Improper Time

Kamran Javadizadeh
Villanova University

RE: Keats’s 16 December 1818–4 January 1819 letter to George and Georgiana

Your brother has moved a great distance away—so far, in fact, that you can’t be sure you’ll ever see him again. You know that it will take a letter weeks to reach him, and yet you have news—urgent news—to report: your youngest brother, at whose sickbed you have been keeping vigil, has just died.

How might the letter that you write (for you decide to write) respond to its inevitable untimeliness, to the fact that your living brother won’t know of the death of the youngest for the several weeks it takes for a letter to arrive? How might your words take measure of the distance that separates you from the brother to whom they are addressed in light of the more radical distance that has opened up between both of you and the brother who is now gone?

If you were John Keats, whose brother George had recently moved to the American interior and whose brother Tom had just died, on the first of December, in London, of consumption, you would let more than two weeks pass before you began to write, and then you would write not briefly but at great length. Yes, you’d address the sad news in the letter’s first lines, but, rather than sealing that news in an envelope and starting it on its transatlantic journey as quickly as possible, you’d keep the letter for yourself and, over days that would turn into weeks (and indeed into the new year), you’d add sheet after sheet of cramped script to the one on which you’d first reported and reflected on the “last days of poor Tom” (II, 4). Those new pages would drift away from the grief of your original occasion and into the minutiae of your daily life, into gossip, into poetry.

The first page of Keats's letter, including his opening announcement of Tom's death.
The first page of Keats’s letter. Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University. MS Keats 1.45.

Why, when Tom died, did John write to his brother George (and to George’s wife, Georgiana) in this way? When he first set pen to paper, on 16 December 1818, he seemed to have known what he was doing. The letter’s very first line anticipates the outcome that its author’s dilatory process would as a matter of course produce: “You will have been prepared, before this reaches you for the worst news you could have, nay if Haslam’s letter arrives in proper time, I have a consolation in thinking the first shock will be past before you receive this” (II, 4). He understood, in other words, that his own letter would not, after all, deliver the news. It would not arrive “in proper time.”

Instead, for Keats, letters circulated in and helped to create a different kind of temporality—call it “improper time”—which afforded its own consolations. That temporality tended to manifest in the letter writer’s habit of projecting himself into a future perfect from a richly described indicative present. “The fire is at its last click,” Keats would write (again to George and Georgiana, two months later): “I am sitting with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet […] These are trifles—but I require nothing so much of you as that you will give me a like description of yourselves, however it may be when you are writing to me” (II, 73). A letter like this opens up an alternate temporality, one that connects an embodied writerly present to a readerly future in which that present, together with all the time that has intervened while the letter has been en route, will have become a shared past. The letter cleaves together sender and recipient in a time and place that exist, in their fullness, nowhere but in the letter—and in the improper time that an exchange of letters makes possible.

In this sense the vicissitudes of the familiar letter’s channels of distribution (the postal service, transatlantic shipping lines, wagon routes into the American continent) occasion a set of tropes of intimacy that distinguish it from its twenty-first century digital equivalents: the text message, the tweet, even the email, all of which presume a more or less instantaneous transmission of a message. (Think of how the technology of instant messaging accommodates this aspect of its circulation: push notifications, read receipts, the pulsing ellipses that indicate your correspondent’s composition in real time.) Texting a distant friend or absent lover can give you the feeling that you are once again with them, but the grammar of texting and its allied technologies, grounded as they are more firmly in the present tense,tends to exchange the elasticity of epistolary time for something more literal.“Tends to,” I say, for surely digital correspondences borrow from their epistolary prehistory. Yet the very form of the text message insists: You are there, I am here, and though I may know how you feel (or, with a picture, what you see) right now, because that right now is so fixed in its time and place, I recognize it also as one in which we are apart.

