In short I love you

Brian Rejack
Illinois State University

RE: John Aitken’s 17 August 1820 letter to John Keats
(read Aitken’s full letter here)

Imagine for a moment that you are a bank clerk in Dunbar, Scotland in the summer of 1820. Your name is John Aitken, you are twenty-five years old, and you currently nurture some as-yet unrealized literary aspirations (you’ll edit some literary magazines in years to come). Your favorite contemporary poet has just published his third book, and you’ve read it and luxuriated in its store of beauties. You may even now be predicting that this latest volume will secure the lasting fame of this young poet–born the same year as you–despite the treatment his first two books received from that mischievous band of quizzers over at Blackwood’s Magazine, among other reviewers. And just in the last week, you’ve confirmed what you already suspected from reading his poems: he is in ill health, “inhabiting a sickened and shaken body,” as Leigh Hunt posed it in his review of the new volume. This revelation has given you an idea, though. You have a house, a younger sister who tends it (let’s hope you at least pay her well), a truly impressive library (upwards of a thousand volumes!), and the perfect hot and dry climate to support the convalescence of a consumptive poet (ok, the climate may not be ideal). You make the decision: it is time for you to write a letter to John Keats.

I begin with this second-person exercise because what has always fascinated me about John Aitken’s letter to John Keats, written two hundred years ago today, is simply this: what was that guy thinking?! I get the whole affective-connection-to-an-author thing (I think my own orientation toward Keats testifies as much). Aitken’s fan letter, though, is on a whole other level. He signs off as “your real welwisher,” which really is an understatement. Aitken offers a good deal more than praise of the poetry and hopes for the poet’s health: he invites Keats to come live with him (and be his love, but we’ll get to that). Although Aitken wouldn’t know it at the time of his writing, Keats had just the previous day written a response to another invitation urging him to spend the winter elsewhere than London. That invitation, however, was from Percy Shelley, and it posed two significant advantages over Aitken’s: 1) it was an invitation from a known person, a friend even (though not a close one), and 2) it was an invitation to go to Italy, whose climate surely exceeds that of East Lothian, at least in terms of suitability for recovering from tuberculosis.

Aitken, though, seems not to have viewed these two factors (his residence in a more northern clime than London’s and his status as a complete stranger) as the most significant hindrances to achieving his aim. No, he chose instead to make sure that Keats wouldn’t be turned off by an invitation from a countryman of the writers of Blackwood’s! So Aitken begins his letter. He apologizes for the “manifest baseness of conduct” from the likes of John Gibson Lockhart and John Wilson. Aitken even claims that he’s defended Keats to the Blackwood’s gang directly: “some that are {c}onnected with it, know well, how much, by every means in my power, I have endeavoured to soften its illiberality.” To Aitken’s credit, it appears that he really was telling the truth about his efforts. About a month after Aitken sent his letter to Keats, while he was likely eagerly waiting for a reply from the poet to arrive at the East Lothian Bank, he instead received a reply from another of his correspondents: no less than Z himself, the writer of the Cockney School essays in Blackwood’s, John Gibson Lockhart.

In Andrew Lang’s biography of Lockhart, he quotes a letter to “a Mr. Aitken, in Dunbar,” written on 15 September 1820, in which Lockhart claims to have “already attempted to say something kind about Mr. Keats, in Blackwood’s Magazine, but been thwarted.” Presumably Lockhart was responding to a letter from Aitken exhorting him to defend Keats. Lockhart did, in his review of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound in the September 1820 issue, at least give Keats a bit of mild praise (while still ultimately deriding his “Cockneyism” in fairly choice language). What’s remarkable about Aitken opening his letter with this extended apologia for, essentially, all of Scotland and especially its literary culture, is that he imagines that factor–his shared national heritage with Lockhart–will be the greatest barrier to his entrée into Keats’s intimate private life.

Undeterred, Aitken moves to his main topic: inviting Keats to come to Scotland to live with a total stranger. It’s a tough ask, and Aitken seems to recognize as much. First he explains how he even knows that Keats’s health is a problem. For one, Aitken read in Leigh Hunt’s Indicator that Keats was ill, a fact Hunt disclosed by “tak[ing] a friend’s liberty” in revealing the information to his readers, to which I say, I don’t know that it was really your liberty to take, Leigh. Also, why you do always have to nitpick in your reviews of Keats?? Don’t you realize that’s not how the game works? Friends write glowing reviews, enemies write vicious attacks.

