Richard Marggraf Turley
Re: Keats’s 15 April 1817 letter to George and Tom Keats
In April 1817, Keats was going places. His debut volume Poems (1817) had appeared the previous month to enthusiastic reviews by his friends, and he’d been welcomed into the avant-garde circles of Leigh Hunt and Benjamin Robert Haydon. Now, at four o’clock in the afternoon on 14 April, he was underway in a very literal sense. An onlooker outside The Bell and Crown in Holborn would have seen the Southampton mail coach emerge in black-and-scarlet PO livery from the square arch of the coaching yard and clatter onto Holborn Hill, Keats perched atop, wrapped in a plaid for warmth, a beaver-hatted guard bringing up the rear (toting a blunderbuss and two loaded pistols; as De Quincey was to write: “It is felony to stop the mail. Even the sheriff cannot do that”). Keats’s ultimate destination was the Isle of Wight, where he was decamping to write his “long Poem”, Endymion. Fully conscious of the unstrained juvenile exuberances of his first collection – “bordering on childishness” the Eclectic Review would complain (Conder 270) – Keats was banking on an epic to establish himself as a mature poet.
Fourteen dusty hours later, “muzzy” from his crepuscular journey, he was searching for breakfast in Southampton, afterwards composing a sleepless aubade to his brothers George and Tom, which he deposited at the Post Office in Butcher’s Row (now West Street) before his ferry sailed at three o’clock. Part impressionistic travelogue, part rhapsody on Cockney sociability, Keats’s letter of 15 April, like the mail coach itself, speeds easily on, its own velocity echoing the vehicle’s thundering progress through Surrey and Hampshire. In that letter, Keats regales his brothers with a lamplit montage of scenes and images glimpsed from his window seat; lavishes excitable praise on his new best friend Haydon’s painting of another urban arrival, that of Christ into Jerusalem; displays his literary credentials through some thickly laid-on allusions to The Tempest, Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; gives vent to the boyish energies of Rum-ti-ti, Titmouse and “betty over the way”; before signing off with another literary pun, this time comparing his letter to a “rough plan of Aunt Dinah’s Counterpane” from Tristram Shandy.
Written to announce an arrival, Keats’s dispatch is dashed off with the boyish urbanity of someone who felt they’d arrived twice: once, that morning, in the seaport of Southampton and, during the preceding months, in the giddy social orbits of Hunt, Haydon and Hazlitt. As I read Keats’s letter again, I find myself smiling, pleased to see him so pleased with himself for once. (As John Barnard shows in a recent Romanticism article on Endymion’s composition, this was a disconcerting time for the young poet, a “narvus” period of “depressions” and “forebodings”.) But – and this in the context of preparing a new collection of essays on the theme of “Keats and place” – what grabs me is not so much the letter’s gauche au courantism (which once I saw everywhere in Keats), but rather the humdrum strangeness of that peripatetic sequence that maps Keats’s journey through the interspaces between London and Southampton, the phantasmagoria of those faint visions, lit by the coach’s lamps – unfamiliar towns and hamlets, commons, downs, empaled parks, enclosed farms, wayside pubs and turnpike gates.
Popular guides such as Paterson’s Roads gave Romantic-period travellers the “correct routes of all the mail coaches” from Hyde Park Corner, along with the principal set-downs: Hammersmith – BRENTFORD – HOUNSLOW – STAINES. They help us catch Keats’s drift.
Because at first sight, Keats’s own em-dashed itinerary of the Mail Coach Road, seen in dim pools of lamplight, appears to have little in common with Patterson’s clipped precision:
All I can tell you is that sometimes I saw dusty Hedges – sometimes Ponds – then nothing – then a little Wood […] – then came houses which dies away into a few straggling Barns – then came hedge trees aforesaid again. As the Lamplight crept along the following things were discovered – “Long heath broom furze” – Hurdles here and there half a Mile – Park palings when the Windows of a House were always discovered by reflection – One Nymph of a Fountain – N.B. Stone – lopped Trees – Cow ruminating – ditto Donkey – Man and Woman going gingerly along – William seeing his Sisters over the Heath – John waiting with a Lanthen for his Mistress – Barbers Pole – Docter’s Shop. (LJK, I 128)
For Walter Jackson Bate, this list shows Keats falling into the “innocence of exuberant simplicity” (159), while for R. S. White, the impressions are “cryptic” (74). We might wish to question the innocence of Keats’s possibly bawdy concatenation of John waiting for his mistress and the barber’s pole. As for cryptic, Keats is rarely that; in fact, he usually repays us for taking him at his word. That’s what I’ve been doing, consulting Romantic traveller and tourist guides for the bare bones of the Southampton mail coach’s route, supplementing them with ordnance survey and enclosure maps to flesh out the A to Z of Keats’s peripateticism. The stone nymph has eluded me, but other materially embedded details emerged to suggest that Keats’s lamplit cartography isn’t puzzling, but is by its own compass “correct”.