Letters, by contrast, are always acknowledging, lamenting, and compensating for their belatedness, nowhere more characteristically than in their future perfect declarations. You will have been prepared, before this reaches you, for the worst news you could have. These lags and delays create the possibility of certain hazards (“crossed” letters, e.g.) and missed connection: when Emily Dickinson, for instance, writes from the family home in Amherst to her brother Austin at Harvard, she adds this postscript: “Mother is frying Doughnuts—I will give you a little platefull to have for your tea! Imaginary ones—how I’d love to send you real ones” (72). She can’t send the real ones because the donuts, for one thing, fresh from the fryer, wouldn’t survive the duration even of their brief journey, not without being transformed into some sadly diminished thing, drained of the heat that their mother’s attention (and fryer) had once imbued.

And yet, just as letters lament their insufficiencies, they call attention to their status as objects in themselves and thereby allow for triangulated intimacies that traverse both temporal and spatial separations. Though for Austin the donuts must remain imaginary, the letter is quite real, a physical object that was made in the same home in which those donuts were fried (and eaten) and that was then passed along through asocial network that began with his sister’s hands and ended with his. That same winter, writing to Austin’s wife, Susan, Dickinson described the network through which a letter passes as though it were itself a poem: “Yet, Susie,there will be romance in the letter’s ride to you—think of the hills and the dales, and the rivers it will pass over, and the drivers and conductors who will hurry it on to you; and wont that make a poem such as ne’er can be written?” (79). For Keats, too, the physicality of a letter was often a substitute for an absent body, the embodiment of a separation, and consolation for interpersonal distance. Six months after Tom’s death, he asked Fanny Brawne to “write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been” (II, 123). Two weeks later, he confessed that he had done more than kiss: “Do not call it folly, when I tell you I took your letter last night to bed with me” (II, 129). These deprecatory gestures (“at least,”“do not call it folly,” etc.) acknowledge the limits of the intimacies that they conjure even as they insist upon the desires that they name.

In the case of John’s letters to George and Georgiana in America, because the distance between sender and recipient had become so wide, because the route the letter would have to take so uncertain, and because the delays brooked by Keats’s diaristic method so much the greater,letters both strained the capacity for epistolary consolation and discovered new resources for redressing the pains of separation. When Tom died, that strain became still more palpable; Tom’s death and George’s move began to serve, in John’s writing, as ways of thinking each about the other. Here, first, was how Keats addressed his brother’s death:

The last days of poor Tom were of the most distressing nature; but his last moments were not so painful, and his very last was without a pang—I will not enter into any parsonic comments on death—yet the common observations of the commonest people on death are as true as their proverbs. I have scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature of other—neither had Tom. (II,4)

Just a few lines later, and with little more than a description of his plan to share lodging with Charles Brown as transition between the two topics, John had moved on to brooding over the distance that separated him from George:

The going[s] on of the world make me dizzy—there you are with Birkbeck—here I am with brown—sometimes I fancy an immense separation, and sometimes, as at present, a direct communication of spirit with you. That will be one of the grandeurs of immortality—there will be no space and consequently the only commerce between spirits will be by their intelligence of each other—when they will completely understand each other—while we in this world merely comp[r]ehend each other in different degrees (II, 5)

The certainty with which John imagined Tom’s “immortality” doubled as a balm for the pain that George’s absence provoked. That conflation allowed John to feel two things at once: impossibly removed from George, whose only presence in John’s immediate life was as a mere notion, a ghost like the one Tom had become, and, at the same time, because he knew George so well, a spirit of which he had, wherever George happened to be, immediate and complete intelligence.

