Keats to Shelley: Load every rift

Susan J. Wolfson
Princeton University

RE: Keats’s 16 August 1820 letter to Percy Bysshe Shelley

I. Incident of the Letter

It wasn’t the letter that Shelley sent Keats, care of Leigh Hunt, inviting him to Pisa, dated 27 July 1820. This arrived in the London post office on August 10, went to Hunt’s Examiner offices on Friday August 11, and then on Saturday to Keats, living with the Hunts at 13 Mortimer Terrace, at the edge of Kentishtown.

It was the miscarriage of another letter, a note from Fanny Brawne that Keats received later that Saturday: “some one of Mr Hunt’s household opened a Letter of mine–upon which I immediately left–,” he told his sister on Sunday, reporting his abrupt change of residence to Hampstead (LK 2:313). The note had been there since Thursday, August 10. Mrs. Hunt gave it to a maid to bring to Keats upstairs. The maid broke the seal to sneak a peek, quit her post on Friday, handing it to nine-year old Thornton Hunt to deliver (Ward 365). Soiled and crumpled, it reached Keats on Saturday. It was all an “accident,” he concluded by the next day, the 13th, and according to Mrs. Hunt, the purloined letter “contained not a word of the least consequence” (LK 2:313n2).  By the 23rd, he would have unwritten this whole chapter: “The Seal-breaking business is over blown,” he assured his sister, with a rueful pun on the verb: exaggerated, and passed (LK 2:329).

But on the 12th it felt like an invasion of privacy–his engagement to Fanny was still “secret” (LK 2:321)–sufficient to catalyze the increasing pressure at the Hunts’ busy household (five raucous children, servants) amid oppressive hot weather and noisy street life on the Terrace. At the end of a hectic week of coughing up dark blood, then advised that he must go to Italy for the winter, the letter-accident “made me nervous,” Keats tells his sister (313). A tactful understatement: he had wept for hours, inconsolably, then packed up his few books and belongings and staggered a mile or so along Hampstead Heath to Hampstead village, heading to the Bentleys’ lodgings at Well Walk, the brothers’ home years before (and where Tom had died). By the time he arrived, it was too late to inquire, so on he went to the Brawnes at Wentworth Place (he had recently lived next door, with Charles Brown). Mrs. Brawne, seeing his feverish exhaustion, took him in. There Keats lived until he left for Italy, under the care and affection of the household, especially the motherly Mrs. Brawne.

Having written to his sister and to his publisher John Taylor Saturday (the 13th), Keats finally felt able to send a note over to Hunt via Fanny (folded and sealed), with embarrassment for his “lunes” (the underlining is an inflection of wry self-reading). “I hope to see you when ever you can get time for I feel really attach’d to you for you many sympathies with me, and patience” (ALS Berg; LK 2:316).  Hunt sent a note back right away, cajoling Keats’s coming relocation with an affectionate Italian, “Giovanni mio,” promising to visit that very day “& most probably every day,” expressing relief at Keats’s attachment, with reciprocal assurances to him of “how much I am attached to yourself,” and signing, “Your affectionate friend” (ALS; LK 2:317).

Keats’s 13 August 1820 letter to Leigh Hunt

For all this repledging, however, it’s clear that Keats was cut to the heart by the thought of other eyes on his correspondence. So I confess to pained contradiction on this bicentenary of reading (scanning and commenting on) his letter to Percy Bysshe Shelley, even though he wrote it with such formal courtesy that he must have imagined it being shared (with Mrs. Shelley certainly, most likely others in their circle). But here we are, 200 years on, when Keats could not possibly have imagined his fame, or the massive undoing of all manners of privacy that follows.

II. The Last Summer

1820 was Keats’s last summer, and he knew it on his pulses.[1] A severe hemorrhage on June 23 (LK 2:300) had him stumbling from 2 Wesleyan Place over to Hunt’s, a few doors away, for help. He returned to his rooms at Wesleyan Place, then started vomiting blood. On the alarm of his landlady, Hunt raced over and insisted that Keats move in with him. The pulmonary attack went on for almost a week. The physicians called in prescribed repeated bleeding (Motion 520), further weakening him. Worse, they advised Keats to “contrive to pass the Winter in Italy” (LK 2:305). From here on, his new name was “Poor Keats!”–everywhere in letters and reports. Joseph Severn, who had done portraits of him and would accompany him to Italy, told their friend William Haslam, “Poor Keats … his appearance is shocking and now reminds me of poor Tom” (306), dead from consumption, December 1818. John and Maria Gisborne, friends of the Hunts and the Shelleys, visited on June 24 and again on July 12. Maria was aghast at “the sight of poor Keats, under sentence of death. . . . He never spoke and looks emaciated” (2:305n2). John sent a report right away to Shelley.

The thought of Fanny in this illness was so agonizing to Keats that even to see her (she visited daily) was torture. The note she sent on August 12 was a response to his having told her, “I cannot bear flashes of light and return into my glooms again … To be happy with you seems such an impossibility!” (Berg ALS, f.2). Folded and sealed, so ”that no eye may catch it” (f.1), this was his last (known) letter to her. The pain was not just leaving her, but of her, gradually, inevitably, leaving him: “Suppose me in Rome–well, I should there see you as in a magic glass going to and from town at all hours.” In this psychic imaginary, he could “see nothing but thorns for the future” (f.3). Call it death in life, or death & life. He had been tormenting himself all summer about her affection and loyalty; and Brown, he told her, was “doing me to death by inches” by teasing her into “flirting” with him. If she couldn’t imagine the “pang” to his “heart,” Brown, notwithstanding all his generosities, he was sure, had not minded his “heart having been made a football” (5 July; LK 2:303-4).