Keats begins his overnight journey at the Bell and Crown at 133 Holborn Hill, proceeding west along Piccadilly, past the Gloucester Coffee House, down to Hyde Park Corner, through the Kensington turnpike, down the high street to Hammersmith, famous for its market gardens and fruit nurseries – its pruned fruit trees are possibly the “lopped trees” Keats mentions seeing; next comes Turnham Green – Keats says he “did not know the Names of any of the Towns I passed through” (LJK, I, 128) – Brentford, county town of Middlesex, the Grand Junction Canal, Smallbury Green, Hounslow and its Powder Mills, and new enclosures, then Staines, and across the Thames into Surrey with Egham, Windsor (where George III was in residence), and Windsor Park on the right – Keats remarks on “Park palings” – wooden in 1817, iron today; Shrub’s Hill is next, then Hatton Hall to the left, over Bagshot Heath – Keats jests he saw “William seeing his Sisters over the Heath” – past the wooded park, and on to the village of Bagshot itself – then into Frimley, crossing the Blackwater River at Frimley Bridge, on to Farnborough, crossing the Basingstoke canal, and on to Farnham – Keats is well into Surrey now – where there’s a “set down”, and a chance for the horses to draw breath … as may we …
And off again towards Bentley Green (a “delightful place”, according to The Traveller’s Guide in 1805, with a “large green adjoining” and a “hop plantation”, though it would have been dark when Keats’s mail coach flew through; [Oulton I, 76]) – the black shapes off to the left the trees of Holt Forest; on to Alton, through Chawton (rumbling past the house where Jane Austen lived on Winchester Road), through Ropley Stoke and Ropley Dean and the Anchor Inn, barrelling along (average speed >10mph) the Bishop’s Sutton turnpike road into Alresford (pronounced Awls-fud), through which, according to a Universal British Directory report of 1798, “The Mail coach from London passe[d] … every morning between 3 and 4 o’clock” (Barfoot and Wilkes 23), and where there was a great pond and a roadside barber’s pole, just as Keats describes, the latter sketched by Thomas Rowlandson (see below) in 1792 – Staple Green, over Winchester Downs, arriving into Winchester along the Alresford Road, down and around Magdalen Hill, beneath St Giles’s Hill (from whose top Keats would be inspired to write “To Autumn” two and a half years later), passing Winchester post office at “about five o’clock” (Oulton II, 862), just as the sun would have been rising (at eleven minutes past five on 15 April 1817, according to the NOAA Solar Calculator) – Keats tells us he “saw the sun rise”.
Another “set down” in Winchester … and we’re off once more, dashing past the Hospital of St Cross on the St Cross Road – Keats was to walk parallel to this road when he strolled along the Itchin’s water meadows in September 1819 – south on to Compton, hurtling between Compton Down and Twyford Down – Keats records that “from dawn till half past six I went through a most delightful Country – some open Down but for the most part thickly wooded”, noting “an immense quantity of blooming Furze on each side the road cutting a most rural dash” – past the chalk pit, on to Otterbourne and Otterbourne Hill, through thick forest to Chandler’s Ford Bridge, past the “direction post” at the fork in the road there; through Marlbrook pond turnpike gate, passing Common Farm and Marlbrook pond itself, over Chilworth Common – the ancient routeways often followed tracts of common land – and what progressive enclosures and incorporations had left of Stoneham Common, then alongside Stoneham Park, empaled by the influential Fleming family, and a brick kiln, then through Southampton Common, rattling past The Cowherds Inn (still there today), Bevis Mount looming on the left (“extremely romantic and agreeable”, so the Southampton Guide; Lechiot 53), along an avenue of firs that Gilpin praised for forming a “connecting thread between a town and country” (Bullar 116), and, slowing now, pulling past the Royal Military Asylum at the confluence of London Road and the Avenue (a cavalry barracks during the Napoleonic Wars), before coming to a stop, coach springs juddering, at The Coach and Horses on the west side of Above Bar Street, just up from Southampton’s medieval Bargate, whose famous lions Keats inspected on his way to find breakfast. Distance travelled: a total of 77 miles.
