Fame and Judgement: Keats at Burns’s Tomb

Meiko O’Halloran
Newcastle University, UK

RE: Keats’s 29 June–2 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats

Keats’s visit to Burns’s tomb seems to have stopped him in his tracks. His letter to Tom, written over a period of four days, captures an unusual stillness in his response to seeing the mausoleum at St Michael’s Churchyard, Dumfries, after an especially energetic week. On 29 June, still buoyant from his latest adventures with Charles Brown in the Lake District, he describes scrambling up the rocks at Lodore Falls, making a ten-mile circuit of Derwent Water, seeing the Druid stones, and climbing Mount Skiddaw. Pausing at Carlisle two days later, he is so tickled by the vigorous performance of the country dancing school they had seen at Ireby—the dancers’ kicking, jumping, whisking, twirling and stamping suggesting the beating of “a batter pudding”—that he jokes about hoping to learn the Highland fling during their travels in Scotland.

Keats was proud of having walked 114 miles, declaring that it had made them “merely a little tired in the thighs, & a little blistered”. But he had noticed that being on the move inhibited their connection with people in the communities they moved through: “I fear our continued moving from place to place, will prevent our becoming learned in village affairs; we are mere creatures of Rivers, Lakes, & mountains”. The river and mountain-roaming creatures now boarded a coach to travel the 38 miles from Carlisle to Dumfries. As they arrived on the afternoon of 1 July, a fellow passenger on the coach “said the horses took a Hellish heap o’ drivin—the same fellow pointed out Burns’ tomb, ‘There de ye see it, amang the trees; white, wi a roond tap’”. Was it this chance comment on the “Hellish” work of the horses that put Keats in mind of entering an underworld, perhaps evoking Hades on his chariot, as they neared Burns’s tomb? The idea may also have taken root from his moving through Dante’s Inferno through his reading of Henry Francis Cary’s translation of the Divina Commedia during the walking tour. Either way, the sight of Burns’s mausoleum seems to have provoked his sad thoughts about judgement, suffering, and poetic fame.

Appearing like an epitaph on the page, the sonnet “On visiting the Tomb of Burns” signalled their arrival in Dumfries in the letter Keats resumed writing to Tom later that day. The poem strikes familiar notes of transience in “the shortlived, paly summer” snatched from the chill of winter “for one hours gleam”. The churchyard and “beautiful, Cold” surrounding landscape are also glimpsed fleetingly “as in a dream”. But time is suddenly and disconcertingly elongated with the assertion of perpetual pain: “All is cold Beauty; pain is never done”. And we are unexpectedly invited to contemplate the work of Minos, the infernal judge in Dante’s Hell:

For who has mind to relish Minos-wise,

The real of Beauty, free from that dead hue

Fickly imagination & sick pride

[?Cast] wan upon it!

Keats’s Minos springs from the description in Cary’s translation of Dante, The Vision (1814), where he appears “Grinning with ghastly feature” as he sends each spirit to a particular circle of Hell by wrapping his serpent tail around his body a precise number of times (Canto V, 5). The second circle of Hell which Minos guards audibly compresses pain; it is smaller than the first, but it “so much more of grief contains / Provoking bitter moans” (V, 3–4). Here, the spirits of legendary lovers such as Helen of Troy, Paris, Cleopatra, Francesca of Rimini and Paolo swirl in a howling maelstrom of sorrow—punished for their lust. Physical beauty has no purchase here, nor do the flawed perceptions of humankind. Minos can “relish” the task of judging those who come before him because he is moved by neither their charms nor their frailties.

Dante had imagined himself guided by the shade of his poetic hero, Virgil, through this harrowing place. But Keats positions himself unexpectedly in the impassioned closing lines of the sonnet—not just as one poet paying homage to another, but as a sinner who seems to feel so unworthy that he asks the “Great shadow” of Burns to look away:

Burns! With honor due

I have oft honoured thee. Great shadow; hide

Thy face, I sin against thy native skies.

What is the poet-speaker’s unnamed “sin”? And why did Keats associate Burns with an afterlife of judgement and suffering?

