Illinois Wesleyan University
RE: Keats’s 31 July 1819 letter to Charles Dilke
Steeped in the writing of Otho the Great, Keats’s 31 July letter to Charles Dilke offers a revealing glimpse into the creative process and interpersonal dynamics which helped to produce “the Tragedy.” Having rid himself of the sickly James Rice—that dispiriting companion whom Keats feared was “in a dangerous state” of health—the poet’s own (mental and physical) condition improved considerably. In the 31 July letter, Keats reports seeing more of the Isle of Wight, offers friendly advice regarding Dilke’s son, celebrates Reynolds’s success, and playfully interacts with Brown at letter’s end. Noticeably free of that melancholic “idleness” which had temporarily hindered his ability to write, Keats is moreover diligent in his work—engaged, once again, in the arduous “Art of Poetry.” Acknowledging this dogged energy and seeming temperamental levity, I nevertheless wish to explore particular aspects of the letter—especially those that pertain to Otho—to inquire further into their meaning and tone. Doing so reveals this letter as darker and more foreboding than it might seem at first glance—a subliminal forecast of Otho’s failure and expression of the tense working relationship shared by the Tragedy’s mismatched co-creators, Keats and Brown, who were by now “well harnessed again to [their] dog-cart.”
While the “dog-cart” may seem an innocuous—if somewhat perplexing to the modern reader—reference, this passing mention says a great deal about the difficult and doomed creation of Otho. A small horse-drawn vehicle and popular Victorian mode of transportation with two (or sometimes four) wheels, the dogcart was originally intended for use in shooting sports, and earlier iterations included a rear box for hunting dogs. Given Keats’s troubled history with horses—his father’s fall and the stormy carriage ride which triggered his most worrisome bout of illness to date—the cart is a potentially loaded symbol and harbinger of Otho’s disappointing flop. Presumably, since he and Brown are “harnessed,” Keats meant for them to be the cart’s horse, but since dogcarts were pulled by a single nag, this is a rather complicated and confounding image. As a closely working pair, united in the passions of their joint creative venture, the two may be metaphorically conjoined—toiling minds melded in the animalistic, horse-like march of creation. At the same time, Keats’s choice of a dogcart over a larger carriage is curious. Though not exactly “harnessed,” might Keats and Brown be associated with the cart’s boxed-in hounds, laboring animals with a singular purpose, confined to a coffin-like space? Or, in the less severely transmogrified state of human travelers, could the toiling duo be linked to certain dogcarts’ tandem riders—in close proximity but back-to-back, each blind to the other’s circumstance? Who, in this case, is the driver, and who is the passenger? Certainly, Keats’s symbolic deployment of the dogcart—this lesser vehicle—hints at some inadequacy in their work, an underlying smallness in the play’s financial motivations, or the impotency of Otho’s convoluted and derivative plot. With a single, easily overlooked phrase, Keats’s dogcart metaphor encapsulates the confusedness of Otho’s routine-yet-strained, financially driven, and ultimately fruitless creation.
The loaded symbol of the dogcart, in addition to highlighting the general uneasiness which surrounded Otho, also sheds light on the tonal complexities of a subsequent passage, in which Keats discusses the possibility of their including an elephant in the play. “When Brown first mention’d this,” he writes, “I took it for a Joke.” Despite a theatrical history of live animals and puppetry making Brown’s spectacular suggestion plausible, the various negative implications of the dogcart (as well as the mocking tone with which Keats later belittles his partner’s written attempts at wit) undercut any friendly reference to Brown’s “plausible reasons” or eloquent discourse on the matter. Here, Keats’s seeming thoughtfulness and “serious consideration” stink with sarcasm, as—given the bitterness which I believe subtly permeates the larger letter—the poet likely never wavered in his assessment of the elephant as “a Joke,” and was never in need of “historical referance” to confirm the accuracy of a pachyderm in “Otho’s Menagerie.” Moreover, Keats’s suggestion that Brown’s and his artistic creations beyond the bounds of “the Art of Poetry”—in this case, both their composition of Otho and painting—“shall by next winter crush the Reviews and the royal Academy,” positioned in such close proximity to the elephantine conundrum, seems yet another dig at Brown’s eccentric suggestion. The degree of Keats’s faith in the Tragedy to become a smashing critical success is a matter of debate (complicated further by such puzzling lines as the questionably ironic suggestion in his 14 August letter to Benjamin Bailey that Otho might inspire “a revolution in modern dramatic writing”), but his subliminal linkage of the word “crush” to discussion of Brown’s elephant appears as a deeply Keatsian bit of chiding wordplay: he critiques Brown’s overbearing contributions to the collaboration, his palpable—and perhaps even pulpable—designs.
