Keatsian Correspondences: An Introduction to “A Tragedy in 5 Acts”

Adam Cady
Illinois Wesleyan University

Editor’s note: One year ago, on July 30, 2019, Adam Cady shared the introduction to his work as an undergraduate researcher and Eckley Scholar at Illinois Wesleyan University: “Redressing the Tragedy: The Place of Otho the Great in John Keats’s Letters.” The following day, July 31, Adam shared “Dog-carts, Elephants, and the Collaborative Effort of Otho the Great,” the first of four KLP entries celebrating the bicentennial of specific Otho-related letters. As the KLP is dedicated to the scholarly commemoration of literary anniversaries and fostering dialogues across time, it seemed only fitting that the introduction to Adam’s more creative extension of earlier Keats research should be published on this, the anniversary of his first contribution to the KLP. To correspond with his first letter-specific post, then, the body of Adam’s latest work, “A Tragedy in 5 Acts,” a Keatsian, chameleonic, epistolary prose-poem and phantasmal memoir addressed directly to Keats himself, will be released tomorrow on the KLP.

Not so loftily “stedfast” as his poem’s titular bright star, John Keats’s twenty-five years of aspiring life represented an ephemeral explosion of stunning creative output. Persisting through boyhood woes and the near-disastrously wasteful pragmatism of a medical education—through recurring tubercular bouts, as well as periods of melancholic “idleness” and “darling lounging habits”—Keats’s brief literary career was more than enough to secure his legacy as one of the greatest English poets (July 31, 1819, letter to Charles Wentworth Dilke). In the fall of 2017, though, when I joined Illinois Wesleyan’s semester-long study abroad program in London, my knowledge of the famed Romantic and his spectacular canon—of his sonnets, odes, romances, letters—was limited to mere, faint recognition of names like “Nightingale” and “Grecian Urn.” My experience with Keats began and—essentially, at that point—ended with an angstily atheistic freshman essay on his sonnet “Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition.” Those few, formative years ago, I luxuriated deeper in the mists of ignorance, blind to the personal and profitable impact Keats would soon have on me. I was, most hauntingly, oblivious to the uncanny biographical overlaps—those coincidental Keatsian correspondences—which would eventually solidify my connection to the poet and unambiguously demand the writing of “A Tragedy in Five Acts.”

Take, for the sake of outrageously narcissistic argument, these few facts of Keats’s short life: he was plagued off-and-on by the respiratory pains of tuberculosis, the same miserable ailment which eventually took his life; chronic illness was exacerbated by travel via a stormy carriage ride that triggered his most worrisome bout of illness to date; his ambitions were such that, amid the most productive period of his fleeting existence, he actively resisted the settling affections and “domestic cares” of his dear inamorata, Fanny Brawne; in the dreary, pain-filled months which preceded his passing, he begged for lethal doses of laudanum and the preferable release of suicide; and finally, though he lived for much of the previous seventeen months with friend Charles Armitage Brown at Hampstead, the poet’s mortal journey expired in Rome, where his tomb now resides (July 25, 1819, letter to Fanny Brawne). Though any conceivable echoes of Keats in my sordid English experience fail to merit the employment of paranormal investigators, my prematurely terminated stint in Keats’s hometown was notably sullied—in part—by airway-adjacent illness: tonsillitis. And however nonthreatening such an infection may seem in relation to the bloody suffocation of a historically devastating condition like tuberculosis, the twofold emergence of a peritonsillar abscess did—it turns out, in addition to prohibiting the swallowing of my own saliva—constitute a potentially deadly annoyance. As my tonsils were horrifically swollen just days after my arrival in London, I moreover suspect that travel—the ludicrously unsanitary state of most commercial airliners—was the real origin of my sickness. Amid all this suffocating unpleasantness, too, I was constantly reminded that vague, unnamed, inadvisable ambition had inspired my go-getting escape to Britain, and that same ambition fostered within me an alienating sense of pending greatness—a lonely, misguided pride which meant particular disdain for a stateside girlfriend and fear that we may at any point forfeit “nobler amusements” in order to “what people call, settle” (August 5-6, 1819, letter to Fanny Brawne). Regularly bedridden, isolated, and betrayed by the woeful inadequacies of my physical self, then, my sojourn in Europe was colored by suicidal ideation, as well as an eventual attempt to take my own life. When that blunder brought my semester to a hasty end, I was meant to visit a cousin earning his master’s degree in Rome, but instead found myself facing the professional judgement of a Hampstead psychologist, mere blocks from Wentworth Place and the Keats House museum.