The beginning of Keats’s last known letter to Fanny Brawne

This was the season in which Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems was published. Keats kept his “spirits” up about it amid “very low hopes” for material success. “This shall be my last trial,” he was able to confide to Brown on June 21; “not succeeding, I shall try what I can do in the Apothecary line” (LK 2:298)–a grim echo of Blackwood’s snark that he never should have left this line at all: “It is better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John” (Z, 3:524). Copies of the volume arrived at the Hunts’ on June 28, ahead of the debut on July 3. Some pieces were placed this summer in the Literary Gazette and London Chronicle (LK 1:58-59; Gittings 582). Most of the first reviews were praising: Literary Gazette, an especially influential one in the Edinburgh Review by Francis Jeffrey, Charles Lamb’s in New Times (Hunt reprinted this in The Examiner), and of course Hunt’s in the Indicator. “My book has had a good success among literary people, and, I believe, has a moderate sale,” Keats told Brown on August 14, his first full day with the Brawnes (LK 2: 321). Word of mouth was helping: “I have been delighted with this volume and think it will even please the Million,” Severn told Haslam on July 12 or so, a week after it was out (2:306). Haydon added a cheer: “I … really cannot tell you how very highly I estimate [the poems]–they justify the assertions of all your Friends regarding your poetical powers I can assure you” (308). But if Keats and friends were hoping to relaunch his career, space in the press at large was riveted by the scandal of Princess Caroline claiming her station as Queen, while George IV was pressing a suit of adultery. Sales, even at 7s.6d., were modest, and never cleared the first edition.

By the summer, Brown was off again to Scotland, and news of Keats’s brother George in Kentucky brought another set of cuts by inches. Despite some optimistic business prospects in mid-June, his finances had taken a dive, and he was begging John for help, not understanding how dire his plight. Keats was worried about his sheer ability to keep writing. Mrs. Brawne tried to be encouraging about the Italy cure, and was ready on his return to welcome him into marriage and her household. In brief intervals of relief, Keats tried to cheer himself. But his heart had sunk.

On August 14 he sent Taylor his “Testament”: “All my estate real and personal consists in the hopes of the sale of books publish’d or unpublish’d.” He and Brown were to be the first creditors: “pay my Taylor the few pounds I owe him,” Keats punned, before rendering a final sentence in perfect iambic pentameter, “My Chest of Books divide among my friends” (LK 2:318-19).[2]  Though no pun, My Chest was sadly double bound. “My dear Taylor,” he wrote just the day before, “My Chest is in so nervous a State, that … writing a Note half suffocates me … every line I write encreases the tightness of the Chest” (ALS, Pierpont Morgan Library; LK 2:315). He wanted to take care of business: “many Letters to write if I can manage them,” he told his sister August 13 (2:314). Ten days on, in a last letter to his dear, and oldest friend Haslam (23 August), he tells the tale again: “I could say much more than this half sheet would hold, but the oppression I have at the Chest will not suffer my Pen to be long-winded” (2:331). He could barely breathe, let alone inspire his Pen. Friends were raising funds for his trip to Italy and the needed medical care. He would never see Brown again, and he knew by the time Shelley’s letter arrived that he would be bidding farewell to everything and everyone he knew.

III. “Young Poets”

The correspondence of August 1820 between Keats and Shelley is no stand-alone diptych, then. It resonates not only in this last summer, but also across a train of four years. Hunt first brought the two together in a signal essay in The Examiner, 1 December 1816 (466: 761-62): Young Poets–the generation for the new century. Shelley was already out there, with heat, from Queen Mab, his Alastor volume, Laon and Cythna, and fierce political pamphlets. Keats had just one publication, a sonnet in The Examiner, back in May. Young Poets hosted his second, On first looking into Chapman’s Homer. The two met in the flesh at Hunt’s place in Hampstead on 12 December. Keats visited Shelley on his own on 15 February 1817, met him again at Hunt’s in October, and called with Hunt in November (JMS 150, 164, 185; LK 1:168).

Hunt nurtured group-spirit, and hosted a sonnet-writing contest on February 4, 1818 (KL 1:271). Endymion may have begun as a contest on steroids, an epic-flexing compact with Shelley in spring 1817 to write a long poem in six months (Medwin, 178-79). Keats began right away; but by October he wanted to keep Shelley at a distance, not from any stigma, but from likely supervision (however well-meaning). He was protective of “my own unfettered scope”–a metaphysics that Shelley might be prone to Alastorize, along with the “vexation” of “corrections and amputations” (MsK 1.13. 42; JK 62). Even so, he felt for Shelley’s abuse in the reviews of Queen Mab, with likely lashes for The Revolt of Islam, the tamer version of (the suppressed) Laon and Cythna. “Poor Shelley,” he writes to his brothers on 27 December, “I think he has his Quota of good qualities, in sooth la!!” (camping Cleopatra as she is trying, ineptly, to help Marc Antony into his armor after a night of debauchery; JK 78). Mindful of Z’s skewering of Hunt in Blackwood’s launch of the “Cockney School” series in October, and noting himself in its epigraph as a coming target, Keats felt a twinship. “Does Shelley go on telling strange Stories of the Death of Kings?” he joked to Hunt, 10 May, as he was trying to get on with Endymion: “Tell him there are strange Stories of the death of Poets–some have died before they were conceived.” Mary Shelley (not yet the famous “Author of Frankenstein”), he said, should “procure some fatal Scissars and cut the thread of Life of all to be disappointed Poets” (f. 3).

The last correspondence between the two poets was the letter Shelley sent on 27 July 1820 inviting Keats to Italy, and Keats’s reply on 16 August, with sincere thanks for his care and attention, with “the hope of seeing you soon.”

