Letter #57: To John Taylor, 27 February 1818

Today’s letter to Taylor is a significant one, particularly for the “Axioms” in poetry which Keats shares with his publisher. It might not be the “FINEST LETTER of Keats Extant,” as “some enthusiast” (so deemed by Hyder Edward Rollins) wrote on the top of the manuscript. But it’s pretty dang good. What are these axioms, you say? Well hold on a sec. We’re getting there.

First it’s worth asking why Keats feels compelled to offer up these axioms in the first place. Of course, we don’t have Taylor’s letter to which Keats was responding. But Keats writes these sentences before getting to those axioms:

It is a sorry thing for me that any one should have to overcome Prejudices in reading my Verses–that affects me more than any hypercriticism on any particular Passage. In Endymion I have most likely but moved into the Go-cart from the leading strings. In Poetry I have a few Axioms, and you will see how far I am from their Centre.

In short, it seems Taylor attempted to politely dampen Keats’s expectations for the poem’s success by noting that it might not be exactly to the public’s taste. One thinks here of the rhetorical gymnastics performed by Wordsworth and Coleridge in the “Advertisement” to Lyrical Ballads, in which they 1) deny that critics know anything about poetry, 2) note that their poems are really just experiments (so NBD if they don’t work), 3) that readers might not even think they are poems at all, so don’t call them poems you jerks!–and 4) that readers should just erase their “pre-established codes of decision” and think only of whether these experimental not-poems give them pleasure or no. One imagines Taylor writing something like, “Keats, loving Endymion, my man. But, you know, it’s got some moments that people will probably find a bit, um, challenging? Because they just don’t get your genius like I do! Anyway, yeah–some turkeys who don’t know what’s what will probably feel a bit prejudiced against your poems because they are stuck in their old fuddy-duddy ways.” (Ok, Taylor probably didn’t write exactly like that.)

What Keats’s response shows is that he continues to be eager to move beyond Endymion. As he writes toward the end of this letter, he is ready to “get Endymion printed that I may forget it and proceed.” In his metaphors of the “go-Cart” and the “leading strings,” we see another indication of his judgment of the poem as a trial of invention that is merely a stepping-stone to something else. The “go-Cart” is what we would now call a baby walker; “leading strings” were devices used to help children learn to walk (essentially by having an adult hold strings attached to the infant). So, yes, Keats is but a child learning to “not trip up my Heels” in the realm of poetic walking. We’ll see a similar formulation in his Preface to Endymion, where he situates the poem as in between the imagination of a boy and of a man: “thence proceeds mawkishness.” Well we daresay that even in Endymion Keats was well beyond the baby-walker stage of managing poetic feet. Teenager overly excited about poetry and desire?? Yeah, that sounds about right. (Still, we maintain Francis Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review assessment of Endymion: “It is, in truth, at least as full of genius as of absurdity.”)

To the axioms, then. Here they are:

1st I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity–it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance–2nd Its touches of Beauty should never be half way therby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural natural too him–shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight–but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it–and this leads me on to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.

One thought on the poetry coming naturally as the leaves to the tree bit. I’ve–and here I’m breaking from the traditional KLP editoral we–Brian Rejack, here, hiya–long pushed back against this notion thinking that Keats is just being ideological. Of course Keats knows that poetry involve labor, study, time, revision, etc. But I had a realization while discussing this letter with my students today (beneath some trees that haven’t just yet begun budding, incidentally). Just because Keats claims that poetry should come as “naturally as the Leaves to a tree,” it doesn’t mean he intends that poetry must be instantaneous. Leaves actually take a good long while to fully come to the tree. And they require labor, patience, and devotion (albeit the devotion of sun to tree, water to soil, soil to root, etc.). So perhaps Keats merely intends that poetry requires careful cultivation by placing the poetic impulse in an environment in which poetry can thrive. That could still certainly mean intense labor and practice, working and reworking.

We’ll have more about these axioms with a response to come later this week (or the next). But for now, some final things to say about the manuscript of this letter. Like many of the letters sent to Taylor, this one remained in his possession for a long time, and after his death remained in the family. In the 1840s he made his materials available to Richard Monckton Milnes for use in Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848; 2nd edition, 1867). The next significant editor of the letters was Harry Buxton Forman, who made a name for himself in 1878 by publishing, to great controversy, the letters Keats sent to Fanny Brawne. In 1883 Forman published a complete edition of Keats’s poetry and prose. In that edition, the letters to Taylor are typically (if not all–apologies for not checking all of them yet) based on Milnes’s text. Milnes was much more likely to excise sensitive passages than was Forman. One can witness this fact in the 1895 single-volume edition of the letters (the KLP’s favorite 19th-century edition of the letters). It appears that at some point between 1883 and 1895, Forman got his hands on the manuscripts in possession of Taylor’s family. And when he found in those manuscripts some of the naughty bits that Milnes left out, Forman obliged by printing them for all to see and enjoy.

Take, for instance, the 10 June 1817 letter to Taylor and Hessey (dated 10 July by Milnes and Forman). In Milnes (1848, 1867) and in Forman (1883, 1889), the first sentence is removed (“I must endeavor to lose my Maidenhead with respect to money Matters as soon as possible–and I will to–so here goes”–by the way, read David Sigler’s response to the letter, which is fantastic). In Forman’s 1895 edition, the first sentence appears! Conclusion: for his earlier editions Forman used Milnes’s text, and for the 1895 edition he must have had access to the letter. Now, this letter remains in the Taylor family and is sold in 1903 to Amy Lowell (through Bernard Quaritch). So that means Forman had access to the letter, and that the access was granted by the Taylor family, as opposed to some other owner of the letter. Some of the letters once owned by Taylor were sold prior to 1903, including the 23 Jan 1818 letter. That one was sold in New York in 1897, and since Forman’s 1895 version of the text is based not on the manuscript, but again on Milnes’s text, that letter must have left the Taylor family’s possession before Forman got access to those materials.

Ok, we’re in the weeds. But hang on. Back to today’s letter. Forman’s 1895 edition was clearly based on the manuscript, whereas his 1883 and 1889 editions were based on Milnes’s texts. But today’s letter was not sold at the Taylor family auction in 1903! (CAVEAT–WE’RE NOT ENTIRELY SURE YET THAT THIS FACT IS CORRECT. PRETTY SURE, THOUGH.) It was sold in 1912 by the firm of J. Pearson & Co. The buyer was J. Pierpont Morgan. What happened to this letter between 1895(ish) and 1903? We don’t yet know. But presumably it passed out of the Taylor family and into private hands who eventually led it back into the market in 1912. Those hands may well have been those of John Pearson or his partner Charles Edward Shepheard, both of whom actively sought out valuable letters and manuscripts. In any case, thanks to the catalogue for their sale in 1912, we have a facsimile of the MS to present to you. Sadly, it includes just two of the letter’s three pages. Still, better than nothing.

Now if you’re still here and want to read the entire letter, you know now that the text in Forman’s 1895 edition was based on the manuscript, so you can trust that one. And images below are from the 1912 catalogue for J. Pearson & Co. Stay tuned for more details on the letter’s provenance as it comes in!

Facsimile of page 1 of Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor. From the 1912 catalogue of items for sale by J. Pearson & Co.

The listing for Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor, from the 1912 catalogue for J. Pearson & Co.

The listing for Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor (featuring text of the letter), from the 1912 catalogue for J. Pearson & Co.

Facsimile of page 3 of Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor. From the 1912 catalogue of items for sale by J. Pearson & Co.