Letter #93: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 22 [?] September 1818

The date for this letter, which we have only via a transcript by Richard Woodhouse, is basically an educated guess. In yesterday’s letter to Dilke, Keats mentioned that he “just had a Letter from Reynolds.” He also includes his translation of a sonnet by the 16th-century French poet Pierre de Ronsard, one line from which Keats had offered Dilke in yesterday’s letter. So it seems likely that this letter to Reynolds was written sometime soon after the letter to Dilke.

The Ronsard sonnet offers a conceptual link to the letter to Dilke as well, since, as we learned from Andrew Burkett and Olivia Loksing Moy yesterday, there are a number of ways in which Keats was engaging with the sonnet form during these days. A few things worth noting about the Ronsard translation, then. To begin, Keats has a habit of writing sonnets (and some other poetic forms) in books, often about those books. Think for instance of his sonnet “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” written in his facsimile edition of Shakespeare’s first folio (close students of the KLP may even know that an image of that sonnet graces the background of the second slide on our homepage). Or his sonnet “Written on a Blank Space at the End of Chaucer’s Tale of ‘The Floure and the Lefe,'” written in a copy of Chaucer owned by Charles Cowden Clarke (now owned by the British Library, which doesn’t allow personal photos of it, alas). Or yet another sonnet, “As Hermes once took to his feathers light,” written (perhaps even drafted) at the end of volume I of Henry Cary’s translation of Dante’s Commedia. Now, we don’t know if Keats wrote his Ronsard translation in the book of Ronsard’s poetry that he borrowed from Richard Woodhouse in mid-September 1818. One imagines Woodhouse would have kept track of the book if that were the case. But we should at least keep in mind that Keats’s work with this particular sonnet is bookish in nature. That is, it seems likely that Keats, ever conscious of the materiality of media, would have engaged with Ronsard in ways that made sense with the particularities of the book as well as of the text.

There isn’t much help from Woodhouse in identifying what edition of Ronsard he owned, so we’re limited in the speculations we could make. But perhaps the most distinctive thing about Keats’s sonnet translation is that in all the versions of it still extant, it comprises only 12 lines. In the letter to Reynolds, Keats explains “I had not the original by me when I wrote it, and did not recollect the purport of the last lines.” However, that does not mean Keats was unhappy with the 12-line form his translation ended up taking. If Shakespeare can write some 12-line sonnets, why can’t Keats?? Perhaps the Ronsard translation represents not only Keats’s inability to recall the “purport of the last lines,” but also yet another example of his attempt to “discover a better sonnet stanza than we have” (as he writes to George and Georgiana in May 1819 as he provides his example, “If by dull rhymes our english must be chaind”). The concluding line, “Love pour’d her beauty into my warm veins,” is a great way to end. Its ending while there is still the expectation of two more lines enhances the effect of the ambiguity of what it might mean for Love to pour Cassandra’s beauty into the speaker’s veins. Is the result joyful, horrifying, some combination of the two? Given that the speaker’s “heart began to burn” upon seeing Cassandra’s beauty, and that “only pains, / … were [his] pleasures,” it seems that the direct injection of beauty into the veins would probably produce an even more intense mixture of pleasure and pain.

It’s not only through his reading of Ronsard that Keats has beauty on the brain and in the veins. He also mentions to Reynolds that “the voice and the shape of a woman has haunted me these two days.” That reference is to Jane Cox, about whom we’ll hear much more from Keats in his October journal letter to George and Georgiana. What’s interesting here is that Keats positions his “haunting” in relation, and somewhat in contrast, to Reynolds’s happiness in love. Keats was writing to his friend when Reynolds was staying in Devonshire with the family of Eliza Drewe, to whom Reynolds had recently become engaged. Keats counsels Reynolds to glory in his joy, to “Gorge the honey of life.” Keats’s happiness, however, can only be experienced partially and guiltily, for always lurking behind any moment of joy from poetry or from the beauty and candor of Jane Cox is the remembrance that Tom is dying. He writes to Reynolds: “Poor Tom–that woman–and Poetry were ringing changes in my senses–now I am in comparison happy–I am sensible this will distress you–you must forgive me.” And then it’s on to other topics.

These conflicts–between Keats’s solicitude for Tom and his desire to find escape from his hospice care through poetry and “the honey of life” in all its forms–will continue throughout the next several months. At the same time Keats has to look after his own health. As he writes to Reynolds today, he has been “confined by Sawrey’s [his doctor’s] mandate,” but nonetheless asserts that it is “an undangerous matter” and that he “shall soon be quite recovered.” Keats’s vitality insists on continuing.

Text of today’s letter can be read via Forman’s 1895 edition. Images below of Woodhouse’s transcript come courtesy of Houghton Library at Harvard.

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 22 [?] September 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 22 [?] September 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.