Letter #62: To James Rice, 24 March 1818

Editor’s Note: As part of the KLP’s ongoing pedagogy initiatives, one of the KLP co-founders, Brian Rejack, has been working with some of the students in his undergraduate romanticism course this semester to have students research individual letters and write introductory posts for the letters. Today, the first of five such posts scheduled to appear over the next few weeks comes from ISU students Amanda Peters and Ricky King. Enjoy!

Amanda Peters & Ricky King (Illinois State University)

Regular readers of the KLP will know we love firsts. The recipient of today’s letter is not one of the more frequent correspondents, such as John Hamilton Reynolds, or George and Tom Keats. Nope, today we have instead the first letter to James Rice. It is not surprising that Keats would write a letter to Rice, given that they were quite good friends. What is surprising is that more letters weren’t written to Rice, given the nature of their friendship. Only four total letters to Rice exist. One more will come up later this year, in late November just one week before Tom’s death. The two others to Rice appear in December of 1819 and February 1820.

It was well before this point when Keats was first introduced to James Rice. He was a lawyer, like Reynolds, the mutual friend who brought Rice and Keats together. Rice was also a member of the literary society known as the Zetosophian Society, in which Reynolds and Benjamin Bailey were also involved. Although it comes long after the writing of today’s letter, we can gather an idea of the high esteem in which Keats held Rice from the long journal letter to George and Georgiana from 17-27 September 1819, written after Keats had spent a month with Rice on the Isle of Wight in July. Keats tells of visiting Rice in London soon after their stay in Shanklin:

I was out and every body was out. I walk’d about the Streets as in a strange land–Rice was the only one at home–I pass’d some time with him. I know him better since we have liv’d a month together in the isle of Wight. He is the most sensible, and even wise Man I know–he has a few John Bull prejudices; but they improve him. His illness is at times alarming. We are great friends, and there is no one I like to pass a day with better.

Although they may not have exchanged many letters, it seems as though Keats nonetheless relished the company and companionship of his sensible friend. Indeed, it seems that just a few weeks after today’s letter, Rice joined Keats in Teignmouth, because he gave Keats a copy of Mateo Aleman’s picaresque tale, Guzman de Alfarache. Rice inscribed the book with this message: “John Keats / From his Friend / Js Rxxx / 20th April 1818.” Like so many Keats materials, this gift from Rice now resides at Harvard’s Houghton Library.

An image Guzman de Alfarache from EEBO. The EEBO book scanned was Lowell’s copy of the book. She purchased it so that she could copy all the annotations that were present in the copy owned by Keats. Notice Lowell’s note in the top left indicating the inscription was Rice’s: “[In Rice’s handwriting]”

With regards to the provenance of this letter, it’s one we’ve covered before. The estate of Keats’s publisher, John Taylor, was sold at Sotheby’s in 1903. Many of the Keats-related items were purchased by Bernard Quaritch on behalf of Amy Lowell. Bernard Alexander Christian Quaritch was a German-born bookseller and collector. He relocated to London in 1840s to pursue bookselling and ultimately began a business in the same decade. Following his death towards the end of the nineteenth century, his son, Bernard Alfred Quaritch, continued the bookselling legacy, eventually collecting some of Keats’s letters. Quaritch, it seems, acted as a purchaser on behalf of Amy Lowell at the sale of the Taylor estate in 1903. (The Quaritch business still exists today– you can read about the company and its history here: https://www.quaritch.com/about/our-history/.)

While we’ve mentioned Amy Lowell before, let’s devote a bit more space to her today, given that she was and forever will be a true Friend of Keats. She was a poet herself, who, like many poets of the latter half of the nineteenth century, looked to the English Romantics for inspiration and guidance. She happened to gain an affinity towards Keats, and over the course of many years she managed to acquire a pretty sizable collection of manuscripts of Keats’s letters and poems (including today’s letter to Rice). Her writing career was bookended in a way by Keats: her first volume of poetry, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, took its title from Shelley’s elegy for Keats, Adonais; and one of Lowell’s last works was her biography of Keats, published in 1925.

But to the letter itself. It takes some interesting turns as Keats discusses Milton. Apparently Milton “came into these parts” around the time he wrote “his Answer to Salmasius” (also know as Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, published in 1651). Keats hears about a meadow in which Milton “rolled himself, for three whole hours.” As a result, “in all the seven acres for seven years,” according to Keats’s informant, “not a nettle sprang up.” However, Milton’s rolling was said to have created “a new sort of plant,” a “white thorn” that is “of a thornless nature”. These white thorns are used by “the Bucks of the present to rap their Boots withall.” The Oxford English Dictionary helps us by explaining that at the time Keats wrote this letter a “Buck” would refer to “A gay, dashing fellow; a dandy, fop, ‘fast’ man.” Keats is himself being a bit of a gay and dashing fellow with his playful speculations on Milton’s long-lasting effects on a meadow in Devon.

Keats turns a bit more serious as he goes into a discussion of the scholarly debate between Milton and Salmasius, which then leads him into a broader contemplation about the difficulty of intellectual labor. The struggle he identifies is that the our thoughts are always restless. He writes, “What a happy thing it would be if we could settle our thoughts, make up our minds on any matter in five minutes and remain content.” Keats continues to compare the disharmony caused by a restless mind and whether or not it is better than having a rested (but limited) mind, using a wonderful extended metaphor of the mind as a “mental Cottage.” Eventually he arrives at the necessity of unsettled thoughts, as Keats discusses how he cannot rest his mind because of his attraction to the “Loadstone Concatenation.” This magnetic force does not allow Keats to cannot rest his mind because he can’t ignore his thoughts, which are endlessly led on in an unbroken and unending chain of associations.

Keats’s concatenation of thoughts continues as he ponders the question, “‘Did Milton do more good or ha[r]m to the World?”. His joke revolves around the idea that just as the vastness of our universe is composed of “the same quantity of matter,” there must have been “a certain portion of intellect” assigned to the universe at creation. But Milton, with all his impressive intellectual “gormandizing,” might not have left anything for the rest of us to eat! Oh well. We daresay Keats’s own intellectual playfulness, here and elsewhere, proves that a few scraps were leftover after Milton had his feast.