Duplicitous Letters

To launch the KLP, we’ll be featuring responses, written by the founders, to Keats’s first extant letter, the verse epistle ‘To George Felton Mathew.’ You can read the poem here, and the previous response in the series here. Once collected, all responses will be here.

I want to take up Brian’s point about the “duplicitous nature of media,” which present “the semblance of presence in the very place of absence.” This is true, of course, for all media but the letter developed its own idiom for thinking about this duplicity, and this particular verse epistle seems to foreground these tropes, reflecting quite self-consciously on the simulacrum of presence that the letter form performs. This is the central structuring dynamic in this verse epistle: I wish we were together but we’re not, but our distance provides possibilities that might be denied to us if we were together. The question, though, with this highly self-conscious parodic performance, is how seriously we’re supposed to take the claims for intimacy and distance, presence and absence, in a verse epistle in which absence occasions a highly competitive performance of poetic superiority, based precisely upon the letter form’s arch-trope of intimacy. How duplicitous is the verse letter after all?

One way into thinking about this unstable problematic might be through the letter’s figuration of intimacy and poetry as “a brotherhood in song,” with its hint of fraternal convivial societies. It is, of course, utterly conventional to compare poetry to song. So naturalized is the association that there might be some value in making the obvious point that poetry and song are, in fact, not the same thing. Songs have an intrinsic relation to music, and music exists as sound waves, so that physical proximity is essential in order to receive it. To sing together we must breathe together. Poetry on the other hand is a medium that does not necessarily depend on sound or presence.

Keats’s invocation of the “brotherhood of song” and his repeated claim throughout the verse epistle that poetry and song are coterminous represents, then, an erasure of a distinctive quality of sung music, the shared breathing made possible by physical proximity. The brotherhood in song then can be read as a kind of longing for the physical proximity that a conspiracy of space has denied to Keats and Mathew. This is the conceit of much of the verse epistle which in its articulation of the desire to “find a place” where the correspondents might sit together, draws attention to the letter’s inability to bridge the space which keeps them apart. The letter form performs a kind of intimacy – whispering secrets without breath – but in its breathlessness only draws attention to the inadequacy of the performance. A letter cannot bridge the spatial divide, can only perform a simulacrum of proximity. A song cannot be heard without breath and ears.

Abstractly, we might consider that the letter’s capacity to constitute intimacy is at times superior to that of the physically proximate. Two people in a room together must negotiate the material fact of their bodies, with all their capacity for awkwardness, embarrassment, and emission. This is the letter’s triumph. The victory of connecting bodies over gaps in space and time is also the victory of the ideal over of the biological facts of material existence. But this triumphalism is largely absent from Keats’s verse epistle, which primarily understands the physical separation that necessitates the letter as a defeat. “Fain would I follow thee…But ’tis impossible.” When I am with you, Keats says, flights of wonderous imagination are possible, “clear anthems float / ’Mong the light skimming gondolas far parted.” But alone in the “dark city” the “coy muse” will not visit. Absence is abandonment.

But it not simply that the muse is an urbanophobe. She just prefers Mathew, whose flights of poetic fancy, even when they are together, Keats can only participate in by following where Mathew leads. The ostensible mutuality of the letter, the “brotherhood in song” is really a fractured fraternity, one characterized by competition and jealousy, not love. The verse epistle, occasioned by absence, far from connecting the friends together, in fact exposes the ruptures of the brotherhood. The convivial “brotherhood of song” becomes a battle of the ballads.

This perhaps helps to explain the extraordinary sequence of metamorphoses that constitute Mathew’s backstory. In part, Keats is filling in the gaps of a story “never told,” but it is partly an aggressive act of muse-trumping creative imagining. I see your light skimming gondalas and I raise you a flower-fish-swan-human crossbreed. Mathew, the cross-species hybrid may have originated close to the source from “whence gush the streams of song” but we are surely meant to understand that the dark city has its own equivalent inspirations if it can engender such extravagant imaginings.

Brian is exactly right to point out that even the surviving letters harbor “secrets, omissions, erasures,” and that these gaps are what Keats’s extravagant imaginings are designed to plug. But we should also attend to the tone of this grouting. Because one of the most striking things about this verse epistle is the spirit of playful bravura that permeates its lines. From the predictable truisms of the opening, to the rejection of the possibility of poetry in the city, to the wild imaginings of the conclusion, this is a poem that is intended both to amuse and impress. Both things are important, and each points in a different direction. If we can laugh together we can affirm the “brotherhood in song;” but if I want to impress you, I want to demonstrate my skill in order to assert my claims over you.

This is what’s at stake in the vacillation between presence and absence in the letter form. Are we in this together, or do I want to assert my individuality? Solidarity or competition? Presence or absence? The point Keats’s verse epistle make clear is that most frequently it’s both combined. The letter form is not just the semblance of presence in the place of absence, but at the same time it is the appearance of absence through the forms of presence. It is both our need to write because we cannot sit together, and our enjoyment of the competitive edge we share even as we write, or indeed sing together. Media have a duplicitous nature, for sure, but in the media ecology the participants are double agents and agent provocateurs, not just spies. This is the playful subterfuge of correspondence.

Ian Newman

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