Edge Hill University
Re: Keats’s 10-14 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats
This composite letter to Keats’s brother Tom, written over a period of five days, covers a great deal of ground both literally and imaginatively. At the beginning Keats is in the far south west of Scotland having not long returned from a short visit to Ireland. By the end of the letter Keats was in Glasgow, Scotland’s industrial heart and not long after to become the country’s largest city. In those five days Keats and his walking companion Charles Brown had made a journey of over ninety miles along the south west coast, beginning in verdant glens that, much to Keats’s delight, were “eternally varying,” but ending surrounded by Glasgow’s “Stone” and solidity, where Keats was greeted in a manner still recognisable to visitors to Glasgow city centre: by an overly-familiar drunken man.
Whilst Keats and Brown physically covered a great deal of ground between 10-14 July, Keats also seems to have moved imaginatively in his creative relationship with Scotland. The letter to his brother Tom opens with an attempt at a folk ballad about a wedding, but the poem fails to hit its mark, instead landing awkwardly between pastiche and homage. Its characters, “Willie,” “Marie,” “Rab” and especially “Tam,” could have come from one of a hundred Scottish stories, and their names hint at unacknowledged debts to Walter Scott and Robert Burns. Yet there is a sincerity in Keats’s attempts to mimic (albeit not entirely successfully) the speech patterns of the ‘ordinary’ people he has encountered – despite travelling in Scotland for a time Keats knows “nothing of the higher Classes,” so it is everyday language that is transfigured into poetry. Just three days later, though, Keats was complaining about the impenetrability of that self-same language, lamenting that in conversation with “an old Man who knew Burns” it “was impossible for a Southren to understand above 5 words in a hundred.”
Such oscillations between affection and dislike of southern Scottish language use are evidence perhaps of a larger issue – a vexed relationship between the young English poet and his sense of poetic inheritance and literary convention. Keats includes in this letter the texts of two poems – his partially successful story of a Scottish wedding and a sonnet on Ailsa Craig, a dramatic and rocky island prominent all along Keats’s coastal walk – but he mentions a third. This is another sonnet, composed in the cottage where Robert Burns was born in Alloway, about half way between Portpatrick and Glasgow. Keats writes that he was “determined” to write the poem in the cottage itself, but the result is a sad disappointment – it is, he writes to his brother, “so bad I cannot venture it here.” Keats’s arrival in Alloway, birthplace of Scotland’s bard and setting for one of Burns’s most famous poems, “Tam O’Shanter,” is the intellectual climax of this part of his tour. Keats and Brown tour the sights mentioned in the poem, including the Brig O’Doon where, in Burns’s poem, Tam finally reaches safety from the witches and devils chasing him, though not before his horse has her tail ripped from her rump. At the keystone, where the magic of the running water of the River Doon at last protects Tam from his demented pursuers, Keats and Brown stand for “some time” contemplating Tam’s flight, and take a “pinch of snuff on the key stone” itself. Creatively, though, Keats gains almost nothing from his visit to one of Scottish literature’s holiest places. He cannot understand the speech of those who knew Burns personally, and the only poetry that comes to him here is so poor that he cannot even show it to his brother. Instead of finding poetic inspiration, Keats is reduced to the role of picturesque tourist, commenting half-heartedly on Alloway’s woodland and sea views. It is perhaps significant that in closing his letter to Tom in Glasgow, Keats notes that “there are a thousand things I cannot write.”
Dr Kerri Andrews has just completed a monograph on women walkers from the eighteenth century to the modern day, and is also lead editor of The Hannah More Letters: A Digital Edition (http://hannahmoreletters.co.