IV. “Distant Correspondents”

Keats did not send his reply to Shelley by international post, but trusted it to the Gisbornes, with a copy of the 1820 volume. Departing from Dover September 3, they arrived in Leghorn around October 10, and left Keats’s package with Mary’s sister, Claire Clairmont. Shelley collected it on 17 October (MSJ 335)–that is, two months on from its composition.

Writing a letter in “my Now,” Charles Lamb is acutely, cutely, aware that its reception–“your Now”–involves a “confusion of tenses,” with no way around the splayed temporality. It is a “grand solecism of two presents, … a degree common to all postage” (282). If this splay seems remote in our day of instant messaging and rapid-response email, a solecism was inescapable back then. At the time of writing his letter,  27 July, Shelley may have meant what Keats understood, an invitation to join his “household” (Clarke 151). Shelley seemed to be still in this groove after receiving Keats’s letter. “Where is Keats now? I am anxiously expecting him in Italy,” he wrote to Marianne Hunt (and implicitly to Leigh) near the end of October 1820, having heard nothing since. Where, indeed? The “Keats” of the mid-August letter, written at the Brawnes and mustering energy, good humor, and “the hope of seeing you soon,” had deteriorated by the time Shelley was asking this question. The voyage to Italy had been a near-death ordeal itself. Having boarded on September 17, enduring severe storms and then quarantine in Naples harbor, Keats had disembarked only on 31 October, his 25th birthday, and reached Rome, quite the worse, on November 15. The “Keats” of mid-August was a creature from another time, another place, another “Keats.”

The two Keatses have a reciprocal in two Shelleys: one of warm invitation, for hospitality, care and fruitful conversation; one more reluctant, even averse to intimate involvement. Shelley’s inquiry to Marianne Hunt projected utmost generosity–even amid domestic drama, with toddler Percy Florence underfoot (hard as it is to imagine the dull, corpulent Victorian gentleman at this stage):

I shall take care to bestow every possible attention on him. I consider his a most valuable life, and I am deeply interested in his safety. I intend to be the physician both of his body and his soul, to keep one warm & to teach the other Greek & Spanish. I am aware indeed in part, that I am nourishing a rival who will far surpass & this is an additional motive and will be an added pleasure. (LS 2:239-40)

The Keats who called to “Physician Nature” to relieve him of wanting to write poetry (still in a poem) could not have conceived a better ally in human nature, genuinely selfless. While Shelley may have been spinning Shelleyan romance (every sentence, every clause, begins with I), the impulse was genuine, and he would have had no reason to playact for Hunt’s wife. He sent a follow-up invitation, which reached Naples in early November (LS 2:268n), after Keats had departed for Rome.

Well, that was then: Shelley first in the July now, then in the October now. As Lamb recognizes, a sincere truth may “un-essence herself” in the long interval of correspondence (283). By St Agnes Eve, January 1821, Keats’s body was beyond the help of any mortal physician, and Shelley was immersed in (ever new) turmoil. He was falling in love with Teresa Viviani and out of love with Mary; then Edward and Jane Williams arrived, and he was falling in love with her. On 18 February 1821, just days before Keats’s death, Shelley, innocent of this end, clarified (or revised his memory of) his initial invitation: “I have written to him to ask him to come to Pisa, without however inviting him to our own house,” he wrote to Claire; “We are not rich enough for that sort of thing. Poor fellow!” (LS 2:221n). Then, hearing how poor Keats really was and still thinking him in Naples, he wrote again (another lost letter), urging him to Pisa and into his care (LS 2:268n).

V. “My dear Keats … Yours sincerely P. B. Shelley”

The letter sent from Livorno/Pisa on 27 July 1820 was affectionately addressed “My dear Keats” and was signed, “Yours sincerely, P.B. Shelley” (LS 2:220-1). Shelley used good-quality, 8×10 “wove paper,” writing in a hasty scrawl, and mailed it “to the care of Leigh Hunt, Esq.” at The Examiner. Hunt knew what it was, and brought it immediately to Keats.[3]

The first page of Shelley’s letter to Keats. Courtesy of Leslie Morris at Houghton Library, Harvard University.

The second page of Shelley’s letter to Keats. Courtesy of Leslie Morris at Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Keats’s plight was already a conversation, news of his “consumptive appearance” quickly conveyed by the Gisbornes to Shelley, and murmured among his friends at home. However genuinely concerned these circuits, Keats knew the grammar: his collapse would be attributed to weakness, sensitivity, even an inability to take a bad review. Shelley begins tactfully by framing the case otherwise: “This consumption is a disease particular fond of people who write such good verses as you have done.” He sets Keats in the noble company of “english poets,” but then, unfortunately, with more climatizing more than canonizing: “an English winter” helps this disease to “indulge its selection.” Shelley may have sensed that such “joking” was off key, so he turns “serious” about a winter in “Pisa or its neighbourhood”: “Mrs Shelley unites with myself in urging the request, that you would take up your residence with us.–” We may sense the germ of Shelley’s later tempering to Claire: with us is a bit ambiguous. It could mean at our home, or just Pisa. Without specifying the hospitality, Shelley shifts from the subject of “your health” to tour-promoter, ready to declaim “about the statues & the paintings & the ruins–& … about the mountains the Streams & the fields, the colours of the sky, & the sky itself —-”

If his catalogue seems halfway to prose-poetry, both in litany and lilt, it’s a fine preview of the poet-to-poet conversation Shelley promises, and to which his letter now turns. In preparation for his visit, he tells Keats that he’s gone back to Endymion with fresh interest. He doesn’t mention that when he first read it, he’d been disappointed, and even wrote on 6 September 1819 to James Ollier, the publisher who had dumped Keats after the 1817 Poems, with implicit endorsement of his spurn:

much praise is due to me for having read [it], the Authors intention appearing to be that no person should possibly get to the end of it. Yet it is full of some of the highest & the finest gleams of poetry … I think if he had printed about 50 pages of fragments from it I should have been led to admire Keats as a poet more than I ought, of which there is now no danger. (LS 2:117)

