Sensation and Immortality

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a joint one by Kathleen Béres Rogers and Brittany Pladek, who collaborated on their responses to, via Keats’s 16 Dec 1818–4 Jan 1819 letter, related issues around illness, death, and dying. We indicate below the authorship of each section.

Kathleen Béres Rogers
College of Charleston

Memories. Sensations. We think of pictures in our minds, but pictures fade, they change, they can be altered. When I remember the two weeks I watched my father dying, I remember the sterile hospital room, the nurse who sat by his side, his bloated body and his ashen face. I remember his eyes, open but not seeing. But more than these things, I remember the smell of that hospital room, the sounds of the machines keeping him alive, the (non)taste of hospital food. I remember crying a great deal or, conversely, not being able to feel anything at all.

But there are also positive memories: I remember talking with him, singing to him, feeling like he was listening. Holding his hand, feeling that he knew I was there. I remember telling him that it was all right to go … and then he did.

In Keats’s December 16, 1818–January 4, 1819 letter to George and Georgiana, a long letter detailing his thoughts about grief, sensation, and memory, Keats has been through a somewhat similar process. “The last days of Tom,” he writes, “were of a distressing nature” (II: 4). For the person observing the dying process, the sensations can often be unnerving. John Ferriar, the physician to the Manchester Infirmary, writes about it in a 1798 essay on “On the Treatment of the Dying,” detailing the “tossing of the arms … the rattling noise in respiration, and difficulty of swallowing” (III: 203). The “death rattle” remains with survivors as a persistent, often traumatic memory, and Keats would have experienced this multiple times as a surgical student and dresser at Guy’s Hospital. In Consumption and Literature: the Making of the Romantic Disease, Clark Lawlor expands on this, adding the “fetid smell” often present in a patient dying of tuberculosis” (5). He continues to write that the consumptive death “can be extremely unpleasant, with patients becoming more and more short of breath, increasingly unable to control their coughing and expectoration, unable to gain a moment’s peace” (5). The indescribable smell of phlegm, the sound of constant coughing and spitting, and, finally, the rattle of death, are sensory memories that must have stayed with Keats until the end of his short life.

Yet Keats had already developed an ideological system—again, as a surgical student, he had to—for coping with death, and the literature of his day allowed for a different “reading” of consumption.  Specifically, the consumptive was often compared to a flower (Shelley repeats this move in “Adonais”), as in Coleridge’s “On Observing a Blossom.” Here, Coleridge apostrophizes the “flower that must perish” and asks whether he should “liken thee / To some sweet girl of too too rapid growth / Nipped by consumption mid untimely charms?” The notion of the consumptive as clearly effeminate (the “sweet girl” and the flower) intersects with and complicates the cultural and medical notion of these patients as poets, thinkers, members of, as Keats would say, the “Dreamer tribe.” In observing dying patients, Ferriar writes that he “[has] always been impressed with an idea, that the approach of actual death, produces a sensation similar to that of falling asleep” (195). Later, he quotes Spenser, who compares death to “sleep after toil” (Complaints). If death is like a sleep, then Keats must have wondered about dreams, which featured prominently in most of his poetry, and served, through the senses, as routes to memories—one can think here of Moneta, whose name means memory, in The Fall of Hyperion, and the fact that the Poet encounters her in a dream. Perhaps Keats thought of death as a sort of sleep, a pathway to a sensory universe that might more perfectly mirror reality. “Do I wake,” he asked, “or sleep?” (80).

Coleridge writes in “A Day Dream” that in a dream, “My eyes make pictures when they are shut” (313). This notion of “seeing” without physically seeing recurs throughout this letter in the form of blindness. Writing to George and Georgiana in the wilds of Kentucky, Keats had to rely on these mental pictures, as well as on other sensory memories. “We shall be,” he writes, “as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room” II: 5). In Keats’s letter, blindness serves as a metaphor for physical, but not spiritual distance: the latter distance can be filled by memories and, of course, by sensation. The notion of blindness connects Tom’s death with George’s distance, but it is this very lack of physical sight that allows for sensory (and extra-sensory) memories to let the “viewless wings of poesy” do their work (33).

