Keats’s Gelding

Arden Hegele
Columbia University

Re: Keats’s 30 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats

This is a recently discovered letter, exciting both for its newly articulated place within Keats’s manuscript archive and for its literary-historical value as it documents the poet’s vacillating emotions on the cusp of the publication of Endymion. The manuscript was found in 1995 in Louisville, Kentucky in the private collection of a family once acquainted with George Keats’s daughter Emma Keats Speed. Sold to a private collector for $70,000, the letter has since been republished with editorial commentary in Romantic Circles by Lewis Dearing (1998) and in Selected Letters by John Keats by John Barnard (Penguin, 2014). But while the text is a recent inclusion in Keats’s opus, the contents of the manuscript have been known anecdotally to the poet’s followers since the nineteenth century: Edward F. Madden saw the letter in Louisville and quoted from it in an 1877 article on Keats (361), while H. E. Rollins mentions this text as “lost” in The Letters of John Keats (Harvard, 1958) (I, 225n). Including this letter in Keats’s epistolary archive, then, satisfyingly resolves a century-long mystery about the poet’s vacillating state of mind as he revised Endymion for publication.

As the letter opens, Keats is revealed in a moment of vulnerability and self-criticism as he anticipates the reception of his first long poem, “which is I think going to the Press today.” The poet’s erstwhile ambitions of producing a quarto edition of Endymion and including Benjamin Robert Haydon’s chalk drawing of himself in the overleaf have been abandoned. “On looking attentively through it,” his publisher John Taylor “changed his mind,” preferring a cheaper octavo volume without the poet’s image, though Keats assures his disappointed brothers that “Haydon will take my Likeness all the same.” As ever, Keats is demoralized by money troubles—the £5 he encloses for his brothers should properly, he says, go to Charles Brown—and the publication of Endymion promises only the faint hope of pecuniary relief. “I am convinced now that my Poem will not sell,” he writes, but since others urge him to “hope,” he promises to “wait about three Months before I make my determination—either to get some employment at Home or abroad or to retire to a very cheap way of living in the Country.”

Keats’s lack of faith in Endymion’s financial prospects emerges out of the grueling project he undertook during most of January 1818 (Roe 206): correcting—or, as he says here, “gelding”—the poem before it went to press. Keats’s rhetorical choice here is perhaps the most striking thing about the letter, in its suggestion of the surgical removal of Endymion’s generative parts. (In fact, the poet’s reference to gelding is so unusual that all modern criticism of the letter engages strictly with this passage.) But does “geld” call back to the term’s Spenserian definition, “to mutilate a book […] by excising certain portions, especially objectionable or obscene passages,” as Lewis Dearing maintains (n7)? Or do we think, with Richard Marggraf Turley, that Keats wants us to consider the more familiar meaning of gelding, “to deprive (a male) of generative power or virility, to castrate or emasculate,” and that in its usage the poet calls up the “castration anxieties flickering beneath the surface of Endymion” (17)? Both significances of this charged term offer new insight into the poetry that Keats is producing at this moment—the register of Elizabethan retrospect and archaism inspires the first dated draft of “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern” enclosed in this letter, while motifs of sexual curtailment and “cold retreat” animate Endymion in its published form (Turley 19).

There is a third way of looking at Keats’s gelding: for its surgical valence, which attests to the lingering effects of his medical training on his literary practice. Anatomical dissection is a common trope of Romantic interpretive activity: consider the young Wordsworth taking the knife in hand and probing to the heart of the living body of society. But by enacting an anatomical intervention upon his own verse, Keats develops here an extraordinary register of editing as a violent form of self-surgery. The emasculatory significance of gelding reveals the poet’s ambivalence towards the procedure: this manuscript-mangling might be necessary to assure the survival of Endymion (at least, Keats’s friends thought so), but it also robs it of its most creative parts. In fact, Keats remained unsatisfied with his editorial intervention, and his anatomical critique persists in the fatal self-diagnosis he performs in the “Preface” to Endymion two months later, where he describes the poem as a “feverish attempt” and condemns this “youngster” to “die away” (147). Richard C. Sha captures the problem succinctly: “Keats’s anatomical training […] was a threat to [his] political and aesthetic stance,” and so it proved, as Keats had feared, in the reception of Endymion (227). Ultimately, his application of medical practice to poetic method would backfire: his appraisal of his own weakness in the “Preface” would set the tone for Endymion’s scathing, medically-inflected critical reviews.

But if the opening of the letter reveals a despondent and desexed Keats, its closing shows the poet revelling in the creative potential of sociable and sexual exchange. The gelded phallus is quickly restored in Keats’s transcription of Horace Smith’s bawdy sestet composed over dinner on a mutual acquaintance, Horace Twiss. An amateur poet, Twiss had a habit of inventing extemporaneous verse over the chamber pot, which Smith lampoons in a scatological investigation of “which flows out the fastest his verse or his piddle.” Keats’s delight in this double-valenced “spouting” recalls the puns on bathroom practices recorded in his letter of 5 January. His evident pleasure in the social occasions that inspired such effusions—especially the Immortal Dinner of 28 December, still in recent memory—leads the letter into more serious consideration of the potational practices of past poets. Introducing his new verses, “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern,” Keats tells George and Tom that “I was thinking of Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher and the rest who used to meet at the Mermaid in days of yore,” and the enclosed poem is a nostalgic reflection on another sort of Immortal Dinner led by the Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen at the Elizabethan watering-hole. The Mermaid Tavern’s status as an iconic site of literary exchange had recently been bolstered by William Gifford’s nine-volume edition of The Works of Ben Jonson (1816), which spread spurious anecdotes about “wit combats” between Jonson and Shakespeare (who was not known to attend the club).

For Keats, these myths of the Mermaid Tavern would strengthen his belief in the power of conviviality to inspire a deeper and more nuanced aesthetic range. This version of the “Lines” is notable for its minor variations, nearly all of which are comparative adjectives: in the poem’s 1820 published form, “Fairer” becomes “Choicer,” and “Richer” is amended to “Sweeter.” Keats’s evident pleasure in these verses’ lively and sociable language inspires him to close with a new optimism, as he advises “my dear Tom and Geo[rg]e” to “trust to the Spring” for the success of Endymion and an improvement in their affairs—an exact, whimsical reversal of his earlier doubts.


Works Cited

Barnard, John. Selected Letters by John Keats. New York: Penguin, 2014.

Dearing, Lewis. “A Rediscovered Letter by John Keats.” A Romantic Circles Electronic Edition (November 1998).

Dobson, Michael, and Stanley Wells. “Mermaid Tavern.” Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 291.

Gifford, William. The Works of Ben Jonson. 9 vols. London: G.W. Nicol et al., 1816.

Keats, John. “Endymion.” Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jeffrey Cox. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 2009. 147-239.

—. “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern.” Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jeffrey Cox. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 2009. 469-470.

Madden, Edward F. “The Poet Keats.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 55 (1877): 357-361.

Newman, Ian. “Keats’s Bawdry.” The Keats Letters Project (January 5, 2018).

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012.

Rollins, Hyder Edward, ed. The Letters of John Keats. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Sha, Richard C. Review of Keats’ Boyish Imagination by Richard Marggraf Turley. The Wordsworth Circle 37, 4 (Autumn 2006): 227-228.

Turley, Richard Marggraf. Keats’s Boyish Imagination. London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2004.

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