John Keats Walks the Lakes

Bruce Graver
Providence College

Re: Keats’s 25-27 June 1818 and 29 June-2 July 1818 letters to Tom Keats

There is nothing unusual about Keats’ excursion through the Lake District, except, perhaps, for his mode of travel—on foot. Like many a Londoner, he and Charles Brown arrived from the south, walking along the path of the modern A65 from Lancaster to Endmoor, where they spent the night. Next morning early, they passed through the Westmoreland town of Kendal, and having noted its ruined castle, and crossed over the river Kent by one of its impressive bridges, they headed west on what is now the B5284 to Bowness-on-Windermere.

Stereograph by Alfred Pettitt, showing ruins of Kendal Castle (the birthplace of Catharine Parr, wife of Henry VIII).

Alfred Pettitt #142, “Kendal Castle (the birthplace of Catharine Parr, wife of Henry VIII).”

Stereograph by Thomas Ogle, showing Nether Bridge and the Parish Church, Kendal.

Thomas Ogle #213, “Nether Bridge and the Parish Church, Kendal.”

It is from this road that Keats caught his first views “of the Lake and Mountains of Winander” (Rollins, 298), which to him were beautiful beyond description. This stereograph, taken by Thomas Ogle in the early 1860s, shows the approach to Bowness that Keats must have taken, and the sights that impressed him. The jutting points of land are the Ferry Nab, where William Wordsworth would often cross as a boy, and the White Lion Inn, where Keats ate trout fetched directly from the lake, can be seen along the shore of the lake. One wonders if Keats and Brown might have been tempted by the bowling green, built on elevated ground behind the Inn, and praised by James Clarke and others in their tour guides.

Stereograph by Thomas Ogle, showing the view of Lake Windermere, from above the town of Bowness.

Thomas Ogle, “Windermere—From above Bowness.”

Unfortunately, the “winding lane” (Rollins, 300) along the edge of Windermere that Keats took to Ambleside, is gone now, displaced by “World of Beatrix Potter” exhibits (she would have hated them) and other tourist kitsch. But there are places where glimpses of the lake and mountains are still possible, such as this view up the Langdale valley from above the Lowwood Inn, which appears much the same today as it did in 1860.

Anonymous stereography showing the view of Lake Windermere and the Langdale Valley from above Low Wood

Anonymous, “Windermere and the Langdale Valley from above Lowwood.”

On the far right in the distance is Loughrigg, a hill Keats admired; his sighting of Kirkstone, even in the clouds, however, was pure fantasy. An 1858 stereograph gives some sense of what the walk along the “beautiful shady lane” might have felt like, “wooded on each side, and green overhead, and full of Foxgloves” (Rollins, 300).

Stereograph by Thomas Ogle and Thomas Edge, showing a lane in 1858 resembling the one Keats would have traveled forty years earlier.

Thomas Ogle and Thomas Edge #159, “Near Low Wood, Windermere.”

Their evening destination on 26 June was the Salutation Inn in Ambleside, the small town at the head of Windermere where the Brathay and Rothay rivers conjoin to form the lake, or mere, as it is more properly denominated. Stereographs like this one, taken by the Ambleside photographer, R. J. Sproat, are the forerunners of the hotel postcards commonly found in almost every hotel lobby today.

Stereograph by R. J. Sproat, showing the Salutation Inn at Ambleside.

R. J. Sproat, “Salutation Hotel, Ambleside”

Before breakfast the next morning they arose to seek out Ambleside’s chief natural attraction: Stock Ghyll Force, a 50-foot waterfall buried in the woods behind the Salutation Inn. The walk is easy, although, as Thomas West complained in the 1770s, the falls itself are so obscured by trees and vegetation that one finds it more by sound than by sight—and that was the case for Keats. “We, I may say, fortunately, missed the direct path, and after wandering a little, found it out by the noise,” he wrote to Tom (Rollins, 300). It was his first sight of a waterfall, and it is remarkable how little falls have changed over the centuries. The “jut of rock” where Keats stood and viewed the “water … divided by a sort of cataract island” must be exactly where Thomas Ogle stood in the late 1850s, and where I stood myself just months ago (Rollins, 300).

Stereograph by Thomas Ogle and Thomas Edge showing Stock Ghyll Force outside of Ambleside.

Ogle and Edge #308, “Stock Ghyll Force, near Ambleside

Photo by the author, summer 2018.