It is, in fact, words that allow for the poet (or, here, the letter-writer) to develop what Keats, in “To Homer,” calls “a triple sight in blindness keen” (12). Words seem to allow for the senses of sight, smell, and touch to assume equal importance. It is therefore no accident that Keats, in this letter, writes about arctic exploration and, more specifically, about “snow-blindness”:  “[The explorers’] eyes were so fatigued with the eternal dazzle and whiteness that they lay down on their backs upon deck to relieve their sight on the blue sky” (II: 5–6). The purely visual input of the snow becomes overwhelming, and the sense of sight must be mediated, “relieved.” Analyzing this same passage, Larrissy envisions the snow blindness as “an image of a malign excess, an overburdened parody of sublimity, which might well destroy artistic accomplishment” (167). The intensity and power of the visual sublime detract from the other senses, destroying the possibility both for poetry and, for Keats, artistic immortality.

Brittany Pladek
Marquette University

With Tom’s death, the idea of immortality became more than just artistically important to Keats. After describing his brother’s “distressing” final days with an austerity that suggests how hard he found it to relate the harrowing details, he concludes, “I have scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature [or] other—neither had Tom” (II: 4). It’s a comforting thought, likely written for Keats himself as much as George and Georgiana. But it’s also an intellectual problem he had wrestled with for some time. As Noel Jackson has argued, Keats was keenly interested in the “sensation” of states we might not normally understand as felt, the afterlife included. Tom’s death made that interest agonizingly personal. Surely immortality meant you didn’t have to hurt anymore? John Ferriar’s essay on medical conduct at the deathbed had recorded the commonplace belief that to “put [a patient] to death” meant to “put the patient out of pain.” In the winter of 1818, Keats needed to believe this was true. Just after consoling George and Georgiana that Tom’s “last moments were not so painful,” and just before averring his faith in “immortality of some nature,” he remarks that the “commonest observations of the commonest people on death are as true as their proverbs” (II: 4–5).

Several sentences later, he tries to flesh out those observations. It’s a peculiar metaphysics, born of new grief and growing loneliness. “That will be one of the grandeurs of immortality,” he tells George and Georgiana, who he has not seen since June: “there will be no space and consequently the only commerce between spirits will be by their intelligence of each other.” The heart of this intelligence is spirits’ memory of one another’s earthly identities, which Keats imagines as the sum of their physical mannerisms:

…they [spirits] will completely understand each other… I will give an example… I do not feel at the present moment so far from you is that I rememb{er} your Ways and Manners and actions… I know the manner of you walking, standing, sauntering, sitting down, laug{ing,} punning, and evey action so truly that you seem near to me. (II: 5)

In this vision of immortality, spirits move about walking and talking and laughing, but it’s all memory, not real sensation. They “understand each other” not through the sensual ear, but an eternal “intelligence” of no tone. Since they do not move in “space,” they have no bodies; since they have no bodies, they feel no pain.

Here, Keats returns to ideas he had been developing since 1817, and which would culminate in the famous “vale of Soul-making” letter of May 1819 (also addressed to George and Georgiana). In that letter, Keats would outline a “system of Spirit-creation” that sees a soul’s identity as the result of the pains it endured on earth, where “the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!” (2.102). This “system” will darkly revise Keats’s 1817 hope that after death, “we shall enjoy ourselves… by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone… such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation” (II: 185). The difference between these views is sobering. In 1817, Keats saw immortality as an extension of earthly pleasures, a repetition of the “happiness” of all “who delight in sensation.” By May 1819, it will become a form of identity dependent on a lifetime of pain, a “heart” suffering thousands of times over. The winter of 1818 drastically altered Keats’s opinion on how immortality felt.