Yet: the superlatives suggest that Shelley still saw gleams worth the salvage. Keats had promise, if only he had better examples–namely himself, and he asked Ollier to put Keats on the gratis-copy list for all his works. Sometime in early 1820, Shelley picked up Endymion again; though he still saw rubble, he would encourage Keats about the gems: “I have lately read your Endymion again for & ever with a new sense of the treasures of poetry it contains, bu though treasures poured forth with indistinct profusion.–” He wonders if the low sales were due to a lack of discipline–forgetting, weirdly, that the same reviews that had targeted him for political views, had also taken similar aim at Keats (Hunt’s proxy).

By another measure, however, Shelley had hit on an accidentally productive effect: instead of a distinctly assembled “Long Poem,” here was a new genre for long-form work, an anthology of treasures to go back to. Keats himself suggested that a long poem offered “the Lovers of Poetry … a little Region to wander in where they may pick and choose and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second Reading” (MsK 1.13.43; JK 61). Not ready to theorize his reading of Keats’s admirable “fragments” on this template, Shelley tries to Shelleyize Keats. “I feel persuaded that you are capable of the greatest things,” he assures him, mentioning his request that Ollier “send you Copies of my books” (not thinking of any sting to Keats). He means Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci–saying of the last, with affected modesty, “below the good how far! but far above the great!” This is last line of Thomas Gray’s Progress of Poesy (1757), describing the ever young spirit of Poesy rising “Beyond the limits of a vulgar fate, / Beneath the Good how far–but far above the Great” (121-23). Gray’s counter-intuitive grammar elevates Platonic Good above the vagaries of vulgar social judgment about what’s Great. (I thank Susan Stewart and Marshall Brown for helping me sort this out). Gray’s scale, says Paul Fry, means to promote “human virtue flourishing in a state of liberty,” but rhetorically it amounts to “the most boastful ending to be found in any major ode in English” (88). This is the line into which Shelley’s quotation, pretending to matters of style, only half ironically, draws himself.

Unironically, Shelley means to model a worthy example: “In poetry I have sought to avoid system and mannerism; I wish those who excel me in genius” (he flatters Keats) “had would pursue the same plan.—-” This “had” is a small tale in itself: Shelley starts to mark Keats’s fault, then shifts to a tense of reform. In the visible scripting, Keats can read it both ways. Yet Prometheus Unbound is a kind of weird invocation. It is full of system and mannerism, and also something of a treasure trove: an anthology of every poetic form, theme, and image system that Shelley had ever entertained and polished up–and so closer to Endymion than he might realize.[4]  

Shelley closes his letter most cordially, with “anxious wishes for your health happiness, & success … in whatever you undertake.” Rereading the letter, Shelley goes back, and inserts a parenthesis urging Keats, after the trials of the summer, to take seriously his urging to Italy: (if you think it as necessary as I do).[5] This was sincere care and concern, but the impression on Keats was an equally strong wish for his poetic reform. Keats, to whom Hunt conveyed “a copy of the Cenci, as from” Shelley (so Keats thanks him), responds kindly, and in kind.

VI. “My dear Shelley, … most sincerely yours, / John Keats–”[6]

Keats’s letter is more beautifully scripted than Shelley’s to him. He took pains with it, material as well as compositional. He could expect it to be shared with others (Mary Shelley, Hunt) and he wanted to match Shelley’s evident care. It’s a clean letter, not one of those cross-written mazes–per-page postage being spared by the Gisbornes’ transport. Shelley wrote on two sides of one leaf. Keats used one leaf, too, and like Shelley folded his page in half, to use three sides, the fourth for the address. He was careful to secure its privacy, folding his already folded page twice more, from the top and the bottom, so as entirely to obscure the first page of writing, then folding twice more, from the left and the right, for sealing, so that the only writing that remained was P_ B_ Shelley Esqre. (the large two-page plate in Motion, 528-29, lets you trace these moves–or click here for digital images of the entire letter).

It’s such a circumspect letter, in tact and etiquette as well as in its weighted, word-crafted conversation, that I think Keats must have pre-drafted it, then fair-copied. It doesn’t seem ex tempore–no corrections or cancellations. It certainly was a keeper in the Shelley family (it was privately held by them until 2004).[7] With Shelley’s letter right “beside me” as he writes (f.1), as if in real time conversation with this distant correspondent, Keats thanks him for the kind invitation and readily concedes his plight. But he resists feeding Shelley’s narrative of his “dangerous” state and the “consumption” to which young geniuses are prone. As close as he gets is wry politeness: “if I do not take advantage of your invitation it will be prevented by a circumstance I have very much at heart to prophesy.” Rather than dwell on this misgiving heart, he delivers a stoic scenario, going to Italy “as a soldier marches up to a battery” (f.1). He had auditioned this for Taylor in that 13 August letter, promising (amid horrible haunting) to endure “the Journey to Italy … with the sensation of marching up against a Batterry” (LK 2:315). He assures Shelley that his distress is mostly in anticipation: “My nerves at present are the worst part of me, yet they feel soothed when I think that come what extreme may, I shall not be destined to remain in one spot long enough to take a hatred of any four particular bed-posts” (f.1). How like Oscar Wilde saying of his last bed-post site, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” Keats is determined to write comedy for Shelley, to disarm him of pity and condescension.

