John Keats and the Vile Descent

Anne C. McCarthy
Penn State University

Re: Keats’s 3, 6 August 1818 letter to Tom

They will see us waving from such great heights
Come down now, they’ll say
But everything looks perfect from far away
Come down now but we’ll stay

-The Postal Service

Back in April (April 8, to be precise), writing to Haydon from Teignmouth, Keats had looked forward to the summer of 1818 as “Prologue to the Life I intend to pursue,” a life that would unite physical and poetic achievement:

I will clamber through the Clouds and exist. I will get such an accumulation of stupendous recollolections that as I walk through the suburbs of London I may not see them—I will stand on Mount Blanc and remember this coming Summer when I intend to straddle ben Lomond—with my Soul!

The Scottish mountain was only supposed to be the beginning; indeed, it seemed to Keats in April that he could already imagine it as a memory on the way to the most sublime peak of them all. He would seek a higher consciousness, build up a reserve of “stupendous recollolections” capable of erasing the quotidian for good—and he would do it the hard way, the right way—John Keats, triumphant mountaineer, the very embodiment of the figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog who continues to grace roughly 90% of the covers of romantic literature textbooks.

Figure 1. Our intrepid wanderer, also from 1818. You can find this image by looking up “Romanticism” in Wikipedia.

This particular view of mountaineering was a relatively new phenomenon when Keats was making his plans, so it’s interesting that these peak experiences are given such emphasis in this stage of his poetic life. Of course, even in 1818, he was already treading in the hiking boots of Wordsworth and Coleridge, of Percy Shelley and Victor Frankenstein, to say nothing of the Continental writers and adventurers who had ennobled the work of ascent. (For more on this, see Cian Duffy’s Landscapes of the Sublime and Simon Bainbridge’s essay on romantic mountaineering.) As Keats’s April letter makes clear, it’s not just about having the physical ability to “clamber through the Clouds”; to elevate the body is nothing less than to elevate the imagination.

Figure 2. “I will stand on Mount Blanc and remember this coming Summer when I intend to straddle ben Lomond—with my Soul!”

The Keats of April 1818, anticipating Maria Von Trapp, intends to climb every mountain and then to keep to the “Heights which the soul is competent to gain,” as Wordsworth put it in The Excursion, even after his feet return to the streets of Hampstead. Keats is, in other words, fully on board with the idea that mountain climbers possess a certain moral authority and a romantic impatience with the crowdedness and inauthenticity of a world that is too much with us.

By the time Keats sits down to write to his brother Tom from Inverness in August, the lofty heights of travel planning have long given way to the realities of the walking tour; as our recent contributors have shown, for every mind-blowingly sublime vista there are plenty of oatcakes and overly-friendly drunkards. There’s the sore throat he can’t quite manage to shake off that’s going to mean cutting the trip short. London has already begun to creep in; Keats describes the experience as akin to “mounting 10 Saint Pauls without the convenience of Stair cases.” Though in April he’d been planning to straddle Ben Lomond, August finds him on Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Great Britain—“Skiddaw is no thing to it either in height or difficulty.”

In many ways, the account of the ascent of Ben Nevis is very much of a piece with the other letters Keats has sent from the walking tour: anticipated sublimes cleaved by material realities (loose rocks and the necessity of proceeding on all fours); poetry that doesn’t entirely rise to the occasion (in particular the bawdy and slightly cruel doggerel about one “Mrs Cameron of 50 years of age and the fattest woman in all inverness shire who got up this Mountain some few years ago—true she had her servants but then she had her self—She ought to have hired Sysiphus”); a careful accounting of whiskey consumed; the general play of the elevated and the mundane. But what I’ve always been struck by most forcefully in this letter is Keats’s description of Nevis’s “shattered heart or Core in itself,” made up of “Chasms … 1500 feel in depth … they turn one giddy if you choose to give way to it.” The play of cloud and mist both reveals and conceals, but there’s something about the vertigo of the image that lingers, even after reaching the top—maybe that’s why Keats has to stabilize himself by snickering at Mrs. Cameron behind his poetic sleeve.

