Keats’s “picture of somebody reading”: Remembering Literary History in Pictures

Grace Rexroth
University of Colorado, Boulder

RE: Keats’s 13 March 1819 letter to Fanny Keats

On its surface, Keats’s 13 March 1819 letter to Fanny appears somewhat simple, awash in brotherly solicitude and small pieces of personal news. Keats begins by mentioning that he has been writing to George—not short letters but something long that he adds to “day after day” (though he has not yet found a reliable way to send it). The middle portion of the letter is comprised of Keats’s description of goods and wares to be had at the Leicester Square market, and he asks Fanny if there is anything that he can acquire for her: “any particular Book; or Pencils, or drawing paper—anything but live stock” (II: 45). Eventually the letter concludes with some remarks about the changing spring weather and the health of his companions. Yet, couched between these solicitous inquiries about Fanny’s needs and the dutifully related bits of news, Keats gives us an odd sketch of himself as “the picture of somebody reading,” a tableau that raises interesting questions about the relationship between books and pictures, or the act of reading and pictorial depictions of people reading (II:46). 

Keats’s reverie about a “picture of somebody reading” begins with some thoughts about nature and his own childhood. After telling Fanny that he would be willing to purchase “anything but live stock” at the market for her, he notes:

Though I will not now be very severe on it, remembering how fond I used to be of Goldfinches, Tomtits, Minnows, Mice, Ticklebacks, Dace, Cock salmons and all the whole tribe of the Bushes and the Brooks: but verily they are better in the Trees and the water—though I must confess even now a partiality for a handsome Globe of gold-fish—then I would have it hold 10 pails of water and be fed continually fresh through a cool pipe with another pipe to let through the floor—well ventilated they would preserve all their beautiful silver and Crimson. Then I would put it before a handsome painted window and shade it all round with myrtles and Japonicas. I should like the window to open onto the Lake of Geneva—and there I’d sit and read all day like the picture of somebody reading. (II:46)

In this passage, Keats’s penchant for goldfish leads him into a very specific and detailed reverie about what would make an ideal scene in which to read. However, when he likens this scene to a “picture of somebody reading,” he is evoking more than just an imaginary experience. What Keats is gesturing to in this depiction of a “picture” is a genre of portrait painting – formal portraits of men and women reading books – which had become fairly common throughout the eighteenth century. For examples of such pictures, we might look to Joshua Reynolds’ paintings, including “The Reading Boy” (1777) which depicts a young boy reading by a window.

Painting of a young boy reading a book.
Joshua Reynolds, “The Reading Boy” (1777), Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Or we might consider his 1771 portrait of Theophila Palmer reading Clarissa.

Painting of Theophila Palmer reading Richardson's Clarissa.
Joshua Reynolds, “Portrait of Theophila Palmer” (1771). Image via Sotheby’s.

Finally, there is also Reynolds’ influential 1775 portrait of Samuel Johnson earnestly reading a book which he holds near his face.

Painting of Samuel Johnson reading a book.
Joshua Reynolds, “Portrait of Samuel Johnson” (1775). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Other examples of reading portraits abound, recorded in guides to portrait galleries and museums.[1] Given that such portraits of reading were fairly common (almost as ubiquitous as, say, the Instagram bathroom selfie), I would like to suggest that when Keats imagines himself as “the picture of somebody reading,” he is, in some ways, imagining how he might organize a formal portrait of himself that represents him both as a reading subject and, possibly, an author. For, there is much to suggest that the cultural memory of literary works (and their authors) were often linked to real or imagined pictures—especially in terms of artificial memory practices that encouraged associative mental habits.

Here, though, I should pause and explain what the term “artificial memory” means and why I think it might be useful for thinking about why Keats would describe himself as a “picture of someone reading.” Broadly construed, “artificial memory” or “the art of memory” is usually distinguished from “natural memory” to mean “memory strengthened or confirmed by training”—this, at least, is the definition Frances Yates uses in her examination of medieval memory practices (Yates 5). Indeed, because of Yates’ work on medieval memory arts, our cultural narratives of memory practices tend to suggest they were not relevant past the early-modern period; we rarely think about how they might have changed and persisted through time, or how they might relate to the Romantic era. Yet the terms “artificial memory” or “memoria technica” were seemingly everywhere in Romantic culture. Books on the topic flourished, perhaps most famously those by Richard Grey and Gregor von Feinaigle who advertised their systems to men of reading who found it difficult to “retain what they read with any certainty or exactness” (Grey 2).

Romantic artificial memory treatises often prescribed different kinds of memory practices, but one of the most common was the habit of associating ideas with a mental image. In his Dissertations Moral and Critical: On Memory and the Imagination (1783), James Beattie suggested that the brain has a natural capacity to connect ideas to familiar images. He writes: “If we have at any time considered two or more things as connected, that very circumstance will establish a connection between them, so that the remembrance, or the view of the one, will make us think of the other” (Beattie 28). Beattie then suggests that the brain organizes contiguous thoughts pictorially and that this natural function can be consciously harnessed through “artificial memory” to help us remember ideas we would like to associate together. At the same time, lecturers such as Gregor Von Feinaigle were writing and revising “new” artificial memory systems throughout the Regency period, and most involved the practice of attaching memories and thoughts to imagined “pictures.” Feinaigle’s system specified the importance of pictorial images to memory—specifically the act of linking a thought or idea to a symbolic portrait. Summarizing Feinaigle’s system in 1844, Johann Joachim Eschenburg claimed that “if one would remember by aid of [Feinaigle’s] system, the date e.g. of the kings of England, he would create in his mind a picture in connection with each of them, and throw these pictures in the imagination into squares in the exact order of the regal succession” (Eschenburg 68). In Feinaigle’s account, pictorial images stimulate the brain to produce contiguous thoughts—they seem to both contain and stimulate memory processes.

