Ivana M. Krsmanović
Technical College Cacak
RE: Keats’s 14-31 October 1818 letter to George and Georgiana
Having been disconnected from George and Georgiana for several months since their departure for America in June 1818, John Keats was deeply hurt. One of the possible reasons to feel ‘a great deal of pain’ (p. 158) was the fact that Keats had received information of their safe arrival through his sister-in-law’s mother, Mrs Wylie. Not surprisingly, being too shy to admit that he was personally insulted by the fact that his beloved brother was closer to his mother-in-law than him, Keats decided to give this ‘mail malfunction’ incident an epistolary twist: he declared he was not sorry he hadn’t yet sent any letters across the sea, since the only news he could share was ominous: Tom was feeling extremely weak. Tragically, this was John’s last letter written to George during which the three brothers were all still alive.
Watching his younger brother die was devastating for the oversensitive Keats. He was emotionally drained and somewhat ill himself. He wrote long, intimate journal letters to his brother in America, in order to bridge the emotional gap created with his departure. In this deeply confessional letter, Keats elaborated on happiness and the importance of family ties at difficult times. Not yet fully estranged but already far away from his family in America, thinking about his legally ‘imprisoned’ sister Fanny, Keats realized he now fully belonged to a dysfunctional family, so he became rather explicit about his inner fears: ‘tears will come into your Eyes – let them – and embrace each other -‘ (p.159). The haunting idea of pain and suffering slowly overtaking his life was formulized in a well-known sentence in a letter to Benjamin Bailey in June 1818: “Life must be undergone’’ (p. 99). Still, he had to encounter more women and experience more pain.
In the meantime, disturbed by his inner struggles, overburdened with financial difficulties, Keats was writing a letter to his brother and sister-in-law, alone by the window. Impressed by the picturesque scenery that was occupying his senses, he wrote down: ‘’the Moon is now shining full and brilliant – she is the same to me in Matter, what you are to me in Spirit’’ (p.159). This fearless declaration of love to Georgiana did not end there. Having been truly fascinated with his sister-in-law’s disinterestedness and intelligence, Keats wrote a full paragraph in sincere admiration to Georgiana only, although he knew his brother was a (simultaneous) letter recipient. Moreover, comparing Georgiana to his sister Fanny brought some unexpected discoveries: he admitted he did not feel for Fanny as he did for Georgiana. The statement of the undivided love would not have been that unusual if it were not for the fact that Keats had barely met Georgiana once.
What made Keats feel such strong affection for a woman who was a mere acquaintance? The emotional attachment to his sister-in-law probably came from the fact that Georgiana was the only woman who came to the family to stay. While Keats’s mostly women-constituted family became dysfunctional with multiple female departures (his mother left the family more than once for various reasons, his sister was under legal custody, his granny lived in a separate household), Georgiana was the first woman who did something totally opposite from abandonment: she was there to stay. Needless to say, Georgiana was about to complete the range of females Keats was not familiar with before: although previously emotionally connected to family-related women only, at this stage of his life meeting Georgiana, mysteriously veiled under her marital status, meant re-defining his knowledge of females and getting to know some women outside his family.
Being almost 23 by this point, Keats craved for tenderness and passion. Yet, he cunningly tried to mask this inner urge by what looked like just a regular letter-blabbing to his brother. However, abundant mentions of non-related females throughout the letter obviously meant newly found interest in various ladies. He mentioned frequent acquaintances with females living nearby, firstly as toponymic determinants, not identities: Mrs Millar’s was where he and Haslam had a cup of tea; then Miss Keasle, ‘the good-natured’ Miss Waldegrave, Mrs Millar’s daughter, Mrs Dilke. All of them might have been a suitable reminder of a life he would have liked for himself: being married with children. Or would he have?
The idea of having a family with a disinterested, passionate wife similar to Georgiana, frequently collided with the urge to realize his poetic ambitions. This particular letter demonstrated that the emotional rupture provoked by such thoughts was gigantic; he quickly wanted to replace the exciting but frightening mental picture of himself being a husband and a father with something more suitable for the occasion, so he decided to change the topic of his letter. He proudly boasted of the two positive reviews of his work published in the Chronicle and the other in the Examiner. Although one of the reviewers was a close friend of his, Reynolds, who would have written a praising review at all events, the second review being written by an unknown critic led Keats to say that it was just a matter of time when he would secure a place ‘’among the English Poets ‘’after his death.