But back to Aitken. To further prove that he truly knew Keats, and that he had “real interest for [Keats’s] welfare,” Aitken claims that the news from the Indicator was just a confirmation of what he already knew from reading Keats’s latest volume of poetry: “I guessed that all was not well with you–and I heard the parting beauty of the Swan’s adieus in your numbers.” Whether or not Keats would have appreciated such a reading of his numbers is another question altogether. But now that Aitken has offered his explanation of how he knows about Keats’s current state, he’s ready to dive right in to the request itself. Of course, he seems to recognize that it’s all a bit… weird? In the process, though, his hesitation and ambiguity just make things even more awkward.

Note for instance how he offers what could be described as the first attempt at his proposal to Keats:

Would that it were in my power to yield you one real feeling of pleasure,–that aught within the reach of my influence could be welcome to you,–that I were a brother or a bosom friend to you, that by participation, any of your cares might be lessened.

Not exactly a clear invitation! Aitken continues, apologizing for Scotland some more, noting that he realizes Keats may think it a place “where kind-hearts, and sunshine and loveliness and sympathy are equally rare,” but hoping to figure out how to “assure you that such is not the case.” A bit more prevaricating on the question, and then finally, the first clear statement of what this letter is all about: “But still I must endeavor to bring you to Scotland.”

Why is this letter filled with so much explanation, apology, and misdirection? The answer is really quite simple: Aitken is in love. And it’s not just any kind of love, but love for someone who feels intimately close to him despite the two never having met or even corresponded. Call it modern celebrity, call it fandom, call it an affective manifestation of romantic-era print culture. Following Deidre Lynch, and Ann Wierda Rowland and Paul Westover, among others, we might call it simply “author love,” and note that there have been some torrid cases of it directed Keats’s way (here’s looking at you, Louis Arthur Holman ). One thing is certain: Aitken’s got it, and he’s got it bad.

The word love creeps into this letter rather slowly and covertly. Its first appearance is via “loveliness,” when Aitken claims that Scotland is not in fact devoid of that characteristic–one imagines he might even venture to say that it increases, or surely would with Keats’s presence there. Love recurs soon after in another and more directly negative formulation. After posing the matter plainly, that Aitken is inviting Keats to Scotland, he returns to the letter’s initial obstacle, and notes once again that Scotland is “a land which you cannot love.” If loveliness threatens to be in short supply, and if Keats cannot love the country itself, then where is the love to be found?

Once again it takes Aitken a while to get there, but we’ve established that that’s how he operates by this point, no? There is some more misdirection as a “younger, amiable sister” is introduced, but the main point of mentioning her seems to be that she is Aitken’s housekeeper (she is neither named nor mentioned again). Between his anxious questions (“Will you be persuaded to make the experiment?” and “Need I say more?”), we find also the offer of a “select and extensive” library, and the promise of “soothing affection, real sterling, Scottish kindness, and hospitality.” And then we reach what Aitken has clearly been (excuse the pun) aching to articulate from the start.

As we all know, it’s dangerous to ask “need I say more,” because once you offer the question, you’ve immediately created the need. Aitken’s subsequent more is a tortuous looping of negation: “but more I cannot say than this that there is nothing selfish in my request.” Another dangerous clause. Surely something selfish will soon follow. But first Aitken defends his selflessness by explaining that his request is due to the “amiable qualities of [Keats’s] heart” (which Aitken has judged from the poems), and because of his desire that Keats’s literary talents continue to be nurtured (presumably for the good of literary history and what not). This claim leads, naturally, to the clarification that serves as my essay’s title, and the phrase that I, like Aitken, have been putting off for far too long: “In short I love you.”