And it’s the story of Mrs. Cameron, incidentally, that leads Keats to what’s arguably his most significant insight about mountaineering: “what surprises me above all is how this Lady got down again.” It’s a curious feature of most mountaineering literature that, while the ascent is described in all its character-building and mettle-testing detail, the descent is treated as more or less inevitable. To take only one example, the official account of the 1953 summiting of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay—The Ascent of Everest—virtually ends at the top, narrating the return to base camp in about two pages. While this might be understandable from a narrative perspective, it’s downright deadly in practice. Coleridge almost killed himself on Scafell in 1802 because, after reaching the top, he more or less stopped paying attention to what he was doing—not everyone who has followed him up has been that lucky. (Alan Vardy’s account of this escapade is fantastic.) Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air, which details what until recently was the deadliest climbing season on Everest, makes this point again and again—nearly everyone who dies does so after getting to the top.

Figure 3. “With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill. … The trick is to get back down alive.” –Everest guide Rob Hall, as quoted in Into Thin Air

“’T was the most vile descent—shook me all to pieces—”

Keats proves himself a mountaineer by remaining tight-lipped about the come-down. It provides him with no immediate poetic material, and it certainly doesn’t do any favors for his already unstable health. The account ends in a dash, picks up with a sonnet on the overleaf, and leaps forward to the stop in Inverness. Whatever happened on the way down, it’s not something that Keats can communicate to Tom.

Figure 4. Ben Nevis in the summertime. Mrs. Cameron not pictured.

Of course, despite—or because of—the mountaineer’s tradition of mystified (mist-ified?) descent, I keep coming back to this single line. The vile descent, the shaking to pieces: might there be, in this zone of the unwriteable, the cracking open of a certain reservoir of poetry—something that evokes, and will allow him to continue to evoke, the “shattered heart or Core” whose unveiling he witnessed on the way up? It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, of course. Going up was supposed to be the hard part. The path was supposed to lead to Mont Blanc, not to the fly on the wainscot. The jeering at Mrs. Cameron notwithstanding, I value this letter for its ability gaze into those Chasms, for the vertigo it doesn’t try to hide, and for the way it begins, or begins to begin, the process of letting go of the pursuit of the egotistical sublime that had gotten him there in the first place.

A brief coda, by way of full disclosure and a bit of shameless self-promotion. Some of what I’ve written here is loosely adapted from “Reading The Red Bull Sublime,” an essay I published last year in PMLA. There, I suggested that we see the aftereffects of this vile descent in the image of Hyperion, falling into history (though not, however, in “The Fall of Hyperion”). I wonder now whether I was too fatalistic in my sense of this journey’s effect on Keats, though, either poetically or biographically.


Works Cited

Bainbridge, Simon. “Romantic Writers and Mountaineering.” Romanticism, vol. 18, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-15.
Duffy, Cian. The Landscapes of the Sublime, 1700-1830: Classic Ground. Palgrave, 2013.
Hunt, John. The Ascent of Everest. Mountaineers, 1993.
Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. Anchor Books, 1999.
McCarthy, Anne C. “Reading the Red Bull Sublime.” PMLA, vol. 132, n0. 3, May 2017, pp. 543-57.
Vardy, Alan. “Coleridge on Broad Stand.” Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, vol. 61, Apr. 2012.

One thought on “John Keats and the Vile Descent

  1. Good stuff, Anne! How different a perspective from Jonathan Edwards’s allegory-making: “When we travail up an hill, it is against our natural tendency and inclination, which perpetually is to descend. And therefore, we but go on ascending with labour and difficulty. But there arises a pleasant prospect to pay us for our labour as we ascend; and as we continue our labour in ascending, still the pleasantness of the prospect grows….” Jonathan Edwards, Images or Shadows of Divine Things

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