Letter #81: To Tom Keats, 3-9 July 1818

The next entry in Keats’s journal to Tom covers nearly a week, and it finds Keats and Brown making their way briefly to Ireland via ship from Portpatrick. The letter begins while Keats is still writing his previous one to Fanny. He copies out to Tom the short ballad on Meg Merrilies which he had written for Fanny the day before (2 July). He next returns to Tom’s letter on the day he posts Fanny’s, 5 July, at Newton Stewart. We get the usual thoughts on the scenery (“very rich–very fine–and with a little of Devon”), as well as what becomes the main focus of the letter’s last two entries: the people Keats and Brown have been encountering.

A common thread throughout the tour is Keats’s ambivalence about scenery, and about writing about it. Several times he notes the greater importance he places on learning about the people who inhabit such scenes. This attitude predates the tour, as well. Recall that back on 13 March 1818 he wrote, “Scenery is fine–but human nature is finer.” In his previous journal letter to Tom, after Keats describes the scene of a “country dancing school,” he notes, “This is what I like better than scenery.” And in his entry for 7 July, Keats quickly moves away from scenery in order to discuss what he sees as the differences in the character of the Irish and the Scottish.

First he notes the similarity in “the dialect on the neighbouring shores of Scotland and Ireland,” but then draws a distinction based on his sense of what effects the Church of Scotland had produced on the national character: “I can perceive a great difference in the nations from the Chambermaid at this nate Inn kept by Mr Kelly–She is fair, kind and ready to laugh, because she is out of the horrible dominion of the Scotch kirk–A Scotch Girl stands in terrible awe of the Elders–poor little Susannas–They will scarcely laugh–they are greatly to be pitied and the kirk is greatly to be damn’d.” The KLP remains agnostic on the question of the Kirk’s moral reign over the people of Scotland, but it seems Keats remains agnostic too! He goes on to note the good that the Kirk has done in cultivating thriftiness and diligence: “such a thrifty army cannot fail to enrich their Country and give it a greater appearance of comfort than that of their poor irish neighbours.” As he returns to the negative side of the column, he focuses again on the limitation of joy, particularly as it relates to erotic desire: “These kirkmen … have banished puns and laughing and kissing (except in cases where the very danger and crime must make it very fine and gustful. I shall make a full stop at kissing for after that there should be a better parenTthesis:” [that’s our attempt at a small caps “T” for Keats’s double-underline]. In what must be one of Keats’s better puns, he suggests making a full stop at kissing in order to avoid a parent-thesis emerging, although he never does close that parenthesis, nor does he actually make a full stop at kissing. In any case, Keats’s concerns about the lack of punning and laughing and kissing in Scotland connects with another preoccupation he seems to dwell on during the tour: his feelings toward women.

We see Keats address the issue most directly in his letter to Benjamin Bailey later in the month (18, 22 July). It’s in that letter that Keats writes, “I am certain I have not a right feeling towards Women.” In today’s letter, though, his thinking about the lives of women under the “dominion of the kirk” is connected with a broader concern with social injustice. He expresses the matter like this: “Were the fingers made to squeeze a guinea or a white hand? Were the Lips made to hold a pen or a kiss? And yet in Cities Man is shut out from his fellows if he is poor, the Cottager must be dirty and very wretched if she be not thrifty–The present state of society demands this and this convinces me that the world is very young and in a verry ignorant state–We live in a barbarous age.” The tension between commerce and erotic desire should sound familiar to readers of Isabella. There is perhaps a strain of paternalism at work here (“let’s protect women from the horrors of employment!”), but it seems that the greater concern lies with the injustice inherent in work in an unequal society. The problem is that “out of suffrance there is no greatness, no dignity” and “in the most abstracted Pleasure there is no lasting happiness.” What the world presumably needs, then, is a social structure that allows for the pursuit of pleasure (punning, laughing, kissing) without the oppressive forces that deem such a pursuit immoral, and without the economic forces which deny pleasure to those not lucky enough to be born wealthy.

While Keats and Brown planned to spend longer in Ireland, they ended up returning to Scotland after just two days there (on 8 July). What Keats found in Ireland was the combination of high living expenses and extreme poverty. Keats seems despondent at the idea of “the improvement of the condition of such people,” not because of some inherent defects in their character, but rather because of the current social conditions. The sign which stands in for those conditions comes to Keats in the form of “that most disgusting of all noises” as they pass into Belfast: “the sound of the Shuttle.” In other words, the sonic reminder of economic conditions–specifically, the textile industry–fills Keats with “absolute despair” that things could change for the better. He probably wasn’t encouraged by the two laborers encountered between Belfast and Donaghadee, one of whom “took [Keats] for a Frenchman” (the horror!), and the other who “hinted at Bounty Money saying he was ready to take it.” Somehow Keats and Brown escaped, but before leaving the island, they had one more encounter which seems to have stuck with Keats:

On our return from Bellfast we met a Sadan–the Duchess of Dunghill–It is no laughing matter tho–Imagine the worse dog kennel you ever saw placed upon two poles from a mouldy fencing–In such a wretched thing sat a squalid old Woman squat like an ape half starved from a scarcity of Buiscuit in its passage from Madagascar to the cape,–with a pipe in her mouth and looking out with a round-eyed skinny lidded, inanity–with a sort of horizontal idiotic movement of her head–squab and lean she sat and puff’d out the smoke while two ragged tattered Girls carried her along–What a thing would be a history of her Life and sensations.

Now, it’s certainly true that this description could be kinder (perhaps an understatement, that??). But even after the long, demeaning description, Keats ends with an appeal towards empathy. Yes, he describes the woman as “idiotic” and “inane,” but he does so in the context of his condemnation of the broader social forces at work in creating and sustaining poverty. He also ultimately expresses his desire to know what this woman’s life was like. And not just her life, but her “sensations,” a key word in Keats’s vocabulary. He wants to recognize and understand her humanity, not just in terms of her thoughts, but in terms of the way she’s lived an embodied experience in a physical world governed by material circumstances which would have been largely out of her control.

We’ll hear more about Keats’s thoughts on his encounters with the common people of Ireland and Scotland as the tour continues. Certainly in this letter we get a nuanced–if also problematic–take on the relationship between social circumstances and individual lives.

You can read the letter in Forman’s 1895 edition here, although it’s based on a John Jeffrey transcript, so beware (note his reading of “nate inn” as “nate toone“–good try, Jeffrey!). The manuscript is at Harvard, but it was not used for editions of the letters until the second half of the 20th century (having been in the possession of James Freeman Clarke and his descendants until 1946–see here for more on Clarke). Images below.

Page 1 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.33). Houghton Library, Harvard University.