That Tom’s death would be the event that taught Keats how nothing was painless, not even pleasure and certainly not eternity, is so widely accepted that it’s sometimes difficult to remember the cruelty of the lesson. In 1818, Keats the grieving brother tries hard to reassure George and Georgiana—and himself—that Tom died “without a pang.” He plays the good doctor, “pour[ing] the sweet balm of consolation” onto “those unhappy persons, who fear to survive the loss of the objects of their love,” as Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis instructed medical students in his widely-read 1798 Essay on the Certainty of Medicine (114–7). So, too, Keats the metaphysician tries hard to imagine a comforting afterlife, where spirits retain their distinctively embodied “Ways and Manners” but escape the agony their living bodies suffered.

But he cannot forget Tom’s final days, which his reticent letter calls “distressing” but whose visceral details haunt his poetry: the youth who “grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies” (26); the Titans “pent in regions of laborious breath” (2.22); worst of all, Moneta’s ghastly face, consumed by the nightmare of an “immortal sickness that kills not” (1.228). During the summer of 1818, Keats had reread Dante’s Inferno, whose gruesome portraits of eternal pain he would, in 1819, try to rehabilitate into a fine and private heaven where “lovers need not tell / Their sorrows” (II: 91). But his efforts there feel forced, much like this letter’s lukewarm endorsement of an “immortality of some nature [or] other”—a no-place where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Both letters yearn to imagine an immortality without suffering. Neither quite manages it. By the winter of 1818, Tom’s death would confirm what Keats had already begun to suspect: that, as the sonnet “To Burns” he wrote earlier that summer admits, “pain is never done” (I: 308).

Contributors’ Notes
Kathleen Béres Rogers is an associate professor of English at the College of Charleston, and she works on Romantic medicine, proto-psychology, and disability. Her book, Creating Romantic Obsession: Scorpions in the Mind, is forthcoming from Palgrave.

Brittany Pladek is Assistant Professor of English at Marquette University. She writes on Romantic poetics and literature and medicine. Her book, The Poetics of Palliation: Romantic Literary Therapy, 1790-1850, is forthcoming from Liverpool University Press.”

Works Cited

Cabanis, Pierre Jean Georges. An Essay on the Certainty of Medicine, trans. R. La Roche. Philadelphia: Robert Desilver, 1823.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, “On Observing a Blossom on the First of February, 1796,” in The Complete Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. William Keach. Penguin Classics, 1997.

Ferriar, John, M.D. “On the Treatment of the Dying.” Medical Histories and Reflections. 3 vols. Manchester: G. Nicholson, 1798.

Jackson, Noel. Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Keats, John. Collected Poems, ed. Jack Stillinger. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Larrissy, Edward. The Blind and Blindness in Literature of the Romantic Period. Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Lawlor, Clark. Consumption and Literature:  The Making of the Romantic Disease. Palgrave Macmillan: 2007.

Letter #42: To George and Tom Keats, 13/19 January 1818

Regular readers of the KLP will know that one of our frequent preoccupations is the sad fact that six of Keats’s letters come to us from just one source: the unreliable transcripts of John Jeffrey. The negative capability letter is the most famous of these, but this letter–begun on 13 January and completed almost a week later–is another of them. One would hope that someday some or all of these six letters would resurface, if only to show how many mistakes Jeffrey made in his transcripts (sorry, Jeffrey!). Alas, no luck so far.

