one for Huddersfield, the plump MP whose reclining figure haunts from adjoining chamber our coffin—our pinewood closet, with its world-historic view. A bloated & bloviating, mammalian boor, I hear his too-heavy sighs of approval—that paternalistic rhetoric of sweety and lass, missy and darling and sweetheart and, weightier still, a squeeze of the hand or a well-placed pat. Certainly, I’ve noticed these girls—women, rather—Hannah, Bussy, the others—they’re not a little attractive. This cropped brunette, compared with pyrite tangles—Bussy’s oceanic curvature, against aquiline edges & that felicitous, disinfected mold of Mel’s—I have to admit (I shouldn’t) they’re spectacular. In light of these twenty-somethings’ inescapable starglow, with fingers trembling for want of moonlight, I’ve entertained daydreams of loftier conquest. Me, too, I’ve thought of the Member’s glances—his pudding-thick, glazy cataract stares. What I wouldn’t give, but then…? Ogling & caressing with political precision: is this—perchance—my Father’s way? Might the Physician enjoy such command of his too-feminine employ? 

In a very pleasant Pugin booth, overhanging the snotgreen Thames, with a glimpse of the paltry peasant hordes, I joined this Member for afternoon Breakfast—tea, I mean, in dark-paneled grandeur. His ossified bourgeois respectability, a product of so many decades in the Palace, lent an air of managerial poise. Illinois? he’d inquire, then finger a sandwich, flatulate some forced remark about Chicago and corn—our dear departed forty-four, with whom I share a name, you know. Not so doll-eyed—so tar-hearted, lifeless—as surrounding Tory perverts, his menial jesting is deceptively human—an effective counter for Blairite underbelly, or syrupy cologne for his pompous stench. Still, I smelled in that chattering Member the disheveled imitation of surrounding Conservatives—their Etonian brownnosing’s quaquaquaqua:

Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Hume and Smith of infallible system quaquaquaqua beyond critique without exception that from the heights of divine and sufferers who for reasons unknown are plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will but faster and considering what is more is that as a result of the labours more efficiently schemed by the Eugenicist Acacacacademy of Phrenological Craniometrists of quaquaquaqua that we in brief in spite of the strides of alimentation and defecation are obliged to profit and concurrently simultaneously…

Hannah, too, had joined us there—the dazzling psychedelia of each spangled iris reassuring beside his pillowy disappointment. She sipped with a grace less contrived, more humane, and spoke of justice, of Jezza, of freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman—of that already acknowledged and oft-decried spectre against which all the powers of Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise

Then, beneath the oaken beaming of angel-jurors’ Judgment, beneath the iron chandeliers and gothic transparency of Westminster’s resonant Hall, I stood that day accused of Cavalier indecency—of insubordination, of Treason & Plot. On loafer-worn stone of Roundheads’ shrewd ascendance, I stood in place of the bumbling Prince. Mine was the vantage of castrated Leviathan—of the farcical sovereign on His hard-earned path. Have you no idea where you stand? I didn’t, no, and I told the Member as much. He uttered the bloodstained name of Charles, then recited the evidence. With good reason, I shrank and dwindled and stood stark naked in this summer’s soft-dying wail. I thought of Bushes, O’Bamas and Dons, of Blairs and Camerons and Mays more deserving—their effigies scorched in democratizing blaze.  And still it was I who suffered his Mischief—who marched from those steps to the Hooded One’s block—who heard o’er the ringing the angels’ Guilty! and swift wind of the winnowing Blade. Head in my hands, I felt that I had better get drunk.

Act III: the same natural history of Monsters

The history of all hitherto existing persons is the history of Disappointments. Never mind those valiantly antithetical & protracted people’s wars, the glamorous Terror of public executions, or the rousing schadenfreude of bourgeois electoralism. Secession—oh yes, your anachronistic Eminancy—is the generational reenactment of synthetic truth (a copy of a copy of a copy of a). Andso Disappointments, says He—the Sons striving to be atoned with the Fathers, whose tyranny they doubly loathe—all the history of the world is full of them. And also with You, adds the Son, for ever and ever and I took a pregnancy test. Yes, oh yes, I received her message; she wrote me the day I arrived, about the time the something-or-other broke. Why scandalize my Joys with such opprobrious surprise? A woman, you’ll recall—a rib-stealing so-and-so with motherlight in her eyes—once bore postpartum miscarriage in the sibling disappointments of fratricidal savage and fragile, spineless prey. Imagine Mel, then—imagine it, Junkets—the lily-hearted concubine, my settling bride-to-be, condemning another to their lineage! (Her quintuple siblingship, or that of my Mother—that Oedipal happenstance which I dutifully repress—entails considerable & perilous virility!) No, dear Keats, I mustn’t conceive of her content with our slipping—our reckless abandon, rapt in the first fragrant Bloom of motherhood, intoning her thanks to One unseen—to the Universal Bridegroom. Mightn’t she, though (my god!)—might she pray to the doubly departed—to Our absentee Father? Could congenital charms arrest her senses, and force her hoarding of fortuitous cells? Would she—the sapping, settling lamb—might she so jauntily genuflect before Him whose Design was our first great burden? How could she worship Another so foul? Andso, well, she asked me—in the same—how I was doing. Was that some kind of joke? I took a pregnancy test it was negative. I breathed in, and listened to the old quaquaquaqua of my heart: I was, I am, I will be, at least for a little while longer.

Wellbutso Saturday, September 23, couchbound & queasy on the outskirts of München,  und ich fühle mich wie ein Fickfehler. It has turned out fortunate for me to-day that Destiny appointed me a sturdy-livered Überwhathaveyou, though unchecked guzzling of Oktoberfestbier has natheless rendered me a palsied captive of the morrow (ein verkaterer Kriegsgefangener). After myriad liters of Hofbräu, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, andthelike (saufen auf der Theresienwiese), memories of yesterday are tattered and scant, yet the reverie’s aftermath is painfully intact: the U-Bahn’s ashtrays lined with vomit; my tattered trousers, unwearably shredded; the long-knived assault on both my temples, or cottonmouthed History’s Blitzkrieg endeavor to mash my frontal lobe. Yes, Keats, with Delphian pain I’m predictably punished, having drunk my fill of Bavarian sunshine—having drunk till my brain was hideously interwoven, welded to the rheumy passions of Hades. From Charon’s soul-worn skiff, indeed—from beside the sweep of Styx-splitting rudder, Elysium’s shore and Tartarus chasm, I’ve heard the Abbot’s intoxicating accusation of paternally pissed cobblestone stumbles: a nightly plunge. Had a great fall. Is this Dionysian mishap the Gospel Truth? Is claret’s kiss not—with you—the fragrant sweet destroyer of lesser worlds’ pleasures? Mightn’t you, in fleeting mood of the upright but flimsy, persuadable Occident you are—have you ne’er felt the honeyed embrace of Opium? I’ll not judge—hardly so—the storied impulse of us fallible & generationally burdened demigods demagogues. On the contrary, my bloodborne legacy is one of grandmother’s twelvepack approach to nurturing—quaky-fingered keeping of babies Caroline (the Sister) and myself. Andso yes, of course, naturally, prone to sloshy psychic bastion, she received with chemical aid his blows—he, who buggywhipped his dog-cart bride, and worked his mare to the brink of death. What last-ditch catechism and mail-order Dianetics could not, clear-eyed, divine—the Reddened lace bandana patchwork of depressive-slackened neurotransmission meant pious submission to patriarch’s ire: a Remedy. Of course, grandpa was well-acquainted with the delicious technicolor spectrum of intoxicants—needles, bottles & pills and the like—as was his eldest, Jim, Jr. (deceased, died of heart attack some years ago), as I, go-getting grandson I am, haven’t much merry ground to cover. 

