Kissing Matters: Keats’s Material Addresses

To launch the KLP, we’ll be featuring responses, written by the founders, to Keats’s first extant letter, the verse epistle ‘To George Felton Mathew.’ You can read the poem here, and the previous response in the series here. Once collected, all responses will be here.

Dear all,

I am with you in this “great partnership,” maybe even ineluctably as a partial friend.  Almost as soon as Keats begins to characterize his “great partnership” with George Felton, he calls himself, or perhaps them both, a “[t]oo partial friend!” (11).  Keats’s classic wit perhaps could not pass up the pun on partiality’s meanings, companionate in their opposition.  The partial friendship might be that relationship that is always incomplete, qualified, limited, and imperfect not simply because most of us are flawed humans but because even friends always remain, in some sense, withdrawn from us.  This isn’t all for Keats, as such a fragmentary or incomplete understanding may just as well stem from our own selfish desires and biases and rivalries, or perhaps even more strange, our desire to favor someone, to project our own liking for and flattery onto them and their experiences.

Even at this early moment in Keats’s writing career, such partiality comes from or is perhaps exacerbated by something of the virtual experience of verse:  “Too partial friend! Fain would I follow thee / Past each horizon of fine poesy” (11-12).  This simulation, by its very nature fragmentary and yet seductively immersive, works as much through a series of sensory descriptions that might evoke Felton’s response as through an encompassing projection on the screen of the imagination. So Keats’s verse seems formed to elicit from Felton a series of discrete responses even as it subtends the act of reply with a narrative worlding where Keats and Felton might take that magic carpet ride beyond the horizon of nineteenth century poetry.  If Keats is an arch-poet of virtuality, it might be less about getting as close to another person’s subjectivity through the prosthesis of the imagination and more a kind of constant material mediation, like a continual stream of texting, a series of rampant and constant encounters with material-poetic screens.

So as much as I am only partially with you, I quite can’t be with you in brotherhood. Not just because, as Ian and Anne both so wonderfully argue, I am a double agent of our absent-present correspondence but because in this space where I spend so much of my day—typing, pausing, twirling my hair, clicking and reclicking on my inbox, command-tabbing from Word to Chrome and back again, I stay for so long.  In this space of fingers and eyes and screens that hold different boxes with your many beautifully crafted words, I maybe naively can’t but feel as though I am with you in some small but persistent sense.  Maybe not the whiskey stained, shaky handed manuscript letters and their material, moving bodies that Emily so delicately traces.   But if the brotherhood that initiates the poem through partial rivalry and loving bias begins in a world of presences and absences, I can’t help but want to see the poem as ending elsewhere, in the non-brotherly transformations of the Matthew’s non-human journey, his stint as swan-fish-flower-river.  Yes, I know using that world I’m about to use—the non-human—will elicit the sigh that perhaps rightfully belongs to the current hot fuzz of OOO.  But what happens at the end of the letter, like what I think sometimes, at some moments, happens in the material screen-space of our profession, marks a turn to a post-masculine, post-human transformational interaction between two entities in the world.

When Keats tracks the end of this journey with Felton to “the source, bright, pure, and undefil’d / Whence gush the streams of song” (), he Keats is not ultimately after pure, ummediated poetic bliss, a stream both he and Felton can dip into together to redeem their partiality.  Rather, we find a host of differences ontologically mediated:  Felton was a flower that, after having been plucked and thrown into that stream, is changed by Apollo into a goldfish, then a black-eyed swan.  Though the non-human transformations here create an oblique end to a story that seems to project a design for “being with” or entering into productive conversation, perhaps Keats and Felton are well beyond human conversation.  Like that silent bride and the full-throated nightingale, Felton’s non-human flower, fish, and swan become what speculative realists might call recalcitrant objects whose perforated forms resist our tendencies to anthropomorphize them, to understand them as living subjects in communication with human thought and feeling, and instead garner their own ontological status largely, if not totally, withdrawn from human subjectivity.  So Keats’s address to Felton, his attempt to project a poetic epigenesis that they might both share if only through Keats’s own virtual experience, ends in an object’s silence and its a perpetually untold tale.