He then pivots to his preferred conversation, about poetry, responding to Shelley’s assessment of Endymion as a kind of accident with promise, and offering Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci as examples of how Keats might invest poetic treasures for better gains. Keats (we know from Fanny Brawne) read The Cenci with great care (LK 2:322), making numerous notes (as he had with Paradise Lost) in preparation for a seminar with Shelley on principles and practices. The Cenci had a number of positive reviews, many of which Keats could have read, and it was the best seller of all Shelley’s volumes.[8] Prometheus Unbound (published in mid July) was not yet in Keats’s hands, but his interest was keen, given his Hyperion project, abandoned for several months, but not out of mind.

On the question of “treasures poured forth,” Keats is no slacker, but an aggressive theorist. He doesn’t take up the politics or polemics of The Cenci, qualifying himself only for “the Poetry, and dramatic effect” (f.2). Maintaining disinterest on Shelley’s “purpose”–what Keats calls, with a jab at Shelley’s principled atheism, “the God”–Keats invokes aesthetic intensity, describing it as “the mammon”–the party to which he’ll sign on. He writes this word again with a capital M, implying his God-function: “an artist must serve Mammon.” It’s a cheeky, even outrageous, reversal of Jesus’s sermon on God and Mammon in the Gospels (Luke 16:1-13; Matthew 5:24). Keats, I’m sure, has the one in Matthew in mind (another verse supplies his epigraph to Ode on Indolence): “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” As “an artist,” Keats is happy to serve Mammon, laying up his treasures not in the transcendent heaven of magnanimous polemics, but in the veins of poetry.

He calls this “’self concentration’” (he puts this in quotation marks), and concedes an equation to “selfishness perhaps” (f.2 [no quotation marks]). By this last noun, Keats does not mean stinginess. Haydon, who ought to know, described him as “the most unselfish of human creatures”; he “would have shared his fortune with any man who wanted it” (Taylor, 2:10). Keats means aesthetic self-respect. This form of “self” is a different register, and value, from its antonym of “no self” in his parsing of “poetical Character” to Richard Woodhouse, on 27 October 1818. Assuring him that bad reviews had not wounded him, Keats contrasts his no-self to “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime”–the habit (so iconic as to be eponymous) of imprinting his poetry with his character as a “virtuous Philosopher,” and so limiting a capacity to imagine any other consciousness (MsK 1.39.139; JK 276). That’s one kind of self concentration: self-important. It’s not the self-concentration that he means when he is describing the commitments of a true artist. Keats sees in Shelley’s magnanimity of purpose a similar constraint by virtuous philosophy, if not Wordsworth’s particular (eponymic) brand.

The section of Keats’s letter with his famous exhortation to Shelley: “‘load every rift’ of your subject with ore.”

Keats is as polite and deferential as can be: “You I am sure will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist and ‘load every rift’ of your subject with ore” (f.2). Keats, the artist of this very sentence, nicely loads ore into more. His marked quotation arcs (purposefully) over another Mammon-site, prior to the King James Bible: the Cave of Mammon that tempts Spenser’s Knight of Temperance, Sir Guyon, in The Faerie Queene (II.VII.28).  

Emboss’d with massy Gold of glorious Gift
And with rich Metal loaded every Rift,
That heavy Ruin they did seem to threat.

Spenser’s very words are loaded with magnificence over magnanimity, a sensation of imminent ruin part of the thrill of beholding such laden, glorious riches, in the sound of the words no less than in the image rendered: Emboss’d, massy, Gold, glorious Gift. The allure of Metal loaded is loaded with a phonic slide between the two words, with a hint of all. As Marjorie Garber comments, “loaded tells a story of abundance, excess, danger and desire” (1).

It’s a sign of Keats’s admirable discipline of any prompt to self-pity that he didn’t glance at the “metal sick” in Hyperion’s palate, as he realizes his doom (1.189). He reads as an artist and goes for the perilous load of gold, in conscious delight of tempting a macrostructure (call it “purpose”) to implode, however appalled a Christian Knight ought to be. As he (and Shelley no doubt) knew, Milton, the poet of magnanimous Christian argument, was addicted to Spenser’s Cave of Mammon. Milton invokes it in Areopagitica as a sagely existential temptation, Guyon in a situation where “he might see and know and yet abstain.” Keats sees in Spenser (and in Milton, too) a covert attraction to what is being abstained. He marked a passage in Paradise Lost (I: 22) about Mammon in Hell, sensing a lode of “metallic ore” (1.675; catching the riff on Spenser, he underlines this phrase), then leading a mining expedition. In one of his funniest supplements, Milton imagines Mammon’s ready training for this:

… e’en in Heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,
That ought divine or holy else enjoy’d … (1.680-82)

Keats marked this with downward lines in his left margin. From Spenser to Milton, he grasps the ambivalence (loaded with or) of describing worldly riches with a framing of a moral argument.

Keats’s alertness draws on his own mine of loaded words. Not that Shelley was keyed into it, but we can see Keats drawing, with variable pressures, on his lode. He sees “the grandeur of the ode, / Growing, like Atlas, stronger from its load” (Epistle to Charles Cowden Clarke 63). For a different god, load is the word he wants for the agony of a pressure to speak without knowing the words: “to load / His tongue with the full weight of utterless thought” (Hyperion 2.119-20). By setting load at the end of the line, Keats pauses it with metrical weight against the blank space beyond, then measures out eleven syllables of the next line, with meta-poetic force at a double-stressed full weight. In The Fall of Hyperion, the poet-dreamer is trapped in a nightmare, where “I bore / The load of this eternal quietude” (I.389-90). Even in erotic luxury, load weighs with intensity. Endymion recounts a dream-state of lovemaking in which “each moment might be redeem’d / And plunder’d of its load of blessedness” (1.659-60)–a poetic for Endymion itself (what Shelley would discipline). In To Autumn, the season’s easy, luxuriant strain is “to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run” (3-4). For Keats, load is a keyword for concentration.

