Keats Underway

Richard Marggraf Turley
Aberystwyth University

Re: Keats’s 15 April 1817 letter to George and Tom Keats

In April 1817, Keats was going places. His debut volume Poems (1817) had appeared the previous month to enthusiastic reviews by his friends, and he’d been welcomed into the avant-garde circles of Leigh Hunt and Benjamin Robert Haydon. Now, at four o’clock in the afternoon on 14 April, he was underway in a very literal sense. An onlooker outside The Bell and Crown in Holborn would have seen the Southampton mail coach emerge in black-and-scarlet PO livery from the square arch of the coaching yard and clatter onto Holborn Hill, Keats perched atop, wrapped in a plaid for warmth, a beaver-hatted guard bringing up the rear (toting a blunderbuss and two loaded pistols; as De Quincey was to write: “It is felony to stop the mail. Even the sheriff cannot do that”). Keats’s ultimate destination was the Isle of Wight, where he was decamping to write his “long Poem”, Endymion. Fully conscious of the unstrained juvenile exuberances of his first collection – “bordering on childishness” the Eclectic Review would complain (Conder 270) – Keats was banking on an epic to establish himself as a mature poet.

Fourteen dusty hours later, “muzzy” from his crepuscular journey, he was searching for breakfast in Southampton, afterwards composing a sleepless aubade to his brothers George and Tom, which he deposited at the Post Office in Butcher’s Row (now West Street) before his ferry sailed at three o’clock. Part impressionistic travelogue, part rhapsody on Cockney sociability, Keats’s letter of 15 April, like the mail coach itself, speeds easily on, its own velocity echoing the vehicle’s thundering progress through Surrey and Hampshire. In that letter, Keats regales his brothers with a lamplit montage of scenes and images glimpsed from his window seat; lavishes excitable praise on his new best friend Haydon’s painting of another urban arrival, that of Christ into Jerusalem; displays his literary credentials through some thickly laid-on allusions to The Tempest, Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; gives vent to the boyish energies of Rum-ti-ti, Titmouse and “betty over the way”; before signing off with another literary pun, this time comparing his letter to a “rough plan of Aunt Dinah’s Counterpane” from Tristram Shandy.

Written to announce an arrival, Keats’s dispatch is dashed off with the boyish urbanity of someone who felt they’d arrived twice: once, that morning, in the seaport of Southampton and, during the preceding months, in the giddy social orbits of Hunt, Haydon and Hazlitt. As I read Keats’s letter again, I find myself smiling, pleased to see him so pleased with himself for once. (As John Barnard shows in a recent Romanticism article on Endymion’s composition, this was a disconcerting time for the young poet, a “narvus” period of “depressions” and “forebodings”.) But – and this in the context of preparing a new collection of essays on the theme of “Keats and place” – what grabs me is not so much the letter’s gauche au courantism (which once I saw everywhere in Keats), but rather the humdrum strangeness of that peripatetic sequence that maps Keats’s journey through the interspaces between London and Southampton, the phantasmagoria of those faint visions, lit by the coach’s lamps – unfamiliar towns and hamlets, commons, downs, empaled parks, enclosed farms, wayside pubs and turnpike gates.

Popular guides such as Paterson’s Roads gave Romantic-period travellers the “correct routes of all the mail coaches” from Hyde Park Corner, along with the principal set-downs: Hammersmith – BRENTFORD – HOUNSLOW – STAINES. They help us catch Keats’s drift.

Part of the London to Southampton route from Paterson’s Roads, 15th edn (1811), p. 37.

Because at first sight, Keats’s own em-dashed itinerary of the Mail Coach Road, seen in dim pools of lamplight, appears to have little in common with Patterson’s clipped precision:

All I can tell you is that sometimes I saw dusty Hedges – sometimes Ponds – then nothing – then a little Wood […] – then came houses which dies away into a few straggling Barns – then came hedge trees aforesaid again. As the Lamplight crept along the following things were discovered – “Long heath broom furze” – Hurdles here and there half a Mile – Park palings when the Windows of a House were always discovered by reflection – One Nymph of a Fountain – N.B. Stone – lopped Trees – Cow ruminating – ditto Donkey – Man and Woman going gingerly along – William seeing his Sisters over the Heath – John waiting with a Lanthen for his Mistress – Barbers Pole – Docter’s Shop. (LJK, I 128)