Yet this isn’t the whole story, since three more lines get us to “Kissing thy daily food from Naiad’s pearly hands.”  Finally, a Keatsian kiss at the end of a long, flirtation with flush’d Aurora, the Muse, the Naiads, and even chaste Diana!  But not quite that sort of intercourse.  Kissing pushes us past a model of relationality where Felton, as a proxy for Keats or other poets, can only either advance or withdraw from an object, whether the anthropomorphized feminine keeper of poesy or the non-human raised on its streams.  This final movement of kissing suggests a different relationship between the poem’s sets of partial friends (Felton-flower and the stream, the poet and his inspiration, and Keats and Felton), something more along the lines of what Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter has described as a vital materialism.  Bennett posits an inherent relationality between humans and objects that is not subsumed into human desires or thoughts, rather, an assemblages of things and forms of agency “distributed across an ontologically heterogeneous field” (23).   In other words, Keats manages to displace human subjectivity at the origins of poetry itself and instead conjures a field of relations between various things whose emergent interactions form poesis itself.

Poetry becomes not the act of kissing or being kissed, not the tale told or the tale listened to, not the feeling of sensation or being felt, but “kissing,” a congregational energy that super-charges the air with a new nexus of materials, a particulate exchange between speaking voice and shining river.  What is at stake, finally, may be a model of interaction that is not so much immediacy or absent response but a limited, quantum material exchange, the momentary kissing of all the streams.  Certainly in ways I cannot articulate, I have been materially changed by all your mic checks, still rushing by me.

Kate Singer

Post Cards from Keats

To launch the KLP, we’ll be featuring responses, written by the founders, to Keats’s first extant letter, the verse epistle ‘To George Felton Mathew.’ You can read the poem here, and the previous response in the series here. Once collected, all responses will be here.

Response / “To George Felton Mathew” (November 1815)
Anne McCarthy / 24 November 2015

Who is writing? To whom? And to send, to destine, to dispatch what? To what address? Without any desire to surprise, and thereby to grab attention by means of obscurity, I owe it to whatever remains of my honesty to say finally that I do not know.

The invitation you can’t refuse is also a riddle: the poem that addresses itself as a letter, the letter that slides into the sweet pleasures of verse. It’s easier to make this leap as part of a “brotherhood in song.” And we must agree, or else we wouldn’t be beginning this way, stacking letters upon letters, multiplying invocations to each other and to those we haven’t met yet or don’t know well; we wouldn’t be setting out our initial calculations, plotting destinations. I am writing this letter to all of you with Derrida’s The Post-Card on my left and Keats’s “To George Felton Mathew” on my right. I suppose this is both the best and worst place to begin with the confession that I have always read The Post-Card in a kind of scattershot, intermittent fashion (my textual traces, all these obscure and not so obscure underlinings reminding me of all the things I’ve looked for at one point or another) and also that sometimes I can’t believe I’ve gotten myself into a position where I’ve agreed to think about Keats on a pretty regular basis for the next several years.

Not that the letter never arrives at its destination, but it belongs to the structure of the letter to be capable, always, of not arriving.

Nevertheless, we begin by thinking, with Keats, of “this great partnership.” And so: drawing up a contract of sorts, terms of agreement and response, our reading is also a counter-signing, however uncalled for, however uninvited. A contract that suggests, at least, an unlimiting of response, of reading and writing without end. It’s often useful to have a co-pilot on a flight of fancy. Did you see what I just saw, “flush’d Aurora in the roseate dawning”? Let’s write it together, somehow that makes it more real. I will write myself out of this dark city where I am not yet who I will become. I will write myself a path to “Some flowery spot, sequester’d, wild, romantic, / That often must have seen a poet frantic …” (We will not yet journey to fully undiscovered lands; we save the glances of Cortez for another day.) The vision of a drawing room—a space that brings the muse to us, and, by doing so, by entering into our joint hospitality, comes to seem less conventional somehow than the woods with violets and nightingales and ruins—the space created, the other poets join us in thought—we break the bounds of history, but we do so together.

A correspondence: this is still to say too much, to too little. Perhaps it was not one (but more or less) not very correspondent.

