Keats Underlined

Brian Rejack
Illinois State University

Re: Keats’s 31 October letter to Jane Reynolds

Leave it to the consistently generous and kind-hearted Keats to give a gift to someone else on his own birthday. He seemed to never care all that much about his birthday (or to even know exactly on which day it fell). In the first of his many great journal letters sent across the Atlantic to George and Georgiana Keats, he ends with an almost throwaway postscript—“This day is my Birth day”—as if he just realized the fact himself in that moment (I, 405). It’s perhaps an afterthought because he’s so concerned about his brother and sister-in-law who are no longer with him. Likewise, in this brief letter to Jane Reynolds precisely one year earlier, Keats cares more about her well-being than about commemorating his date of birth.

Two days earlier, on 29 October, Keats had dined with the Reynolds family at their residence in Lamb’s Conduit Street. After the visit he noted in another letter to Benjamin Bailey that “Jane look’d very flush when I first went in but was much better before I left” (I, 175). It’s not entirely clear what the “flush” indicates, but presumably Jane was feeling unwell in some manner. This fact becomes clearer in today’s letter, in which Keats writes, “I hope you are getting well quite fast.” To help along her convalescence, Keats includes part of the “Ode to Sorrow,” the little ditty sung by the Indian Maid to Endymion in Book IV of the poem. He prefaces the poem thus: “I send you a few lines from my fourth Book with the desire of helping away for you five Minutes of the day—” (I, 176).

As many scholars have shown, Keats’s medical training informs his thinking about poetry continuously throughout his career, perhaps best exemplified in The Fall of Hyperion, where Keats poses the poet as a “physician to all men” who “pours out a balm upon the world.” (Books by Hermione de Almeida, Donald Goellenicht, and James Allard are great places to go for thorough treatments of Keats and medicine.) Here in late 1817—when Keats has given up his medical career and his rounds at Guy’s Hospital, and before he’ll become a nurse (and hospice worker) for his brother Tom in autumn 1818—we see Keats the physician nonetheless still in practice. It’s but one small unremembered act of kindness among a life of many performed by John Keats.

The poem itself is of interest for many reasons. It shows Keats engaging with a trope he’ll return to again and again in future poems: the yoking together of sorrow and joy. Of course there is “Welcome joy, and welcome Sorrow,” written towards the end of 1818, and the more famous union of Joy and Melancholy in the “Ode on Melancholy” from spring 1819. But I want to dwell on a very minor detail: Keats’s use of underlining in two places in the extract sent to Jane (Keats does not underline anything in the same extract he sends to Bailey in a letter a few days later). This underlining raises a few questions I’ll attempt to answer: why does Keats underline these four words? and what are Keats’s underlining practices like across his correspondence? The latter question is of particular interest for a letter coming up at the end of this year: the negative capability letter! Or, rather, I should say, the Negative Capability letter.

Detail of transcript of Keats’s 21-27 Dec 1817 letter, showing the underlining of Negative Capability. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

The question about Keats’s intentions in these cases of underling, I confess, mostly baffles me. The first word underlined is “among,” which occurs at the end of the poem extract’s third stanza: “That thou may’st listen the cold dews among.” The second instance occurs in the next stanza: “Though he should dance from eve till peep of day.” If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say Keats is probably making some sort of joke or bit of word play that doesn’t land for me in a way it might have for Jane Reynolds. Perhaps there was some humorous bit of conversation at the dinner gathering on October 29 which the words “among” and “peep of day” would have signaled for her? It’s not like “among” is a particularly important word—why draw attention to it? I could see Keats maybe being proud of “peep of day” and underlining it to draw attention there. But really, I’m at a loss with these examples of underlining when it comes to what purpose underlining was meant to serve.

Part of the reason that my first hazarded guess goes to the possibility of something humorous is that I’ve done a lot of work tracking instances of underlining in Keats’s letters, and he almost always uses the tactic for some humorous, playful, or punny effect. I became interested in underlining in Keats because of negative capability, which occurs only once in Keats’s correspondence, and when it does, it is underlined. However, the negative capability MS is not extant! We have the text of the letter only because of a shoddy transcript made by John Jeffrey, the second husband of Georgiana Keats, who married Jeffrey a few years after George Keats’s death. Since we know that Jeffrey was sloppy in his transcription work (of the fifteen letters he transcribed, nine still exist in MS form, which means one can compare his work against the originals), I started wondering what the chances were that Keats would have underlined the term. So I scoured Keats’s letters that still exist for some sense of his underlining habits. The first thing I learned is that Keats very sparing in his underlining. Out of the twenty-seven extant letters written by Keats in 1817, only eleven letters feature any underlining. In all they comprise a total of ­­­sixty-six underlined words. Of those eleven letters, four exist only via transcripts (­­three by Richard Woodhouse, one by Jeffrey), and those four transcribed letters account for forty-one of the sixty-six total underlined words. In short, if Keats did underline negative capability, it was at least somewhat out of character given how rarely he uses the tactic elsewhere in his letters. And of the ten underlined words in the negative capability letter, there’s a good chance that some, and perhaps all, were not underlined in Keats’s MS. (I’m no statistician, so I can’t back up that claim with numerical analysis. But I stand by my assertion nonetheless.)

Now, when Keats does underline, he frequently does so to produce comic effect. Particularly in his letters of 1817–8, the rare instances of underlining usually signal not gravity, but wordplay or some other form of levity. The earliest examples of underlining in Keats’s correspondence occur in his 15 April 1817 letter to George and Tom. (Demonstrating how rarely Keats underlines, the thirteen extant letters preceding this one feature no underlining at all—eleven exist in MS and two others via transcripts by Woodhouse.) Keats is not engaging in wordplay per se with his underlining in this letter, but he definitely uses it to humorous effect. The first example comes amid Keats’s playful catalog of objects he viewed while traveling by stagecoach from London to Southampton. One of these sights was a “Nymph of Fountain,” which after listing, Keats clarifies, “N.B. Stone” (i.e. no, he did not see an actual nymph). A few lines later, he returns to this same method of emphasizing his playfulness, when he relays that “after having had [his] fill” of the lamplit scenes during the night, “I popped my Head out just as it began to Dawn—N.B. this tuesday Morn saw the Sun rise—of which I shall say nothing at present” (I, 128).

Detail of letter to George and Tom Keats, 15 April 1817, showing Keats’s underlining. Courtesy Princeton University Library. Click for full size.

As with the stone nymph example, here Keats’s cheeky nota bene states the obvious: yes, the morning did indeed see the sun rise. Such underlining is anti-romantic, deflating any hope for an imaginary world of pagan wonder; it resignedly but playfully conveys acceptance that “The world is too much with us.” There may also be a bit of Keats’s “boyish imagination” on display here. That he “will say nothing about” popping his head out or about the “rise” at dawn suggests some youthful phallic humor, particularly as the previous underlined reference concerned a “Nymph of Fountain.” Whatever the actual intended messages are, Keats’s underlining certainly helps him approximate “writ[ing] a wink, or a nod, or a grin” to accompany them (II, 205).

So, again, I really don’t know why Keats underlined these four words (“among” and “peep of day”) of the extract from Endymion in today’s letter to Jane Reynolds. But given that he’s hoping to “help away … five Minutes of the day” for her while she’s convalescing, I can’t help but think that he sought to add a bit of humor to his poetic prescription.

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