Keats as a Lover of Fine Phrases

Adam Cady
Illinois Wesleyan University

RE: Keats’s 14 August 1819 letter to Benjamin Bailey

In his 14 August 1819 letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats again touts the diligent productivity of his summer on the Isle of Wight, and claims to have generated—by that time—some “1500 Lines” in “two Months.” Having subsequently “removed to Winchester for the convenience of a Library,” Keats’s creative efforts were ongoing, fruitful, and, despite any earlier idleness or creative differences between the poet and his dramatic collaborator, Charles Brown, Keats had completed “two Tales, one from Boccacio call’d the Pot of Basil; and another called St. Agnes’ Eve on a popular superstition.” He had moreover penned the first half of “Lamia” and “parts of [his] Hyperion,” as well as “4 Acts of a Tragedy,” Otho the Great. Excepting occasional walks on the island and outings with Brown, Keats was, by mid-August, totally immersed in—consumed by—this outpouring of poetic verse, reading and writing with quasi-maniacal fervor, and he passionately informs Bailey, “I look upon fine Phrases like a Lover.”

For the most part, readers of the 14 August letter have treated this spirited declaration—the notion of Keats as a Lover of fine phrases—as a charming affirmation of Keats’s affection for literature. Indeed, the statement’s immediate context bears this pleasant interpretation out, as Keats has just expressed his ever-growing wonder at the magnificence of “Shakespeare and the paradise Lost” and declared, “a fine writer is the most genuine Being in the World.” We know, too, that Keats—since his youth—was prone to fall in love with exceptional language, as the poet’s early friend Charles Cowden Clarke, in his Recollections of Writers, recalls  that Keats pored over Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene “‘as a young horse would through a spring meadow—ramping!’,” and furthermore, “he especially singled out epithets, for that felicity and power in which Spenser is so eminent” (126). Clarke also recollects “the teeming wonderment of [Keats’s] first introduction” to George Chapman’s translation of The Odyssey, which famously inspired the sonnetic outpouring of fine phrases “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (130). Moreover, Keats was a notorious mimic, often borrowing from the loveable phrases of other, emulatable writers—a fact to which the bulk of the footnotes in any critical edition of Keats’s poems and/or letters testifies. 

However, if we consider the preceding letter—his 5, 6 August letter to Fanny Brawne—the idea of Keats as a lover of anything becomes murkier and less appealing. In that earlier bit of fraught correspondence, the great Romantic declares his inability—likelier, his unwillingness—to pen “proper downright love-letters.” Additionally, though it may be tempting to imagine the extraordinary poet as some inhuman deity of the written word, Keats is painfully human, as he writes to Fanny, “I am not one of the Paladins of old who livd upon water grass and smiles for years together.” As a lover, Keats has material and selfish needs, which override romanticized notions of love as a pure or selfless endeavor. In fact, Keats tells Fanny precisely what kind of love theirs must be: one that is literally unsettling: 

…god forbid we should what people call, settle—turn into a pond, a stagnant Lethe—a vile crescent, row or buildings. Better be imprudent moveables than prudent fixtures—Open my Mouth at the Street door like the Lion’s head at Venice to receive hateful cards Letters messages. Go out an[d] wither at tea parties; freeze at dinners; bake at dance[s,] simmer at routs. No my love, trust yourself to me and I will find you nobler amusements; fortune favouring.

Unsatisfied with the “settled” condition of domesticity, Keats’s attachments to Fanny must never be debilitating. Though his passion for Brawne burns bright, personal preeminence is the poet’s primary concern; their love must not—in any way—interfere with Keats’s autonomy, his mobility, his capacity to control. 

Of course, in addition to describing an ideally unsettled romance with Fanny, Keats reveals—in that same 5, 6 August letter—exactly what kind of lover he is. At this time, Keats was mired in the writing Otho—his thoughts so thoroughly consumed by the Tragedy that he actually describes seeing Fanny “through the mist of Plots speeches, counterplots and counter speeches.” Eager to demonstrate the relative mildness of his emotions, though—his supposedly restrained passions for both Fanny and the written word—Keats assures her, “The Lover is madder than I am.” The “Lover” (with a capital “L,” as in the 14 August letter) here is meant to be Ludolph, the tragic protagonist and erratic prince whose betrayal and downfall comprise the central plot of Otho. And though Keats is reportedly less crazed than that passionate royal, Ludolph’s conception of love is so thoroughly corrupted that, when Keats compares himself to the prince, there is the conspicuous implication that—as a lover—Keats is still sufficiently mad. To begin, Ludolph’s affections are astoundingly fickle, as he readily abandons all tenderness for his former, supposedly disloyal fiancee,  Erminia—even naming her once as “Satan” (Act III, scene 2, line 78). In place of Erminia, the prince dotes over “fair Auranthe” and, “bewitched” by her, develops a severe and suicidal kind of love: “Soft beauty! by to-morrow I should die, / Wert thou not mine” (Act III, scene 2, lines 14-15). With either woman, Ludolph’s sense of love is also deeply possessive; even modest lapses are unforgivable, and he regularly refers to Auranthe as “mine,” an object to be owned and admired: “Auranthe I have! O, my bride, my love! / …All mine!” (Act III, scene 2, lines 6, 12). The central Lover in Otho, then, is no mere admirer of women, but is truly an obsessive and overbearing suitor. Love, in the preoccupying context of Keats’s Otho the Great, is a kind of problematic domination, contented by control.