Brown mentions in a letter to Dilke that Keats spent the next five hours abusing the Scots and their country, complaining about the women’s large feet and thanking providence that he was not related to any Scots! But a tired traveller’s tongue-in-cheek complaints don’t seem enough to explain these startling lines about sin and shame. More revealing are Keats’s comments in his letter to Tom a few days later (7 July) about the damage that had been done to Burns’s playful spirit by the austere Scottish church: “These kirkmen have done Scotland harm—they have banished puns and laughing and kissing”. For Keats, Burns’s love of sensuous pleasures was at odds with the restrictive and morally judgemental society in which he lived: “Poor unfortunate fellow—his disposition was southern—how sad it is when a luxurious imagination is obliged in self defence to deaden its delicacy in vulgarity, and riot in thing[s] attainable that it may not have leisure to go mad after thing[s] which are not”. Here Keats alludes to the public judgement of Burns for his fondness for alcohol and women—particularly following James Currie’s revelatory biography in an edition of the Works of Burns (1800). He strongly sympathises with Burns and feels that he has been wronged.

If Keats saw Burns as not belonging to a restrictive religious climate, he also found the poet’s tomb out of keeping with everything around it, and he felt disconnected from the place: “This Sonnet I have written in a strange mood, half asleep. I know not how it is, the Clouds, the sky, the Houses, all seem anti Grecian & anti Charlemagnish—”. The mausoleum appeared gaudy to him: “Burns’ tomb is in the Churchyard corner, not very much to my taste, though on a scale, large enough to show they wanted to honour him”.

An elegant aquatint of Burns’s tomb in Dumfries in 1818, now in the collection of Dumfries Museum, depicts a pale domed neo-classical temple, with a hexagonal base and open colonnades, in a setting so spacious and park-like that it looks more like a folly on a grand country estate than a monument in a graveyard. Beneath the image by the artist William James Bennett are some lines about poetic fame from Burns’s poem “The Brigs of Ayr”:

No! though his artless strains he rudely sings,

And throws his hand uncouthly o’er the strings,

He glows with all the spirit of the Bard,

Fame, honest fame, his great, his dear reward. (ll. 15–18)

While Burns presents himself as an “artless”, “rude”, “uncouth” bard on a quest for “honest fame”, the ostentatious monument to his poetic immortality strikes a different chord.  

William James Bennett, ‘Burns Tomb, Dumfries’; Engraver: Davis; Publisher: M A Nicholson, 12 Loudon Street, 2nd January 1818. Image courtesy of Dumfries Museum.

The grandiose tomb simultaneously drew attention to Burns’s long neglect. For over twenty years after his death in 1796, the poet’s remains had rested in an obscure plot of earth in St Michael’s churchyard, his widow being too poor to afford a headstone at the time of his burial. The elaborate mausoleum to Scotland’s “heaven-taught ploughman” partly served to counter the widespread impression that he had been shamefully neglected by his native country. Designed by the successful London architect, Thomas Frederick Hunt, and erected by subscription, with work begun on the site in 1815, the mausoleum had finally been unveiled in September 1817. At over twenty-five feet in height and fifteen feet in diameter, it stood out (and still does, as I found when I visited in 2018) for its size as well as its brightness—a dramatic contrast to the unmarked grave where the poet was originally buried not many steps away.

No wonder Keats found his visit disturbing. Despite achieving genuine fame and recognition in his lifetime, Burns had died in poverty at the age of 37. His afterlife was no less full of extremes: his physical remains may have been transported from a nameless grave to the grandest of funeral monuments, but his reputation was still tarnished by the prevalent idea that he had destroyed himself through weakness and vice. In this light, Keats’s instinctive perception of Burns as a poet who continued to suffer public judgement was apt.

Keats’s ambivalent response to seeing the mausoleum anticipates the disillusionment he would experience at Burns’s Cottage in Alloway (which he found had become a miserable tourist trap) some ten days later. He felt as disconnected from Burns at his birthplace as at his tomb. In Burns’s room he would compose “This mortal body of a thousand days”, which concludes with Keats raising a glass of toddy to Burns’s memory and trying to “smile among the shades, for this is fame!”