And on his return walk, Keats must also have seen the old mill on the Stock, still in operation in the 1850s, and now a pub with unsightly outdoor umbrella tables—the “miasma of London” has indeed polluted the Lakes, far beyond Keats’s imaginings (Rollins, 299).

Stereograph by Thomas Ogle and Thomas Edge, showing the Old Mill on the River Stock.

Ogle and Edge #58, “Old Mill on the river Stock, Ambleside.”

After breakfast the two men headed to Rydal, where Keats hoped to pay his respects to Wordsworth at his Rydal Mount home.  The two had met the previous December at Haydon’s “Immortal Dinner,” and Keats was already annoyed when he heard, at Bowness, that the great poet was out campaigning for the Lowther interests.  So when no one was home, he left a note on the mantle and left in something of a huff—but not before visiting the two waterfalls in Rydal Park: the Lower Falls, with its viewing house, and the Upper Falls as well, both of which even today, in spite of the interventions of a water company, look very much as they did when Thomas Ogle photographed them.

Stereograph by Thomas Ogle and Thomas edge, showing Rydal Mount (the home of Wordsworth until his death in 1850).

Ogle and Edge #26, “Rydal Mount, Westmoreland.”

Stereograph by Thomas Ogle and Thomas edge, showing the Upper Fall in Rydal Park.

Ogle and Edge #52, “Upper Fall, Rydal Park, Westmoreland.”

Stereograph by Thomas Ogle, showing the Lower Fall in Rydal Park.

Thomas Ogle #95, “The Lower Fall, Rydal Park, Westmoreland.”

From Rydal, Keats and Brown followed the post road by Rydal Lake and Grasmere, and ascended up Dunmail Raise, before heading gently downward to Wythburn, where they spent the night.  Keats’s head was full of Wordsworth’s “To Joanna” (which may also explain why he thought he might see the Kirkstone), and he delighted to recognize Silver How and the “ancient woman seated on Helm Crag,” before settling in to sleep at an inn near the base of Helvellyn.

Stereograph by Thomas Ogle, showing Grasmere Lake, from Red Bank—Helm Crag, Dunmail Raise, etc., in the distance.

Thomas Ogle #258, “Grasmere Lake, from Red Bank—Helm Crag, Dunmail Raise, &c., in the distance.”

Wythburn is no more, a victim of the water needs of the city of Manchester, although its roofs can occasionally be seen in the Thirlmere reservoir during periods of drought.  But Wythburn Chapel remains, and one would like to think that Keats and Brown had a pint or two at the local pub, the same pub where Benjamin the Waggoner had a pint or five.  Not that Keats could have known the literary association: The Waggoner would not appear in print for another year, and by that time Keats was too ill for a return visit, even if he had wanted to.

Thirlmere, ca. 1865

Stereograph by Alfred Pettitt, showing Wythburn Chapel with Helvellyn towering in the background.

Alfred Pettitt #151, “Wythburn Chapel and Helvellyn.

The next day, Keats and Brown arose early and walked the 8 miles north to Keswick and Derwentwater, Thomas Gray’s “Vale of Elysium.” “The approach to Derwent Water,” wrote Keats to his brother Tom, “surpassed Winandermere—it is richly wooded & shut in with rich-toned Mountains” (Rollins, 306).

Robert Carlyle, “Keswick and Skiddaw, from Castlerigg.”

They stayed two days, first circumambulating the lake, a walk that Keats estimated at about 10 miles, and on their way saw the waterfall of Lodore, subject of the famous children’s poem by Robert Southey. There Keats climbed “about the fragments of Rocks & should have got I think to the summit, but unfortunately I was damped by slipping into a squashy hole” (Rollins, 306).

Stereograph by Thomas Ogle and Thomas Edge, showing the Falls of Lodore, near Keswick.

Ogle and Edge #55, “The Falls of Lodore, near Keswick.”

Stereograph by Thomas Ogle and Thomas Edge, showing the Grange Bridge over Derwent Water, with Gate Crag looming in the background.

Ogle and Edge #38, “Grange Bridge, Borrowdale, Cumberland, Gate Crag in the background.”

From Lodore, he would have crossed the Derwent at Grange Bridge, then circled around the back of the lake, along Brandelhow and under Catbells, before crossing the Derwent again at Portinscale, and returning to Keswick.

Photo by Jeff Cowton from May 2015, showing the view of Derwent Water and Blencathra from Brandelhow.