And of course, we’re not imagining a place so much as a poem, other poems and letters that will be both over- and under-read in order that they may be read at all. By the time “To George Felton Mathew” appeared in Keats’s 1817 Poems, the partnership was already in decay; in Nicholas Roe’s account, the differences came to be both aesthetic and political. Printed near the center of this volume, circumscribed as earlier than the poems that surround it, the lines of invitation, Roe writes, “marked a friendship which had soured.” Keats moves on to the pursuit of other muses, growing closer to Leigh Hunt as he drifts apart from Mathew who, Roe suggests, was perhaps less than keen to admit William Tell or Robert Burns to his poetic drawing room.

Now it is bad, and I know no other definition of the bad, it is bad to predestine one’s reading, it is always bad to foretell. It is bad, reader, no longer to like retracing one’s steps.

But we suspend for now the historical endings we know to be inevitable; we will never, it is true, be able to do much more than open these letters again for the first time. But if the letter, as Derrida argues, is constituted by its destinerrance, if its destin lies, to some extent, in its capacity for errance—we can find in this breathing-space room for putting on a “soft humanity.” A place from which we allow ourselves to be apostrophized, we who were not even thought of before, and from which we risk responding, and inviting response.

Anne McCarthy

The quotations in italics are all taken from Jacques Derrida, The Post-Card (trans. Alan Bass; Chicago, 1987); they appear on pages 5, 444, 3, and 4. I also refer to Nicholas Roe, “John Keats and George Felton Mathew: Poetics, Politics, and the ‘European Magazine,’” Keats-Shelley Journal 49 (2000): 31-46.

Duplicitous Letters

To launch the KLP, we’ll be featuring responses, written by the founders, to Keats’s first extant letter, the verse epistle ‘To George Felton Mathew.’ You can read the poem here, and the previous response in the series here. Once collected, all responses will be here.

I want to take up Brian’s point about the “duplicitous nature of media,” which present “the semblance of presence in the very place of absence.” This is true, of course, for all media but the letter developed its own idiom for thinking about this duplicity, and this particular verse epistle seems to foreground these tropes, reflecting quite self-consciously on the simulacrum of presence that the letter form performs. This is the central structuring dynamic in this verse epistle: I wish we were together but we’re not, but our distance provides possibilities that might be denied to us if we were together. The question, though, with this highly self-conscious parodic performance, is how seriously we’re supposed to take the claims for intimacy and distance, presence and absence, in a verse epistle in which absence occasions a highly competitive performance of poetic superiority, based precisely upon the letter form’s arch-trope of intimacy. How duplicitous is the verse letter after all?

One way into thinking about this unstable problematic might be through the letter’s figuration of intimacy and poetry as “a brotherhood in song,” with its hint of fraternal convivial societies. It is, of course, utterly conventional to compare poetry to song. So naturalized is the association that there might be some value in making the obvious point that poetry and song are, in fact, not the same thing. Songs have an intrinsic relation to music, and music exists as sound waves, so that physical proximity is essential in order to receive it. To sing together we must breathe together. Poetry on the other hand is a medium that does not necessarily depend on sound or presence.

Keats’s invocation of the “brotherhood of song” and his repeated claim throughout the verse epistle that poetry and song are coterminous represents, then, an erasure of a distinctive quality of sung music, the shared breathing made possible by physical proximity. The brotherhood in song then can be read as a kind of longing for the physical proximity that a conspiracy of space has denied to Keats and Mathew. This is the conceit of much of the verse epistle which in its articulation of the desire to “find a place” where the correspondents might sit together, draws attention to the letter’s inability to bridge the space which keeps them apart. The letter form performs a kind of intimacy – whispering secrets without breath – but in its breathlessness only draws attention to the inadequacy of the performance. A letter cannot bridge the spatial divide, can only perform a simulacrum of proximity. A song cannot be heard without breath and ears.

Abstractly, we might consider that the letter’s capacity to constitute intimacy is at times superior to that of the physically proximate. Two people in a room together must negotiate the material fact of their bodies, with all their capacity for awkwardness, embarrassment, and emission. This is the letter’s triumph. The victory of connecting bodies over gaps in space and time is also the victory of the ideal over of the biological facts of material existence. But this triumphalism is largely absent from Keats’s verse epistle, which primarily understands the physical separation that necessitates the letter as a defeat. “Fain would I follow thee…But ’tis impossible.” When I am with you, Keats says, flights of wonderous imagination are possible, “clear anthems float / ’Mong the light skimming gondolas far parted.” But alone in the “dark city” the “coy muse” will not visit. Absence is abandonment.