However simultaneously self-aggrandizing and repulsively macabre such thinking may be, when I first encountered Keats’s rich biography, that narrative of suffering, suicidal woe, and death was near-immediate cause for celebration. In the doomed Romantic’s somber tale, and in the language of Keats’s remarkable letters, I recognized my own trauma, my ambitions, and my deficiencies. The Romantic’s greatest literary failure, for instance, is likely that of his singular completed drama, Otho the Great, a disastrously convoluted and largely forgotten tragedy on which I’ve previously written and published extensive scholarship. Conceived as a money-making scheme, Keats agreed to undergo this doomed venture with companion and co-author Charles Brown out of sheer financial desperation. Similarly accidental, my scholarly involvement with Otho began as a wild suggestion—the last-ditch recommendation of Professor and KLP editor Mike Theune, whose informed curiosity was mercifully extended as the answer to my imprecise longings for the praise and cash which accompanied Illinois Wesleyan’s Eckley Summer Scholars and Artists Endowment. While Keats and Brown never saw a measly ha’penny for their “dog-cart” dramaturgical labors, however, the Tragedy (as Keats refers to Otho in his letters) proved a rewarding avenue of inquiry for me, resulting not only in $4000 for investigation of the overlooked drama, but also serving as the basis for an independent study course, an exceptionally rare staged reading of the play, and research honors (July 31, 1819, letter to C.W. Dilke). Most importantly, exploration of Otho’s curious role in the poet’s correspondence (a multipart project titled “Redressing the Tragedy: The Place of Otho the Great in John Keats’s Letters,” published in installments on the Keats Letters Project website) fostered in me a profound appreciation of Keats’s life and works—wonderment at his linguistic mastery, as well as awe at our respective biographies’ improbable confluences. In recognition of that more conventional project’s fundamental influence, then, my subsequent “Tragedy in 5 Acts” borrows its name and pseudo-dramatic structure from the subtitle of Otho, while its stylized language and epistolary nature derive from Keats’s correspondence. Beyond mere admiration for his canonized poetical prowess, the strangely familiar experiences and observations, haunting themes and varied locales which filled and defined Keats’s brief life and letters have—despite the ongoing bicentennial of his fleeting career marking an enormous temporal gulf between our irreconcilably removed selves—proved inexhaustible wellsprings of inspiration. 

Likewise, Act I of my Tragedy, “imprudent moveables,” takes its title directly from Keats’s August 5-6, 1819, letter to Fanny Brawne—a supposed love letter which nevertheless balks at the settling capacities of romantic attachment. As the introductory Act initiates an irreverent retelling of my less-than-ideal experience studying abroad, it rightfully clarifies the circumstances and mindset which first inspired my overeager escape to London. Magically and without real explanation, the highly disturbed letter extends its epistolary address across two whole centuries—purports to communicate directly with Keats himself—yet its primary focus remains the nameless “Ambitions” which demanded such bold, inadvisable action as months-long removal from my home continent. As if pestered by the disembodied “voices of sirens, sweet murderers of men,” the unstable speaker (essentially, a past and problematic version of myself) travels to London in search of unknown, unspecified success, thus subjecting himself to conditions which foster the twin burdens of woefully undertreated tonsillitis—a cyclically flaring infection of the throat, somewhat like Keats’s own tubercular bouts—and mismanaged clinical depression. Still, throughout Act I, the speaker’s foolhardy transatlantic journey is cause for elation—cosmic hallucination and homoromantic forecasting—given the fervency of his urge to leave behind one specific American. In that same August 5-6, 1819, letter, disturbed by the domesticating potential of his feelings for Ms. Brawne, Keats professes his constitutional inability to pen “proper downright love letters,” and, similarly “unloverlike” with regard to Mel, his Yankee paramour, the speaker in my Tragedy suffers “dread of unchecked contentment. Of placid banality.” No matter how unfit this speaker is to face the wider world’s debilitating truth, he is, like Keats, unwilling to take the steadying hand of love: “Better be imprudent moveables than prudent fixtures” (August 5-6, 1819, letter to Fanny Brawne). 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Act II, “so much oppress’d at Westminster,” totally undercuts Act I’s ambitious fantasizing with the sobering realities of an impressive-yet-insufferable workplace. Borrowing, this time, from Keats’s July 31, 1819, letter to C.W. Dilke and referring to the social difficulties of that friend’s young, bullied son, “so much oppress’d at Westminster” comparably entails the boyish struggles of a first “real job”—in truth, an unpaid Parliamentary internship with a Labour MP (unnamed here, though there’s ample context in Act II to out this unsavory official). As this dissatisfying work results from those same, undefined aspirations which spill forth in the energetic ramblings of Act I, preparing tea and returning emails in a cramped, musty office is—of course—a colossal disappointment, compared with the dreamy, ethereal visions promised to a dubiously receptive addressee. Yet after whining childishly about such menial, secretarial business—reflexively degrading the English people, praising Irish nationalism, and envisioning explosive, terroristic revolt—the act transitions to more earnest, pressing matters than the speaker’s mild discomfort: the #MeToo Movement’s pivotal revelations, and the quiet complicity of onlooking men. As my real, interrupted semester abroad coincided with the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein story, I was—that autumn—suddenly attuned to the prevalence of misogynistic abuse in the workplace. Thus, the speaker notices his duly elected employer’s tendency to hire beautiful twenty-something women, while simultaneously indulging the kind of ogling objectification that he finds so apparent in the MP’s “pudding-thick, glazy cataract stares.” Whereas “the Member” appears to view his female staffers exclusively as fetishized sources of optical pleasure, though, the speaker’s degrading lustfulness is partially resolved by his coworker’s espousal of radical Leftism—by Hannah’s teatime recitation of Marxist philosophy, which both forces a humanistic reassessment of female staffers’ interior lives and shifts the speaker further from his boss’s tepid Blairite politics. As a result of this modest growth, the speaker is symbolically punished, taken by the MP to Westminster Hall—to the exact site of Charles I’s fateful trial—where he imagines a swift execution via “the winnowing Blade.”