My throat, by the way, is a swollen encumbrance. Once, twice, three times over, I am—by this bout of early autumn—2/3 settled on Easeful Death. A once-removed Doppelgänger, after all—more familiar than most, though hardly acquainted—a second cousin or something-or-other eliminated his own map this Spring. Dioxide, they told me (or a daring leap? something more…Spectacular?), did dear Charles in. Yes, Junkets, being once- and too-acquainted with this late fool’s garrulous affianced, the fragrant sighs of Marching earth brought with their blossoms and soft, sweet rain word of his self-inflicted Demise. I assure you, though, Keats, this festering, rankle, running ulceration—this pestilent itching which, at present, strangulates my every phlegm-flecked thought—is no less maddenning than was my lay-Double’s quaint attitudinal malady! With each congested snotgreen wheeze—saliva’s engorged, unnavigable pass—reason slips like hourglass grains, absconds and clamors on its way o’er the Threshold for heftier aid of medicinal helpmate: opium, Keats—for fuck’s sake—I’ve none! Andbutso in maternal tradition, too—billygoat-livered, beer-an-inning antics, or the gin & Squirt soaking of Luckily Struck lips—I’m coerced by Providence & History’s kiss to guzzle away the blessed panacea. In absence of upright, commendable Cure, the smooth gold serum of deutsches delight & tracheal formication of JJS’s fireant crawl are my soul sole unswerving Comforts. Spirits—the numbing, scorching restoratives—these singularly Capable convoys through many-a-dark & discontented Night are marrow-deep, familiar friends from defunct Generations’ kindred coping. Heredity, then, you must understand—that organic anathema, as well as the prying eccentricities of Parentage—such is the Mask we cannot remove. Incessant, and retreading its irresistible yarn in perpetual masturbatory prose, Posterity assures our deathless vassalage—our unremitting Sameness. What possible escape is there, Junkets, from Ourselves? What—and I beg your luminous Solution—what is the purpose of all this writhing, resistance & strive—of bootless efforts to inhabit the Other, to empathize, to understand?

Well, my linguistically limber companion, I’m reminded of traipsing ‘cross their barbed-wired grave: through wrought-ironic, iconic gates, over well-trodden yard in blistering daylight, into the lonesome shelter’s solace. What more is there to say? What use is the grasping prattle of one so predestined to lonesome experience—to the indescribable Cage of Being? Tell me, Keats: what good is chameleonic wordplay’s subtle conveyance of creaking floorboards’ telltale beckon or the sweltering air gone breathless-cold if ultimately sterile—incapable of genuine emotional transference? Indeed, John, I’ll only—fumbling, blind—graze with knobbly & meager Phrasing a most unexchangeable Truth: that there, in the purish-white bowels of subterraneously conjoined medical barracks, a narrowing glimpse of cylindrical eternity—the outstretched flare of Death’s angelic, glittering apparition—appeared to me through the suffocating mass & singed-hair stench of unseen bodies’ lingering pain. Yet how could the most Ambitious verse ever convey their temporally Unsettled suffering? What prose or utterance or Trick of the Light could so thoroughly suspend disbelief & penetrate the biases—overcome that tyranny of the invariably settled Living? And suppose, my Negatively agile comrade, that real transcendence of the Cage were possible. Imagine it, Keats—that understanding is at last within the trifling purview of breathing, mortal Man. What use is such transcendent empathy to invalids, Reds, queers, Juden, whose piled corpses scraped the tunnel ceilings—what use, if its quashed & once-human Subjects remain unmoved by our best intentions? Despite the shrieking residue of pestilence and slaughter, their Liberation has long since passed; they’ve no need for us—for the reaching Concern, the yearning for identification, which oh-so-faintly & pitifully scratch at the obstinate bars of our perceptual pens. Yes—oh yes, Keats—in shimmering Death, they are made free.

Act IV: a Man dallies and foolishes

You see what a many words it requires to give any shape to a thing I could have told you with one swift incision? This predicament, I say—Keats! I say—my good fellow (scrabbling an irregular script with my left, and testing the water with a rolled-sleeve right) Keats says I (doodling a bath (tho by the way, at the moment, I’m rather over-clothed)) Keats—my—go-o-ood fell o-o-o-ooh! (interlarding this exclamation with uncorrupted swig) is’t a Dagger’s work we smell before us? No! no—take it away! It gets awkward now—and (butso)—naturally (as taking leave of a party), I delay, and don’t know how to—well—good-bye—and still I don’t—go—and the bath (incompatibility of aquacity) is over-hot so—well—pirouetting wet (though I’ve first plunged my head) it drains much faster—good bye and so on—than it filled and—well—you know what I mean (still in the same predicament but furthermore dripping with both ears red and pins & needles), no? No, this is all a lie—I’m sober as the Physician, when He happens to be sober. The bottle’s mere accessory to the tight-wound energies of my despair, without which I should be quite overwhelm’d, though I take no solace to-day in the too-heavy sighs of healing spirits (to-night? To-morrow? Whiskey! some wine!). No, no, I’ll act the stage-play fiend, but drink from mind and mine alone—wallow and…what now of our sickly birthright? Fathers, their fathers, wives and brothers & sons? They can languish—alone, together or—behind, elsewhere in the Ages’ hypodermic mist—all a mist—and well, no legacy baccalaureate (JJS) with honors, no tenured professor of John Jameson, but—no—maybe—perhaps andbutso I’ll indulge the deeper impulses of my storied flesh. What good, after all, is the ode-worthy stuff if not for some liquescent relief (O! Ah!)—what use, in times like these, if not to inspire the requisite Courage? Andso well, with sky as our bowl for brighter, clearer (Ho! some more!)—we’ll not sneak off, tails tucked, like a spanial—not dally longer till they’re crying be off!—but soar tonight (and this is clever) away! Away! Not on Poesy’s waxen wings (perplexing, retarding, leaden things), but ascendant, on Bacchus’ sweeter draught, toward slipknot-relief and the unassuming domesticity of iron’s emancipating extension. Whosoever—after this—holds a grudge can piss their displeasures on my paltry tomb. Keats I say (Mm! Aha!), just as dread of gestating legal fiction vanished—Spectacular—with unpunctual clause, and just as Mel could—without me, I see now, and modestly propose—engage the stellar reaches of intuitive potential, you and I might this Eve be off. To be sure, with me, she’s a soft-hewed hindrance—a silken leash, or a velvet-lined (God damn!) coffin. Upon my Soul, she’s metastasized; she has absorbed me! I have a sensation—thinking, at present, of anesthetic attraction—as though I am dissolving, yet know with certainty—understand—and smell that buried Gorgonian fancy which so portends abasing desertion. Were I to Persist & amble, sweet bard, in the safer gardens of ignorant Love, the unpromising twilight of my life—these subastral longings & misty Ambitions which have, of late, meant hideous blunder—would surely impel her to unaroused retreat. Oh yes, Junkets, Yes I say—yes she will. Yes. She’ll take flight from me andso—well—let us soar! Let her! I’ll not travail for beggar’s pay, nor play the Cuckold to a new-awakened domme. I shouldn’t protest, and so bid her farewell (never mind that knife—no, whip—in the back)! A malcontent in desirous half-exile, I’ll not endure encroachment of some Angel-christened miniature—some substitutive Latter-zealot who steals my face and position in one. Though engrossing as tar to green ex-Lovers, the curdled indulgence of envy’s sour lactate is no satiation for the passion-famined beau. It’s a fool (O! the triple-distilled Glory and Grace of Apollo!) who stands at pining gaze! Let us instead, you and I, this 13 October (this Friday, that is—Friday the 13th. St. Edward’s Feast. Ed. The Confessor. Fitting, of course…yet men still die on holy days.)—let us pass through tender night, fade further and further away, dissolve in the orgasmic black of nightly lightless ink. Is it possible we’re hungry?

