Filling Up Space

Olivia Loksing Moy
City University of New York, Lehman College

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

[See also Andrew Burkett’s response to the letter, which also reads Keats’s table as a sort of sonnet form]

How do you recognize a poem when you see one?[1] The table embedded in Keats’s September 21 letter to Dilke, ostensibly just a list of paper formats, is brimming with poetic devices. We see alliteration along the vertical and horizontal axes of the “table-sonnet” with “Folio” and “fools cap,” “Bath” and “Boarding schools,” and the trisyllabic list of “Projectors, Patentees, Presidents, Potatoe” growers. Trochaic patterns emerge in the parade of professionals (“Parsons, Lawyers, Statesmen, Physians”) and the two travel writers “Eustace—Thornton.” In the final lines, Keats gestures loosely towards a couplet (or triplet) with “Strip,” “Slip,” “Snip.” Through the verbal play of these near-redundant words, Keats truly seems to be just filling up spaces—especially since the last three words are not actual paper sizes, just informal units with rough measurements. (Foolscap in nineteenth-century England measured 17 x 13.5 in., but how long exactly is a strip, slip, or snip?)

This “table-sonnet” anticipates a playful category of metasonnets in which form takes precedence over content, where the poet purports to be penning lines merely to fulfill a poetic structure. Consider Billy Collins’ “Sonnet”:

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

In his letter, Keats elongates his table with “Strip,” “Slip,” and “Snip” not only to complete the fourteen lines of a sonnet, but to fill the physical page, reaching the bottom margin so that he can finally speak his mind on the verso: “Yet when I consider that a sheet of paper contains room only for three pages and a half, how can I do justice to such a pregnant subject?…I ‘with retractile claws’ draw this into the form of a table—whereby it will occupy merely the remainder of this first page—.”

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

It soon becomes clear that Keats’s little “dissertation on letter writing” is in fact a ploy to delay broaching two painful topics. At the top of Page 2, he reveals the true “pregnant subject” of his letter: the unfavorable attack against the “Cockney School of Poetry” in the August 1818 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and the suffocating effects of Tom’s poor health. In each case, Keats does not confront the problem head on but withdraws from conflict, fading away into the background. In the first instance, we learn that “Hazlitt has on foot a prosecution against Blackwood.” But Keats’s protest is expressed through silent signals; his offense remains unspoken: “I dined with him a few days since at Hessey’s—there was not a word said about it.” In the second instance, Keats’s grief at the degradation of Tom’s health results in his own physical negation: “I wish I could say Tom was any better. His identity presses upon me so all day that I am obliged to go out.”

Keats, the chameleon poet, hides his pain in plain sight, using the shape of the page itself both cover and display, though tacitly, what wounds him most. Paper size and format are not merely blank material to fill lines; they enable Keats’s artful self-awareness. He exercises the skills of placement and self-positioning, opting for a restrained response that suits his character. His greatest sources of grief are all contained within the second page, bookended by the pleasantries on pages 1 and 3. Reading poetically, we might characterize the transition from page one to two as end-stopped rather than enjambed. His pen arrives at “Your sincere friend, John Keats” exactly at the bottom margin of the third page. Keats’s spatial planning, even of prose, may be lost in transcriptions of this letter, but through a reading of his handwriting in the manuscript – perfectly planned, meticulously measured –  we can read his “table-sonnet” about measurements of paper as reflecting the “measured” response of his reaction to the review and Tom’s illness.

Hazlitt might have opened his letter with a burst of indignant exclamations, positioning the review front and center. But Keats remains true to his own strategies of sequence and order: “in the simple process of eating radishes I never begin at the root but constantly dip the little green head in the salt— … in the Game of Whist if I have an ace I constantly play it first.”

[1] In Stanley Fish’s essay, “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One,” he describes tricking students from his Metaphysical Poetry seminar into close reading leftover blackboard markings from a previous linguistics class.

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