Following this vivid, figurative decapitation, Act III, “the same natural history of Monsters,” draws its ominous moniker from a comical indictment of lawyers in Keats’s February 1819 journal letter to his brother and sister-in-law, George and Georgiana Keats. While a disconcerting segment of my extended family has indeed practiced law, though, the emphasis of this section is rather the nightmarish presence of history—prior generations’ venomous influence, and the futility of resisting their genetic authority. Presented as the hungover musings of a “couchbound & queasy” Oktoberfest attendee, the Munich-based segment begins by further lamenting the settling power of Mel; in this case, the gut-wrenching terror wrought by a stateside pregnancy scare. Connecting immediate fears of paternity to a “bloodborne legacy” of alcoholism and violence, the speaker then explicates his family’s multigenerational tendency toward overindulgence, not-so-subtly excusing his own vices in the process. In this third segment of the Tragedy, the speaker also remarks for the first time that he’s suffering from the “swollen encumbrance” of severe tonsillitis—compares his “maddening” pain to that of his second cousin, Charles, a recent victim of suicide. Just as Keats, in his final, tubercular months, begged for “Easeful Death” through laudanum, the speaker is evidently determined to relieve his own misery and “pestilent itching” by whatever means necessary. In such a state of sickness and despair, Act III turns—finally—to the famous question of Keatsian Negative Capability and asks: Is such transcendent forfeiture of the self even possible? Relaying the semi-supernatural memory of a cold and luminous apparition in the empty basement of a preserved concentration camp’s medical barracks (in truth, a recollection from an earlier visit to metropolitan Berlin’s Sachsenhausen camp, purposely juxtaposed with the Germanic revelries of Munich’s Oktoberfest), the speaker seems to conclude that, even if such selflessness were possible, it wouldn’t matter: our purest empathy won’t save the millions slaughtered under the Third Reich, nor will it free us from our inexorable, isolating fates. Death, he proposes, is the only escape. 

