Illinois Wesleyan University
Re: Keats’s 6 August 1818 letter to Mrs. Wylie
[Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Voltage Poetry, a website devoted to analyzing great poetic turns. Theune, one of the editors at Voltage Poetry, has allowed us to republish it here. You can read the original here.]
When we go to Keats’s letters, we very often go in search of brilliant fragments: Men of Genius, the egotistical sublime, the camelion poet, the mansion of Many Apartments, the vale of Soul-making, Negative Capability, or (the best of them all) T wang dillo dee. These are the kinds of fragments for which one might hunt with the help of, for example, “Where Did Keats Say That?,” a section in The Cambridge Companion to Keats which offers, as the section’s subtitle promises, “Sources for some famous phrases and comments.” Of course, there is little wrong with this: Keats’s letters are—as Keats says of Shakespeare’s sonnets—full of fine things, and it is important to know where to find them.
However, this approach—which views the letters as having an easily extractable content—overlooks a vital characteristic of Keats’s correspondence: that Keats’s epistolary writing often is more accurately characterized as action rather than statement, and that action is, primarily, the turn.
In “Multiple Readers, Multiple Texts, Multiple Keats,” an essay in Romantic Complexity: Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, Jack Stillinger states that the “oscillation between seriousness and hilarity, which we find throughout the letters, is one of their chief attractions to readers.” This certainly is the case with what Stillinger argues, and I agree, is one of Keats’s greatest and funniest letters: his letter of 6 August 1818, to Mrs. James Wylie, the mother-in-law of Keats’s brother George.
George and his wife Georgiana have emigrated to the United States, leaving Mrs. Wylie bereft of their company, perhaps permanently—as Stillinger notes, “Emigration in those days was a serious disruption of family relationships—in most cases, the family members who stayed behind never again saw the ones who left.” Keats—who also was away, on a northern walking tour with his friend Charles Brown—writes a letter to Mrs. Wylie that begins in tones of utmost, even elegiac, seriousness about how he wishes that he could be a comfort to Mrs. Wylie in her loneliness. But, eventually, Keats acknowledges he cannot offer any legitimate assistance, and chooses instead to not attempt to argue Mrs. Wylie out of her sorrow, recognizing that it “is impossible to prove that black is white; it is impossible to make out that sorrow is joy or joy is sorrow.”
But then something amazing happens. As Stillinger notes, “It is at this point in the letter that, without any transition whatsoever, Keats launches into his account of the gentleman in the fur cap falling over a precipice in Kirkcudbrightshire.” Without any transition whatsoever is worth dwelling upon. There is nothing to point to here, no language that registers the massive shift taking place, no real content. Never will this vital maneuver be included in a list of the great things Keats said because here, at the key part of this letter, Keats does not say anything. Rather, he does something.
And what Keats does, of course, in the most sublime and hilarious way possible, is jump off a precipice. (Figuratively, of course, but still—) Immediately after stating that it is impossible “to prove that black is white” and “to make out that sorrow is joy or joy is sorrow,” Keats just decides to go for it. He will not prove or reinterpret anything. Instead, Keats leaps into the void, and simply does his damnedest to actually create joy—and he delivers a comedic tour de force.
Like any great comic routine, Keats’s is complex and multifaceted, a rich tapestry of structural maneuvers, of building set-ups and delivering punch lines, of subtle gambits and sudden blows. I love, for example, how Keats develops the “very romantic affair” that could be made from tumbling down a precipice into the sea. Women would be unable to resist him, especially if it was made clear—by Mrs. Wylie, whom Keats draws into his plot as his co-conspirator—that his falling was really a heroic chasing after “Jessy of Dumblane” (a reference to Robert Tannahill’s traditional song, “Jessie, The Flow’r o’ Dumblane”). Keats concludes his long, detailed story with a terrific act of comedic understatement, essentially: but, of course, Mrs. Wylie, even after I’ve told you the specific details that will work best, feel free to use your own discretion.
Keats then leaves off joking to shift into even more fast and furious joking. In the context of being “very romantic,” Keats in fact is just the opposite, deflating romanticism time and again. Here, when one climbs up a mountain—the site of theophanies, of encounters with God, or at least, in Wordsworth’s account, with “Imagination!”—one also comes down again. (I love the subtle typographical wit here, the way in which the “B…N” of “Ben Nevis” turn into “N.B.,” signifying both nota bene but also the return from the mountain.) Here, when one leans “rather languishingly on a rock”—that is, VERY romantically—one may be in position to attract—as Keats had hoped to do with his tale of his romantically unsuccessful derring-do—or at least have visions of, “some famous Beauty,” a gorgeous Godiva on her “Palfrey.” This Beauty, however, does not just pass by, but stops, and approaches with her breasts…I mean, “her saddle-bags”! And then she gives Keats a kiss…I mean, “a dozen or two capital roastbeef Sandwiches”! This vision is a hilarious letdown for very romantic Keats, and it is a fulfillment of all he—having recently eaten many “oat cakes”—actually wants. And that it is both at the same time is what makes it genius.
Keats famously says that the Grecian Urn “dost tease us out of thought,” but this also is exactly what Keats attempts to do with this letter: tease Mrs. Wylie out of her own loneliness. We do not know whether or not the letter actually worked, but it’s hard to imagine Keats not succeeding in his endeavor at least to some extent. It’s hard to imagine Mrs. Wylie not smiling or laughing at Keats’s lovely, friendly buffoonery; it’s hard to imagine Mrs. Wylie not being transported, if only for a moment, from what one could only imagine to have been her real sorrow, to feel inspired, warmed and brightened—enlivened—by Keats’s conviviality, to feel—as we continue to feel—his presence.