For Walter Jackson Bate, this list shows Keats falling into the “innocence of exuberant simplicity” (159), while for R. S. White, the impressions are “cryptic” (74). We might wish to question the innocence of Keats’s possibly bawdy concatenation of John waiting for his mistress and the barber’s pole. As for cryptic, Keats is rarely that; in fact, he usually repays us for taking him at his word. That’s what I’ve been doing, consulting Romantic traveller and tourist guides for the bare bones of the Southampton mail coach’s route, supplementing them with ordnance survey and enclosure maps to flesh out the A to Z of Keats’s peripateticism. The stone nymph has eluded me, but other materially embedded details emerged to suggest that Keats’s lamplit cartography isn’t puzzling, but is by its own compass “correct”.

Keats begins his overnight journey at the Bell and Crown at 133 Holborn Hill, proceeding west along Piccadilly, past the Gloucester Coffee House, down to Hyde Park Corner, through the Kensington turnpike, down the high street to Hammersmith, famous for its market gardens and fruit nurseries – its pruned fruit trees are possibly the “lopped trees” Keats mentions seeing; next comes Turnham Green – Keats says he “did not know the Names of any of the Towns I passed through” (LJK, I, 128) – Brentford, county town of Middlesex, the Grand Junction Canal, Smallbury Green, Hounslow and its Powder Mills, and new enclosures, then Staines, and across the Thames into Surrey with Egham, Windsor (where George III was in residence), and Windsor Park on the right – Keats remarks on “Park palings” – wooden in 1817, iron today; Shrub’s Hill is next, then Hatton Hall to the left, over Bagshot Heath – Keats jests he saw “William seeing his Sisters over the Heath” – past the wooded park, and on to the village of Bagshot itself – then into Frimley, crossing the Blackwater River at Frimley Bridge, on to Farnborough, crossing the Basingstoke canal, and on to Farnham – Keats is well into Surrey now – where there’s a “set down”, and a chance for the horses to draw breath … as may we …

And off again towards Bentley Green (a “delightful place”, according to The Traveller’s Guide in 1805, with a “large green adjoining” and a “hop plantation”, though it would have been dark when Keats’s mail coach flew through; [Oulton I, 76]) – the black shapes off to the left the trees of Holt Forest; on to Alton, through Chawton (rumbling past the house where Jane Austen lived on Winchester Road), through Ropley Stoke and Ropley Dean and the Anchor Inn, barrelling along (average speed >10mph) the Bishop’s Sutton turnpike road into Alresford (pronounced Awls-fud), through which, according to a Universal British Directory report of 1798, “The Mail coach from London passe[d] … every morning between 3 and 4 o’clock” (Barfoot and Wilkes 23), and where there was a great pond and a roadside barber’s pole, just as Keats describes, the latter sketched by Thomas Rowlandson (see below) in 1792 – Staple Green, over Winchester Downs, arriving into Winchester along the Alresford Road, down and around Magdalen Hill, beneath St Giles’s Hill (from whose top Keats would be inspired to write “To Autumn” two and a half years later), passing Winchester post office at “about five o’clock” (Oulton II, 862), just as the sun would have been rising (at eleven minutes past five on 15 April 1817, according to the NOAA Solar Calculator) – Keats tells us he “saw the sun rise”.

Customers stand around a barber’s shop in Alresford: Thomas Rowlandson, 1792.

Another “set down” in Winchester … and we’re off once more, dashing past the Hospital of St Cross on the St Cross Road – Keats was to walk parallel to this road when he strolled along the Itchin’s water meadows in September 1819 – south on to Compton, hurtling between Compton Down and Twyford Down – Keats records that “from dawn till half past six I went through a most delightful Country – some open Down but for the most part thickly wooded”, noting “an immense quantity of blooming Furze on each side the road cutting a most rural dash” – past the chalk pit, on to Otterbourne and Otterbourne Hill, through thick forest to Chandler’s Ford Bridge, past the “direction post” at the fork in the road there; through Marlbrook pond turnpike gate, passing Common Farm and Marlbrook pond itself, over Chilworth Common – the ancient routeways often followed tracts of common land – and what progressive enclosures and incorporations had left of Stoneham Common, then alongside Stoneham Park, empaled by the influential Fleming family, and a brick kiln, then through Southampton Common, rattling past The Cowherds Inn (still there today), Bevis Mount looming on the left (“extremely romantic and agreeable”, so the Southampton Guide; Lechiot 53), along an avenue of firs that Gilpin praised for forming a “connecting thread between a town and country” (Bullar 116), and, slowing now, pulling past the Royal Military Asylum at the confluence of London Road and the Avenue (a cavalry barracks during the Napoleonic Wars), before coming to a stop, coach springs juddering, at The Coach and Horses on the west side of Above Bar Street, just up from Southampton’s medieval Bargate, whose famous lions Keats inspected on his way to find breakfast. Distance travelled: a total of 77 miles.