When, in his next letter, Keats refers to himself as a “Lover” of fine phrases, he is still in the midst of writing Ludolph’s Tragedy, and likely maintains the maladjusted prince as a fictional template of love’s poisonous potential. If this is the case, Keats has conceded that, at least where language is concerned, he is really just as mad as Ludolph, and recognizes himself—his own love of fine phrases—as being similarly possessive and domineering. For example, in Otho, Keats—ever the chameleon—employs “over forty borrowings from seventeen of Shakespeare’s plays,” taking repeatedly from the Bard in what amounts to a pale imitation of grander tragic and historical dramas (Motion 422). Beyond paying homage to the canonical likes of King Lear and Macbeth, Otho the Great is so thoroughly Shakespearean that to claim the Tragedy as a wholly original work requires a significant degree of authorial gaslighting. In concluding the play with Erminia’s cry to “Take away that dagger” and Ludolph’s dying utterance of “To-morrow,” Keats does not refer or allude to, but rather takes possession of immortal Shakespearean soliloquies: Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” and, “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” Though “borrowing” from Shakespeare, Keats is never satisfied with the poetic polyamory of their shared language and must make these words—so many of the Bard’s fine phrases—his own. 

This kind of possessive repurposing—this affectionate thievery—is so often the case with Keats, who, from turning the Christian vale of tears into a “vale of Soul-making” (21 April, 1819, to the George Keatses) to remaking the nonsense phrase “T wang-dillo-dee” from The Beggar’s Opera into his own term of quasi-philosophical critique (13-28 January 1820, to Georgiana Keats), routinely reshapes that which attracts him into what he truly wants. Interestingly, this dynamic is also present in the 5, 6 August letter to Fanny, as, with playful blaspheming, Keats transforms Christian tradition into a carnal, paganistic exaltation of his beloved. Excited by the unholy potential of his move from Wight to Winchester (“a cathedral City”), Keats tells Fanny, “I shall have a pleasure always a great one to me when near a Cathedral, of reading them during the service up and down the Aisle.” Just before announcing his desire to remain unsettled, Keats likewise borrows from the Anglican liturgy to make his own profanation. Whereas the Book of Common Prayer states, “Beseech thee to hear us, O Lord God,” Keats takes possession of the reverent utterance and twists it to his irreverent liking, rebirthing the saying as a prayer to Venus, pagan embodiment of physical, erotic love: “Beseech thee to hear us O Goddess.”

I am hardly the first to note the complexity of Keats as a lover—of women or language. For instance, in his essay on “Women and Words in Keats (with an Instance from La Belle Dame sans Merci),” author Ronald Tetreault calls attention to much of the same difficulty in Keats’s life and work: 

Keats’s inclination to “look upon fine phrases like a Lover” is the key to a whole system of substitutions in his text which draws a likeness between loving and writing and treats woman as a trope for truth and language. When he wrote as he loved, his text was driven by an insatiable hunger for beauty and truth. That these might serve ends of their own quite apart from the satisfaction of his own desires seems unnerving to Keats; that women might have desires and that words might have powers beyond his control is a prospect he wants to deny because it brings his own power as a man and a poet into question. More than killing the things he loves, he fears being consumed by them. He locates a desire in woman and an energy in the word which threaten to overwhelm his own. Yet when he tries to fix women or words for his own purposes, he finds them slipping away into time. (67)

But it does seem to me as though this complexity should not—in light of reading the letters together and beside Otho the Great—seem surprising. Rather, it feels anticipated, announced, and confirmed. In fact, Keats’s fearful, unsettled notion of love is carried through the 5, 6 August letter to the conclusion of his 14 August letter, and then is picked up—yet again—as a theme in the 16 August letter to Fanny Brawne. Writing to his recently married friend Bailey—now, tragically, one in a pair of “prudent fixtures”—Keats is noticeably awkward and apprehensive in closing his letter: “you have been married and in congra[tu]lating you I wish you every continuance of them—Present my Respects to Mrs Bailey. This sounds oddly to me, and I dare say I do it awkwardly enough: but I suppose by this time it is nothing new to you.” Although Keats delays as long as possible, the subjects of contented love and marriage—of dangerously settled domesticity—must finally be broached (Keats was four months late in wishing the newlyweds well). Tagging on greetings from Brown and a reminder of their address in Winchester, Keats stumbles—flustered—to a hasty farewell. In his next letter, written (once more, “through a Mist”) to Fanny, Keats is no less callous or frightened by the notion of settling, and proceeds, “like so many strokes of a Hammer,” to coldly suffocate Fanny’s hopes for tender, amorous, “proper downright love-letters”: “I can no more use soothing words to you than if I were at this moment engaged in a charge of Cavalry—Then you will say I should not write at all—Should I not?” Though he remains—presumably—an admirer of fine phrases, love, marriage, and “domestic cares” (25 July, 1819, to Fanny Brawne) are such thoroughly terrifying prospects that even the most wonderful language is not enough to dissuade Keats from his avoidance of love and its imprisoning qualities: “I am not happy enough for silken Phrases, and silver sentences.”

Works Cited

Clarke, Charles Cowden and Mary Victoria Novello Clarke. Recollections of Writers. C. Scribner’s sons, 1878.

Motion, Andrew. Keats. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Tetreault, Ronald. “Women and Words in Keats (with an Instance from La Belle Dame sans Merci).” The Mind in Creation: Essays on English Romantic Literature in Honour of Ross G. Woodman, edited by Douglas Kneale, McGill-Queen’s Press, 1992, pp. 58-73.

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