Keats at Burns’s Cottage

Daniel Cook
University of Dundee

Re: Keats’s 11, 13 July 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds

By the 11th of July 1818, Keats and Brown had reached Maybole in South Ayrshire, a small burgh of barony (a type of Scottish town) built on a sloping hillside overlooking the Southern Uplands, with the Firth of Clyde barely five miles to the west. Maybole Castle, a fine sixteenth-century building replete with a square tower and round turrets, still stands. Other sites of local interest might have attracted their attention–though poking around abbeys and ruins was more Reynolds’s thing, so Keats claimed at the end of the present letter. Along with its natural beauty, the burgh’s connections with one of Keats’s idols would have been of especial interest to the travellers. Maybole is situated barely six miles south of the birthplace of Robert Burns–roughly two hours by foot. In fact, Burns’s mother, Agnes Brown, hailed from Maybole itself. And it was there that Agnes met and married William Burnes, the poet’s father.

In his letter to Reynolds, though, Keats was in too much of a rush to record the fuller details of his journey to the burgh. He wanted to get to Burns’s Cottage. To record his journey, to “run over the Ground we have passed”, would be “merely as bad as telling a dream”. Like any dream, the recounting is not as interesting as the experience. Referencing the absurdities of the scheme of the inhabitants of Swift’s floating island, he should describe the present travels, he jokes, “in the manner of the Laputan printing press–that is I put down Mountains, Rivers Lakes, dells, glens, Rocks, and Clouds, With beautiful enchanting, gothic picturesque fine, delightful, enchancting, Grand, sublime—a few Blisters &c”. And now, he wraps up, “you have our journey thus far”. Burns is their firm focus–“I am approaching Burns’s Cottage very fast”. Since their pilgrimage to the tomb at Dumfries on the 1st of July, Keats explains, they had made “continual enquiries” about the whereabouts of the cottage and other sites of particular interest. In those conversations Keats notes the “great reputation” of the Ayrshire Bard among the locals, chiefly as a man who “wrote a good mony sensible things”. Keats doesn’t record anything beyond that, anything about Burns’s character, say, but he does categorically aver that “we need not think of his misery—that is all gone”. As with his prior pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon with Bailey, he is sure he will look on the visit “with unmixed pleasure”.

Keats curtails the letter somewhat abruptly at this point, claiming that he will “fill this sheet for you in the Bardies Country”, namely when he reaches Ayr. Writing in Kingswells two days later, he recalls his surprise at finding the area to be “so beautiful”. He had in mind, he concedes, the desolate “rigs of Barley” mentioned in the Burns song ‘It was upon a Lammas night’ (often known as ‘Corn Rigs’ or ‘The Rigs o’ Barley’). (Desolate is Keats’s word–an odd choice to describe the scenery in a song in which “The sky was blue, the wind was still / The moon was shining clearly”.) He traces Burns’s literal and literary steps (the “bonny Doon” of the Bard’s ‘The Banks o’ Doon’ or the bridge that Tam o’ Shanter crossed). But he also follows his own poetic instincts. Overwhelmed by the new sights around him, Keats revels in the profound effect of the scene on his imagination (“I endeavour’d to drink in the Prospect, that I might spin it out to you as the silkworm makes silk from Mulbery leaves”).

When they arrive at Burns’s Cottage, though, Keats finds that he can only write (by his own estimation) a mediocre sonnet “for the mere sake of writing some lines under the roof—they are so bad I cannot transcribe them”. The whisky consumed and the company encountered won’t have helped. The keeper at the Cottage “was a great Bore with his Anecdotes—I hate the rascal”. Described in the letter as “a mahogany faced old Jackass who knew Burns”, the man, Keats insists, “ought to be kicked for having spoken to him [Burns]”. Keats’s pilgrimage to the Bardie’s country has taken an uncivil turn. But now he knows the man a little better, and knows his pain:

His Misery is a dead weight upon the nimbleness of one’s quill—I tried to forget it—to drink Toddy without any Care—to write a merry Sonnet—it wont do—he talked with Bitches—he drank with Blackguards, he was miserable—We can see horribly clear in the works of such a man his whole life, as if we were God’s spies.

Mindful of a similarly dissolute fate, Keats insists that he has much to live for, even if he considers his romantic prospects to be blank (his word). And so does Reynolds, he gleefully informs him: “I have more than once yearne’d for the time of your happiness to come”. Maybe it was the whisky talking.

Keats then returns, in the letter, to his imminent travel plans. The rain had impeded their progress, after a dozen or so miles, but he and Brown remained on track to reach Loch Lomond the day after tomorrow (the 15th). There they planned to climb Ben Lomond (on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond) and, after that, more than eighty miles to the north, Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain–no mean feats. After all, Skiddaw in the Lake District, the sixth-highest summit in England, had proven tricky. On average, by Keats’s own claim, they managed to walk twenty miles a day on average. As this and other letters written at the time suggest, Keats was deeply affected by his time in Scotland–often in wholly surprising ways. Burns’s Cottage, for one, proved to be a bore. But the countryside surrounding it caught Keats unawares with its natural charm. And much more was to be explored. They walked into Glasgow that evening.

Daniel Cook, University of Dundee
School of Humanities, University of Dundee, Scotland DD1 4HN

One thought on “Keats at Burns’s Cottage

  1. 200 years later, a nice counterpoint visit of a cultured lettered man to our loutish president. Recalls our 1st travels in Scotland last summer: Loch Lomond & Drovers Inn [the haggis neeps & tatties is excellent] amongst our thrills. In honor of Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards, we now daily raise a wee dram to Michael Forbes. Love Scotland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *