Letter #78: To George and Georgiana Keats, 27 and 28 June 1818

One of the tricky things about these letters from Keats’s Northern Tour is that he’s writing multiple letters across multiple days, so there’s some overlap in the dates, which can easily lead to some confusion about what’s happening when. This letter to George and Georgiana was begun on the afternoon of 27 June, after Keats had visited Stock Ghyll Force in the morning, eaten breakfast at the Salutation Inn at Ambleside (now the Ambleside Salutation Hotel, owned and operated by Best Western), and then attempted to visit Wordsworth at Rydal Mount. Keats and Brown then made their way to the foot of Helvellyn, where they waited hoping that the mist would clear enough for them to attempt an ascent. While they waited, Keats began this letter to George and Georgiana.

We cover some of the same territory covered in the previous letter to Tom: dining at Bowness-on-Windermere (on trout which Keats himself retrieved from a box in the lake), a brief mention of the visit to the waterfall, and the planned visit to Wordsworth’s residence. Now we learn that the elder poet was not at home and that Keats “wrote a note for him and stuck it up over what I knew must be Miss Wordsworth’s Portrait.” Apparently Wordsworth didn’t keep the note, as it no longer exists. But when visiting the area three years ago, KLP adventurers Brian Rejack and Michael Theune did their best to recreate the scene (see below). They are silly.

These two jokers…

For the entertainment of his sister-in-law, and to (presumably) symbolically welcome her as a newly-minted member of the family, Keats goes on to write an acrostic for her new name. What a nice fellow. Eventually Keats and Brown gave up on waiting for the mist to clear and abandoned their plans to summit Helvellyn, hoping they’d have better luck with Skiddaw in a few days.

The next day, after lodging at the Nag’s Head in Wythburn, the pair walked to Keswick for breakfast, after which Keats returned to letter and deposited it at the post office before spending the day walking around Derwent Water. Keats ends the letter with a funny bit of self-reflection about the eventual fate of his correspondence: “We will before many Years are over have written many folio volumes which as a Matter of self-defence to one whom you understand intends to be immortal in the best points and let all his Sins and peccadillos die away–I mean to say that the Booksellers with [for “will”] rather decline printing ten folio volumes of Correspondence printed as close as the Apostles creed in a Watch paper.” Well, joke’s on you, John! Little did you know that you’d be so immortal that a bunch of people two hundred years later would be poring over that correspondence so obsessively. Lucky for you, though, your best parts pretty easily outnumber the sins and peccadilloes.

This particular letter, though, took a long time to make its way from its manuscript existence into print. Here’s what we know about its travels. First, it was sent to Liverpool but never actually reached George and Georgiana. Postmarks show it arriving in Liverpool on the first of July, by which point the newlyweds were already aboard the Telegraph, which did not leave port until four days later. Apparently they did not leave the ship in order to check on any letters that might have arrived for them. So the letter was redirected to “Messrs Frampton & Son / Leadenhall Street / London.” These were the employers of William Haslam, to whom George would have instructed any letters be sent after his departure from Liverpool. Haslam delivered the letter to Tom, who wrote on its exterior, “To be sent to George.”

What happened to the letter after the summer of 1818 is a bit unclear. It was still in Keats’s possession in September 1819, when Keats copied the acrostic to Georgiana in the letter he was writing then. He also copied some of the letter to Tom from 23 and 26 July 1818. We know that some of the letters from the tour had been sent to George and Georgiana in Keats’s October 1818 letter to them. But it appears that at least today’s letter and the late-July letter to Tom remained in London. Most likely today’s letter made its way to America at some point, though. When copying out the 23/26 July letter to Tom in September 1819, Keats explicitly points out that he’s copying it instead of sending the original, with this funny explanation: “before I go any further I must premise that I would send the identical Letter insted of taking the trouble to copy it: I do not do so for it would spoil my notion of the neat manner in which I intent to fold these thin genteel sheets–The original is written on course paper–and the soft ones would ride in the Post-bag very uneasy; perhaps there might be a quarrel–.” With this letter to Tom, we do know for sure it eventually arrived in America, because John Jeffrey made a copy of it in 1845. He did NOT make a copy of today’s letter, however.

So, that means the 27-28 June 1818 letter to George and Georgiana was not in Louisville, Kentucky in 1845. Sort of… It’s also possible that Jeffrey simply didn’t copy this letter. That Jeffrey could have done anything! In any case, the letter was not printed until 1925, when Amy Lowell published it in her biography of Keats. She owned the letter herself, but as far as we’ve been able to tell thus far, it’s not clear how she came to own it. Most of her Keats manuscripts she acquired through the sale of the Taylor family collection in London in 1903. With this letter, though, we suspect it was in the Keats family in America, given to someone by Georgiana or Emma Keats Speed at some point in the middle of the nineteenth century, and then acquired by Amy Lowell in the early years of the twentieth. She bequeathed it to Harvard’s Houghton Library in 1925.

Some technical difficulties are currently preventing us from providing images of the manuscript from Harvard, but you can look at those images via this link: https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:14984784$115i. Images below come from the Google Books preview of the letter from the Oxford edition of Keats’s Selected Letters.