The mail coach route from Alresford to the east through Winchester, heading to Southampton. Edmund Crocker, Ordnance Survey drawings (1806). 2” : 1 mile.

Back to that sun up. It strikes me as poignant that as the sun’s limb touched the horizon that morning, Keats, setting out on his poetic career, was rolling through Winchester, a town that would come to be associated through his most achieved poem, 1819’s ode “To Autumn”, with the maturing sun, with sunsets. Keats also thought the event significant, and underscored it: “N.B. this tuesday Morn saw the Sun rise” (LJK, I, 128) – with that pen stroke giving his letter a horizontal plane of its own for the sun to climb above. Nicholas Roe suggests this slant observation alludes to the night of 14-15 April thirteen years earlier, when the Keats brothers’ father had died (Roe 162); Keats, that is, notes he’s just witnessed the sunrise his father hadn’t. If Keats uses that dawn to commemorate his father (as well as announcing a son rise), perhaps he commemorated the sunrise itself in the long poem he began a few days later. Allowing for the analemma of poetic transposition, compare Endymion’s speech to Peona – “I, who still saw the horizontal sun/ Heave his broad shoulder o’er the edge of the world” (Endymion, I, 529-30) – with Keats’s own “N.B.” to George and Tom.

Other key words and phrases appear to undergo a transversal shift into Keats’s epic. In 1792, relating his own journey over Bagshot Heath, the traveller Charles Tomkins complained that a “succession of hills covered with dark furze” (Ulex europæus) – another name for gorse – proved “very ungratifying to the eye” (Tomkins I, 6). Perhaps it was Bagshot’s heath and furze that cued Keats’s spondees from The Tempest: “Long heath broom furze”. At any rate, “Furze” didn’t offend Keats’s eye. Far from it: the shrubby plants make a second appearance later on in his letter, where their bright yellow flowers cut a “rural dash” as dawn broke between Winchester and Southampton:

I forgot to say that from dawn till half past six I went through a most delightful Country – some open Down but for the most part thickly wooded. What surprised me most was an immense quantity of blooming Furze on each side the road cutting a most rural dash. (LJK, I, 129)

Furze spreads easily on the downs – it also takes root in Book 1 of Endymion, in a scene set during “the silent workings of the dawn” (I, 107), and brings along with it another key term from Keats’s letter, “down” (as in hilly plateau). Dawn – down(s) – furze:

Men of Latmos! shepherd bands!
Whose care it is to guard a thousand flocks:
Whether descended from beneath the rocks
That overtop your mountains; whether come
From valleys where the pipe is never dumb;
Or from your swelling downs, where sweet air stirs
Blue hare-bells lightly, and where prickly furze
Buds lavish gold …
Yea, everyone attend! (Endymion, I, 196-212)

This, then, is Keats underway, Keats in transit, commenting on empalement, attuned to enclosure out there in the social world, but equally to the rum-ti-ti of titmouse, to John waiting for his mistress. The letter of 15 April 1817 also opens a lens into the mechanical realities of interurban transport in the Romantic period, just as it allows us insight into the creative energy of Keatsian translocations and translocutions. And finally, em-dashed – cutting its own rural dash – it gives us Keats’s sense of personal rapidity, his debut volume newly printed, the young poet about to embark on an epic.


Works Cited

Barfoot, Peter and John Wilkes. The Universal British Directory of Trade, Commerce and Manufacture, 5 vols. London: British Directory Office, 1798.

Barnard, John. “Keats’s ‘Forebodings’: Margate, Spring 1817, and After.” Romanticism. 21 (2015): 1-13.

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1963.

Bullar, John. A Companion in a Tour Round Southampton. 2nd edn. London: G. Wilkie, 1801.

Conder, Josiah. Review of Poems (1817), Eclectic Review. 2nd series, 8 (1817): 267-75.