If Act III’s historical ruminations and foray into Holocaust literature are ambitiously expansive, Act IV, “a Man dallies and foolishes,” is perhaps the Tragedy’s most limited segment—a snapshot of a single night’s anguish, and the suicide attempt which results from this alienated despair. That being said, Act IV is the Tragedy’s climax, and it offers a violent resolution to many of the most pressing issues raised by the speaker in previous sections. Like the September 1819 journal letter to George and Georgiana from which the act takes its name, this paramount segment of the Tragedy is primarily concerned with leave-taking, especially farewells of the spectacular, theatrical variety. Evidently confirming his theory of inherited alcoholism’s inescapability, the speaker, throughout Act IV, swigs from a seemingly depthless bottle of Jameson, contemplating all the while the pros and cons of suicide. In much the same way that he previously realized the depth and savvy of his Marxist coworker, Hannah, the speaker now revises his assessment of Mel—still dreads her settling influence, yet recognizes the likelihood of heartbreak in the wake of her inevitable self-actualized departure. Although the speaker does consider—briefly, distracted—the horror his narcissistic act could inflict upon his family and loved ones, the fabricated prophecy of Mel’s devastating exit seems a more compelling argument than sentimental concerns for his mother or sister. Refusing, then, to become settled or to be made a blubbering fool, his decision is steadfast and clear. With a darkly parodic recitation of Otho the Great’s final lines, the speaker takes “one last awkward bow.”

What appears in Act IV as a final, suicidal flourish, however, is immediately and insolently undermined by a struck-through salutation: “God bless you!” No matter the seriousness of the speaker’s lethal intentions, Act V, “certain ventriloquial parentheses,” defiantly sustains his narrative with what is—essentially—an ambiguous epilogue. With its title pulled from that same, exit-obsessed journal letter from September 1819, Act V is likewise interested in the art of the farewell, and it attempts to cunningly reimagine the performative leave-taking which immediately precedes it. In this closing segment, suddenly accompanied and strangely comforted by the stern presence of an unnamed female guardian, the speaker confusedly retraces Keats’s steps, traipsing through Hampstead and the foggy English night. Aside from the Keats House museum, “that familiar Heathside manor,” little is recognizable in the evening’s “frozen black,” and the speaker actively questions his novel, purgatorial surroundings: “…what Unscripted Hell is this? What midnight charm—what dream has come?” Much as Keats, in his final months, experienced the chilling fantasy of a waking half-death, the speaker now has “an habitual feeling of [his] real life having passed,” as though he is “leading a posthumous existence” (November 30, 1820, letter to Charles Brown). Suspended in this state of unknowing, without the slightest indication of when—or if—he’ll receive any semblance of placating resolution, the speaker even begins to doubt his atemporal relationship with Keats, and he semi-accusingly ponders why the letter’s deceased addressee isn’t Blake or Whitman or Marx, instead: “why not…entreat Another, whose prophetic verse is the urgenter undertaking?” Like so many others, though, this question remains unanswered—is left there to hover in “Asphodel’s mindless grey.” Without the conclusiveness of genuine death or sufficient assurance of life’s continuation, he passes over an unnamed threshold, mingles with its “absorbing Light,” and, echoing Keats’s last words to friend Joseph Severn, the speaker reassures his rashly selected and evidently absent companion: “onward, Keats—I—see me off—I am going—I’ll go easy; don’t be frightened. Don’t be frightened.”

Given the preponderance of Keatsian phrasing, structures, wordplay, and themes in this hazily autobiographical, phantasmal memoir, I imagine that—by now—Keats’s posthumous influence on my “Tragedy in 5 Acts” is obvious. The occasion for writing was, after all, contingent on his biography’s familiar specifics. The lengthy epistolary style and five-act structure are moreover nods to Keats’s writings, and, in addition to the piece’s title and various section headings, borrowings from the poet’s letters and verse emerge in this Tragedy’s most consequential moments. Helping to bridge the two-century gap between writer and addressee, however, are the additional influences of miscellaneous and seemingly unrelated artists—phrasing from canonical masters like Shakespeare, with whom Keats was enamored, as well as the disparate traces of such post-Keats voices as Joyce, Baldwin, Plath, Dylan, Beckett, and the Grateful Dead. Take, for instance, the Tragedy’s motley opening lines: “—thank God it has come. I have seen your Comet—stately, stedfast and crossed with nightblue, hanged by the transitive heaventree of diamonds: a tree, evening, and how fares the Prince?” Reminiscent of that circularity which binds the opening of Finnegans Wake to the incomplete sentence at its end, “—thank God it has come” completes the reiteration of Keats’s last words which closes Act V, “certain ventriloquial parentheses.” The Romantic’s July 8, 1819, letter to Fanny Brawne is then directly quoted with this dazzling celestial flattery: “I have seen your Comet.” Next, language from Ulysses’ first and seventeenth episodes (“Telemachus” and “Ithaca,” respectively) fuses with Keatsian and other, less canonical phrasing to evoke a new and murkier sensation. “Plump,” for one, is replaced by the “stedfast” of Keats’s “Bright Star,” while the night’s “heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit” blends with the inversely solar lyrical poetics of Robert Hunter’s “Dark Star” to form a keen-eyed hangman’s preferred, psychedelic “transitive heaventree of diamonds.” Finally, my piece’s opening lines present a modest bastardization of those words which are, in Beckett’s tragicomic masterpiece Waiting for Godot, a fittingly sparse introduction to the play’s dismal setting: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” In this case, the description is accompanied by a reference to Keats’s wildly different, inferior drama, Otho the Great—positioned alongside an inquiry for which Estragon’s dreary opening line is a suitable answer: “Nothing to be done.”