But it not simply that the muse is an urbanophobe. She just prefers Mathew, whose flights of poetic fancy, even when they are together, Keats can only participate in by following where Mathew leads. The ostensible mutuality of the letter, the “brotherhood in song” is really a fractured fraternity, one characterized by competition and jealousy, not love. The verse epistle, occasioned by absence, far from connecting the friends together, in fact exposes the ruptures of the brotherhood. The convivial “brotherhood of song” becomes a battle of the ballads.

This perhaps helps to explain the extraordinary sequence of metamorphoses that constitute Mathew’s backstory. In part, Keats is filling in the gaps of a story “never told,” but it is partly an aggressive act of muse-trumping creative imagining. I see your light skimming gondalas and I raise you a flower-fish-swan-human crossbreed. Mathew, the cross-species hybrid may have originated close to the source from “whence gush the streams of song” but we are surely meant to understand that the dark city has its own equivalent inspirations if it can engender such extravagant imaginings.

Brian is exactly right to point out that even the surviving letters harbor “secrets, omissions, erasures,” and that these gaps are what Keats’s extravagant imaginings are designed to plug. But we should also attend to the tone of this grouting. Because one of the most striking things about this verse epistle is the spirit of playful bravura that permeates its lines. From the predictable truisms of the opening, to the rejection of the possibility of poetry in the city, to the wild imaginings of the conclusion, this is a poem that is intended both to amuse and impress. Both things are important, and each points in a different direction. If we can laugh together we can affirm the “brotherhood in song;” but if I want to impress you, I want to demonstrate my skill in order to assert my claims over you.

This is what’s at stake in the vacillation between presence and absence in the letter form. Are we in this together, or do I want to assert my individuality? Solidarity or competition? Presence or absence? The point Keats’s verse epistle make clear is that most frequently it’s both combined. The letter form is not just the semblance of presence in the place of absence, but at the same time it is the appearance of absence through the forms of presence. It is both our need to write because we cannot sit together, and our enjoyment of the competitive edge we share even as we write, or indeed sing together. Media have a duplicitous nature, for sure, but in the media ecology the participants are double agents and agent provocateurs, not just spies. This is the playful subterfuge of correspondence.

Ian Newman

The Body of the Letter

To launch the KLP, we’ll be featuring responses, written by the founders, to Keats’s first extant letter, the verse epistle ‘To George Felton Mathew.’ You can read the poem here, and the previous response in the series here. Once collected, all responses will be here.

The whole Truth of the matter is that I have been very, very ill; your letter remained four days unread, I was so ill. What effect it had upon me I cannot express by words; it lay under my pillow day after day. I should have written 20 times, but as it often and often happens with me, my heart was too full and I had so much to say that I said nothing. I never received a delight that lasted longer upon me, “brooded on my mind and made it pregnant,” than the last six sentences of your Letter…

–Coleridge to Tom Wedgwood 25 January 1804

Anyone who has held an 18th– or 19th-century letter knows that even the neatest of them bear the palpable traces of the hands that have written on them, have opened them, have held them as they were read and reread. This is to say nothing of the feet that may have stepped on them, the tears that may have fallen on them, the clumsy elbows that may have spilled wine on them, the pillows that may have crushed them (like Coleridge’s above), or, as Keats writes to Fanny Brawne in early 1820, “the smear of black currant jelly” that may have left some “lines…a little disfigured” in them (334). It is easy to forget about the materiality of letters when we read clean, typed, and possibly even digital transcriptions of them. But as Coleridge conveys so strikingly in the quote above, the “effect” of a letter has much to do with its embodied presence, and can be beyond articulation in “words.” I quote from Coleridge partly to save Keats’s letters for the years of KLP to come, and partly because, as with so many things, Coleridge expresses with unusual vividness a set of ideas that were common to his contemporaries. The material conditions related to writing, posting, receiving, and reading letters alter the ways that they can transmit affect, alter what they can do, and Coleridge’s quote is just one of countless instances in which a Romantic author articulates the potent feeling elicited not just by the content of a letter, but also by its status as an object.

