Letter #65: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 9 April 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’s post is the second of such posts scheduled to appear over the next few weeks. You can read the first of them here.

Rachel Adams, Alisa Christensen, & Rachel Mackey (Illinois State University)

For today’s letter, we see Keats writing again to one of his typical correspondents in spring 1818, John Hamilton Reynolds. After delivering his preface to Endymion back on 21 March, we now gain insight into Keats’s thought process about it in response to his friends’ rejection of it. Keats opens the letter by remarking, “Since you all agree that the thing is bad, it must be so.” His publishers and Reynolds concurred that the tone of Keats’s first preface was far too apologetic and self-negating. Keats provides a lengthy explanation as to why it may have come across this way, and he confesses to Reynolds that he views the public as “a thing I cannot help looking upon as an Enemy.” He loathes the idea of being subordinate to the public, and that if he were to “write a Preface in a supple or subdued style, it [would] not be in character with [him] as a public speaker”. In this hostility towards the public, however, Keats’s appreciation for his friends is further highlighted in a rather touching moment. He emphasizes to Reynolds that such hostility and fear of vulnerability does not extend to his closest companions, as he “could not live without the love of [his] friends.” Thus, while Keats feels animosity toward the idea of the public, it’s clear just how much he valued the friendly relationships in his life.

After this moment of vulnerability, Keats further contemplates his attitudes toward the public and how he feels about his own public image. Keats states “I would jump down Ætna for any great Public Good,” a somewhat paradoxical statement when the context behind the phrase is examined. The reference is to the pre-Socratic philosopher, Empedocles, who believed he was a divine being of sorts, and thus (allegedly) leapt into the volcanic crater of Etna hoping to be apotheosized after death. So although Keats claims he is willing to sacrifice himself to do some good in the world, his reference also suggests that he considers himself a divine being above the public, while they are merely his followers. It’s Keats being a bit pretentious even as he’s claiming to not care about an audience.

That tension continues throughout this section. He wants to “daunt and dazzle the thousand jabberers about Pictures and Books” (i.e. the Public), but he “cannot be subdued before them.” His next image suggests that he’s thinking here specifically about reviewers, describing these “jabberers” as “swarms of Porcupines” who await Endymion with “their Quills erect.” Keats wants to “fright ‘em away with a torch” and (presumably) discourage them from even reading Endymion. The torch in this metaphor is his preface, but he acknowledges to Reynolds that perhaps it “is not much of a torch.” He eventually concedes that his original preface may have been too disrespectful towards his audience, but for now he remains indecisive about whether to rewrite it, and even suggests to Reynolds that if he has not reached a decision in four to five days to “tell Taylor to publish it without a preface.” Seemingly ready to leave the topic behind, Keats abruptly changes topics away from the issues with the preface, and towards Reynold’s health (a frequent subject with the two friends). Another regular topic we’ve encountered this spring surfaces next: the near constant rainy weather in Devon. Keats is clearly fed up with it, as he claims the sound of raindrops against his window “give [him] the same sensation as a quart of cold water offered to revive a half drowned devil.”

From this point on, Keats continues to write conversationally to Reynolds and does not return to Endymion again. Instead he tells Reynolds that he hopes “soon to be writing to you about the things of the north, purposing to wayfare all over those parts,” referring to his “Northern Tour” that he will undertake with friend and fellow poet Charles Brown beginning in late June (as Keats mentioned to Haydon in yesterday’s letter). Keats states “I have settled my accoutrements in my own mind,” but goes on to say that he still wants to have some time with Reynolds before he leaves. Keats then lists his many reasons for “going wonder-ways.” The reasons he lists to Reynolds are what you might expect: he wants to “enlarge [his] vision” and “escape disquisitions on Poetry.” These sound like excellent reasons to go on a months-long walking tour! Keats ends the letter with a few optimistic phrases that are actually pretty sad for the modern reader. While still writing about his summer plans, he writes “thus will I take all Europe in turn, and see the Kingdoms of the Earth and the glory of them.” Although Keats seems very excited about travel in this letter, we know that he dies before he is able to visit any more “Kingdoms of the Earth.” In fact, the next (and only) time that Keats travels out of the country is when he travels to Italy in 1820 in the vain hope of recuperating from his illness. Next, Keats writes that “Tom is getting better he hopes you may meet him at the top o’ the hill.” Unfortunately, even if Tom was showing improvement at the time Keats wrote this letter, it would have been short-lived as he died in December 1818. At least on 9 April 1818, though, Keats was feeling hopeful about the future.

As with most letters to Reynolds, the manuscript is lost, so the Woodhouse transcript is our only source for the text. Images of the transcript are included below courtesy of Harvard. Text of the letter from the 1895 Forman edition can be accessed here.

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 9 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 9 April 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 9 April 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.