Yet, he didn’t feel like chit-chatting about poetic fame any more. After briefly mentioning ‘the utterly boring’ Miss Reynoldses, Keats’s mind was fully focusing on erotic pleasures, leaving discussion on his promising career plans for some other time. Openly blunt about his sexual experiences, he started elaborating on Jane Cox – one of the most intriguing females in his life. In a long, intimate account on the charms of this femme fatale, a reader (in this case, George and Georgiana) could easily detect Keats’s explosive attraction to a woman who was ‘not without faults’ (p.162). A daring lexical juxtaposition ‘I should like her to ruin me, and I should like you to save me’ (p.163) basically placed Georgiana in a role of a marital messiah to Keats, but just after the provisional devastation of a sexual liaison with Jane Cox had happened. Why does Keats write details on making out with Jane Cox so bluntly? Is exposing Georgiana to the perverse account of his intimacy with Jane (without Georgiana’s consent in the first place) just Keats’s voyeuristic exhibitionism? What kind of reception on her behalf did he expect? ’A women is visible only when compared to the other’ claims Kristeva (p. 378). It looks like Keats proved that ‘love relationships are based on narcissist pleasure from the one side and the idealisation from the other’ (Kristeva, p. 400), polarising his fixation on chaste Georgiana and lustful Jane.
Having felt he probably went too far with demonstrating his (somewhat partial) understanding of women, Keats continued his letter-writing by smoothly moving on to his thoughts about American political figures and the national character, which then leads him to suddenly propose, ‘If I had a prayer to make for any great good, next to Tom’s recovery, it should be that one of your Children should be the first American Poet’ (p.165). Not surprisingly, a poem which followed after such a bizarre wish got even a more unusual twist: it opens with a scene of the Moon and Stars all listening to a prophetic ‘song’ dedicated to a poet’s unborn nephew who becomes a poet himself. Further on, the poet narrates that he is aware of the prematurity of his lullaby since the ‘infant’ (denoted as a genderless child) has yet to come to the world (the woollen for the baby’s blanket is still ‘’on the sheep’’). With a strong contrast created by eliciting baby’s necessities such as cradle, blanket and linen on the one side and the stars above on the other, Keats exclaims: ‘Child! I see thee! Child I’ve found thee / Midst of the quiet all around thee!’ After having been miraculously born (without explicit details on it for readers), the baby metamorphoses from a child into a poet. The poem finalizes with a picture of a fearless infant who ‘dares what no one dares’ (and that is basically staring at the blaze of the candle) and thus becomes ‘a bard, a true poet.’ After a poetic climax, the letter breaks off.
Why does Keats compose a lullaby here? Lullaby is defined as a gentle song sung to make a child go to sleep (OED). It usually has a simple and repetitive structure meant to convey a feeling of peace and security, indicating an emotional and social connectedness between the two involved in the process. It is a type of communication established by touches, notes and calming words. Yet, Keats’s prophetic lullaby goes a bit awry. What is supposed to be a moving poetic picture of an adult and a baby connecting in a relaxing pre-sleep state when physical and emotional boundaries are blurred, turns out instead to be an arbitrary pastiche with a harsh vocabulary and irregular rhyme. It certainly doesn’t read like an effective way to lull a child to sleep. Keats’s Child, child! (resembling an invocation of a muse) sounds rather unconvincing when contrasted to a more conventional opening, like Sleep, little baby …. So, a reader gets in a serious dilemma: is the baby supposed to go to sleep or to wake up? Apart from the decorum of the genre which obviously went wrong, the picture of an unnamed child grabbing flames and thus mysteriously upgrading into a bard ‘completely / Sweetly, with dumb endeavour’ (lines 51,52), makes us think Keats had never seen either a baby or a poet before. Where was he drawing these images from? His own childhood was a paradigm of common family concepts in 18th century England (non)centered around children: when left without parental care, children usually got neglected in foster homes (like his sister Fanny), or were forced to live in poverty and financial uncertainty (himself). Although the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s pedagogical manuals which explored the importance of children’s upbringing were widely popular, the child-centered education was too progressive to be considered a regular educational practice at that time, so it was highly unlikely that a (random) baby’s future would even be a point of general interest, even if it were for the literary purposes only.
If not taken either from his personal experience or general social atmosphere of an epoch, was this baby episode an intentionally crafted poetic manoeuvre? Did the baby image emerge just as a paradigm of state-of-the art poetry? Historians agree that the 18th century was the period when the ‘discovery of childhood’ occurred and when the experience of childhood changed dramatically (Wierda Rowland, p.8). Pre-Romantic concepts of children were based on sentimental construction of childhood innocence and their innate perfection. However metaphorical it might be, the depiction of babies grabbing flames of glory collides with the images of the actual life of an English child at the time. Child labour was common in the factories and mines in England during the industrial revolution, so children represented a cheap and expendable workforce. They were usually exposed to outbursts of violence on the one side, and neglect on the other. The Romantic (and romanticised) images of naivety and freedom depicted in a savage child had a little to do with how children actually lived. Yet Keats’s baby, tucked with blankets of a secure cradle grabbing flames of glory, resonates as a socially and culturally odd construct derived from two sources: Keats’s personal childhood trauma he wanted to compensate for, and an artistic process of imagining a corrected vision of what childhood could be.