Back to that sun up. It strikes me as poignant that as the sun’s limb touched the horizon that morning, Keats, setting out on his poetic career, was rolling through Winchester, a town that would come to be associated through his most achieved poem, 1819’s ode “To Autumn”, with the maturing sun, with sunsets. Keats also thought the event significant, and underscored it: “N.B. this tuesday Morn saw the Sun rise” (LJK, I, 128) – with that pen stroke giving his letter a horizontal plane of its own for the sun to climb above. Nicholas Roe suggests this slant observation alludes to the night of 14-15 April thirteen years earlier, when the Keats brothers’ father had died (Roe 162); Keats, that is, notes he’s just witnessed the sunrise his father hadn’t. If Keats uses that dawn to commemorate his father (as well as announcing a son rise), perhaps he commemorated the sunrise itself in the long poem he began a few days later. Allowing for the analemma of poetic transposition, compare Endymion’s speech to Peona – “I, who still saw the horizontal sun/ Heave his broad shoulder o’er the edge of the world” (Endymion, I, 529-30) – with Keats’s own “N.B.” to George and Tom.
Other key words and phrases appear to undergo a transversal shift into Keats’s epic. In 1792, relating his own journey over Bagshot Heath, the traveller Charles Tomkins complained that a “succession of hills covered with dark furze” (Ulex europæus) – another name for gorse – proved “very ungratifying to the eye” (Tomkins I, 6). Perhaps it was Bagshot’s heath and furze that cued Keats’s spondees from The Tempest: “Long heath broom furze”. At any rate, “Furze” didn’t offend Keats’s eye. Far from it: the shrubby plants make a second appearance later on in his letter, where their bright yellow flowers cut a “rural dash” as dawn broke between Winchester and Southampton:
I forgot to say that from dawn till half past six I went through a most delightful Country – some open Down but for the most part thickly wooded. What surprised me most was an immense quantity of blooming Furze on each side the road cutting a most rural dash. (LJK, I, 129)
Furze spreads easily on the downs – it also takes root in Book 1 of Endymion, in a scene set during “the silent workings of the dawn” (I, 107), and brings along with it another key term from Keats’s letter, “down” (as in hilly plateau). Dawn – down(s) – furze:
Men of Latmos! shepherd bands!
Whose care it is to guard a thousand flocks:
Whether descended from beneath the rocks
That overtop your mountains; whether come
From valleys where the pipe is never dumb;
Or from your swelling downs, where sweet air stirs
Blue hare-bells lightly, and where prickly furze
Buds lavish gold …
Yea, everyone attend! (Endymion, I, 196-212)
This, then, is Keats underway, Keats in transit, commenting on empalement, attuned to enclosure out there in the social world, but equally to the rum-ti-ti of titmouse, to John waiting for his mistress. The letter of 15 April 1817 also opens a lens into the mechanical realities of interurban transport in the Romantic period, just as it allows us insight into the creative energy of Keatsian translocations and translocutions. And finally, em-dashed – cutting its own rural dash – it gives us Keats’s sense of personal rapidity, his debut volume newly printed, the young poet about to embark on an epic.
Barfoot, Peter and John Wilkes. The Universal British Directory of Trade, Commerce and Manufacture, 5 vols. London: British Directory Office, 1798.
Barnard, John. “Keats’s ‘Forebodings’: Margate, Spring 1817, and After.” Romanticism. 21 (2015): 1-13.
Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1963.
Bullar, John. A Companion in a Tour Round Southampton. 2nd edn. London: G. Wilkie, 1801.
Conder, Josiah. Review of Poems (1817), Eclectic Review. 2nd series, 8 (1817): 267-75.
De Quincey, Thomas. “The English Mail-Coach”, in Thomas De Quincey: Confessions of an English Opium-Eather and Other Writings. Ed. Barry Milligan. London: Penguin, 2003.
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NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Solar Calculator: https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/grad/solcalc/.
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