Or was it the other way around? Had John’s understanding that George was simultaneously far and near provided, by implication, the assurance that Tom might be, too? In trying to write his way into copresence with one brother, was Keats trying to create a space in which he could feel close to the other? The kind of knowledge upon which John’s feeling of proximity to George depended was, as he went on to explain it, embodied:

I have been so little used to writing lately that I am affraid you will not smoke my meaning so I will give you an example—Suppose Brown or Haslam or any one whom I understand in the n{e}ther degree to what I do you, were in America, they would be so much the farth{er}from me in proportion as their identity was less impressed upon me. Now the reason why I do not feel at the present moment so far from you is that I rememb{er} your Ways and Manners and actions; I known you manner of thinking, you manner of feeling: I know what shape your joy or sorrow w{ou}ld take, I know the manner of you walking, standing, sauntering, sitting down, laugh{ing,} punning, and evey action so truly that you seem near to me. (II, 5)

According to Keats, the kind of fraternal knowledge he has of George has left an impression, one that can survive a separation. Earlier, while Tom was still alive, John had used similar language to describe the effects of their proximity: “I wish I could say Tom was any better. His identity presses upon me so all day that I am obliged to go out” (I, 368-369). Knowledge leaves a mark, and, whether it consoles or aggrieves, it is carried in the body of the knower. This is gestural knowledge, knowledge of “the manner of,” which means that though it is gained in proximity, it persists at a distance. John has been stamped with George’s gestures, and so, even with George in faraway Kentucky, he can be reanimated, “walking, standing, sauntering, sitting down, laugh{ing,} punning,” within John’s own somatic experience. And if John can do this with George, can they not both do the same with “poor Tom”? If one of the “grandeurs of immortality” is that “there will be no space,” might not another be that there will be no time?

In the letter’s improper time, the three Keats brothers find themselves, once again, in the same room. Having reassured George about the ease with which he can conjure, even across the Atlantic, his brother’s living and being, John suggests an exercise that will allow George to do the same:

You will rem{em}ber me in the same manner—and the more when I tell you that I shall read a passage of Shakespeare every Sunday at ten o Clock—you read one {a}t the same time and we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room— (II, 5)

The dream here is one of simultaneity: Shakespeare functions as the triangulated object through which the distant brothers can connect. Like separated lovers who, while talking to each other on the phone, look to the night sky and see, at once and as though together, the same moon (the very same!), these brothers, John and George, will discover copresence by reading the same talismanic text, on the same day, at the same hour. The fact that that day and hour were customarily reserved for church going is all to the point: John was proposing a form of secular worship that would double as a form of fraternal communion.

And yet. With one brother in London and the other in Kentucky, what did “Sunday at ten o Clock” even mean? Surely John understood longitude well enough to know that his Sunday morning would not coincide with George’s. If, for that matter, the idea was to convene over the same passage from the same text, why had John not specified which passage of Shakespeare the brothers should read? One way to understand the imprecision of John’s plan is to consider the imperfection of its reward: “we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room.” How near was that? On the one hand, Keats is promising a thrilling kind of proximity: the ocean between them suddenly swept away, John and his brother find themselves within reach of the sound of each other’s breath, the heat of each other’s body. On the other hand, these bodies cannot touch. They cannot, after all, see. If they are blind, then to them the room is dark. And they are not described here as “brothers” or “men” or “souls”; they are, simply, “bodies.” Set against and dimly legible beneath the consolation of the imagined room in which John and George can sit together, in the elastic and alternate temporality this letter inaugurates, is another room in which the brothers might imagine being joined by Tom, whose cooling body John had lately left. Such a room would more properly be understood as a tomb, a darkened space within which the brothers might be rejoined, in a time that will have no end.

Contributor’s Note
Kamran Javadizadeh is assistant professor of English at Villanova University, where he works on twentieth-century poetry and the long history of poetry and poetics. He is the author of Institutionalized Lyric: American Poetry at Midcentury (forthcoming from Oxford University Press) and has written essays that have appeared or are forthcoming in PMLA, Modernism/modernity, Arizona Quarterly, and The Yale Review as well as in several edited volumes. With Robert Volpicelli, he is co-editor of “Poetry Networks,” a forthcoming special issue of the journal College Literature.

Works Cited
Dickinson, Emily. Selected Letters. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats: 1814-1821, Volume One: 1814-1818. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

—. The Letters of John Keats: 1814-1821, Volume Two: 1819-1821. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

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