Photo by Jeff Cowton, May, 2015. Derwentwater and Blencathra from Brandelhow.

Just at the end, as Keats put it, “we had a fag up hill, rather too near dinner time,” in order “to see the Druid temple,” the Castlerigg Stone Circle, here seen in an anonymous stereograph, as well as a recent photograph of my own (Rollins, 306).

Anonymous stereograph showing the Druid Circle near Keswick.

Anonymous, “Druid Circle, Keswick.”

Photo by the author.

The vigorous walk “rather fatigued” the pair, “but not so much as to hinder us getting up [the next] morning, to mount Skiddaw.” The views, until the mists rolled in, were spectacular: “the coast of Scotland; the Irish sea; the hills beyond Lancaster; & nearly all the large one of Cumberland & Westmoreland, particularly Helvellyn & Scawfell.”  And all this, he wrote proudly to Tom, “before Breakfast” (Rollins, 306).

Photo by the author of the view from Skiddaw, August 2017.

It was his last breakfast in the Lakes, for afterwards they headed north to Ireby, where they saw Morris dancers, and then to the cathedral town of Carlisle. “The difference between our country dances & these scotch figures,” wrote Keats, “is about the same as leisurely stirring a cup o’ Tea & heating up a batter pudding.” The dancers impressed him, even more than the Cumbrian mountains: “I never felt so near the glory of Patriotism, the glory of making by any means a country happier. This is what I like better than scenery” (Rollins, 307).

Bruce Graver is Professor of English and Department Chair (for two more years only) at Providence College. He has been walking the Lake District for over 30 years, on junkets billed as research trips, scholarly conferences, and even a couple of class trips.

Keats Lives in the Eye

Brian Rejack
Illinois State University

Re: Keats’s 25-27 June 1818 letter to Tom Keats

The highlight of this first letter from Keats’s tour is the long description of his visit to Stock Ghyll Force, a waterfall just outside of Ambleside. The lowlight is arguably Keats’s disappointment at Wordsworth. There are many reasons why Keats had been becoming more and more critical of Wordsworth over the last years. One reason is certainly the younger poet’s sense that the elder had become a bit too comfortable in his older age. Wordsworth was cheering on the French revolution in 1790-91, and now Keats finds him supporting the Tory candidate for the Westmorland parliamentary seat. While dining on his freshly-caught trout, Keats inquires of the waiter about Wordsworth: “he said he knew him, and that he had been here a few days ago, canvassing for the Lowthers. What think you of that–Wordsworth versus Brougham!! Sad–sad–sad–and yet the family has been his friend always. What can we say?” Keats tempers his criticism somewhat by noting that Wordsworth was supporting a family friend, but he nonetheless appears stung by “Lord Wordsworth[‘s]” act of betrayal.

In many ways the Northern Tour is a series of disappointments for Keats. Here he is in the land of Wordsworth’s poetry, and as much as he takes delight in noting “‘that ancient woman seated on Helm Craig,'” Keats also has to reckon with the elder poet’s political apostasy. Even so, Keats hoped to visit with Wordsworth, but he cannot do so (again, thanks to that political apostasy) and is forced to merely leave a note on the mantle piece at Rydal Mount. Later in the tour we will find similar disappointments as Keats visits Robert Burns’ birthplace hoping to feel inspired. Other more mundane obstacles seem to put a damper on Keats’s designs. The food becomes more and more of a preoccupation in the letters, with “the cursed Oatcake” emerging as his most consistent digestive foe. By early August he decides to cut the trip short after having come down with a nagging sore throat. If Keats had hoped that he’d write great poetry while taking in the scenes of grandeur, he feels disappointed in the results along those lines as well. Again and again in the letters, Keats expresses frustration with the poems he has written. So what did the tour do for him?

The description of Stock Ghyll Force points toward a few possibilities. Keats set out on this trip to, at least in part, gather more materials for his imagination. As he puts it more concisely back in April while planning the trip, he will “go to gorge wonders.” His first exposure to the “Lake and Mountains of Winander” seem to have done the trick: “the two views we have had of it [i.e. Lake Winander] are of the most noble tenderness–they can never fade away–they make one forget the divisions of life; age, youth, poverty and riches; and refine one’s sensual vision into a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power.” The echoes of Keats’s later poetry–in particular “Bright Star” (open lidded and stedfast) and “Ode to a Nightingale” (“they can never fade away–they make one forget the divisions of life”)–suggest that his experiences in the Lake District did indeed supply him with “life and food / For future years.” Similarly, the extensive account of the visit to the waterfall suggest optimism on Keats’s part regarding what he thought the tour might do for his poetic powers going forward.