There is another Mammon-mindedness in Keats’s letter, though not under this particular word, namely, material money. One of the songs in the 1820 volume, Robin Hood, jests that one richness, honey (fated to rhyme), “Can’t be got without hard money!” (p. 135; just before To Autumn). Keats had declined the sure money of an apothecary profession to hazard life as an artist. Unlike Shelley, he didn’t have the safety net of an annuity. He had to care about the market, the force of reviews, and immediate sales and esteem as a credit for a publisher’s confidence. This is no cynical caving into Mammon (as some endowed professors have argued). Mammon is a figure for thinking; the market is real. In an ideal world, a 21-year-old poet would be able to take time to refine, fine-tune, and publish later than right away. But in distinction from abstract “Fame,” Keats had to “hope of gain” (f.2) in material accounting. He tells Shelley that he would “willingly take the trouble to unwrite” some of his earlier ventures, save the hit to “Reputation” (f. 1), and suggests that Shelley might take time to do his best.

Still polite, Keats ironizes this advisory role for the poet who advised him to invest his poetic “treasures” with better sense. “Is this not extraordinary talk for the writer of Endymion? whose mind was like a pack of scattered cards–” (f.2). He claims some progress: “I am pick’d up and sorted to a pip.” He cartoons himself as the epitome of discipline, a Monk in the “Monastry” of “Imagination,” devoted to his study and withdrawn from worldly polemics. He gently dares Shelley to understand him by a “camelion” stretch of intellectual and aesthetic sympathy: “you must explain my metapcs to yourself. I am in expectation of Prometheus every day.” He’s referring to Prometheus Unbound, but might have used the name to suggest that only a patient sufferer such as Prometheus could really be an example to Keats these days.

The conclusion of Keats’s letter to Shelley

He reminds Shelley of his telling him “not to publish my first-blights” (f.3), knowing that Shelley convinced the Olliers to do so, to unhappy consequence. Then comes his remarkable confession that the much anticipated Lamia &c “would never have been publish’d but from a hope of gain; so you see I am inclined enough to take your advice now” (f.3). With this self-ironizing–part wry, part rueful–Keats thanks Shelley again for his “kindness” and sends his thanks and respects to Mrs. Shelley. He doesn’t write to Shelley again, and it’s the last time Shelley’s name appears in his correspondence. Clarke recalls Keats saying that he really meant to decline Shelley’s invitation, as he had in 1817, from the “sole motive” of feeling that he could not be “a free agent, even with such a circle as Shelley’s” (151). It’s the second time Keats averted an invitation from Shelley on this principle. He wanted to keep writing. His way.

VII. Two After Lives, After words

But while I talk, I think you hear me,–thoughts dallying with vain surmise–
Aye me! while thee the seas and sounding shores
Hold far away.

So Lamb (284), with an ironized echo of Milton’s “dallying with false surmise” in Lycidas (153-55), indulges the enabling fiction of letter-writing and its patent illusion.

Across the seas on the shores of Italy, Shelley began reading the Lamia volume on 18 October 1820, diving into Hyperion and reading the rest the next day (MSJ 335-36). “Hyperion promises for him that he is destined to become one of the first writers of the age,” he exclaimed to Marianne Hunt (LS 2:239-40), sharing his praise with T. L. Peacock, Claire, and Byron (Reiman, 416-17). He even started (but didn’t send) a letter about it to Gifford, editor of The Quarterly, host of J. W. Croker’s influential hostile review of Endymion (LS 2:252). “I consider the fragment of Hyperion as second to nothing that was ever produced by a writer of the same years,” he stated formally in his Preface to Adonais (1821), the elegy he began soon after learning of Keats’s death. While Adonais is this honor, it’s also an overdetermined confluence of Shelley’s regrets about failing the care he promised, his genuine affection for Keats, and his readiness to cast “Keats”–call it “Shelley’s ‘Keats’”–to front his own grievances (see my essay on this). Even more: for all its magnanimity, it also bids fair, in its 55 gorgeously crafted Spenserian stanzas, as a work of “treasures poured forth in profusion,” in the form of a self-concentrated Shelley anthology. Describing it to the Gisbornes as “a high­ly-wrought piece of art” (LS 2:294) and confessing to Byron that a “subtle … principle of self” was evident in it (2:309), he was echoing the phrasing of Keats’s letter to him, almost the very words and emphasis. 

Repairing a missed opportunity to teach Keats Greek, he Greekifies Keats at the front of Adonais, not only with this name-epithet but also with two Greek epigraphs, one on the title page from Plato’s Epigram on Aster, the other heading the Preface, from Moschus’s Bion (3). Although he tells a fable of Keats’s demise in this Preface, “poor Keats’s life … poor fellow,” Adonais demotes this contingency from its very first word, to elevate a story of self announcement: “I weep for Adonais.” Shelley’s magnanimous outrage on Keats’s felling by hostile reviews (a story that, to Keats’s detriment, stuck for decades) opens the stage for the performance of his own martyr­dom: “Who in another’s fate now wept his own” (XXXIV).  In this compact, weeping is healed by a genre-shift, from elegy to personal apocalypse. This is the climactic last stanza (LV):

The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

If this poet seems about to book his own passage, the itinerary was legible in The Literary Register’s obituary on Shelley, Septem­ber 1822. It began by noting a “very melancholy and touching … co­inci­dence”: “It would almost seem that the Disposer of events had listened and attended to the poet’s mournful wish” (193-94). Lamb’s solecism of the two nows of distant correspondents collapses, by temporal pressure, into one identity of two poets.