Regardless of Keats’s precise attitude toward dogcarts or elephants—or any of the poet’s specific, subconscious anxieties—both mentions hint at significant trouble in his working relationship with Brown, and that same tenseness which permeates these passages is evident near the end of the letter, when their collaboration is actually visible on the page. Whereas the process of writing Otho (described in greater detail in my introduction to this project) was largely mechanical, one imagines a more intimate occasion for this letter’s being penned. With the two temporarily unharnessed from their respective assembly-line assignments, Brown is no longer just the deliverer of outlines, and seems to lurk over Keats’s shoulder, waiting for his opportunity to add some quip or personal flair. And, when Keats gives gossipy mention of Brown’s affair with “one Jenny Jacobs,” insinuating that his collaborator’s risqué escapades will soon result in a child (“I am affraid thee [there] will be some more feet for little stockings”), Brown is quick to offer—in his own hand—a spirited reply: “—of Keats’ making. (I mean the feet.).” Of course, Keats was producing poetic feet at this time, and the reference to offspring may be part of a running joke which imagines their professional partnership as a kind of marriage—a domestic comedy dynamic explored more fully in Keats’s 23 August letter to John Taylor. Still, regardless of any clever (if intentional) double entendre, Brown’s interjection—namely, its clunky parenthetical to clarify that Keats will be making “the feet” and not the stockings—exemplifies Brown’s forced sense of humor. His failed “piece of Wit,” according to Keats, was painstakingly considered (“long a brewing”), though Brown rejects this as “a 2d lie.” When Keats responds with outstanding praise for his compatriot, his sarcasm is palpable and sharp: “Men should never despair—you see he has tried again and succeeded to a miracle.” In a handful of collaborative sentences, one can detect a hint of the antagonism that may exist between Keats and Brown—the underlying resentment which Keats, as a prodigious-yet-impoverished poet, may have felt toward the less-extraordinary half of Otho’s creative duo.
Immediately following this fraught exchange, Keats’s concluding message to Dilke is likewise biting and sardonic, indicative of the increasing possessiveness and individual verve with which Keats would write the concluding act of Otho. Keats largely ignored Brown’s outline for the fifth and final act of the Tragedy (perhaps the most redeemable bit of drama that the play has to offer), and proceeded to populate its dramatic verse almost exclusively with his own ideas. Thus, while not entirely reflective of Otho—this is, indeed, Keats’s letter, and he is merely reclaiming ownership of the text—the strict closing note indicates what may be the poet’s growing desire for authorial supremacy over Otho: “…as I have a right to an inside place in my own Letter—I take possession.” Having already undermined Brown’s strained contributions to the letter, Keats’s domineering farewell to Dilke further guarantees the poet’s textual dominance, and mirrors that petty assertion of creative authority which would similarly finish Otho. In this same resentful and precarious manner, it seems, the imbalanced pair proceeded with their “dog-cart” labors—that ill-fated endeavor of Otho the Great, which went on “sinkingly.”
Keats’s attunement to what would become the dynamics of making Otho and the contours of the final product stands in contrast to other moments in the letter where his sense of the interweaving of past, present, and future is less perspicacious. Keats is noticeably unable to foresee his life’s remaining tribulations, to reckon with or acknowledge the future as a profound and overwhelming force. Regarding Rice, Keats complains that he “cannot bear a sick person in a House especially alone,” though he would soon enough enter such a terminal and “dangerous state” of health—as Tom Keats had less than a year before. Likewise, in addressing the news that Dilke’s son is having trouble at school (“so much oppress’d at Westminster”), he dismisses the burdensome power of time to transmit such woes well into adulthood, suggesting, “His troubles will grow day by day less, as his age and strength increase.” For Keats, though, the youthful sorrows of orphandom, poverty, and chronic illness persisted to his untimely death. Composing and then producing Otho was meant to resolve at least one of these issues, and perhaps the closer relationship that would emerge as a result of collaboration with Brown might help to alleviate the loneliness caused, in part, by another. However, in this letter, though he dresses them in typical bravura, Keats intimates the desperate toll the future will demand of him. Despite his statement that if he were a father with concerns for a son he “would strive with all [his] Power not to let the present trouble [him],” the present already is troubling. Keats can feel the clouds of circumstance gathering.