Although Keats apologizes to Tom for relying so much on descriptive prose (“descriptions are bad at all times”), he sure knows how to do it well. This passage deserves to be quoted at length.

Having visited this spot in July 2015, I can attest that the descriptions are quite accurate. We also get a sense of Keats’s reactions to them, but mostly the descriptions consist of an objective account without much intrusion from the writer’s thoughts. The “pleasant twinge” is a lovely detail, and a perfectly Keatsian one. Likewise for “then the thunder and the freshness.” There is a kind of cinematic, synesthetic character to the account, which alternately zooms in close and pans out wide, with visual and sonic details merging and blending. Then there is Keats’s keen sense of the “different characters” of the different parts of the falls. He expands on this notion further, which again deserves extensive quotation.

What Keats articulates here is nothing less than a theory of the relationship between place, embodiment, imagination, and poetry. From this moment of recognition the path to a poem like “To Autumn” now looks clear, which is not something one could confidently assert about Keats and his writing just a year earlier. First, he acknowledges the impossibility of ever fully cognizing a place. The “intellectual tone” cannot not be captured imaginatively or through recollection. Embodied experience, or “sensual vision” as Keats refers to a similar notion earlier in the letter, exists apart from, even as it must of necessity persist in relation to, imagined futures or recalled pasts. To “live in the eye” may seem to imply a form of disembodiment. Keats does, after all, say that this experience makes him “forget his stature.” However, he’s only forgetting his self-consciousness about being “Mister John Keats five feet high.” He’s differently embodied, not disembodied. The imagination rests because Keats finds himself so fully open to the sensory experiences filtered through his newly-constituted bodily awareness.

How do we get from that experience to poetry? Well, that part is a bit harder. If one cannot imagine or remember “these grand materials,” how exactly can they be harvested and put into poetic form? The answer is not a clear one, but Keats at least implies that the process must be one of further embodiment. He moves between abstract and material (“mass of beauty”), spiritual and physical, but ultimately he ends with “the relish of one’s fellows.” All of the processes that undergird and bring together the relations between embodiment and poetry ultimately conclude with the social and the material. The rhetoric of tasting (“relish”) is, of course, metaphorical, but it points toward Keats’s insistence on always returning to the world, to the body, to pleasure. Even this letter itself he conceives of as a vehicle for his brother’s physical well-being: “I am anxious you should taste a little of our pleasure; it may not be an unpleasant thing, as you have not the fatigue.”

So yes, Keats ends up doing a lot of griping about his summer adventure and its pitfalls. Just as frequently, though, we see some of his most significant thinking on the issues addressed in today’s letter, particularly with his account of visiting Stock Ghyll Force: how we experience the world around us, how we square that experience with other cognitive processes, and how poetry comes to exist and operate in the world as a result.

The author at Stock Ghyll Force in July 2015.

Stock Ghyll Force, “streaming silverly through the trees.”

Letter #77: To Tom Keats, 25-27 June 1818

“Here beginneth my journal, this Thursday, the 25th day of June, Anno Domini 1818.”
–John Keats to Tom Keats, 25 June 1818

Here beginneth the KLP’s chronicling of Keats’s Northern Tour, this Monday, the 25th day of June, Anno Domini 2018. For the next two months we’ll be following along as Keats and Charles Brown follow their noses to the north (see here for the reference). It’s a fascinating journey. Keats imagined it as “a sort of Prologue to the Life I intend to pursue–that is to write, to study and to see all Europe at the lowest expence.” (see his letter to Haydon from 8 April 1818). He planned to “go to gorge wonders,” (letter to Reynolds from 9 April 1818), and in so doing to add to his store of poetic materials: “I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavor of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, by the finest spirits, and put into etherial existence for the relish of one’s fellows” (from today’s letter!).

We’ll here more about this letter on Wednesday, when the KLP’s own will provide us with a more sustained response to this opening missive from Keats’s journey. But before we leave you today, here is some background on the history of this particular letter. The manuscript is now lost, but the text of the letter does not come to us from a usual source like a John Jeffrey or Richard Woodhouse transcript. Instead it comes from the June 1836 issue of The Western Messenger, a magazine founded by James Freeman Clarke and a group of other Unitarian ministers in the (then) western United States. What was Clarke doing publishing a letter by John Keats in his magazine? Well, Clarke had been living in Louisville, Kentucky since 1833, and during his time there he had befriended a local pillar of the community who just happened to be the brother of some fancy-lad poet from England. Yes, Clarke and George Keats became fast friends.