Now, what follows is an extreme long shot, but it nonetheless shows that the search for known unknown Keats letters really ought to be undertaken in a concerted fashion. There’s plenty that we know about some of these manuscripts, and with what speculations and suppositions we can add to that certain knowledge, we have plenty of archival rocks under which to look. First, then, here’s what we know about this letter. Jeffrey made a transcript in summer 1845. He sent that transcript to Richard Monckton Milnes that fall, and Milnes published some of the letter based on that transcript in his 1848 Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats. Jeffrey misdated the letter as 21 April 1818–specifically Jeffrey writes at the letter’s opening, “Tuesday Hampstead 1818 / April 21.” In Jeffrey’s defense, 21 April and 13 January 1818 were both Tuesdays, so perhaps there’s some reasonable explanation for his mistake (since Keats finished writing the letter on 19 January, it’s possible that a postmark may have included “21” for the date of sending or receipt… as for the April for January bit, who knows). In any case, in Milnes’s 1848 and 1867 editions, the letter is dated as such. Milnes also excises a sizable portion of Jeffrey’s transcript, and for an understandable reason. In that portion Keats details infighting between members of the Keats/Hunt circle: namely, between John Hamilton Reynolds and Benjamin Robert Haydon, and between Leigh Hunt and Haydon. In 1848 Hunt was still alive, and Haydon had only recently died, so one can see why Milnes might want to keep the petty squabbles out of public notice.

After 1845 the letter likely remained under Jeffrey’s care for some time, eventually being passed on to Emma Keats Speed (1823-1883). EKS is known to have been the family steward of her uncle John’s letters and papers. In part we know this because there are examples of documents she presented to people as gifts. The most famous of these gifts was one presented to Oscar Wilde (in an 1886 essay for the Century Guild Hobby Horse Wilde tells the story of his encounter with EKS in Louisville in 1882). It seems likely that she also gave a letter (3-9 July 1818 to Tom) to James Freeman Clarke when he visited Louisville in 1873. Clarke was a friend of George Keats back in the 1830s, when Clarke lived in Louisville for a brief time. In his magazine The Western Messenger in 1836 he published two of Keats’s letters from his tour of Scotland in 1818 (we’ll get to those this June!). Unfortunately the manuscript of one of those two letters (25-27 June 1818 to Tom) is now lost, so the text from Clarke’s magazine is our only source for it. But the KLP does not think Clarke is responsible for its disappearance. He clearly returned to George the other letter (23, 26 July 1818 to Tom) since that MS still exists, and since it was copied by Jeffrey in 1845. Somehow that one made its way to England and ended up in the “Crewe Collection,” the materials assembled by Milnes and preserved by his family after his death. Ok, we’re getting in the weeds now–sorry!

There’s at least one other letter we know Emma Keats Speed gave away: the 12 November 1819 letter to George and Georgiana. In February 1869 she gave the manuscript to a Philadelphian collector named Frank Marx Etting (who, incidentally, had just recently married Alice Taney, daughter of Chief Justice Roger Taney, notorious for writing the Dred Scott decision–perhaps the newlyweds honeymooned in Louisville). Etting had a friend named Brantz Mayer who was also a collector of autographs and manuscripts. On 18 March 1869, when it seems Etting was still in Louisville, Mayer wrote to his friend and asked him, among other things: “GET ME THAT KEATS autograph.” (Since HTML won’t allow–as far as we can tell with our limited skills–a double underscore, we’re going with the small caps for the first part of the quotation.)

Brantz Mayer to Frank Marx Etting, 18 March 1869. Courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Mayer runs out of space and so writes “autograph” vertically on the facing leaf.

Perhaps Mayer wants Etting to show him the one letter we know he received from EKS. But the “GET ME”  seems to imply something other than merely “show me.” What if Etting left Louisville with not just one Keats letter (the 12 Nov 1819 letter which makes it to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania after Etting dies in 1890)… what if he left with TWO? More digging is to be done in order to ascertain where Mayer’s autograph collection went to. One contemporary source, An Essay on the Autographic Collections of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution (1889), claims that Mayer’s collection of autographs was sold at auction in November 1879, nine months after Mayer’s death. It’s certainly possible that among the items auctioned off was a bit of Keats memorabilia, even if just a cut-out signature, or perhaps a scrap of a poetic manuscript (Emma Keats Speed gave a cut-up piece of Otho the Great to Sallie M. Hunt, the wife of a business partner (A. D. Hunt) of her son George Keats Speed–complicated, we know). If today’s letter, or any of the letters for which we rely on Jeffrey’s transcripts, were to reappear, who knows what we might learn. It might be minor. Jeffrey often cuts just a sentence or two here or there, as opposed to cutting much longer sections (of course, in a few cases he does cut very big sections). But even if the original letter revealed just an additional sentence or two, it could still go a long way toward further refining what we know about Keats, his epistolary writing, and the many ideas and concerns he tackles therein.

