John Keats’s “Dissertation on Letter Writing”: On Poetry and Prose Composed on a Final Summer’s Day, 21 September 1818

Andrew Burkett
Union College

Re: Keats’s 20-21 September 1818 letter to Charles Dilke

At the autumnal equinox of 1818, John Keats was experimenting in both his poetry and his prose. This letter, which he completed on 21 September, reveals a range of ways in which the poet was trying out a number of new ideas concerning not only what a letter might convey but also how the very medium of correspondence opens up new possibilities for writing and thinking. Clearly conscious of the materiality of his correspondence, Keats begins four lines down the first page to announce in this letter to Charles Wentworth Dilke “in this forth [fourth] line” his plans for what will be “a dissertation on letter writing.” And by the end of this opening page, he creates a quite intricate table in fourteen lines (including his two lines of ellipses, after “Bath” and “Giltedge”) in what we might do well to consider as something like an experimental sonnet form, of sorts, concerned with the materiality of the page, the letter, and even the form of paper itself. He writes:

Detail of the first page of Keats’s 20-21 Sept 1818 letter to Dilke. From The Keats Letters, Papers and Other Relics.

From Hyder Edward Rollins’s The Letters of John Keats.

In this “form of a table,” which blurs the lines between prose and verse, Keats reveals his complex interests in the medium of the letter. With his references, for example, to “Bath,” a type of paper 8 x 14 inches (flat) and embossed at the top with that word, as well as his reference to “Fools cap” (or foolscap), the slightly larger paper type very popular during the Romantic period, Keats exposes his concerns with the materiality of the page, even noting his own preferences for paper type (“ut egomet” meaning “such as myself”). Also registered here in this “table” is the poet’s recurring fascination with British class and caste systems: we read at the start of these lines that “Parsons, Lawyers, Statesmen, [and] Physi[ci]ans,” prefer the larger “Folio” while “Milliners and Dressmakers” commonly use “Duodec,” or “duodecimo”—a smaller size of paper so called because of its being made by folding and cutting a single sheet into a dozen leaves. Keats’s brilliant little “sonnet table” holds riches to be mined, indeed.

And Keats was not only experimenting in the form and materiality of letters on 21 September. In fact, on that very same day he composed another sonnet type of sorts—the first fourteen lines of Hyperion:

Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,
Sat grey-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung above his head
Like cloud on cloud. No stir of air was there,
Not so much life as on a summer’s day
Robs not one light seed from the feathered grass,
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.
A stream went voiceless by, still deadened more
By reason of his fallen divinity
Spreading a shade: the Naiad ’mid her reeds
Press’d her cold finger closer to her lips. (i.1-14)

On this final “summer’s day” of 1818, Keats marks with these experimental lines his abandonment of Leigh Hunt’s run-on couplets in favor of Miltonic blank verse, and this sonnet announces his plans for an expansive epic narrative. Did letter writing—and, perhaps, letter theorizing—help Keats to launch Hyperion? And how might Keatsian correspondence, in general, shed new light on his poetry written during this period? While it is not fully clear to what degree Keats’s investigational interests in the medium and form of the letter helped to shape his turn to the blank verse sonnet form, the poet was certainly admitting in this letter to Dilke his desires “to write and plunge into abstract images.” Indeed, it seems that Keats found such abstractions in both his poetry and his prose composed on this day, two hundred years ago.

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