Keats’s Good Traveling Mood

Evan Gottlieb
Oregon State University

Re: Keats’s 17-21 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats

Traveling can be tough. My family and I are currently nearing the end of a four-month tour around parts of Europe, and even though we’ve enjoyed all the conveniences of middle-class, Western, twenty-first century travel – roughing it meant going without data on our smartphones – it was still frequently trying. We endured the last-minute cancellation of our flight from Amsterdam to Lisbon, followed by hours of waiting in line to re-book; we took many wrong turns on the labyrinthine streets of Venice and Prague, as well as on the narrow country roads of the Lake District, the Cotswolds, and the Dordogne; we survived temporarily lost luggage, left-behind articles of clothing, a case of food poisoning, and many flights of stairs up to stuffy, cramped flats in various cities.

How much more difficult was it to travel during the Romantic era? Take away all of our modern modes of transportation; remove most of the modern conveniences that help keep us safe, comfortable, and oriented, from hi-tech hiking boots and waterproof jackets to Google weather alerts and GPS. No state-of-the-art suitcases or designer backpacks for carrying gear; no hot showers and Netflix for relaxing in the evenings; no ATMs to dole out cash in foreign currencies; no Airbnb with which to make reservations months in advance; no Skype and Facebook to keep in near-instantaneous touch with friends and family back home.

Yet travel the Romantics did, both on the Continent and domestically, and in greater numbers than ever before. Further, despite his posthumous reputation for constitutional fragility, Keats was among those who not only voyaged extensively but also did so primarily on foot. Sure enough, his tour letters are not devoid of trials. Here, Brown in particular suffers: trying to break in new shoes, he develops blisters so painful he can barely walk. Both men must also contend with consistently poor travel food (“all together the fare is too coarse”), poor accommodations, and neighbors who drink and talk loudly late into the night. (Having been in Paris when the French national soccer team won the World Cup, I can especially relate to the latter.) Then there are problems specific to traveling in Scotland: rainy weather; ubiquitous but inedible oatcakes; screeching bagpipes (“I thought the Beast would never have done”); vicious horseflies. Having never traveled in a “foreign country” before, Keats is also mildly alarmed by hearing many of the native Highlanders “gabble away in Gaelic at a vast rate.”

Given all of the above, then, what strikes me about this letter to Tom is what a good mood Keats is in through most of it! His jollity is immediately signaled by the humorous inscription of his current location as “Cairn-something.” Keats then launches a series of self-consciously bad puns connecting the scenic locales he and Brown have visited recently into a bawdy tale, telling Tom for example that “the Lord of the Isles . . . un-Derwent” the “Whitehaven” of “the Lady of the Lake” in a way that combines some of Walter Scott’s tourist-friendly metrical verses with real places. The fact that Keats blames Brown for all this ribaldry – “Here’s Brown going on so that I cannot bring to Mind how the last two days have vanished” – adds humorous insult to injury.

To be sure, some of Keats’ usual complaints about being a tourist are present. There are too many steamboats now on Loch Lomond “for such romantic chaps as Brown and I,” and it’s too expensive to climb to the top of Ben Lomond or visit Staffa, which has become overly trendy. But there are also many magnificent views of lakes and castles, plenty of picturesque mist on the hillsides, and even several eagles which, in contrast to Keats and Brown’s slow progress, “move about without the least motion of Wings when in an indolent fit.” In this spirit, even several of the challenges encountered by Keats and Brown are transformed into occasions for good humor; in particular, the abovementioned horseflies (“gadflies”) and bagpipes that plague Keats each get their own verses. It’s all doggerel, of course, but done with plenty of verve.

Indeed, there seems to have been something in the Scottish air that sparked and fed the lighter, friskier side of Keats’ imagination. Admittedly, every vacation that involves travel promises a concomitant change of perspective and mood — a temporary reprieve from the burdens and responsibilities of daily life — that continue to be the staple of travel brochures and cruise line advertisements. But there’s clearly more at work – or, rather, at play – here. Something about the specifically Scottish environment seems to liberate Keats to be both funny and risqué, as in these naughty lines on the gadfly:

Has any here a daughter fair
Too fond of reading novels
Too apt to fall in love with care
And charming Mister Lovels

O put a gadfly to that thing
She keeps so white and pert
I mean the finger for the ring
And it will be breed a Wert–

Does Robbie Burns, with his reputation as Scotland’s national bard and ladies’ man, stand behind this “pert” bit of sexist ribaldry? I’m not sure; as noted above, it’s Scott who appears most explicitly in this epistle, and although the Author of Waverley was associated with many things, bawdiness was not usually one of them. Nor do I think Keats was deeply inspired by the Scottish landscape or Highland culture. His observations and reflections on these subjects, both here and in the published verses derived from his time in Scotland, are neither especially original nor profound; it’s no coincidence that the latter, with titles such as “Lines Written in the Highlands after a Visit to Burns’s Country,” haven’t found a place in readers’ hearts alongside “Ode on a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Instead, I suspect that what most empowers Keats in Scotland is a sense of mild superiority over its people and places. In England, especially in London’s ever-snobbish and competitive literary milieu, Keats was accustomed to feeling overlooked and undervalued; in Scotland, by contrast, he could feel important and empowered simply by virtue of being an Englishman on tour. As we’ve seen, Keats was hardly traveling in grand style; nevertheless, spending time among the Scottish peasantry seems to have impressed him with a sense of his good fortune at being born south of the border and into a middle-class family to boot.