In this, my digital epistle to Brian and my other fellow Keatsians, I’m taking Coleridge’s lead. I want to claim that in addition to its textual contents, the physical attributes of a letter supply a second, often complementary and sometimes conflicting, dimension of meaning. This is because letters not only bear the traces of their authors’ bodies (notebooks and manuscripts and edited drafts do this, too), but also because—by design—letters bear the traces of their authors’ bodies into the hands of other human bodies. Our digital age has estranged us from 18th– and 19th-century methods of communication, especially for those of us who may have only written letters in the 1980s or 1990s, as email was already beginning to supplant the post. But I wonder if in one sense this may put us at an advantage. If to some extent the medium is indeed the message, then the message may appear more obvious to us at a distance.

So what may strike an emailer as strange about Coleridge’s letter, and what translates across platforms? Just as Coleridge delayed reading Wedgwood’s letter because of its likely contents (Coleridge’s dear friend and patron was mortally ill at this point), I might avoid reading an email message that might cause me pain if I were already feeling unwell, although my browser or iPhone would nonetheless present its subject and first words to me. Of course most 18th and 19th century letters were mundane, just as most of the email messages I send and receive are mundane. In such instances, the letter’s prosthetic function may matter little, if at all, but at other times this function may be transformative. Put simply, email doesn’t contain all of the data that a letter does, and lacks what in fact may transmit news most powerfully: handwriting in illness or at times of distress or joy or haste looks different; likewise, smudges, stains, insertions, and strikethroughs may communicate aspects of the author’s state of mind and body, as well as the state of his or her surroundings. Thus the physical attributes of a letter may confirm its content, amplifying its emotional impact, or may reveal an important unspoken context, converting what might otherwise have seemed to be a mundane letter into an anxiety inducing one. And these are just some of the dimensions of meaning that are lost in a digital medium—or, in other words, just some of the ways that unlike an email, a handwritten letter can function as a body that connects two human bodies, sometimes across great spaces and times.

As Coleridge makes plain, moreover, the embodiedness of a letter leads to distinct conceptualizations of the possibilities of the written word. I would never say that an idea in an email made my mind pregnant. This is not just because the soil of my imagination is not so fertile as Coleridge’s, but also because of the ways that email works. Because the letter is also an object that bears traces of a human body, the letter may function differently: were I to hold a letter that bore a loved one’s handwriting, or especially if I were to sleep with that letter under my pillow, the image of mental impregnation might present itself. Coleridge’s metaphor works because the letter is a body that is capable of impregnating another body, a prosthesis that connects Wedgwood’s person to Coleridge’s.

I insist here on the materiality of letters in what may seem an awkward circumstance—in musing on a “letter” that is really (in 2015, at least) just a poem, and one without a manuscript to turn to. As Brian’s comments beautifully remind us, moreover, this “letter” to George Felton Mathew—in both its mysterious non-self and in its content—is all about silence, absence, and what is never told. But to my mind it is perhaps yet more important—or at least more interesting, if also troubling—to insist on materiality in the context of a (presumed) epistle whose actual existence in the material world we can at most assume. I would like to think that this gesture towards embodiment and materiality is appropriate to Keats, and not just because of his medical education and the ways that bodies work their way into his poems. (I first wanted to become a Romanticist when as an undergraduate I read the lines in “Ode to Psyche” in which the speaker promises to build “A rosy sanctuary” “dress[ed] / With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain.”) Keats’s letters are also richer for their awareness of and engagement with their own materiality. In the instance of the jam-smudged letter to Fanny Brawne, this material trace leads Keats to think about the colors between purple and blue that may best be called “purplue which may be an excellent name for a colour…and would suit well to start next spring” (334). The 1820 letter bore not only the abstract idea of purplue to Brawne, but also its embodiment.

It is difficult to know what to do with epistolary verse, but it is my contention that attending to the embodied potentiality of letters can open up new and productive ways of thinking about the poetry contained in them. So what of Keats’s poem to Mathew that is also a letter, and therefore also (presumably) an object that connected Keats’s body to the body of his friend? Does its (presumed) materiality require us to revise our ideas about how “song” functions in the poem, reminding us of the embodiedness of voice? How does an emphasis on materiality require us to rethink the poem’s meaning of “pleasure,” given that pleasure is often an explicitly embodied concept? After all, the particular pleasures the poem could be expected to elicit in Mathew are not just intellectual in origin: silent reading and contemplation. They are also physical: the pleasure of voicing the poem, the pleasure of seeing a text written in the hand of a friend linked by “brotherhood in song”—the pleasure of holding a text touched by that absent friend.