Take the primary issue in today’s letter: the difficulty of seeing and valuing genuine human kindness when it coexists with instances of petty vindictiveness. What other nuances might we encounter were we to get a new sentence or two added to this letter? In some ways the question is a vain one. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that this letter will never be rediscovered. So while still holding out hope, let’s at least recognize the depth of thought on display in the letter as it comes to us via Jeffrey.

A remarkable thing happens at the beginning of this letter to his brothers: Keats essentially disavows his investment in “works of genius.” In a letter to Haydon a few days before he began this one, Keats had identified Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion, Haydon’s paintings, and William Hazlitt’s “depth of Taste” as “three things to rejoice at in this Age.” Now he repeats the remark to George and Tom, but then quickly denies that “works of genius were the first things in the world.” What, then, ranks more highly in Keats’s estimation? Turns out it’s the everyday goodness of human beings, exemplified in Keats’s mind by his friend Benjamin Bailey. He writes, “that sort of probity & disinterestedness which such men as Bailey possess, does hold & grasp the tip top of any spiritual honours, that can be paid to any thing in this world.”

Here we should emphasize again that these comments come amidst Keats’s growing frustration with the all-too-remembered acts of unkindness occurring between some of his friends. In typically Keatsian fashion, we see him vacillating from asserting that “there is nothing stable in the world—uproar’s your only musick,” to then claiming that he values good-hearted sociability above all else. The strength of the latter feeling, he notes, is what led him to begin this letter to his brothers: “And moreover having this feeling at this present come over me in its full force, I sat down to write to you with a grateful heart, in that I had not a Brother, who did not feel & credit me, for a deeper feeling & devotion for his uprightness, than for any marks of genius however splendid.” As much as we may engage with Keats’s life and work because of those “marks of genius,” it’s worth remembering as well how that spirit of genius emanates from a deeply-felt commitment to human connection. The letters often show Keats’s genius, but they are also remarkable for the traces of love, kindness, and goodness that they preserve and transmit to us.

At the same time, the letters also show the human failures which exist within the very structures of sociability that make possible expressions of “deeper feeling” and “uprightness.” And what are the grievous wrongs about which Keats’s pals were feuding? 1) John Hamilton Reynolds didn’t RSVP for Haydon’s dinner party, and 2) Haydon chastised Leigh Hunt and his wife for not returning borrowed silverware in a prompt enough manner. FOR SHAME! We venture here to say that Keats’s true “marks of genius” shine through most brightly precisely when he has insights about the smallness of human character. And that means not just the pettiness of squabbles related to etiquette. It’s also about the minor moments of beauty, of care, of friendship and love. It’s about the “spiritual yeast” contained within us and which “creates the ferment of existence,” as Keats will put it to Bailey in a letter a few days after finishing this one to his brothers. While we surely do not know all the dimensions of Keats’s thinking on these issues—especially considering that the Jeffrey transcript on which we rely contains, without a doubt, less than the original letter—we nonetheless see him articulate momentary clearings in the “Mist” of social being, and we hear his subtle melodies overtaking the uproar.

To read the letter for yourself, you can check out Harry Buxton Forman’s 1889 edition. This was revised reissue of the 1883 edition, and one of the changes for 1889 was printing the entirety of Jeffrey’s transcript. It appears that at some point between 1883 and 1889 Forman got his hands on the transcript (perhaps he had better luck working with Milnes ancestors than with Milnes himself, who died in 1885). Images of Jeffrey’s transcript also included below.

Page 1 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 13/19 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 2 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 13/19 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 2 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 13/19 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).