1. Grab a bight (double back), then double back again.

Liquid lunch (Oho!) should do the trick. Otherwise I should be appeased with silken Phrases (and what’s further, nibble on silver sentences). When I spoke to her last, John, she seemed offended by a little childish playfulness—the lightest intimation of my liberating intent. I’ve no doubt—with time, and the rousing prod of my swelling Disappointment—she’ll prove the Brighter-spirited freeman, yet her tears recalled a miserable serf. To think, I once made her my Judge—my captor! With forehead pressed against the ground, in parabolic spinal form of the groveling, settled sycophant, I pledged my undyingsettledness. No more (Yes! A thousand times, yes!) should I ‘Beseech thee to hear us O Goddess.’ No prudent fixture, I’ll not go out and whither beside her! With you, unsettled—neither simmered nor freezing—our nobler amusements should be unbounded, formless petals in the heaventree’s lofty boughs. Our vaster, sublime, and enervating silence, never to be disturbed by wedding bells’ cry, will to-morrow ring with consummate euphoria—ecstatic songs of limitless pleasure!

2. Wrap the Thing, then wrap once more (one or two turns ‘round the double line and through the little loop).

Of course, with my sudden leave of absence, there promises to be some mild panic—I imagine, a sort of parental mania. My conscience can bear her trifling whine…but my mother’s? Caroline? These are…unfortunate…civilian casualties in a campaign for freedom everlasting. Even the Physician—inconvenienced, with an unexpected void—could be moved to something resembling sadness, some alien sensation…faintly crestfallen countenance…remorse-adjacent. Wouldn’t that be something?

3. Pull the end to tighten.

You see how I go on, like so many strokes of a Hammer! I cannot help it! I am impell’d, driven to ramble by some Unseen Devil, the invisible hand of our biological Imperative: to propogate! Once, in lysergic, off-white haze, I dreamt a baby in her rockabye arms. Knuckle-dragging homunculus, I felt compelled to the bleary-eyed thing (everything in me screaming No!)—its gummy maw & pustule nose, those fingers, like so many wriggling larvae, and that too-sweet smell of milk—a pristine cheese aroma, heretically clean (the sum of me: sighing Yes.). Was’t earnest love of life that threatened deeper settlement—which wrenched this roving Soul toward the squirming hallucinatory bastard & its pinning psychic weight? (Haha!) Never! I perpetuate now—I entertain life—because I so admire Dead legions. Their days have ended and—well—soon I’ll join their ranks, butso for the briefest moment, I’ll marvel at their bygone wonderment, in dearest anticipation of a mystery very nearly solved. What a long way I’ve come (to be destroyed)!

4. Slide the thing now, up or down. Adjust according to size.

(Oho! Ho! Aha!) Oh Keats, if I’ve said nothing decisive in any one particular part of my rambling (Slainte!), you may glean the truth from the Silences correctly. The Rig is rather complicated, but (Prost! Sweet Jesus! Christ! Cheers!), seeing as I’ve no merciful opium…a rather dull tendency to avoid incising objects…I’m doomed to one last awkward bow. Keats I say (mounting on tiptoe the door-slung cord)—Keats says I (an escalating slur of semi-sensical & strung-together sentiment) my most affectionate Brother (stalling somewhat…insolently interposing to the last), I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. No matter. Soon enough now (God bless America!), this unsettled and anxious rapport (with clip-on ease, the knot around neck…tightening…tighter) should give way (Fuck me! Shit! and God damn the Queen!) to astronomicbondage (sinking mass—perfectly straight, and pale as smooth-sculptured stone). From starcrossed comrades to conjoined paramours (moaning forth some witless ditty…a sighing, dying tone), we’ll emerge immeasurable, massless Glory (not shivering but dogged, steady-handed, firm). And what if it fails, this sweet solution? If nothing else, a hyperprivileged hypochondriac’s proof of sufficient Hardship (the door swings shut…the noise is gone…Mel’s gone…I am)—andwellbutso—

Good bye—We are unmoored—sweet John, good night!
Where is our hand, Junkets?—what bloodred gasp!
We are so weary—faint—we brace the door—
And fly from here!—To-morrow—

God bless you!


Act V: certain ventriloquial parentheses

—and to-morrow and to-morrow and what Unscripted Hell is this? What midnight charm—what dream has come? Could it be…14 October? Ay, there must be some way out of here—these verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways. No, she’s assured me, there’s too much confusion—She, this feather-toned banshee, She’s an Angel of whatnow? Of deceit, I propose, as we courted Death Untouchable under green gravemolded wall. Ah! bitter chill it is, where churchyard yawns its frosted breath, like pious incense from a censer old. How ungrateful are the Sculptur’d Dead! Acquitted, liberated from their frozen black. Keats—my God!—to be stretched out beside them! to feel the poppied warmth of sleep, and melt that icy stream—to shut, as a full-blown rose, and become a bud again! I wish’t Devoutly: to die—to sleep. Do I wake or do I…? Adam, She began, punctually interjecting. Somehow, I gathered, She’d sensed my despair, though my expression, unmoving, remained enigmatic—that subtly suggestive rigor-mortis smirk. Have you seen a ghost? Casually, then, and unsuspicious, I allowed my gaze to drift. In the distance, that familiar Heathside manor sparkled white as an unkept promise. Vacant now, its walls are hardly privy to harrowing mortal strife. A polished museum—perpetual mortuary—it breathes no human sound, and still, the expectant punctuation of Her last, unanswered utterance hung patiently in the pregnant London fog. I delay’d and joked and thought of six million—eleven, really—of subterranean luminescence in their chalky, unmarked crypt. No, I lied, evading Her eye. In Her well-worn hands, She took my quaking fingers—Her left, a firm, reliable base and Her other, placed gently atop Our strange appendage-pile. Well, She said and lingered awhile, so that I choked—almost—on grim anticipation, I have. Of course! and then, I’d arrived. From stedfast spell, it seemed to me a piercing, iridescent Truth: the answer to a feeling of my Real Life having past. I—and I faltered at spectral Awakening—I am leading a posthumous existence. But Her Truth proceeded without acknowledgment—without confirmation—no Talk of my shuffling, or of mortal coils. Rather, Her speech was a glib little warning about the dangerous, deathly burdens of genius—real genius, She stressed. The Depressed Person (Her friend)—in cerebral self-exile—an oversensitive, empathetic giant & wordsmith extraordinaire, his laborious thoughts were sufficient cause for gracious termination. This, She said, was exceedingly rarethat kind of talentthat pressurethat understandability. She’s older, by the way, but not…old. She’s not my mother, precisely, nor a relation of any kind, but in Reason’s absence, She is somehow preferable. This, I realize—my Mother, and Caroline—this thankfulness at Absence is the work of a somber conscience’s remorse. Were I to wake from this treacherous Forever, I’d not pardon crave from a circumstantial hostage, but as a Son…a Brother…repent through Love and careful future the impersonal Betrayal of a lever-happy Hangman. And to Mel—that significantly displaced Other—I’ve little more to say…only that I’ll not feign Loverly remorse, nor beg for harsher penance in this unnamed Abyss. With her, I’m relieved of most unpleasant Pleasantries—of the brownnosing drivel which accompanies Love. With all haughty haste & faith of Icarus, I bid farewell to our settling circumstance—saw through to Truth in terminal sunshine, and pledged my allegiance to a first-class mimic—a chameleonic Prodigal Son whose poetical kiss meant Romantic fervor. Where, might I ask, are you, Junkets? Certainly not in this bitter by-and-by.