Emily B. Stanback

What Keats’s Letters Don’t Tell

To launch the KLP, we’ll be featuring responses, written by the founders, to Keats’s first extant letter, the verse epistle ‘To George Felton Mathew.’ You can read the poem here, and the other responses here.

Dear KLPers,

Like Keats, we too are always coming late to the party. We’re too, too late for the fond believing lyre, or in this case, for the fond believing letters that provide us with so much of our knowledge about Keats, and in which we find a body of work that rivals the poetry for depth of accomplishment. We’re too late in several senses. The letters are no untrodden regions of study awaiting a pale-mouthed prophet to deliver them to us; they’re more like realms of gold that have seen many travelers in the last two centuries. And yet here we are. But, hey, if anyone understands the value of sitting down to read again, Keats certainly does. Our belatedness exists in another sense as well, though. Any account of the letters is always necessarily incomplete—we know that there are many more letters that once existed and that now remain in the realm of speculation. Even some of the letters that do exist come to us only in partial or imperfect forms. So I begin by admitting defeat. The letters will always remain a project, offering us an occasion to throw forth some portion of the past from which the letters come and to which they ineluctably point.

Our first task, responding to Keats’s earliest extant letter, presents some of these challenges from the start. The letter is Keats’s verse epistle, “To George Felton Mathew,” which was sent as a letter sometime in November 1815 from London to Hastings, where Mathew was staying with his cousins Ann and Caroline. That manuscript no longer exists, but we’re pretty sure (!) that at some point it did. I’ll return to the letter’s textual history in a moment, but first I want to point out the way that failures of communication exist in the text of the poem, as well as around its mediation via a now-lost, or rather, several now-lost manuscripts. The end of poem features a wonderfully strange, and typically Keatsian, flight of fancy. He crafts a backstory for his friend’s development into a poet. Apparently Mathew was “once a flowret blooming wild,” plucked by Diana as a gift for Apollo, which she “cast in the stream / To meet her glorious brother’s greeting beam,” after which Apollo converted that flower into a “fish of gold,” and then a “black-eyed swan,” and then at some later date, a human, who now lives in England in 1815. But I should back up, because really the subject of this moment in the poem is that Mathew has “never told” the tale of his transformations, or the later tale of his “travels strange” as a flower-fish-swan monster floating along and “Kissing thy daily food from Naiad’s pearly hands” (let’s hope he ate some of that food too). Like this moment, so much of Keats’s early poetry emerges from that which remains unsaid or untold. Twice here, at the end of the epistle celebrating the “pleasures which to verse belong,” Keats “marvels” at what Mathew “hast never told.” Of course, by contemplating Mathew’s silence, Keats goes ahead and tells the tale (or a bit of it anyway) himself. The recognition of silence, though, is a crucial prior move.

It’s the sense of possibility in the untold that Keats seems so fully invested in throughout the 1817 volume. One thinks of “Specimen of an Induction to a Poem,” with its embarrassing refrain, “Lo! I must tell a tale of chivalry.” Like Wordsworth’s Excursion, deeply influential on Keats, the poems seem “evermore about to be”: specimens, fragments, inductions, preludes, portions… These forms announce the possibility of future poetic production. They are, in Jakobson’s terms, phatic; they address the channel of communication and its current status. Poem as mic-check: I’d argue that this notion goes a long way toward accounting for what the 1817 volume does.

Similarly, I’d say that the letters as a whole frequently perform this kind of move as well. Again and again they raise the specter of what Alexander Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark call “excommunication.” They write: “Every communication harbors the dim awareness of an excommunication that is prior to it, that conditions it and makes it all the more natural. Excommunication—before a single word has been said. Excommunication—when there is nothing more to say.” As much as letters express, they make meaning out of an abyss of non-meaning that can resurface with little provocation. An errant flame, an errant steamship, an errant drip of wax—the communication channel closes, receding back into the world of things. And of course even with letters that endure and survive, they harbor secrets, omissions, erasures. Keats’s transatlantic letters to George and Georgiana frequently contemplate this reality, calling to awareness the limitations at the heart of mediation. Media haunt because of this duplicitous nature, presenting the semblance of presence in the very place of absence.