One fruit of that friendship was the publication of this first letter from Keats’s tour in the June 1836 Western Messenger (and part of the 23 and 26 July 1818 letter to Tom in the July 1836 issue of the magazine). Clarke heaps praise on Keats’s letters, calling them “of a higher order of composition than his poems.” If he thought the letters were so precious, then maybe he shouldn’t have lost this one, no?? But hold on a second. Let’s not rush to blame Clarke for the letter’s disappearance. Here are a few reasons why it’s plausible that today’s letter was lost through the fault of some other person.

First, Clarke obviously did value the letters quite highly. He notes in his intro, “We hope that they [i.e. the letters] will ere long be put into the possession of the public.” More significantly, the other letter which Clarke publishes in the July issue of The Western Messenger still does exist. It’s now at Harvard, having at some point made its way into what became known as the “Crewe Collection,” the materials assembled by Richard Monckton Milnes and then maintained by his son Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe-Milnes, later the first Marquess of Crewe. What’s strange about this letter, though, is that it didn’t make its way into that collection until sometime much later than most of the other materials. Milnes collected most of his stuff prior to the 1848 publication of Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats. The manuscript of the 23 and 26 July 1818 letter to Tom was not one of those. The text of the letter did appear in the 1848 book, but it was based on a transcript made by John Jeffrey in 1845. For Milnes 1867 edition, he was still relying on the Jeffrey transcript. Some letters that had been in the American Keats family possession were given to John Gilmer Speed by his mother Emma Keats Speed (daughter of George) before his 1883 publication of an edition of Keats’s letters and poems. But for the text of the July 1818 letter to Tom, Gilmer Speed relied on Milnes, who had relied on Jeffrey’s transcript. So sometime between 1845 and 1883, it’s likely that Emma Speed gave the July letter to someone, and that it made its way to the Crewe collection through sale sometime toward the end of the nineteenth century or beginning of the twentieth.

Ah, but what about the 25-27 June 1818 letter? Well, we remain skeptical that Clarke owned it and lost it, even though he certainly could have printed and copied two letters for The Western Messenger, returned one of them (the 23-26 July letter) and kept the other (today’s letter). There is one other letter that James Freeman Clarke most certainly did own, and which still survives to this day. That’s the 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom. It remained in the Clarke family until 1946, when they gave the letter to Harvard. Here’s the rub, though–this letter was not given to Clarke by George in 1836. We know this for two reasons: first, he didn’t publish it in his magazine, which seems like something he would have done either then or in the future if he owned from 1836 onward. Second, John Jeffrey made a transcript of the 3-9 July letter in 1845. He could not have done so if Clarke owned the letter, since Clarke was not living in Louisville in 1845. Clarke left Louisville in 1840 and lived in Boston for most of the rest of his life. He traveled to Louisville in summer 1851 and again in May 1873. From his letters we know that during the latter visit he spent two days visiting with Emma Keats Speed, during which time it seems plausible she may have given her old friend the Keats letter as a parting gift.

So there are three letters connected with Clarke. Two survive, one having been passed down through his family after it was likely given to him by Emma Keats Speed in either 1851 or 1873, the other having been used by him in 1836 and most likely promptly returned to George Keats, after which the letter stayed in the Keats family and was probably given by EKS to someone else. As for the third letter, today’s letter, the first from the Northern Tour–well, we just don’t know. Perhaps EKS gave it to a young Abraham Lincoln when he visited the Speed family plantation in July 1841, just after Emma had married Philip Speed, the brother of Lincoln’s good friend Joshua Speed. Lincoln and Joshua Speed met in Springfield, Illinois, where Speed owned a general store. Maybe Emma wanted to get in good with her new family by making a nice gesture to the tall, lanky guy visiting Joshua. Yes, we’re gonna go ahead and blame Lincoln for losing today’s letter. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it!

Regardless of what happened to the letter after 1836, we at least have the text of it thanks to Clarke’s insertion of it in his magazine. And that’s how we’ll give you the letter for today (along with Clarke’s intro to the letter). Enjoy, and come back in two days to read more about the content of the letter!