Are you cold, I thought, at first, She’d inquired. Not particularly, no. She nodded, believing. It was pitchdark night, and the church bells cried—same as a wedding, a funeral, mass. They chimed—premature—for some hallow’d hour; the hour was running late. She repeated Herself, more strident & dire: Are you Kind? The tolling ceased, as if to listen—accentuated the witless vacuum left in potent non-answer’s wake. Andso yes, oh yes, of course, naturally, I clawed away at this deathless Nightmare—scrambled to counter with delay’d affirmations the prodding thrust of interrogatory deluge.  Was’t so long ago—so inconceivable—that I’d bettered the state of some Sufferer or another? But then, of course, You should have seen me reading Marx! Before, that is, in the Garden, amid the Regent’s hedgerows—manicured greens, with space to Disappear—this recent, spontaneous-yet-overdue venture had proved a tonic (however briefly) for the miserably immaterial, unenlightened Soul—a corrective bolt of righteous lightning, blessed & sent—an opiate for the conscience, and for the Masses alike—from tubercular Heaven, by invisible hand. And She, Herself, had visited, too, the gent whose outlook you perhaps previsioned in a pot of basil’s Conscious ire—that whiskered bust of one whose words had indeed brought change—had jimmied the locks & warped the bars of Proles-a-plenty, in estranging Cages. Andbutso why not—I wonder—entreat Another, whose prophetic verse is the urgenter undertaking? Why not, young fellow, appeal to Blake, or to the unmoored Multitudes of Whitman? In fact, why not the Man himself—or better still, the Nameless Vassals for whom his improbably stirring Vision meant the chainless end to History’s reign? Andso, well, I’m afraid I must ask again: Where are you, Keats, if not in this Asphodel’s mindless grey? 

No, no, She intruded, and halted our Progress. This is not your tune. If this place resides in Truth, I prayed, let it be the briefest visit—a passing through, or a cursory conference with Perdition’s gentlest demon. And then, well, I’m aware, moreover, this latest Indulgence hasn’t the kindliest face. If fanciful flight—emancipation—strangles, too, some reliant Others, this swansong’s bereft of bourgeois moralité. Mother, sister—the Physician, even—a friend or more, and Mel, perhaps—these are each victims of what now seems a Farce. Forgive me, Junkets, for this epiphanic outburst, yet what good is the heaventree’s stedfast perch, compared with suspense & mortal splendor of each finite, tender-taken breath? But oh no, Keats! no more of this blubbering penitence’s knee-splitting rugburn. No more of these upheld, interlaced fingers’ quivering sentimentality! I am in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, irritably reaching after fact & reason, so I tenderly suppose I’ll tell each of them in time—beseech Forgiveness, in too-casual Confession. Captive, even in this vacuous Nowhere, to a still-breathing conscience’s softhearted pleas, I imagine I’ll tell her, even—Mel—tell her, at least, when some cumbrous reunion forces (combined with ill-advised quantity of claret, stout, or other Vice) the onanistic thing through my whetted whistle, over swelling tongue, or in nasally drip. Yet no—oh no—I’ll not think falsely, nor overexcite some deep inner Good. They needn’t hear this song, dear Junkets, whether deserved or not. This way, She enjoined, then rounded a corner—a stony, emerald concealer of What? This venerable, ivy-swathed Yank’s abode, the atrophied timber and bricks of which—their lingering ruin, without hope of Repair—reminded of half-death’s present likelihood. In the bath before, Keats, I traced your name—writ its curls & tails in water. Is this our Fate? Of course, and I’ve known it: life’s Terminable Jest. Andbutso I watched Her—this formidable, vigilant, benevolent Specter—pass ahead through listless gate, into his foyer’s absorbing Light. It was rancid, somehow, the radiant passage—inherently Masculine, in all the worst ways. I’d ask you, Brother—anxious & affectionate—once more where you’ve gone, but at any rate, I knew, it would be a relief to quit the cold, uncertain climate. Andso from wettish & mildewed perfumes of dubious expiration, I passed once more o’er secretive Threshold—onward, Keats—I—see me off—I am going—I’ll go easy; don’t be frightened. Don’t be frightened.


Keatsian Correspondences: An Introduction to “A Tragedy in 5 Acts”

Adam Cady
Illinois Wesleyan University

Editor’s note: One year ago, on July 30, 2019, Adam Cady shared the introduction to his work as an undergraduate researcher and Eckley Scholar at Illinois Wesleyan University: “Redressing the Tragedy: The Place of Otho the Great in John Keats’s Letters.” The following day, July 31, Adam shared “Dog-carts, Elephants, and the Collaborative Effort of Otho the Great,” the first of four KLP entries celebrating the bicentennial of specific Otho-related letters. As the KLP is dedicated to the scholarly commemoration of literary anniversaries and fostering dialogues across time, it seemed only fitting that the introduction to Adam’s more creative extension of earlier Keats research should be published on this, the anniversary of his first contribution to the KLP. To correspond with his first letter-specific post, then, the body of Adam’s latest work, “A Tragedy in 5 Acts,” a Keatsian, chameleonic, epistolary prose-poem and phantasmal memoir addressed directly to Keats himself, will be released tomorrow on the KLP.

Not so loftily “stedfast” as his poem’s titular bright star, John Keats’s twenty-five years of aspiring life represented an ephemeral explosion of stunning creative output. Persisting through boyhood woes and the near-disastrously wasteful pragmatism of a medical education—through recurring tubercular bouts, as well as periods of melancholic “idleness” and “darling lounging habits”—Keats’s brief literary career was more than enough to secure his legacy as one of the greatest English poets (July 31, 1819, letter to Charles Wentworth Dilke). In the fall of 2017, though, when I joined Illinois Wesleyan’s semester-long study abroad program in London, my knowledge of the famed Romantic and his spectacular canon—of his sonnets, odes, romances, letters—was limited to mere, faint recognition of names like “Nightingale” and “Grecian Urn.” My experience with Keats began and—essentially, at that point—ended with an angstily atheistic freshman essay on his sonnet “Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition.” Those few, formative years ago, I luxuriated deeper in the mists of ignorance, blind to the personal and profitable impact Keats would soon have on me. I was, most hauntingly, oblivious to the uncanny biographical overlaps—those coincidental Keatsian correspondences—which would eventually solidify my connection to the poet and unambiguously demand the writing of “A Tragedy in Five Acts.”