So I think in a way it’s fitting that no manuscript of this poem survives in any form (in a letter or otherwise). When printed in either editions of the letters or in editions of the poems, the text is invariably based on Keats 1817 volume. There is a reputed transcript by Mathew himself somewhere and somewhen in existence (it’s briefly mentioned by Edmund Blunden in a 1936 essay on Keats and Mathew). No one seems to know of its whereabouts now, not even Jack Stillinger, the indefatigable chronicler of all of Keats’s poetic manuscripts. At the beginning of H. E. Rollins’s authoritative scholarly edition of the letters, amidst many pages of introductory material, appears a list of “lost letters,” some 67 letters supposed to have once existed. Really the epistle to Mathew ought to be on that list. We may have the poem, but we don’t have the letter. We can presume that Keats did indeed send the verses to Mathew via the post. Richard Woodhouse claims as much in his scrapbook of Keatsiana, noting that the verses were sent to Mathew’s cousins Caroline and Ann, the recipients of other verses by Keats. It may have even been the case that the copy of “To George Felton Mathew” once carried southeast from London to the Mathews sisters staying at Hastings remained in the possession of Ann for decades afterward. According to Caroline in 1847, Ann had “many pieces of [Keats]” that she gave to a family friend, William Large. It appears that at the time of writing, he had recently died (Caroline refers to him as “poor William Large”), but the Keats materials “have not been found among his papers.”

All of this is to say, we must marvel at all that Keats “hast never told.” The letters and other materials persist, but we must tell them. We’ll never fully exhaust the materials that remain, nor will we ever tell all their secrets. We’re always contending with disappearance, deletion, and erasure. Our aim with the KLP is not to fully capture Keats’s letter-writing 200 years later to the day, hour, minute, etc. We work in recognition of our limits and the limits of communication itself. Following Jerome McGann’s recent work on memory in the digital age, where he writes that “memory is how we take care of what we love and lose,” we seek to care for what we love, what remains, and consequently, what we know was lost. We remember by corresponding further, we mourn that which we forgot to remember, and we create channels of communication that might haunt us again in the future, or that will close and serve as objects of marvel for never having told

Brian Rejack

Letter #1: To George Felton Mathew, Nov. 1815

Read the KLP founders’ responses to Keats’s verse epistle here.

This text, the earliest extant letter by Keats, is widely available in a variety of forms, given that the verse epistle was published in Keats’s first volume of poetry, Poems (1817), and has been reprinted in editions of his work many times since. The manuscript of the letter–if it was indeed ever sent as a letter (according to Richard Woodhouse, it was)–no longer exists.

We reproduce the text of the poem below, but should you like to see it in another form, HathiTrust has a text of particular interest with respect to the layering of different temporal moments through which Keats’s letters so often come to us. If you search for “Keats” in the author field and limit your search to the year 1817, you’ll get exactly one result.


Hey, isn’t that handy! It appears that the University of Wisconsin owns a copy of the 1817 edition and has made a scan of it available for all to view–hooray! Upon first looking into the scan of this book, you might not notice that what you’re actually looking at is a scan of a facsimile edition of the 1817 volume which was published in 1927. That facsimile was produced from the copy owned (at the time) by the British Museum, so you’ll find some marks indicating as much. The 1817 book, now at the British Library, was owned in the nineteenth-century by book collector Frederick Locker (many of the Keats materials from his ‘Rowfant Library’ made their way to Harvard via Amy Lowell in the 1920s). In his copy of the book, Locker added a manuscript note on the flyleaf, reading: “Robert Browning dined with me today, and looking at this volume he said that it was a copy of this edition of John Keats’ Poems that was found in the bosom of the dead body of Shelley. / F. Locker. 20 Feb 1869.” Well somebody got mixed up (Shelley had Keats’s 1820 volume with him when he drowned), but that’s beside the point. In seeking out this poem, the first of our letters of Keats around which this project is circulating, what you’ll find is a record of material and textual exchanges that includes, among others: the poem as it was published in 1817, one particular copy’s journey into the hands of Frederick Locker and then (with a detour in 1869 involving Robert Browning) to the British Museum and then British Library, the facsimile production of that copy in 1927, and the scanning of the University of Wisconsin’s copy of a copy with the help of Google and HathiTrust. Keats’s “brotherhood in song” may have begun with only two voices, but as we encounter it now, it’s thanks as well to many others who have kept the tune going.