The section of Aitken’s letter with the fateful sentence

Imagine again that you are John Aitken. You’ve just written the words “In short I love you” in a letter to John Keats, a man you don’t know but a poet you do. What comes next? How do you recover from such a bold show of vulnerability and intimacy? How do you convince the man you love but don’t know that your confession of love is not selfish at all but actually quite the opposite? Are you starting to think that this letter may have been a bad idea, or have you instead begun to write yourself into thinking that this fantasy may just become reality?

Of course, I know that Aitken’s full syntax reads “In short I love you … for yourself alone,” and that he means to say that the invitation is a selfless act demonstrating his high esteem for Keats. But how does one not stop with a bit of a shock when reading the first part of the sentence? Aitken certainly doesn’t do himself any favors by structuring the sentence as he does, with an additional clarification in between dashes and parentheses. Even though the sentence is trying to get to “for yourself alone,” it sure works pretty hard to delay that arrival.

What Aitken has to say in his parenthetical is also somewhat detrimental to his attempt to claim selflessness in his motives. Note to all letter-writers: be wary of striking through “will” and replacing it with “must”! Telling someone they “will must” love you “of necessity,” is probably not going to be all that well received. Aitken, though, seems as assured of Keats’s (future) love for him as he is of his for Keats in that moment.

Having confessed his love, and predicted demanded its return, Aitken can now proceed to logistics, and he runs through a few different travel options. He even imagines himself at the end of Keats’s future journey, should Keats come “by any of the land conveyances,” and thereby “pass through our ancient Town.” In that case Keats would find Aitken “on the watch, as impatient to meet with you as if you were a young Lady.” Who knows what Aitken himself thought or imagined about the destined love between him and Keats, but it’s clear from this comparison (and really from the whole letter) that he understands the erotic component of desire at play here, even if there are limits on what could be articulated precisely on that score (and when can desire ever be articulated precisely anyway).

It’s hard for me to decide what is the most touching part of his letter, or the most pitiful, or maybe both at the same time, but surely in the running for either or both would be his penultimate sentence: “I trust you will write me, and that your letter shall not, at least, state decisively that you will not come; as I have almost persuaded myself that you will in earnest visit me.” We know, of course, that Keats did not travel to Scotland, but to Italy (though not to Shelley). And even Aitken would have figured out pretty quickly after sending off his missive that the wished-for meeting would not happen (Hunt refers to Keats’s departure for Italy in the Indicator‘s 20 September issue). One question remains for us, though: did Keats write a reply to Aitken?

Call me a cynic, but I found myself deeply skeptical the first time I noticed in Hyder Edward Rollins’s edition of the letters the claim that “Keats must surely have replied.” (Who knew Rollins was a romantic??) In the last few weeks before he left England, Keats was rather busy, not to mention physically ill and mentally distressed, and I find it hard to believe that responding to Aitken’s letter, as lovely and sincere as the invitation may have been, would have been a high priority. First there is the question of whether Keats simply found the letter a bit… creepy? Or even just overly forward, if well-intentioned? Perhaps the letter was well-received, and Keats did at least want to send a note of thanks, or maybe ask a friend to write a note to Aitken on his behalf. But if such things had happened, would John Aitken not have done everything in his power to ensure that his own personal Keatsian relic end up in the hands of someone who would care for its journey into posterity? Given that no such letter currently exists in this particular moment of posterity, sadly for Aitken (and for us), I think it’s likely that no reply came.

So let’s try this one more time. Imagine we are John Aitken. We have sent our letter to John Keats. We go to work at the bank, and we believe know that a letter in reply from Keats is on its way to us. Each day when the mail coach comes through our part of our ancient town, we watch and hope to catch a glimpse of the one we love. We wait.

One thought on “In short I love you

  1. a terrific essay, Brian … deeply intuitive and careful of the small details (punctuation, visible strike-throughs: might you even apply these in place of Rollins’s ?), and a virtual novel supplement. Do we know more about Aitken’s pre- and post-Keats life, or the Keats books in his ample library? (eat your heart out, Fitzwilliam Darcy … ). There is of course a whole train of author-love for Keats (Wilde’s being a 19th c summa), and Aitken surely stands at the fount. This is different from the fan- swooning over Byron’s celebrity, because it seems confected from a a psychic imaginary of “Keats” in Aitken’s heart. Loved your essay for bringing this oblique angle forward for us

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