The letter’s final entry, on 21 July, is primarily a catalogue of Highland squalor. The inn where Keats and Brown are now staying is the nicest building around but lacks an indoor toilet; the rest of the village is even more primitive, consisting of “some dozen wretched black Cottages scented of peat smoke,” which rises through holes in the roofs. The locals are equally poor: at the inn, “Grandmother” is “none too clean” and the “Guid wife” lacks stockings to go with her single “pair of old Shoes.” Most striking to Keats, finally, are the young peasant women he sees: “one little thing driving Cows down a slope like a mad thing,” and another “standing at the cowhouse door rather pretty fac’d all up to the ankles in dirt.” These seem odd details to note, much less to use as the penultimate observations of his letter, but the sight of young women performing hard rural labor obviously made a particular impression on Keats, whose own poetic female characters are frequently, notably idealized. Is he being condescending or genuinely sympathetic? Either way, between the intimation of insanity and the juxtaposition of female beauty and barnyard muck, it seems clear that as much as he’s enjoyed his rambles in Scotland, Keats would not trade his own life for those of the locals. In this way, Keats’ letters from Scotland confirm at least one more truism of foreign travel that was as relevant in 1818 as it is in 2018: however good it is to see more of the world, it is equally good to return the places we call home.

Letter #84: To Tom Keats, 17-21 July 1818

It’s fairly common for chroniclers of Keats’s life to point toward summer and fall of 1818 as the true beginning of the tragic phase that will end with Keats’s death in February 1821. Yes, he soon comes down with a sore throat that will force him to cut short his trip with Brown, and he will return to find Tom’s health at its worst yet, and we’ll soon enter the “living year” during which Keats will write the majority of his great poems, many of which are pitched in at least a somewhat tragic key. And yet, despite all the stress and suffering attendant to their travels in the north, Keats and Brown seem to be having a lot of fun. So let’s not don permanently the tragedy mask–comedy is alive and well here in summer 1818!

The opening bit of playfulness finds Keats (allegedly with Brown’s wit driving him) engaged in one of his more ribald moments. Many editors have blushed at or shown themselves a bit too innocent to fully pick up on what Keats and Brown are putting down. Forman in 1895 chooses to cut most of the place-name puns while adding this note: “The passages omitted consist of somewhat incoherent strings of place-names arranged apparently with an ulterior view to puns; [that’s one way of putting it!] but the intention is not quite clear, and the sentence ends abruptly without any construction as far as I can make out.” Rollins in 1958 tries his best, but we’ll go with Jon Mee’s suggestion that “Corry stone Water” out to be “Cony stone Water,” playing on Coniston Water in the Lake District, as opposed to Corrystone in Scotland. The boyish imagination appears to have been going strong the day before Keats would coin that term in his letter to Bailey.

Keats’s opening passage of ribaldry, with help (apparently) from Brown.

Jon Mee’s note about the passage, from his Selected Letters (Oxford, 2002), including his thoughts on the embarrassment of previous editors.

As the letter continues over the course of five days, Keats’s good humor continues. It is interspersed with some moments of complaint, but on the whole, we’d say the comedy mask wins out in the end. Two comic poems are included here, one on the gadfly, which Keats says has “been at me ever since I left the Swan and two necks” (i.e. since leaving London at the end of June). The second poem is a sonnet mulling the “dainty” sound of the bagpipes. Remember, then, when you’re tempted to ascribe to Keats intimations of his own early death and all the other tragic things that will befall him, in the moment he was living his life and often having a jolly time so doing. It’s all fine and good to talk about Keats’s commingling of joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, life and death–but all too often, in our humble opinion, we end up more than half in love with the latter elements at the expense of the former ones.

And now we will descend from our hobby horse and present you with Keats’s letter, via Forman’s 1895 edition (minus some of the bawdier puns). You’ll notice that Forman provides a facsimile of Keats’s sketch of Loch Lomond from early in the letter. Not a bad little drawing! Once you’ve read the letter, check out Evan Gottlieb’s response to it, which emphasizes and explores some of Keats’s humor, while also drawing some parallels to Gottlieb’s own experiences traveling around Europe here in anno Domini 2018.

Keats’s sketch of Loch Lomond, reproduced in Forman’s 1895 edition of the letters.