On 1 July 1821, Shelley and Edward Williams (Jane’s husband) sailed from the Bay of Lerici south to Leghorn (near Pisa), to welcome Hunt and his family. Hunt, Byron and Shelley were launching a new magazine, The Liberal, free from British prosecutions. After a week together, for the sail back, Hunt lent Shelley his only copy of Keats’s new volume. After a departure on 8 July, a sudden fierce storm wrecked the boat, no survivors. When Shelley’s body washed ashore ten days later, it was scarcely recognizable. Edward Trelawny guessed Shelley “by the dress and stature.” Then, “Mr. Keats’s last volume of ‘Lamia,’ ‘Isabella,’ &c. being open in the jacket pocket, confirmed it beyond a doubt” (Hunt, 2:333). He hoped to retrieve the book before cremation (the body had been temporarily buried at the shore), but when it was examined, “we could find nothing remaining but the leather binding”–a touching detail of Hunt’s esteem for a publication in plain boards (Letters of Trelawny 12).

Hunt put Trelawny’s full account in Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries (1828) and provided a sequel: “Mr. Shelley’s remains were taken to Rome, and deposited in the Protestant burial-ground, near those … of Mr. Keats” (2: 340). He twinned this to the end of the penultimate paragraph of the next chapter, “Mr. Keats”: “He was interred in the English burying-ground at Rome … where his friend and poetical mourner, Mr. Shelley, was shortly to join him” (2: 442). This chapter’s last sentence, about Keats, might also apply to Shelley’s last day of reading: “I venture to prophesy … that his volumes will be the sure companions, in field and grove, of all those who know what a luxury it is to hasten, with a favourite volume against one’s heart, out of the strife of commonplaces into the haven of solitude and imagination” (2:443).

Shelley was still weighing Keats’s heterodox elevation of Mammon as the God for poets. Writing A Defence of Poetry in late winter 1821 (and not yet aware of Keats’s death), he invests the social agency of poetry (“the poetry of life”) against a world where advances in knowledge were being wielded by the few against the many:

From what other cause has it arisen that the discoveries which should have lightened, have added a weight to the curse imposed on Adam? Poetry, and the principle of Self, of which money is the visible incarnation, are the God and Mammon of the world. (530-31)

Keats’s letter ringing in his head, he would relitigate it, breaking apart Keats’s alliance of Mammon with a self-concentrated Poet and redistributing the terms: Poetry and its Poets as God, and money-making as selfish Mammon. Not only does this move refract Keats (once again) through Shelley’s prism but it also forgets material differences. Shelley was living on an inheritance from previous generations of money-makers, and Keats was trying to stay true to two principles: the poetry he wanted to write, and a “poetry of life” (to use Shelley’s phrase) that could make a living. He first met Shelley just days after Shelley learned of the suicide of his abandoned wife, cast off by his principle of Self. Shelley’s philosophy is not reducible to this sad catastrophe, but Harriet Shelley surely shared the curse of Adam (she wore his wedding ring to the end).

The correspondence of the two poets in the summer of 1820, about the calls of the world in relation to the calls of poetry, was a complex conversation that had not ended with Keats’s death. Shelley kept measuring his own care for poetic riches, weighing what Keats had argued in that memorable letter of 16 August. As committed as Shelley was to a poetry of public action and purpose on the arc of magnanimous principles, he couldn’t stop thinking about its artistic loads and rifts, and in the last hours of his life was rereading Keats’s latest measures, brilliant with such ore.


[1] For more detailed accounts, see Plumly 23-26; Bate, 647-55; Gittings 581-88; Ward 361-68. I thank Garrett Stewart for conversation about this essay, Brian Rejack for sharp copyediting, and Leslie Morris for generously supplying the images of Shelley’s letter to Keats.

[2] This metrical radar is Ronald Sharp’s, in a talk at the Bicentenary Keats Conference, Harvard University, 1995, published 1998 (66); his catch is often echoed and often uncredited.

[3] My quotations follow the Houghton ALS (which has features obscured by Jones’s transcription (LS 2:220-1)). Physical details from Houghton Library. Hunt seems to have recovered this letter from Keats’s papers and some time before 1841, and gave it to George Henry Lewes; by various routes it was later purchased by Amy Lowell, who left it to the Harvard College Library.

[4] For Keats, Shelley, and others in this formation see my “Accidental Anthologies of 1818.”

[5] Neither Rollins (Letters 2:310), nor Jones (2: 221) show (or even note) this parenthesis as an above-line insertion, and so occlude the temporality of Shelley’s review and emphatic addition, which Keats would have registered.

[6] As you can see from the letter-image, there is a triangle-cut from the right margin right after sincerely (where Shelley opened the seal). Rollins reasonably interpolates “[yours]” (LK 2: 323)–Keats matching Shelley’s signature (with an extra most), as in his greeting.

[7] The great grandson of the adopted daughter of Lady Jane and Percy Florence Shelley, the 9th Baron Abinger, sold it to the Bodleian in 2004 (I thank Brian Rejack for this information). Lady Jane Shelley printed it in Shelley Memorials, 142-43. It was loaned to the British Museum in 1937, where Hyder E. Rollins transcribed it; R. Glynn Grylls’s Mary Shelley (1938) has a facsimile plate, opposite p. 126 (L 2:332n). I made my own transcription from the Bodleian ms.

[8] Holmes 594. Hunt’s Examiner and Indicator, and his access to London periodicals would have afforded Keats sense of the reviews, either from the reading or from conversation.

Works Cited

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Harvard UP, 1964.

Clarke, Charles Cowden. “John Keats.” Recollection of Writers. London: Sampson & c, 1878. 120-57.

Elia [Charles Lamb]. “Distant Correspondents.” London Magazine 5 (1 March 1822): 282-85.

Fry, Paul H. The Poet’s Calling in the English Ode. Yale UP, 1980.