Take, for the sake of outrageously narcissistic argument, these few facts of Keats’s short life: he was plagued off-and-on by the respiratory pains of tuberculosis, the same miserable ailment which eventually took his life; chronic illness was exacerbated by travel via a stormy carriage ride that triggered his most worrisome bout of illness to date; his ambitions were such that, amid the most productive period of his fleeting existence, he actively resisted the settling affections and “domestic cares” of his dear inamorata, Fanny Brawne; in the dreary, pain-filled months which preceded his passing, he begged for lethal doses of laudanum and the preferable release of suicide; and finally, though he lived for much of the previous seventeen months with friend Charles Armitage Brown at Hampstead, the poet’s mortal journey expired in Rome, where his tomb now resides (July 25, 1819, letter to Fanny Brawne). Though any conceivable echoes of Keats in my sordid English experience fail to merit the employment of paranormal investigators, my prematurely terminated stint in Keats’s hometown was notably sullied—in part—by airway-adjacent illness: tonsillitis. And however nonthreatening such an infection may seem in relation to the bloody suffocation of a historically devastating condition like tuberculosis, the twofold emergence of a peritonsillar abscess did—it turns out, in addition to prohibiting the swallowing of my own saliva—constitute a potentially deadly annoyance. As my tonsils were horrifically swollen just days after my arrival in London, I moreover suspect that travel—the ludicrously unsanitary state of most commercial airliners—was the real origin of my sickness. Amid all this suffocating unpleasantness, too, I was constantly reminded that vague, unnamed, inadvisable ambition had inspired my go-getting escape to Britain, and that same ambition fostered within me an alienating sense of pending greatness—a lonely, misguided pride which meant particular disdain for a stateside girlfriend and fear that we may at any point forfeit “nobler amusements” in order to “what people call, settle” (August 5-6, 1819, letter to Fanny Brawne). Regularly bedridden, isolated, and betrayed by the woeful inadequacies of my physical self, then, my sojourn in Europe was colored by suicidal ideation, as well as an eventual attempt to take my own life. When that blunder brought my semester to a hasty end, I was meant to visit a cousin earning his master’s degree in Rome, but instead found myself facing the professional judgement of a Hampstead psychologist, mere blocks from Wentworth Place and the Keats House museum.

However simultaneously self-aggrandizing and repulsively macabre such thinking may be, when I first encountered Keats’s rich biography, that narrative of suffering, suicidal woe, and death was near-immediate cause for celebration. In the doomed Romantic’s somber tale, and in the language of Keats’s remarkable letters, I recognized my own trauma, my ambitions, and my deficiencies. The Romantic’s greatest literary failure, for instance, is likely that of his singular completed drama, Otho the Great, a disastrously convoluted and largely forgotten tragedy on which I’ve previously written and published extensive scholarship. Conceived as a money-making scheme, Keats agreed to undergo this doomed venture with companion and co-author Charles Brown out of sheer financial desperation. Similarly accidental, my scholarly involvement with Otho began as a wild suggestion—the last-ditch recommendation of Professor and KLP editor Mike Theune, whose informed curiosity was mercifully extended as the answer to my imprecise longings for the praise and cash which accompanied Illinois Wesleyan’s Eckley Summer Scholars and Artists Endowment. While Keats and Brown never saw a measly ha’penny for their “dog-cart” dramaturgical labors, however, the Tragedy (as Keats refers to Otho in his letters) proved a rewarding avenue of inquiry for me, resulting not only in $4000 for investigation of the overlooked drama, but also serving as the basis for an independent study course, an exceptionally rare staged reading of the play, and research honors (July 31, 1819, letter to C.W. Dilke). Most importantly, exploration of Otho’s curious role in the poet’s correspondence (a multipart project titled “Redressing the Tragedy: The Place of Otho the Great in John Keats’s Letters,” published in installments on the Keats Letters Project website) fostered in me a profound appreciation of Keats’s life and works—wonderment at his linguistic mastery, as well as awe at our respective biographies’ improbable confluences. In recognition of that more conventional project’s fundamental influence, then, my subsequent “Tragedy in 5 Acts” borrows its name and pseudo-dramatic structure from the subtitle of Otho, while its stylized language and epistolary nature derive from Keats’s correspondence. Beyond mere admiration for his canonized poetical prowess, the strangely familiar experiences and observations, haunting themes and varied locales which filled and defined Keats’s brief life and letters have—despite the ongoing bicentennial of his fleeting career marking an enormous temporal gulf between our irreconcilably removed selves—proved inexhaustible wellsprings of inspiration. 

Likewise, Act I of my Tragedy, “imprudent moveables,” takes its title directly from Keats’s August 5-6, 1819, letter to Fanny Brawne—a supposed love letter which nevertheless balks at the settling capacities of romantic attachment. As the introductory Act initiates an irreverent retelling of my less-than-ideal experience studying abroad, it rightfully clarifies the circumstances and mindset which first inspired my overeager escape to London. Magically and without real explanation, the highly disturbed letter extends its epistolary address across two whole centuries—purports to communicate directly with Keats himself—yet its primary focus remains the nameless “Ambitions” which demanded such bold, inadvisable action as months-long removal from my home continent. As if pestered by the disembodied “voices of sirens, sweet murderers of men,” the unstable speaker (essentially, a past and problematic version of myself) travels to London in search of unknown, unspecified success, thus subjecting himself to conditions which foster the twin burdens of woefully undertreated tonsillitis—a cyclically flaring infection of the throat, somewhat like Keats’s own tubercular bouts—and mismanaged clinical depression. Still, throughout Act I, the speaker’s foolhardy transatlantic journey is cause for elation—cosmic hallucination and homoromantic forecasting—given the fervency of his urge to leave behind one specific American. In that same August 5-6, 1819, letter, disturbed by the domesticating potential of his feelings for Ms. Brawne, Keats professes his constitutional inability to pen “proper downright love letters,” and, similarly “unloverlike” with regard to Mel, his Yankee paramour, the speaker in my Tragedy suffers “dread of unchecked contentment. Of placid banality.” No matter how unfit this speaker is to face the wider world’s debilitating truth, he is, like Keats, unwilling to take the steadying hand of love: “Better be imprudent moveables than prudent fixtures” (August 5-6, 1819, letter to Fanny Brawne). 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Act II, “so much oppress’d at Westminster,” totally undercuts Act I’s ambitious fantasizing with the sobering realities of an impressive-yet-insufferable workplace. Borrowing, this time, from Keats’s July 31, 1819, letter to C.W. Dilke and referring to the social difficulties of that friend’s young, bullied son, “so much oppress’d at Westminster” comparably entails the boyish struggles of a first “real job”—in truth, an unpaid Parliamentary internship with a Labour MP (unnamed here, though there’s ample context in Act II to out this unsavory official). As this dissatisfying work results from those same, undefined aspirations which spill forth in the energetic ramblings of Act I, preparing tea and returning emails in a cramped, musty office is—of course—a colossal disappointment, compared with the dreamy, ethereal visions promised to a dubiously receptive addressee. Yet after whining childishly about such menial, secretarial business—reflexively degrading the English people, praising Irish nationalism, and envisioning explosive, terroristic revolt—the act transitions to more earnest, pressing matters than the speaker’s mild discomfort: the #MeToo Movement’s pivotal revelations, and the quiet complicity of onlooking men. As my real, interrupted semester abroad coincided with the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein story, I was—that autumn—suddenly attuned to the prevalence of misogynistic abuse in the workplace. Thus, the speaker notices his duly elected employer’s tendency to hire beautiful twenty-something women, while simultaneously indulging the kind of ogling objectification that he finds so apparent in the MP’s “pudding-thick, glazy cataract stares.” Whereas “the Member” appears to view his female staffers exclusively as fetishized sources of optical pleasure, though, the speaker’s degrading lustfulness is partially resolved by his coworker’s espousal of radical Leftism—by Hannah’s teatime recitation of Marxist philosophy, which both forces a humanistic reassessment of female staffers’ interior lives and shifts the speaker further from his boss’s tepid Blairite politics. As a result of this modest growth, the speaker is symbolically punished, taken by the MP to Westminster Hall—to the exact site of Charles I’s fateful trial—where he imagines a swift execution via “the winnowing Blade.”

