Keats’s Vexed Creative Relationship with Scotland

Kerri Andrews
Edge Hill University

Re: Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats

This composite letter to Keats’s brother Tom, written over a period of five days, covers a great deal of ground both literally and imaginatively. At the beginning Keats is in the far south west of Scotland having not long returned from a short visit to Ireland. By the end of the letter Keats was in Glasgow, Scotland’s industrial heart and not long after to become the country’s largest city. In those five days Keats and his walking companion Charles Brown had made a journey of over ninety miles along the south west coast, beginning in verdant glens that, much to Keats’s delight, were “eternally varying,” but ending surrounded by Glasgow’s “Stone” and solidity, where Keats was greeted in a manner still recognisable to visitors to Glasgow city centre: by an overly-familiar drunken man.

Whilst Keats and Brown physically covered a great deal of ground between 10-14 July, Keats also seems to have moved imaginatively in his creative relationship with Scotland. The letter to his brother Tom opens with an attempt at a folk ballad about a wedding, but the poem fails to hit its mark, instead landing awkwardly between pastiche and homage. Its characters, “Willie,” “Marie,” “Rab” and especially “Tam,” could have come from one of a hundred Scottish stories, and their names hint at unacknowledged debts to Walter Scott and Robert Burns. Yet there is a sincerity in Keats’s attempts to mimic (albeit not entirely successfully) the speech patterns of the ‘ordinary’ people he has encountered – despite travelling in Scotland for a time Keats knows “nothing of the higher Classes,” so it is everyday language that is transfigured into poetry. Just three days later, though, Keats was complaining about the impenetrability of that self-same language, lamenting that in conversation with “an old Man who knew Burns” it “was impossible for a Southren to understand above 5 words in a hundred.”

Such oscillations between affection and dislike of southern Scottish language use are evidence perhaps of a larger issue – a vexed relationship between the young English poet and his sense of poetic inheritance and literary convention. Keats includes in this letter the texts of two poems – his partially successful story of a Scottish wedding and a sonnet on Ailsa Craig, a dramatic and rocky island prominent all along Keats’s coastal walk – but he mentions a third. This is another sonnet, composed in the cottage where Robert Burns was born in Alloway, about half way between Portpatrick and Glasgow. Keats writes that he was “determined” to write the poem in the cottage itself, but the result is a sad disappointment – it is, he writes to his brother, “so bad I cannot venture it here.” Keats’s arrival in Alloway, birthplace of Scotland’s bard and setting for one of Burns’s most famous poems, “Tam O’Shanter,” is the intellectual climax of this part of his tour. Keats and Brown tour the sights mentioned in the poem, including the Brig O’Doon where, in Burns’s poem, Tam finally reaches safety from the witches and devils chasing him, though not before his horse has her tail ripped from her rump. At the keystone, where the magic of the running water of the River Doon at last protects Tam from his demented pursuers, Keats and Brown stand for “some time” contemplating Tam’s flight, and take a “pinch of snuff on the key stone” itself. Creatively, though, Keats gains almost nothing from his visit to one of Scottish literature’s holiest places. He cannot understand the speech of those who knew Burns personally, and the only poetry that comes to him here is so poor that he cannot even show it to his brother. Instead of finding poetic inspiration, Keats is reduced to the role of picturesque tourist, commenting half-heartedly on Alloway’s woodland and sea views. It is perhaps significant that in closing his letter to Tom in Glasgow, Keats notes that “there are a thousand things I cannot write.”

Dr Kerri Andrews has just completed a monograph on women walkers from the eighteenth century to the modern day, and is also lead editor of The Hannah More Letters: A Digital Edition (, which seeks to make digitally accessible all 1800 of More’s surviving letters. She has published widely on eighteenth-century literature, poetry, and women’s writing.

Letter #83: To Tom Keats, 10-14 July 1818

Keats and Brown continue to cover lots of ground, making their way from Ballantrae on 10 July to Glasgow by the evening of the 13th. That’s about 70 miles over four days, so not too shabby! As we learned from yesterday’s letter and Daniel Cook’s response to it, that journey passed through the “Bardies Country,” where our travelers made a pilgrimage to Burns’s cottage and other sites connected with the poet. Today’s letter to Tom describes the visit in less detail, while also offering more thoughts on the surrounding country, the characters of the Irish and the Scottish people, and the experience of being greeted upon entering Glasgow by a drunk man who needs to be scared off with threats of alerting the authorities.

As Kerri Andrews details in her response, we can gather a good sense of Keats’s complicated relationship to Scotland from this letter to Tom. He opens the letter with an attempt at mimicking a folk ballad; he spends lots of time describing the natural environs (including his sonnet on Ailsa Rock); and, of course, he wrestles with his feelings about Burns’s legacy after the disappointing visit to Burns’s cottage and the disappointing sonnet Keats felt compelled to write there (but disliked it so much that he didn’t even both to copy it out for Tom).

There’s a bit of a break in Keats’s correspondence over the next few days: he begins his next letter to Tom on 17 July, and doesn’t send it until the 21st. Was there perhaps another letter written in the interval but which has not survived? Alas, the other letters do not provide any clues. But we do have today’s letter to Tom, which is held at the British Library, having made its way there via Benjamin Robert Haydon, who kept it in his diary along with several other Keats letters. The diary was purchased by Maurice Buxton Forman in 1932. He sold some of the letters that were in Haydon’s diary, but this letter to Tom he presented to the British Library in 1939. His father, Harry Buxton Forman, was the first to publish the Keats materials from Haydon’s diary, in his 1883 edition of Keats’s complete works. You can read today’s letter to Tom via the elder Forman’s 1895 edition here. Images of the letter come from the British Library, and can also be accessed here.

Page 1 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.

Page 2 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.

Page 3 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.

Page 4 of Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Courtesy of the British Library.