Garber, Marjorie. “Loaded Questions: An Introduction.” Loaded Words. Fordham UP, 2012. 1-5.

Gittings, Robert. John Keats. 1968; Penguin, 1979.

Grylls, R. Glynn. Mary Shelley. Oxford UP, 1938.

Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. Dutton, 1975.

Hunt, Leigh. Letter to John Keats, 13 August 1820. ALS (Williamson, Plate XLIII); transcribed in LK.

—. Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries. 2d edn. 2 vols. London: Henry Colburn, 1828.

Keats, John. ALS. Indicated by archive.

MsK, with locator numbers, Harvard Keats Collection, Houghton Library.

Berg: The John Keats Collection of Papers. The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. Keats to Hunt, 13 August 1821; Keats to Fanny Brawne, August (?) 1820. Identified by folio (pg) number (f).

”alias Junkets.” Letter to Leigh Hunt, 10 May 1817. British Library: Ashley MS 4869.

Letter to P_B_Shelley Esqre , 16 August 1820. Abinger Collection, Bodleian Library, Oxford Univ.; identified by folio number (f). Facsimile in Motion, plate 23; transcribed in L 2:322-23, and JK 425-27.

—. The Letters of John Keats. 2 vols., ed. Hyder E. Rollins. Harvard UP, 1958. Cited as LK, or just volume and page, or just page. Rollins includes letters by others in the Keats circle.

—. John Keats, a Longman Cultural Edition. Ed. Susan Wolfson. Pearson, 2008. Cited as JK.

Literary Register 13 (28 September 1822), review of Shelley’s Adonais. 193-94.

Medwin, Thomas. Life of Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. H. B. Forman. Oxford UP, 1913.

Milton, John. Keats’s marked edition: Milton’s Paradise Lost. A New Edition / Adorned with Beautiful Plates. 2 vols. Edinburgh: 1807 Cited by book, lines; and volume, page.

Motion, Andrew. Keats, A Biography. Faber and Faber, 1997.

Plumly, Stanley. Posthumous Keats: a personal biography. Norton, 2008.

Reiman, Donald H. “Keats and Shelley: Personal and Literary Relations.” Shelley and His Circle, 1773-1822. Vol. 5. Pforzheimer Library/Harvard UP, 1973. 399-427.

Sharp, Ronald. “Keats and Friendship.” The Persistence of Poetry: Bicentennial Essays on Keats. Ed. Robert M. Ryan and Ronald A. Sharp. U of Mass. P, 1998. 66-81.

Shelley, Lady Jane, ed. Shelley Memorials, From Authentic Sources. London: Smith Elder, 1859.

Shelley, Mary. The Journals of Mary Shelley. Ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott Kilvert. Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.


—. A Defence of Poetry. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. Norton, 2002. 509-35

—. Letter to John Keats, 27 July 1820. ALS Harvard University (MS Keats 4.17.1). See also L 2:310-11, Letters, ed. Jones, 2:220-21.

—. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 2 vols. Ed. Frederick L. Jones Clarendon, 1964. Cited as LS.

Spenser, Edmund. The Works of Mr. Edmund Spenser. 6 vols. Ed. John Hughes. London: Jacob Tonson, 1715. Vol. 3 (The Fairy-Queen, Book 2). The edition Keats read.

Taylor, Tom. The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon. 3 vols. (Longman &c, 1853).

Trelawny, Edward John. Letters of Edward John Trelawny. Ed. H. Buxton Forman. Oxford UP, 1910.

—. “Mr. Trelawney’s [sic] Narrative of the Loss of the Boat Containing Mr. Shelley and Mr. Williams, on the 8th of July, 1822, off the Coast of Italy (Now First Published)” in Hunt, Lord Byron &c. 2d edn. London: Henry Colburn, 1828. 1: 330-35.

Ward, Aileen. John Keats: The Making of a Poet. 1963; Viking, 1967.

Williamson, George C. Keats Letters and Papers. London: John Lane, 1914.

Wolfson, Susan J. “The Accidental Anthologies of 1818.” Keats-Shelley Journal 67 (2019): 164-74.

—. “Keats Enters History: Autopsy, Adonais, and the Fame of Keats.” Keats and History, ed. Nicholas Roe. Cambridge UP, 1995. 17-45.

Z. “On the Cockney School of Poetry, No I.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 2 (October 1817). 38-41.

—. “Cockney School of Poetry, No IV.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 3 (August 1818). 519-24.

Letter #241: To Percy Bysshe Shelley, 16 August 1820

Certainly in the rankings of Keats’s most famous and celebrated letters, today’s has to be right up there near the top. We won’t waste too much time giving you background on the letter–you have the good fortune to be able to read Susan Wolfson’s excellent essay for that information instead–but suffice it to say this: Shelley invited Keats to Italy, and this letter was Keats’s response. What emerged was not a direct reply to Shelley’s offer (in fact, Keats’s reply on that score was quite ambiguous), but a deeply considered reflection on some of the most fundamental issues about poetry that Keats explored throughout his correspondence.

If you don’t know the letter, or if you just want to read it anew on its 200th anniversary, fear not. We have a few options for you. You can read the letter in Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 edition of Keats’s complete works, which has the added benefit of including the text of Shelley’s letter to which Keats was responding (Wolfson in her essay engages significantly with Shelley’s letter as well, so it may be worth your time to see the whole text of it). The manuscript of Keats’s letter is at the Bodleian Library, and they have kindly digitized the letter and made the images available. We also include the images here in case you want to practice your skill at reading Keats’s handwriting.

Once you’ve read the letter, prepare yourself for lots of fully-loaded rifts, jam-packed with ores of insight, and go check out Wolfson’s essay!

Keats’s 16 August 1820 letter to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Images courtesy of Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University.