Following this vivid, figurative decapitation, Act III, “the same natural history of Monsters,” draws its ominous moniker from a comical indictment of lawyers in Keats’s February 1819 journal letter to his brother and sister-in-law, George and Georgiana Keats. While a disconcerting segment of my extended family has indeed practiced law, though, the emphasis of this section is rather the nightmarish presence of history—prior generations’ venomous influence, and the futility of resisting their genetic authority. Presented as the hungover musings of a “couchbound & queasy” Oktoberfest attendee, the Munich-based segment begins by further lamenting the settling power of Mel; in this case, the gut-wrenching terror wrought by a stateside pregnancy scare. Connecting immediate fears of paternity to a “bloodborne legacy” of alcoholism and violence, the speaker then explicates his family’s multigenerational tendency toward overindulgence, not-so-subtly excusing his own vices in the process. In this third segment of the Tragedy, the speaker also remarks for the first time that he’s suffering from the “swollen encumbrance” of severe tonsillitis—compares his “maddening” pain to that of his second cousin, Charles, a recent victim of suicide. Just as Keats, in his final, tubercular months, begged for “Easeful Death” through laudanum, the speaker is evidently determined to relieve his own misery and “pestilent itching” by whatever means necessary. In such a state of sickness and despair, Act III turns—finally—to the famous question of Keatsian Negative Capability and asks: Is such transcendent forfeiture of the self even possible? Relaying the semi-supernatural memory of a cold and luminous apparition in the empty basement of a preserved concentration camp’s medical barracks (in truth, a recollection from an earlier visit to metropolitan Berlin’s Sachsenhausen camp, purposely juxtaposed with the Germanic revelries of Munich’s Oktoberfest), the speaker seems to conclude that, even if such selflessness were possible, it wouldn’t matter: our purest empathy won’t save the millions slaughtered under the Third Reich, nor will it free us from our inexorable, isolating fates. Death, he proposes, is the only escape. 

If Act III’s historical ruminations and foray into Holocaust literature are ambitiously expansive, Act IV, “a Man dallies and foolishes,” is perhaps the Tragedy’s most limited segment—a snapshot of a single night’s anguish, and the suicide attempt which results from this alienated despair. That being said, Act IV is the Tragedy’s climax, and it offers a violent resolution to many of the most pressing issues raised by the speaker in previous sections. Like the September 1819 journal letter to George and Georgiana from which the act takes its name, this paramount segment of the Tragedy is primarily concerned with leave-taking, especially farewells of the spectacular, theatrical variety. Evidently confirming his theory of inherited alcoholism’s inescapability, the speaker, throughout Act IV, swigs from a seemingly depthless bottle of Jameson, contemplating all the while the pros and cons of suicide. In much the same way that he previously realized the depth and savvy of his Marxist coworker, Hannah, the speaker now revises his assessment of Mel—still dreads her settling influence, yet recognizes the likelihood of heartbreak in the wake of her inevitable self-actualized departure. Although the speaker does consider—briefly, distracted—the horror his narcissistic act could inflict upon his family and loved ones, the fabricated prophecy of Mel’s devastating exit seems a more compelling argument than sentimental concerns for his mother or sister. Refusing, then, to become settled or to be made a blubbering fool, his decision is steadfast and clear. With a darkly parodic recitation of Otho the Great’s final lines, the speaker takes “one last awkward bow.”

What appears in Act IV as a final, suicidal flourish, however, is immediately and insolently undermined by a struck-through salutation: “God bless you!” No matter the seriousness of the speaker’s lethal intentions, Act V, “certain ventriloquial parentheses,” defiantly sustains his narrative with what is—essentially—an ambiguous epilogue. With its title pulled from that same, exit-obsessed journal letter from September 1819, Act V is likewise interested in the art of the farewell, and it attempts to cunningly reimagine the performative leave-taking which immediately precedes it. In this closing segment, suddenly accompanied and strangely comforted by the stern presence of an unnamed female guardian, the speaker confusedly retraces Keats’s steps, traipsing through Hampstead and the foggy English night. Aside from the Keats House museum, “that familiar Heathside manor,” little is recognizable in the evening’s “frozen black,” and the speaker actively questions his novel, purgatorial surroundings: “…what Unscripted Hell is this? What midnight charm—what dream has come?” Much as Keats, in his final months, experienced the chilling fantasy of a waking half-death, the speaker now has “an habitual feeling of [his] real life having passed,” as though he is “leading a posthumous existence” (November 30, 1820, letter to Charles Brown). Suspended in this state of unknowing, without the slightest indication of when—or if—he’ll receive any semblance of placating resolution, the speaker even begins to doubt his atemporal relationship with Keats, and he semi-accusingly ponders why the letter’s deceased addressee isn’t Blake or Whitman or Marx, instead: “why not…entreat Another, whose prophetic verse is the urgenter undertaking?” Like so many others, though, this question remains unanswered—is left there to hover in “Asphodel’s mindless grey.” Without the conclusiveness of genuine death or sufficient assurance of life’s continuation, he passes over an unnamed threshold, mingles with its “absorbing Light,” and, echoing Keats’s last words to friend Joseph Severn, the speaker reassures his rashly selected and evidently absent companion: “onward, Keats—I—see me off—I am going—I’ll go easy; don’t be frightened. Don’t be frightened.”

Given the preponderance of Keatsian phrasing, structures, wordplay, and themes in this hazily autobiographical, phantasmal memoir, I imagine that—by now—Keats’s posthumous influence on my “Tragedy in 5 Acts” is obvious. The occasion for writing was, after all, contingent on his biography’s familiar specifics. The lengthy epistolary style and five-act structure are moreover nods to Keats’s writings, and, in addition to the piece’s title and various section headings, borrowings from the poet’s letters and verse emerge in this Tragedy’s most consequential moments. Helping to bridge the two-century gap between writer and addressee, however, are the additional influences of miscellaneous and seemingly unrelated artists—phrasing from canonical masters like Shakespeare, with whom Keats was enamored, as well as the disparate traces of such post-Keats voices as Joyce, Baldwin, Plath, Dylan, Beckett, and the Grateful Dead. Take, for instance, the Tragedy’s motley opening lines: “—thank God it has come. I have seen your Comet—stately, stedfast and crossed with nightblue, hanged by the transitive heaventree of diamonds: a tree, evening, and how fares the Prince?” Reminiscent of that circularity which binds the opening of Finnegans Wake to the incomplete sentence at its end, “—thank God it has come” completes the reiteration of Keats’s last words which closes Act V, “certain ventriloquial parentheses.” The Romantic’s July 8, 1819, letter to Fanny Brawne is then directly quoted with this dazzling celestial flattery: “I have seen your Comet.” Next, language from Ulysses’ first and seventeenth episodes (“Telemachus” and “Ithaca,” respectively) fuses with Keatsian and other, less canonical phrasing to evoke a new and murkier sensation. “Plump,” for one, is replaced by the “stedfast” of Keats’s “Bright Star,” while the night’s “heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit” blends with the inversely solar lyrical poetics of Robert Hunter’s “Dark Star” to form a keen-eyed hangman’s preferred, psychedelic “transitive heaventree of diamonds.” Finally, my piece’s opening lines present a modest bastardization of those words which are, in Beckett’s tragicomic masterpiece Waiting for Godot, a fittingly sparse introduction to the play’s dismal setting: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” In this case, the description is accompanied by a reference to Keats’s wildly different, inferior drama, Otho the Great—positioned alongside an inquiry for which Estragon’s dreary opening line is a suitable answer: “Nothing to be done.”