With such practices in mind, I would like to suggest that the way Keats constructs a picture of himself reading might operate like a kind of artificial memory with important symbolic meaning. To return to Keats’s letter, his description of the scene in which he would like to be imagined reading begins with the image of a bowl of goldfish, large enough to “hold 10 pails of water and be fed continually fresh through a cool pipe with another pipe to let through the floor” (263). Keats’s concern for a “well ventilated” goldfish bowl hints a several things. First, it points to his period’s fascination with goldfish and the real struggle of how to maintain the health of fish in captivity. In 1811, for example, the Prince Regent accidentally turned his goldfish into a grotesque spectacle because of his ignorance (or careless neglect) of the animals’ need for ventilated water. On June 19, 1811, the Prince Regent threw a decadent party at Carlton House where he set up a table that measured two hundred feet in length and that was meant to accommodate a living stream of goldfish. In her popular history of Regency England, Our Tempestuous Day, Carolly Erickson describes the scene:

Flowing down the middle of the table, meandering between the heavy serving dishes was an artificial stream, complete with sand, moss, rocks, and aquatic plants and spanned by miniature bridges. Live gold and silver fish—roach, dace and gudgeons—swam among the rocks, ‘exhibiting the brightness of their scales, reflecting the light of five hundred flambeaux, to the infinite delight of the guests’… until the fish began to die, no doubt of oxygen starvation, and took away everybody’s appetite. (Erickson 51)

The Prince Regent’s intent to create a spectacle of live fish was destroyed by his inability to accommodate the animals’ basic needs. By contrast, Keats imagines himself in a scene where his partiality for a globe of goldfish can be sustained through a mechanism that promotes water ventilation through pipes. Such an object—if we imagine it as a crucial part of Keats’s organized self-portrait—gestures to the way his urban or “cockney” heritage and his experience as a surgeon’s apprentice both influence his love of nature. It is, I think, telling that Keats’s idealized fantasy of reading does not take place outdoors, but in a room where nature and scientific innovation meet to create an artificial experience of nature indoors—an experience where fish are sustained in a glass bowl surrounded by imported plants (myrtle and Japonica), while Lake Geneva looms out a window. Even though it may be a cockney fantasy of nature, the portrait is nonetheless a fitting one of Keats because it showcases the different aspects of the world that he inhabited: a world marked by scientific innovation and study, a love of the picturesque, and a desire to inhabit both an urban and rural landscape simultaneously.[2] Such is Keats’s vision of himself, and it’s worth noting that many of Keats’s later readers also wanted to retain some form of this vision. One of the most influential posthumous portraits of Keats is Joseph Severn’s “Portrait of John Keats,” which depicts the poet in a strikingly similar pose to what Keats describes in this letter: reading in a plush, carpeted room next to a large open window that leads to a garden path (though, notably, without a mechanized goldfish bowl).

Painting of Keats, sitting cross-legged in a chair, reading a book.
Joseph Severn, “Portrait of John Keats” (1823), National Portrait Gallery, London, UK. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Given that this painting was designed after Keats’s death, it also operates like a kind of artificial memory, a constructed image of what we wish to associate with and remember about Keats. And as it’s become one of the most emblematic images of Keats, this particular artificial construction, this “picture of somebody reading,” has clearly had lasting appeal.

Contributor Bio:

Grace Rexroth is a PhD candidate and CHA Reynolds Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder. As a CHA fellow at CU, Grace has paired archival research in the UK with research at CU’s Institute of Cognitive Science. Emerging from this work, her dissertation project examines how eighteenth-century artificial memory systems and theories of cognition influenced print culture and literary philosophy in Romantic and Victorian-era British literature, and how such connections might help us better understand our own relationship to print now. Grace also teaches introductory courses in women’s literature and British masterpiece fiction, writes for the NASSRgrad blog, and co-organizes her department’s eighteenth and nineteenth-century reading group and lecture series. Her work appears in English Language Notes. In her spare time, she can be found kayaking on McIntosh Lake near Boulder. You can follow Grace on Twitter: @GraceRexrothCU

Works Cited:

Beattie, James. Dissertations Moral and Critical: On Memory and Imagination, Edinburgh: Strahan, Cadell, and Creech, 1783.

Erickson, Carolly. Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England. New York: Harper, 1986.

Eschenburg, Johann Joachim. Classical Antiquities. Fourth Ed. Philadelphia: E.C. &J. Biddle, 1852

Feinaigle, Gregor von. The New Art of Memory. London: Printed for Sherwood, Neely and Jones, 1813.

Grey, Richard. Memoria Technica: or, a New Method of Artificial Memory, London: printed for Charles King, 1730.

Rollins, Hyder Edward. The Letters of John Keats, Harvard: Harvard UP, 1958.

Yates, Frances. Art of Memory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.


[1] See, for example, C.M. Westmacott, British Galleries of Painting and Sculpture, comprising a General and Historical and Critical Catalogue, London: Sherwood, Jones and co., 1824. See also A Catalogue of Paintings, Sculptures, Models, Drawings, Engravings, &c. London: William Griffin, 1761.

[2] For more information on the cultural construction of the “Cockney School” of poetry, see Jeff Cox, Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School, Cambridge: Cambridge UP 1998.


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