If we refer to Keats’s playful and self-deprecating autobiographical poem written in the summer of 1818, “There was a Naughty boy” (often anthologized as “A Song about Myself”), we will encounter a different child – a reckless boy who just wants to scribble poetry. Richard Marggraf Turley rightly argues that this nursery ‘subverted sublime subjectivity by infantilizing the viewing subject itself’ (p.74). Interestingly, the poem sets the focal point on the nature of the boy’s ’naughtiness’ which refers to childish activities only, usually undertaken in solitude. Obviously, the kid had to grow up and discover the world of sexual pleasures, so that ‘naughtiness’ could include more liberal projections of a poetic expression.
While demonstrating ignorance of dealing with babies, Keats shows no fear of fatherhood. In fact, he craves for transforming a general preconception of fatherhood to serve his personal needs: it was not merely about opening to the world by starting a family; it meant encountering a world of poetic fame. That process is not a devaluation of family values, but quite contrary, upgrading the system by liberating it from clichés. Not surprisingly, the change starts with the sexual. To demonstrate he is fit to be a father Keats juvenilely boasts that he had experienced le petite mort with females before and that he was a romance connoisseur. Keats had bought love from prostitutes and ‘openly considered himself a man of sufficient sexual experience’ (Motion p.198). But, is love a state of belonging or there is more to it? What strikes Keats the most is the fact that in becoming a father, similar to becoming a famous poet, one must engage in various physical and emotional processes of giving. But whereas one can write poetry in solitude, fighting only with one’s ‘private’ demons, the sexual activity necessary for conceiving a child traditionally includes two parties.
While leaving behind the child-centered constructs of childhood from “A Song about Myself” and ‘’A lullaby,’’ (with both poems interpolated in his letters), Keats uses child metaphors in his late poems differently, as a ‘fine excess’ (KL, p. 69) resonating his complex feelings for women and the dysfunctional family he originated from. In these poems the focus on the child is not directed from the parent’s point of view but quite the contrary: instead of talking of a step-mother or a step-father to a child, Keats emphasizes a child’s perspective of the relation, not the parents’, lexically labelling the direction of the social ties between the child and the parents.
When six months later Keats wrote Ode on a Grecian Urn, his deployment of child metaphors more subtly referred to a social context of fatherhood: ‘Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,/Thou foster-child of silence and slow time’(lines 1-2 ). Interestingly, the first lines of the Ode echo the lexis of the ‘lullaby poem’: a child found ‘midst of the quiet’ transformed into ‘a bride of quietness.’ In addition, carefully crafted play of the adverb still upgrades the meaning: the word STILL implies the forthcoming catastrophe the bride is about to experience: she is still untouched, however she is yet to be subdued in an act of dominion and love. Her not being yet experienced in love, places her in a position of a foster-child who ‘has no natural parents because the act of sex did not produce it’ (Alwes, p.127). Not only is she chaste, then–her parents’ sexual histories contextualize her identity as well. Thus a sexless bride from the beginning of one ode subtly transforms into the ‘mid-May’s eldest child’ of another (Ode to a Nightingale, line 48), a genderless toddler whose parents must have had multiple sexual encounters (since being the ‘eldest child’ implies having younger siblings).
For Keats, the sexual is a transformative force. Various acts of love, perceived as creative powers genetically inherited from our ancestors, re-shape individual experiences and contribute to the evolution of our unexplored selves. While seeing women as mostly enigmatic beings, Keats believed children’s advantage over adults lay in their being a tabula rasa with good chances to reach for the stars. The glorious future they might experience is not restrictive of their personal family histories, no matter how unusual or diverse they might be. By recognizing the significance of all types of families (matrifocal, nuclear or blended) and their role in shaping personal development of children, Keats anticipated diverse family models we know of today.
From a picture of a naive ‘naughty’ boy Keats moved to a depiction of a baby-poet grabbing flames, then embarking on a metaphor of a foster-child ‘of silence and slow time,’ to be able to finally reach a construct of ‘mid-May’s eldest child,’ thus successfully transforming the initial understanding of children into a more contextualized representation, unleashing his creative potential and exposing his vulnerability, while at the same time addressing his personal social alienation, emotional neglect and gloomy professional prospects.
A year later, in July 1819, Keats wrote to Dilke (whose parental dedication to his son he detested and often criticized): ‘I do not know how I should feel were I a father – but I hope I should strive with all my Power not to let the present trouble me‘ (p. 273). Keats wanted to be a dad, but he thought he wasn’t good enough: ‘The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window are my Children[ … ]I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds (p.170),’ [ … ] ‘I am fit for nothing but literature’’ (p. 302).
While we will never know what sort of father Keats would have made, given what we do know about his character and personal values, it’s hard not to imagine that he would have honed his lullaby skills and made for a great parent.
Ivana M. Krsmanović (Technical College Cacak) is a Keats scholar, and Keats’s legacy has been a focus of her research for more than 10 years. After defending her MA thesis, Letters of John Keats: evolution of the author’s poetics in 2009, she earned her PhD with her dissertation, Female Archetypes in the Poetry of John Keats (2016) at the University of Belgrade. Currently she explores babies, ageism and biopolitics, as well as violence and eroticism in Romantic poetry. She has published papers on British Romanticism, and her first book on Keats’s poetry is to be published in 2019.
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