Admittedly, the whole of this elaborate literary endeavor suggests the continued influence of a moderately unhinged mindset. To suggest the mutual experience of sickness and the recurrence of some imprecise locales as grounds for intricate comparison to a poetical titan—to further incorporate a bizarre mixture of wholly unrelated artistic voices as subliminal backing for my simultaneously self-aggrandizing and embarrassingly earnest project—is, after all, deranged. Yet as I write, I can’t help but call attention to the spectacular web of Keatsian correspondences in which I once again find myself. Having endured for years the recurrent miseries of a vicious respiratory illness, John Keats endured his first pulmonary hemorrhage on February 3, 1820. A former medical student, Keats recognized his symptoms’ grim portentousness, and he direly remarked to Charles Brown: “I know the colour of that blood,—it is arterial blood—I cannot be deceived in that colour; that drop is my death-warrant. I must die.” At the behest of his physician, Keats then set out for the sunnier environs of Rome, but his stormy, disastrous journey was punctuated by further torment: upon his arrival in Naples, a purported outbreak of cholera at home in Britain required that Keats’s ship be held in a ten-day quarantine. When the misfortunate Romantic did, at last, reach Rome on November 14, that city’s last oozings of prescribed warmth had dissipated, giving way to the sapping chills of autumn, and after months of tubercular torment, Keats at last found the mercy of death on February 23, 1821. Though I don’t anticipate hacking up wads of “arterial blood,” the specter of respiratory illness has landed me (and much of the world) in a version of quarantine, a shelter-in-place order meant to lessen the effects of COVID-19. Similar to the way in which Keats faced terrible uncertainty in the face of incurable pestilence, months of isolation have transformed the sluggish hours and weeks before me into a blurred and terrifying amalgam, extended endlessly in the baffling mist of unfinished history. 

More disturbing, perhaps, than even these latest Keatsian connections, I also find elements of my Tragedy reflected in the ongoing crisis; specifically, that sense of incompleteness which now haunts both the speaker in Act V and my day-to-day existence. After working, writing, and organizing for months to become one of history’s foremost experts on Otho the Great, my research was accepted as part of the British Association for Romantic Studies Early Career and Postgraduate Conference. As though prescribed by fate, the conference was moreover set to take place this June at Keats House in Hampstead, but thanks to the calamitous global pandemic, my triumphant return to London, the affirmation of my ambitions’ ultimate meaningfulness, and the glorious resolution to my prior woes remain indefinitely postponed. One of the many ways in which—I admit—my experience differs critically from that of Keats, however, is in the sheer understandability of his melancholic despair and suicidal longing for merciful release. Whereas Keat’s worldly path led only to gory, premature demise, the near-death and painful experiences autobiographically detailed in my epistolary prose-poem—that perverse “Tragedy in 5 Acts”—have at least enabled my therapeutic internalizing of the present weirdness as a test of what is possible: If, as an immunocompromised asthmatic and panic-prone depressive, I survive this indefinite period of maddeningly unpredictable pestilence, fleeting personal anguish will never again seem a justifiable reason to, as they say, eliminate my own map.

Works Cited
Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1963.

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. 1952. Grove Press, 2011.

Grateful Dead. “Dark Star.” Dark Star/Born Cross-Eyed, Warner Bros., 1968.

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. Penguin Books, 1999. 

Joyce, James. Ulysses, prepared by Hans Walter Gabler with Wolfhard Steppe and Claus Melchior, New York and London, Garland, 1984. 

Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. Modern Library, 2009.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, v. 1 1814-1818 and v. 2 1819-1821, edited by Hyder Edward Rollins, Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1958.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. Yale University Press, 2012.

Fanny Keats, Letter Keeper

Judith Pascoe
Florida State University

RE: Keats’s 14 February 1820 letter to Fanny Keats

How important is a minor letter by a major poet? John Keats’s 14 February 1820 letter to his sister Fanny is a hundred and sixty-six words and begins with a report on his physical state. “I am improving but very gradually,” writes Keats, who goes on to grumble about Fanny’s guardian Richard Abbey. “I am vex’d that Mr Abbey will not allow you pocket money sufficient,” he says. In comparison to his previous letters to Fanny, in which Keats projects an air of good cheer, here, he complains about his friends (“No one from town has visited me since my last”) and glooms about the future (“it will be a long while before I shall be able to walk six miles”).

Kelvin Everest has described Keats’s letters as “an achievement ranking almost with the poetry,” noting that the letters “articulate a personality of extraordinary critical intelligence, generous sympathies, and richly engaging tactful good humour” (ODNB). Fanny Keats was frequently the audience for Keats’s verbal artistry. In a letter posted earlier in February, Keats describes for his sister the view from his “Sopha bed”—a parade of passers-by that included “two old maiden Ladies,” “gipseys,” and the neighbor’s dog—and he projects a general bonhomie (8 February 1820). “I took a walk for a quarter of an hour in the garden and was very much refreshed by it,” he writes. But in the February 14 letter, we get only a brief glimpse of Keats the Poet. “I have had so many presents of jam & jellies that they would reach side by side the length of the sideboard,” he writes. After this flicker of vivid description, Keats glumly continues, “I hope I shall be well before it is all consumed.”

Keats’s 14 February 1820 letter gains poignancy from the clock we hear ticking in the background—he died a year and a week after it was posted. In another letter written around the same time, Keats reports, “I am reccommended not even to read poetry much less write it.” The letters are at this point Keats’s primary creative output, but they display less and less in the way of verbal pyrotechnics.

If Keats’s 14 February (St. Valentine’s Day!) letter to his sister is not as dazzling as some of his earlier letters, it’s partly because he’s more focused on the other Fanny, to whom, throughout February, he writes anguished cris de coeur. The dating of many of the Fanny Brawne letters is uncertain, but in Hyder Edward Rollins’ edition, Keats’s 14 February letter to his sister is sandwiched between letters he wrote to Fanny Brawne. Of the possibility that they will be separated from each other by Brawne’s trip to town, Keats writes, “How I shall be able to bear it, or whether it will not be worse than your presence now and then, I cannot tell” (February (?) 1820).

Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne heat to a boil; his letters to his sister hover around average body temperature. Another distinction between the two sets of letters is that the ones Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne got scattered—although the scattering occurred after Brawne, by then Fanny Lindon, had died—whereas the letters he wrote to Fanny Keats have remained carefully preserved. Maurice Buxton Forman highlights this difference in the Preface to his 1952 edition of Keats’s letters, in which he writes, “It is to be regretted that they [Keats’s letters to Brawne] did not share the fate of the letters to that other Fanny, his sister, which at her death passed from my father’s care, all save six, into the hands of the nation” (ix).