De Quincey, Thomas. “The English Mail-Coach”, in Thomas De Quincey: Confessions of an English Opium-Eather and Other Writings. Ed. Barry Milligan. London: Penguin, 2003.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats 1814-1821. 2 vols. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1958.

–––––. John Keats: The Complete Poems. 2nd edn. Ed. John Barnard. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1977.

Rev. Lechiot and multiple contributors. The Southampton Guide: Being a Description of The Ancient and Present State of that Town and Neighbourhood; Together with The Principal Roads to Diferent Parts of the Kingdom. 18th edn. Southampton: T. Skelton, 1805.

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Solar Calculator:

Oulton, Walley Chamberlain. The Traveller’s Guide; Or, English Itinerary. 2 vols. London: J. Cundee, 1805.

Paterson, Daniel. A New and Accurate Description of All the Direct and Principal Cross Roads in England and Wales. 15th edn. London: Longman, 1811.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2012.

Tomkins, Charles. A Tour to the Isle of Wight. 2 vols. London: G. Kearsley, 1796.

White, R. S. John Keats: A Literary Life. London: Palgrave, 2010.

Letter #16: To George and Tom Keats, 15 April 1817

One supposes that at some point we’ll run out of firsts to commemorate, but today is certainly not that day. Keats’s letter sent two hundred years ago today is the first extant letter sent to his brothers George and Tom (we’ve already encountered his epistle to George, but this letter is the first one we have that was addressed to both brothers). Looking forward a bit, the second extant letter to George and Tom comes in December of this year, and… wait for it… it is none other than the negative capability letter! Mark your calendars for December 21-27–the KLP will have plenty of negatively capable action on the docket for that week.

Today’s letter is another breezy one, though much longer than the note to Taylor and Hessey from a few days back. As he was in that letter, Keats is on the move and in a hurry today. He manages a breathless account of the many sites encountered on his journey from London to Southampton, from which he sends his letter before departing on a ferry to the Isle of Wight. Richard Marggraf Turley’s response matches the energy and wit of Keats’s letter point for point. With remarkable detail, precision, and insight, Marggraf Turley reveals a great deal about the landscape Keats traversed on his journey, and also about the rapidity with which Keats was indeed, literally and figuratively, “going places.” We daresay Marggraf Turley’s essay will both instruct and delight!

We present the images of the original MS courtesy of Princeton University Library, which acquired the letter relatively recently: in 1972 as part of the Robert H. Taylor Collection. Taylor amassed a collection of some 7000 items, among which were six of Keats’s letters. A small curious detail which may be of interest only to the most arcane of KLP readers: for his 1958 edition of Keats’s letters, Hyder Edward Rollins printed four of these six letters with the MSS as his copy texts, but not the other two, which included today’s letter to George and Tom, and a March 1820 letter to Fanny Brawne. That is to say, Rollins certainly knew Taylor owned four of the six–did Rollins not know of the other two in Taylor’s possession? Or perhaps Taylor came into possession of today’s letter and the Fanny Brawne letter sometime after the 1958 publication of Rollins’s edition? Perhaps Taylor just wanted to keep two of his letters secret from Rollins?? Hard to say. In any case, today’s letter was printed by Rollins using Harry Buxton Forman’s 1883 edition as the copy text. And it turns out Forman did a solid job of editing–feel free to compare Forman’s edition against the images, which we present for your viewing pleasure below.

Of course, we were just kidding about Taylor hiding two of the manuscripts from Rollins. Now we can confirm that Taylor acquired this letter quite late: in late 1976 or early 1977. The Princeton University Library Chronicle for Winter-Spring 1977 features essays dedicated to Robert H. Taylor and the collection named after him. In the issues opening essay, the volume editor Robert J. Wickenheiser informs us that Taylor continues to actively collect. Among the list of his most recent acquisitions (“within the past six months”) is Keats 15 April 1817 letter to George and Tom. The question remains, however: from whom did Taylor acquire it? We know that Rollins in 1958 explained that the MS “was owned by MBF [Maurice Buxton Forman].” For how long and when he owned it is unclear. But the letter was once pasted into Haydon’s diary (likely given to him later in 1817). MBF bought Haydon’s diary in 1932 and removed the Keats letters which were still pasted in it. He seems to have sold some if not all of those. For now, then, that’s all the info we’ve got.