Admittedly, the whole of this elaborate literary endeavor suggests the continued influence of a moderately unhinged mindset. To suggest the mutual experience of sickness and the recurrence of some imprecise locales as grounds for intricate comparison to a poetical titan—to further incorporate a bizarre mixture of wholly unrelated artistic voices as subliminal backing for my simultaneously self-aggrandizing and embarrassingly earnest project—is, after all, deranged. Yet as I write, I can’t help but call attention to the spectacular web of Keatsian correspondences in which I once again find myself. Having endured for years the recurrent miseries of a vicious respiratory illness, John Keats endured his first pulmonary hemorrhage on February 3, 1820. A former medical student, Keats recognized his symptoms’ grim portentousness, and he direly remarked to Charles Brown: “I know the colour of that blood,—it is arterial blood—I cannot be deceived in that colour; that drop is my death-warrant. I must die.” At the behest of his physician, Keats then set out for the sunnier environs of Rome, but his stormy, disastrous journey was punctuated by further torment: upon his arrival in Naples, a purported outbreak of cholera at home in Britain required that Keats’s ship be held in a ten-day quarantine. When the misfortunate Romantic did, at last, reach Rome on November 14, that city’s last oozings of prescribed warmth had dissipated, giving way to the sapping chills of autumn, and after months of tubercular torment, Keats at last found the mercy of death on February 23, 1821. Though I don’t anticipate hacking up wads of “arterial blood,” the specter of respiratory illness has landed me (and much of the world) in a version of quarantine, a shelter-in-place order meant to lessen the effects of COVID-19. Similar to the way in which Keats faced terrible uncertainty in the face of incurable pestilence, months of isolation have transformed the sluggish hours and weeks before me into a blurred and terrifying amalgam, extended endlessly in the baffling mist of unfinished history. 

More disturbing, perhaps, than even these latest Keatsian connections, I also find elements of my Tragedy reflected in the ongoing crisis; specifically, that sense of incompleteness which now haunts both the speaker in Act V and my day-to-day existence. After working, writing, and organizing for months to become one of history’s foremost experts on Otho the Great, my research was accepted as part of the British Association for Romantic Studies Early Career and Postgraduate Conference. As though prescribed by fate, the conference was moreover set to take place this June at Keats House in Hampstead, but thanks to the calamitous global pandemic, my triumphant return to London, the affirmation of my ambitions’ ultimate meaningfulness, and the glorious resolution to my prior woes remain indefinitely postponed. One of the many ways in which—I admit—my experience differs critically from that of Keats, however, is in the sheer understandability of his melancholic despair and suicidal longing for merciful release. Whereas Keat’s worldly path led only to gory, premature demise, the near-death and painful experiences autobiographically detailed in my epistolary prose-poem—that perverse “Tragedy in 5 Acts”—have at least enabled my therapeutic internalizing of the present weirdness as a test of what is possible: If, as an immunocompromised asthmatic and panic-prone depressive, I survive this indefinite period of maddeningly unpredictable pestilence, fleeting personal anguish will never again seem a justifiable reason to, as they say, eliminate my own map.

Works Cited
Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1963.

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. 1952. Grove Press, 2011.

Grateful Dead. “Dark Star.” Dark Star/Born Cross-Eyed, Warner Bros., 1968.

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. Penguin Books, 1999. 

Joyce, James. Ulysses, prepared by Hans Walter Gabler with Wolfhard Steppe and Claus Melchior, New York and London, Garland, 1984. 

Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. Modern Library, 2009.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, v. 1 1814-1818 and v. 2 1819-1821, edited by Hyder Edward Rollins, Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1958.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. Yale University Press, 2012.

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