Letter #68: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 27 April 1818

Keats’s spring stay in Teignmouth is fast coming to an end. Today’s letter is the penultimate one sent during the visit, the last one coming on 3 May, a day or two before he and Tom head back to London. His vacay has been a bit of a mixed bag. Keats put the finishing touches on Endymion during his stay. As we’ve seen again and again, Keats certainly didn’t enjoy being confined indoors thanks to the constant rainy weather since arrival at the beginning of March. But at least that meant he had time to get some writing done! In today’s letter we hear for the first time about one of the three narrative poems that will lend their names to Keats’s final volume of poetry: Isabella, or, as Keats refers to it here, “my ‘Pot of Basil.'” Reynolds and Keats had originally planned to each write poems based on stories from Boccaccio and publish them together. Reynolds, though, urged Keats to forge ahead without him. Reynolds did publish two poems based on Boccaccio in his book The Garden of Florence (1821).

Keats is a bit reluctant to hurry Reynolds along since his friend had been in ill health for much of the spring. He writes today that “you must not think of it [i.e. Reynolds’s Boccaccio poetry] till many months after you are quite well:–then put your passion to it,–and I shall be bound up with you in the shadows of mind, as we are in our matters of human life.” And indeed today they are still bound up in the minds of posterity (though their poems were not bound together in a book as they had intended), with Reynolds’s fame typically being associated with his friendship with Keats.

Also on Keats’s mind is Tom’s health, which has been up and down throughout the spring. In this letter Keats notes that Tom has “taken a fancy to a Physician here, Dr Turton, and I think is getting better.” Alas, the Keats brothers’ days of being nearly almost always all together are coming to an end. John will soon venture out for his Northern tour, George will get married and leave for America, and Tom will be beyond the reach of any physician’s help. Poor Tom.

It’s perhaps with some sense of the impending sufferings he will face that Keats continues his quest in what he called in his letter to Taylor on 24 April, “a love for philosophy.” Today he notes his intention to learn Greek and Italian, and to seek, with the help of William Hazlitt’s advice, “the best metaphysical road I can take.” He would start to learn some Italian with his reading of Dante over the next two years, and one can’t help but think that such study would have offered some insightful “metaphysical roads” to travel. If nothing else it led to the wonderfully strange dream vision that is The Fall of Hyperion. So cheers, Dante!

And one final bit of humor regarding this afterlife with which to conclude (although Keats does so at the letter’s opening). He apologizes to Reynolds for his delinquency in writing, and notes:

I hope I may not be punished, when I see you well, and so anxious as you always are for me, with the remembrance of my so seldom writing when you were so horribly confined–the most unhappy hours in our lives are those in which we recollect times past to our own blushing–If we are immortal that must be the Hell.

The KLP wholeheartedly agrees–embarrassment lingers in the memory pretty darn effectively, and an eternity of reflecting upon one’s failures seems like a pretty good approach to eternal torture! Dante must have come up with that in some circle, no?

Text of today’s letter comes from a transcript by Richard Woodhouse. It can be read in Forman’s 1895 here. Images below come courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library.

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 27 April 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 27 April 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.