Fanny saved her letters from Keats more carefully and comprehensively than did the other people to whom he wrote. Of the extant Keats letters, those Keats wrote to Fanny Keats comprise twenty percent of the total. More letters survive of Keats’s correspondence with his sister than of his correspondence with any other single person. Edmund Blunden, in a 1931 review of Maurice Buxton Forman’s edition of the letters, noted the likelihood of omissions. The number of extant letters “for a man so befriended and attended as Keats was, is clearly an imperfect total,” Blunden wrote (261). Given the factors conspiring against John and Fanny’s correspondence—that the siblings lacked “a certain affective psychological foundation” due to their early separation (see Talia Vestri’s essay about Keats’s earliest extant letter to his sister), that Keats was more intellectually engaged with writer friends and more passionately engaged with Fanny Brawne—it seems unlikely that Keats wrote more letters to his sister than he did to any other correspondent. “Your Letter shall be answered like an echo,” Keats wrote to Fanny, but the echo was often delayed (27 February 1819). He ends his 14 February letter by promising that Fanny will hear from him again “the day after tomorrow,” but his next letter to her was posted on February 19th.

Nevertheless, Fanny conscientiously clung to Keats’s letters, ever faithful to the vision that he sketched out for the two of them. “You will preserve all my Letters and I will secure yours,” he writes to Fanny on 10 September 1817. “Thus in the course of time,” he writes, “we shall each of us have a good Bundle—which, hereafter, when things may have strangely altered and god knows what happened, we may read over together and look with pleasure on times past—that now are to come.” As an elderly woman, Fanny said that they had been out of her possession only once.

In old age Fanny (Keats) Llanos became known to Keats enthusiasts as a letter receptacle, a figure like Juliana Bordereau in Henry James’s The Aspern Papers. James’s male protagonist condescends to a woman who controls alluring literary manuscripts. In a similar manner, Fanny Keats was disparaged by Keats acolytes like Robert Gittings, who described her as “a stodgy little person, who turned out to have inherited the financial acumen and persistence of her grandmother”(75-76). Frederick Locker-Lampson called Fanny “fat, blonde and lymphatic,” and insisted she was only interesting by association (343). “She was John Keats’s sister!” Locker-Lampson exclaimed. “I had a good deal of talk with her, or rather at her, for she was not very responsive. I was disappointed, for I remember that my sprightliness made her yawn; she seemed inert and had nothing to tell of her wizard brother of whom she spoke as of a mystery—with a vague admiration but a genuine affection.”

In comparing Fanny’s stolid demeanor unfavorably to his own “sprightliness,” Locker-Lampson calls to mind literary unreliable narrators (“I have just returned from a visit to my landlord”) and real-life gasbag dinner guests (“Have I told you about my start-up plan?”). He suggests Fanny was incapable of appreciating her brother’s wizardry, that she kept Keats’s flame lit without herself being enlightened. This view of Fanny differs from the way in which Keats himself regarded his sister. Unlike Wordsworth, who, in “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” depicts Dorothy Wordsworth as a future museum of William memories, Keats imagines a mutual preservation society—“You will preserve all my Letters and I will secure yours” (10 September 1817).

Toward the end of Keats’s 14 February letter to Fanny, he writes of their brother George being obliged, due to Abbey’s withholding of money, to return to London from Louisville, Kentucky, a distance of 4,043 miles, and one that took six to fourteen weeks, depending on sailing conditions (see Brian Rejack’s “The Misadventures of a Letter” for more on trans-Atlantic travel). The letter’s other reference to distance appears in the address and postmark. Keats posted his letter from Wentworth Place in Hampstead to Fanny’s Pancras Lane, Queen Street, Cheapside address. The distance between Fanny and Keats throughout most of their correspondence was around five miles, but it proved frequently insurmountable. Keats often explains his failure to carry out planned visits.

I’m writing about Keats’s 14 February letter to his sister in the Minami-ku library, a branch of the Yokohama public library system. The view from my library table takes in a graveyard reinforced by a concrete wall, across which cats occasionally wander.

Perhaps because I’m far from home (and also from my home institution’s library), I’m moved to dwell on the precarity and preservation of Keats’s relationship with his sister. I sought out Keats’s 14 February letter in the holdings of the Yokohama National University Library, which, luckily for me, is rich in Keats letter collections. On its shelves can be found Lord Houghton’s The Life and Letters of Keats, Maurice Buxton Forman’s The Letters of John Keats, and Hyder E. Rollins’s The Letters of John Keats. Curious as to whether Keats’s letter to his sister had been translated into Japanese, I looked into Japanese compilations of Keats’s letters without finding the 14 February letter. It was likely deemed too inconsequential to merit inclusion in selective collections.

An obsolete check-out card in the Hyder Rollins edition suggested light usage of that collection, but I discovered, tipped into the first volume, a slip of paper left by a past reader.

The slip records the page number for Keats’s famous “negative capability” letter, but it is placed between pages on which a letter to Fanny Keats ends and a letter to Richard Woodhouse begins. In the letter to Richard Woodhouse, Keats sets forth his description of the “camelion Poet,” who “has no self.” The reader who left her book slip behind was almost certainly toggling back and forth between Keats’s two most famous accounts of poetic identity, rather than forging a link between negative capability and Keats’ letter to Fanny, which tells her how to evade her guardian’s constraints. There’s always a chance, however, that some future reader of Keats’s letters will forge such a connection, that a seemingly minor letter will come to assume greater importance, and that Fanny, the literary archivist, will seem especially prescient.

“The Sun appears half inclined to shine,” Keats wrote to Fanny on a not- particularly-remarkable day in mid-February of 1820. “[I]f he obliges us I shall take a turn in the garden this morning.” For Fanny, unlike for Keats scholars and enthusiasts, Keats’s weather forecast was as valuable as his more ambitious prognostications. The small letter she preserved from 14 February 1820 allows us to see Keats the convalescent more vividly than Keats the poet, to imagine Keats strolling around his garden on a morning that promised better weather.

Contributor Bio
Judith Pascoe is the George Mills Harper Professor of English at Florida State University. She has published Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship (Cornell, 1997), The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors (Cornell, 2006), and The Sarah Siddons Audio Files: Romanticism and the Lost Voice (U of Michigan, 2011). She has also published essays in Public Books, The American Scholar, and the Hudson Review. Pascoe’s most recent book, On the Bullet Train with Emily Brontë: “Wuthering Heights” in Japan (U of Michigan, 2017), which was completed with the support of a Guggenheim fellowship, explores how and why Brontë’s novel has been embraced by Japanese readers and writers.

Works Consulted
Bates, W. Jackson. John Keats. Harvard University Press, 1963.

Blunden, Edmund. “Keats’s Letters, 1931; Marginalia,” Reprinted Papers Partly Concerning English Romantic Poets. Tokyo, Kenkyusha, 1950. 209-266.

Everest, Kelvin. “John Keats.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.

Forman, Maurice Buxton. The Letters of John Keats, 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 1952.

Gittings, Robert. John Keats. Penguin, 1968.

Locker-Lampson, Frederick. My Confidences: An Autobiographical Sketch Addressed to My Descendants. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1896.

Okada, Akiko. Keats and English Romanticism in Japan. Peter Lang, 2006.

Rollins, Hyder Edward. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821. 2 vols. Cambridge University Press, 1958.