What Keats’s Letters Don’t Tell

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 other responses here.

Dear KLPers,

Like Keats, we too are always coming late to the party. We’re too, too late for the fond believing lyre, or in this case, for the fond believing letters that provide us with so much of our knowledge about Keats, and in which we find a body of work that rivals the poetry for depth of accomplishment. We’re too late in several senses. The letters are no untrodden regions of study awaiting a pale-mouthed prophet to deliver them to us; they’re more like realms of gold that have seen many travelers in the last two centuries. And yet here we are. But, hey, if anyone understands the value of sitting down to read again, Keats certainly does. Our belatedness exists in another sense as well, though. Any account of the letters is always necessarily incomplete—we know that there are many more letters that once existed and that now remain in the realm of speculation. Even some of the letters that do exist come to us only in partial or imperfect forms. So I begin by admitting defeat. The letters will always remain a project, offering us an occasion to throw forth some portion of the past from which the letters come and to which they ineluctably point.

Our first task, responding to Keats’s earliest extant letter, presents some of these challenges from the start. The letter is Keats’s verse epistle, “To George Felton Mathew,” which was sent as a letter sometime in November 1815 from London to Hastings, where Mathew was staying with his cousins Ann and Caroline. That manuscript no longer exists, but we’re pretty sure (!) that at some point it did. I’ll return to the letter’s textual history in a moment, but first I want to point out the way that failures of communication exist in the text of the poem, as well as around its mediation via a now-lost, or rather, several now-lost manuscripts. The end of poem features a wonderfully strange, and typically Keatsian, flight of fancy. He crafts a backstory for his friend’s development into a poet. Apparently Mathew was “once a flowret blooming wild,” plucked by Diana as a gift for Apollo, which she “cast in the stream / To meet her glorious brother’s greeting beam,” after which Apollo converted that flower into a “fish of gold,” and then a “black-eyed swan,” and then at some later date, a human, who now lives in England in 1815. But I should back up, because really the subject of this moment in the poem is that Mathew has “never told” the tale of his transformations, or the later tale of his “travels strange” as a flower-fish-swan monster floating along and “Kissing thy daily food from Naiad’s pearly hands” (let’s hope he ate some of that food too). Like this moment, so much of Keats’s early poetry emerges from that which remains unsaid or untold. Twice here, at the end of the epistle celebrating the “pleasures which to verse belong,” Keats “marvels” at what Mathew “hast never told.” Of course, by contemplating Mathew’s silence, Keats goes ahead and tells the tale (or a bit of it anyway) himself. The recognition of silence, though, is a crucial prior move.

It’s the sense of possibility in the untold that Keats seems so fully invested in throughout the 1817 volume. One thinks of “Specimen of an Induction to a Poem,” with its embarrassing refrain, “Lo! I must tell a tale of chivalry.” Like Wordsworth’s Excursion, deeply influential on Keats, the poems seem “evermore about to be”: specimens, fragments, inductions, preludes, portions… These forms announce the possibility of future poetic production. They are, in Jakobson’s terms, phatic; they address the channel of communication and its current status. Poem as mic-check: I’d argue that this notion goes a long way toward accounting for what the 1817 volume does.

Similarly, I’d say that the letters as a whole frequently perform this kind of move as well. Again and again they raise the specter of what Alexander Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark call “excommunication.” They write: “Every communication harbors the dim awareness of an excommunication that is prior to it, that conditions it and makes it all the more natural. Excommunication—before a single word has been said. Excommunication—when there is nothing more to say.” As much as letters express, they make meaning out of an abyss of non-meaning that can resurface with little provocation. An errant flame, an errant steamship, an errant drip of wax—the communication channel closes, receding back into the world of things. And of course even with letters that endure and survive, they harbor secrets, omissions, erasures. Keats’s transatlantic letters to George and Georgiana frequently contemplate this reality, calling to awareness the limitations at the heart of mediation. Media haunt because of this duplicitous nature, presenting the semblance of presence in the very place of absence.

So I think in a way it’s fitting that no manuscript of this poem survives in any form (in a letter or otherwise). When printed in either editions of the letters or in editions of the poems, the text is invariably based on Keats 1817 volume. There is a reputed transcript by Mathew himself somewhere and somewhen in existence (it’s briefly mentioned by Edmund Blunden in a 1936 essay on Keats and Mathew). No one seems to know of its whereabouts now, not even Jack Stillinger, the indefatigable chronicler of all of Keats’s poetic manuscripts. At the beginning of H. E. Rollins’s authoritative scholarly edition of the letters, amidst many pages of introductory material, appears a list of “lost letters,” some 67 letters supposed to have once existed. Really the epistle to Mathew ought to be on that list. We may have the poem, but we don’t have the letter. We can presume that Keats did indeed send the verses to Mathew via the post. Richard Woodhouse claims as much in his scrapbook of Keatsiana, noting that the verses were sent to Mathew’s cousins Caroline and Ann, the recipients of other verses by Keats. It may have even been the case that the copy of “To George Felton Mathew” once carried southeast from London to the Mathews sisters staying at Hastings remained in the possession of Ann for decades afterward. According to Caroline in 1847, Ann had “many pieces of [Keats]” that she gave to a family friend, William Large. It appears that at the time of writing, he had recently died (Caroline refers to him as “poor William Large”), but the Keats materials “have not been found among his papers.”

All of this is to say, we must marvel at all that Keats “hast never told.” The letters and other materials persist, but we must tell them. We’ll never fully exhaust the materials that remain, nor will we ever tell all their secrets. We’re always contending with disappearance, deletion, and erasure. Our aim with the KLP is not to fully capture Keats’s letter-writing 200 years later to the day, hour, minute, etc. We work in recognition of our limits and the limits of communication itself. Following Jerome McGann’s recent work on memory in the digital age, where he writes that “memory is how we take care of what we love and lose,” we seek to care for what we love, what remains, and consequently, what we know was lost. We remember by corresponding further, we mourn that which we forgot to remember, and we create channels of communication that might haunt us again in the future, or that will close and serve as objects of marvel for never having told

Brian Rejack

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