‘To George Felton Mathew’

Sweet are the pleasures that to verse belong,
And doubly sweet a brotherhood in song;
Nor can remembrance, Mathew! bring to view
A fate more pleasing, a delight more true
Than that in which the brother Poets joy’d,
Who with combined powers, their wit employ’d
To raise a trophy to the drama’s muses.
The thought of this great partnership diffuses
Over the genius loving heart, a feeling
Of all that’s high, and great, and good, and healing.

Too partial friend! fain would I follow thee
Past each horizon of fine poesy;
Fain would I echo back each pleasant note
As o’er Sicilian seas, clear anthems float
‘Mong the light skimming gondolas far parted,
Just when the sun his farewell beam has darted:
But ’tis impossible; far different cares
Beckon me sternly from soft “Lydian airs,”
And hold my faculties so long in thrall,
That I am oft in doubt whether at all
I shall again see Phoebus in the morning:
Or flush’d Aurora in the roseate dawning!
Or a white Naiad in a rippling stream;
Or a rapt seraph in a moonlight beam;
Or again witness what with thee I’ve seen,
The dew by fairy feet swept from the green,
After a night of some quaint jubilee
Which every elf and fay had come to see:
When bright processions took their airy march
Beneath the curved moon’s triumphal arch.

But might I now each passing moment give
To the coy muse, with me she would not live
In this dark city, nor would condescend
‘Mid contradictions her delights to lend.
Should e’er the fine-eyed maid to me be kind,
Ah! surely it must be whene’er I find
Some flowery spot, sequester’d, wild, romantic,
That often must have seen a poet frantic;
Where oaks, that erst the Druid knew, are growing,
And flowers, the glory of one day, are blowing;
Where the dark-leav’d laburnum’s drooping clusters
Reflect athwart the stream their yellow lustres,
And intertwined the cassia’s arms unite,
With its own drooping buds, but very white.
Where on one side are covert branches hung,
‘Mong which the nightingales have always sung
In leafy quiet: where to pry, aloof,
Atween the pillars of the sylvan roof,
Would be to find where violet beds were nestling,
And where the bee with cowslip bells was wrestling
There must be too a ruin dark, and gloomy,
To say “joy not too much in all that’s bloomy.”

Yet this is vain — O Mathew lend thy aid
To find a place where I may greet the maid—
Where we may soft humanity put on,
And sit, and rhyme and think on Chatterton;
And that warm-hearted Shakspeare sent to meet him
Four laurell’d spirits, heaven-ward to intreat him.
With reverence would we speak of all the sages
Who have left streaks of light athwart their ages:
And thou shouldst moralize on Milton’s blindness,
And mourn the fearful dearth of human kindness
To those who strove with the bright golden wing
Of genius, to flap away each sting
Thrown by the pitiless world. We next could tell
Of those who in the cause of freedom fell;
Of our own Alfred, of Helvetian Tell;
Of him whose name to ev’ry heart’s a solace,
High-minded and unbending William Wallace.
While to the rugged north our musing turns
We well might drop a tear for him, and Burns.

Felton! without incitements such as these,
How vain for me the niggard Muse to tease:
For thee, she will thy every dwelling grace,
And make “a sun-shine in a shady place:”
For thou wast once a flowret blooming wild,
Close to the source, bright, pure, and undefil’d,
Whence gush the streams of song: in happy hour
Came chaste Diana from her shady bower,
Just as the sun was from the east uprising;
And, as for him some gift she was devising,
Beheld thee, pluck’d thee, cast thee in the stream
To meet her glorious brother’s greeting beam.
I marvel much that thou hast never told
How, from a flower, into a fish of gold
Apollo chang’d thee; how thou next didst seem
A black-eyed swan upon the widening stream;
And when thou first didst in that mirror trace
The placid features of a human face:
That thou hast never told thy travels strange,
And all the wonders of the mazy range
O’er pebbly crystal, and o’er golden sands;
Kissing thy daily food from Naiad’s pearly hands.