Author’s photo of Burns’s Mausoleum, Dumfries (September 2018)

Contributor Bio

Meiko O’Halloran is Senior Lecturer in Romantic Literature at Newcastle University, UK, and the author of James Hogg and British Romanticism: A Kaleidoscopic Art (2016). Her recent work on Keats includes ‘Reawakening Lycidas: Keats, Milton, and Epic’ in Review of English Studies (2020) and ‘Keats at Burns’s Grave’ in John Keats and Romantic Scotland, ed. by Katie Garner and Nicholas Roe (forthcoming with OUP).

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.

Letter #79: To Tom Keats, 29 June to 2 July 1818

The journey continues as Keats and Brown make their way across the last days of June and first days of July from Keswick to Dumfries. We hear again about the failed attempt to visit Wordsworth (and the note left on the mantle piece), as well as the failed attempt to climb Helvellyn due to mist. But with an early morning (4 am!) start on 29 June 1818, they set off to climb Skiddaw, which they successfully scaled with a guide and two other hikers (“very good sort of fellows”). During their climb, the mist held off long enough for views of “the coast of Scotland; the Irish Sea; the hills beyond Lancaster; & nearly all the large ones of Cumberland & Westmoreland, particularly Helvellyn and Scawfell.” But by 6:30 the mist arrived. So if you have to wake up at 4 am to climb a mountain in cold, misty weather, why not take a bit of rum to warm you up? Keats writes, “I took two glasses going & one returning.” And all before breakfast!

One other detail about his account of the climb is worth mentioning. He compares the feeling of the cold air with “that same elevation, which a cold bath gives one,” and then adds that “I felt as if I were going to a Tournament.” There is a strain of romantic adventuring that persists through the tour, even as Keats and Brown both also view themselves in self-deprecating ways. The connection to romance is perhaps most clear and most intriguing in Keats’s final letter from the tour. But we do get ahead of ourselves! Just stay on the lookout for other gestures toward that particular poetic genre and all its associations.

On the last day of June, Keats and Brown stay at Carlisle, where they are treated to a traveling dance school and its performers. Keats has this lovely description of the dance (although we should be wary of trusting the words and spelling too closely, given that the letter comes solely from a John Jeffrey transcript): “they kickit & jumpit with mettle extraordinary, & whiskit, & fleckit, & toe’d it, & go’d it, & twirld it, & wheel’d it, & stampt it, & sweated it, tattooing the floor like mad.” Keats clearly took delight in the performance, noting that “there was as fine a row of boys & girls as you ever saw, some beautiful faces, & one exquisite mouth. I never felt so near the glory of Patriotism, the glory of making by any means a country happier.”

The next leg of the journey sees Keats and Brown arrive in Scotland, having taken the coach from Carlisle through Greta Green (which Brown describes as “a sad, ominous place for a young couple–poverty-struck and barren!”) and on to Dumfries. Keats marks their arrival in his account to Tom by copying his sonnet “On visiting the Tomb of Burns,” which they saw upon arriving in Dumfries on the afternoon of 1 July. As Keats himself noted, it’s a sonnet “written in a strange mood, half asleep.” We’ll see with the visit to Burns’s birthplace a similar disappointment at the lack of inspiration felt there. In the case of the tomb, “coldness” seems to be the key idea: “All is cold beauty.”

But there is another hint at warmth at the end of the letter when Keats notes that “We have now begun upon whiskey, called here whuskey very smart stuff it is–Mixed like our liquors with sugar & water tis called toddy, very pretty drink, & much praised by Burns.” We concur that it is indeed very smart stuff. The peatier the better. But Keats seems to have tired of it by 13 July, when he writes with extreme disdain for the “mahogany faced old Jackass who knew Burns” and with whom he and Brown share some whiskey at Burns’s cottage. For now, though, we’ll leave Keats with his very pretty toddy and wish him well on his search after sublimity.

As alluded to above, today’s letter comes to us from a John Jeffrey transcript, which means that we ought to view it skeptically when it comes to accuracy and comprehensiveness (more on Jeffrey here and here and here). Alas, that’s all we have. Below are images of Jeffrey’s transcript. Print version of the letter can be read in Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 text (including images of Derwent Water and Dumfries).

Page 1 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 29 June to 2 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 2 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 29 June to 2 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 3 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 29 June to 2 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 4 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 29 June to 2 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).