This Week in Keats, Episode 4: Inventive Keats, Allusive Keats

This Week in Keats
Brian Rejack (Illinois State University) and Michael Theune (Illinois Wesleyan University)

Re: Keats’s 22 Nov 1817 letters to Bailey and to Reynolds

For the two letters dated 200 years ago today, the KLP presents Episode 4 of This Week in Keats. In their episode titled “Inventive Keats, Allusive Keats,” hosts Brian Rejack and Mike Theune discuss the many “fine Phrases” that they look upon like lovers while reading the letter to Bailey, as well as the wide range of Shakespearean references in the letter to Reynolds (plus a possible bawdy pun lost thanks to a missing word in Richard Woodhouse’s transcript of the Reynolds letter…). Much of the discussion revolves around negative capability, that black hole of a Keatsian concept from which no one can fully escape the event horizon. Eventually we all end up in its gravitational orbit. And for Brian and Mike, the two letters from today exist right at that boundary, given the many ways they look forward to the negative capability letter. Speaking of negative capability, be on the lookout for a variety of responses to the letter on the KLP at the end of December this year!

Letter #36: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 22 November 1817

And now for letter number two from today, this one to John Hamilton Reynolds. It seems that after Keats wrote to Bailey earlier in the day, he ventured out from his room at the Fox and Hounds inn (now the Burford Bridge Hotel) and took a stroll up Box Hill. Romanticists likely know Box Hill for the famous excursion to the site depicted in Austen’s Emma. More recently Box Hill was featured as the site of several laps of the Olympic cycling road race in 2012 (ok, so the KLP may have a cycling fan among its ranks). In any case, after his jaunt up Box Hill–seeking “after the Moon,” he tells Reynolds–Keats returned to his lodging and wrote “some lines” of Endymion. You may recall that Keats is just “winding up” his poem, as he puts it to Bailey, and he has a few hundred more lines to go before he finishes. He will do so less than a week from now, on November 28.

Now, as if we didn’t already have this sense from earlier letters, it’s pretty clear at this point that Keats is ready to move on from Endymion. He tells Reynolds in today’s letter that although under normal circumstances, “every Letter shall bring you a lyric,” Keats decides against sending extracts from Endymion (“I am too anxious for you to enjoy the whole, to send you a particle”–he does end up copying 10 lines at the end of the letter, though). One wonders if his hesitancy might have something to do with his desire to proceed to the next challenge. It’s clear that other things are occupying his mind in this moment. In the place of a lyric written by himself, Keats offers up some “beauties” and “fine things said unintentionally” from his presider, Shakespeare. As Brian Rejack and Mike Theune note in today’s episode of This Week in Keats, alongside the inventiveness of Keats’s fine phrases in the letter to Bailey, we have here in the letter to Reynolds excellent examples of Keats’s allusiveness. References to Shakespeare permeate this letter, and not only when discussing him directly. Towards the end of the letter he includes a burst of allusions to a handful of plays after having discussed earlier the sonnets and Venus and Adonis. In short, Shakespeare is this letter’s presiding genius.

Like most of the letters to Reynolds, this one comes to us from a transcript made by Richard Woodhouse. Since Keats seems to have written the letter in the evening after his walk up Box Hill, it likely did not post until the next day, 23 November. And like the letter to Bailey, for which we have the postage information from the MS, it likely departed from Leatherhead, about five miles north of Dorking (the transcript records the location as Leatherhead and a date of 22 Nov, presumably from the postage, since Keats was not there himself–it’s unclear if the letter did indeed make it to the post late in the evening of 22 Nov and receive a stamp indicating as much, or if Woodhouse saw a 23 Nov postage date and figured out that the “Saturday” indicated at the beginning of the letter referred to 22 Nov… but we digress!). We provide you here with both the images of the Woodhouse transcript, and a reading edition from Harry Buxton Forman’s one-volume text from 1895. Enjoy!

Page 1 of Keats’s 22 November 1817 letter to J. H. Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 22 November 1817 letter to J. H. Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 22 November 1817 letter to J. H. Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.