Something Different: Keats on Childhood and Truth

Betsy Winakur Tontiplaphol
Trinity University

RE: Keats’s 26 October 1818 letter to Fanny Keats

Emily was crying. Earlier in the week, her fourth-grade teacher had marked as incorrect the word “different” on her spelling test because the dot atop her letter i wasn’t sufficiently visible, and my livid sister—“She obviously knew it was an i if she could complain about the dot!”—had been determined that her handwriting on Friday’s retest would be beyond reproach. In an effort to be absolutely clear, Emily had topped each and every i with a colored-in circle about the size of a pea, but now the teacher, who regarded that choice as an attempt to mock her correction and defy her authority, was the angry one. She sent home a stern note addressed to our parents—“Emily has behaved very disrespectfully,” it said—and Emily was pretty sure that she had landed herself in some serious trouble.

Our father, it turned out, found the whole thing very funny, and he proposed an irreverent response. “I sincerely apologize for my daughter’s behavior,” he offered to write back, dotting every i with a dime-sized blotch, “and I can’t imagine where she acquired such an insolent attitude.” Emily was horrified—“No, Daddy, don’t do that, or she’ll hate me for the rest of the year!”—and that’s when our mother stepped in. It’s not that Mom didn’t recognize the absurdity of the situation; both my parents have what they often describe as “a sick sense of humor,” and my mother, who now works as a professional calligrapher, knew more than most folks about legibility and letter forms. At the time, though, Mom was a practicing pediatrician, and her perspective differed from that of my father, a physician whose patients were mostly elderly. “Look,” she said, “the teacher gets to make the rules. Is she being unnecessarily picky and maybe even unfair? I think so, and I don’t see that you’ve done anything wrong. Her classroom is her classroom, though, and for now you’re stuck with her. It’s probably best to apologize for having seemed to make fun of her—and next time, keep an eye on your i-dots. Unmistakable isn’t always better.”

I mention my parents’ careers because I think that their professional experiences informed their responses to my sister’s crisis. Both (like Keats, incidentally) had medical training, but my father, geriatric internist, regarded pain as something acquired with age. His patients complained of creaking bones, swollen joints, unemptiable bladders, and worse; when they visited his office, they sought relief from their daily discomforts and, sometimes, the restoration of their youth, that epoch devoid (as they remembered it) of substantive hurt. Dad knew, of course, that kids can become seriously ill, and having been a sensitive child himself, he responded with love and reason when his daughters expressed anxieties about their teachers, friends, and bodies. For the most part, however, I think he regarded childhood as its own palliative. Kids’ problems are, in a sense, inherently ephemeral, and I suspect that my father figured—not consciously, necessarily, but at some level—that a “problem” like Emily’s was the sort that a seventy-year-old cancer patient would love to have: physically painless, existentially nonthreatening, and even uncommonly amusing. A protracted battle over i-dot sizing? It metonymized the trivial agonies of childhood, the sort of youthful dis-ease that would, in retrospect, seem downright charming when real disease inevitably set in.

Pediatricians, in contrast, understand that the limited agency that goes hand in hand with childhood is often a kind of agony in itself. My mother spent her days not just prescribing asthma medications but also explaining to her asthmatic patients that some adults might speculate—unfairly, of course—whether they were complaining of symptoms in order to avoid required activities: “Sometimes, you’ll need to say politely, ‘I’m very sorry, Coach, but my doctor told me not to run when the pollen count is high. I hate that I’ll have to sit this one out.’” Likewise, Mom couldn’t just establish dietary restrictions; she had to teach the kids in her care that dangerous foods were always forbidden, even when their babysitting grandparents insisted that “one bite couldn’t hurt”: “Sometimes, you’ll need to say, ‘I really wish I could try it, Nana, but I have to say no. Dr. Leslie said.’” And there were times when my mother, in order to safeguard her patients’ physical and mental health, had to encourage kids to offer more than insincere apologies and dissembling expressions of regret to the grown-ups in charge of their days and nights. “Sometimes,” Mom would say, “you’ll need to bend the truth. Keep the crackers in your pocket, and if your teacher still insists that you can’t eat during class, just tell him that you have to use the restroom. Eat the crackers in a stall until the nausea goes away. He doesn’t have to know.” Put simply, my mother—a parent, I should note, as loving and as sensitive as my father—never forgot that even when adults err, they retain their power. As a result, children live full-time in a world that can turn dystopic at any moment, and although that experience is mostly just exhausting, there are occasions when, if not handled with courtesy and grace, it can lead to suffering or even danger. Emily had somehow been too clear, too honest, and in order to avoid further repercussions, she would have to apologize disingenuously and, on subsequent tests, be less plain about her intentions—even though she had initially been accused of not having been plain enough. Her most unambiguous i-dots would, like the nauseous kid’s snacks, have to be hidden away.

In the fall of 1818, Keats’s sister Fanny revealed an innocent truth to a power-pleased adult and consequently risked losing what remained of her family. Her guardian Richard Abbey harbored what Walter Jackson Bate calls “an almost pathological desire to keep Fanny from seeing Keats”—perhaps, Bate speculates, he feared that Fanny would be encouraged by her “older and shrewder” siblings “to spy” on his financial arrangements, which had been bolstered by “an inheritance of which [the Keats children] had received only … a relatively small part” (364)—but since Tom Keats was gravely ill, Abbey reluctantly agreed that Fanny could visit him with John. However, when Abbey learned from Fanny upon her return that John had, during the visit, also “introduced her to some of his friends,” he used that circumstance as “an excuse to forbid further visits” (Bate 364). It was “the flimsiest excuse,” Andrew Motion argues—Abbey “complained that Keats had [violated]… the codes governing the behaviour of young ladies” (299)—but since Abbey’s authority was absolute, “Keats’s negotiations with the man, in order to allow [Fanny] to see Tom again, [would continue] for weeks” (Bate 364). Keats’s 26 October 1818 message to his sister is bookended by references to those on-going “negotiations”—“I called on Mr. Abbey in the beginning of last week,” he begins, and he concludes by writing that he intends to “call on Mr. Abbey tomorrow: when I hope to settle when to see you again”—but the most significant portion of the letter is its middle, which articulates a vision of childhood more akin to my pediatrician mom’s than my geriatrician dad’s. That passage has long resonated with me because it finds Keats challenging, in a few succinct sentences, the Wordsworthian attitudes toward youth and maturity that most critics regard as integral to Romanticism’s ideological core.

In fact, literary scholars’ implicit commitment to a Wordsworth-centric Romanticism has, I think, rendered them more or less unable to describe what, exactly, Keats means to communicate to Fanny in this letter. Nicholas Roe, who asserts that Keats’s recent “venture north had put him back in touch with his childhood” (242), says virtually nothing about the note or the episode that inspired it, while Bate reduces the letter to a scolding, a reprimand because Fanny had “babbled”: “At length, trying to muffle his rising anger, [Keats] writes to rebuke her gently… for ever having told Abbey that she saw anyone except Tom” (364-365). Motion, in turn, reads the note as less “rebuke” than “acknowledge[ment],” a pragmatic reminder “that if they were going to find a way round her guardian, [Fanny] would have to be more discreet. … Abbey was a permanent feature of their lives, and present difficulties needed to be solved without creating others for the future” (299). Notwithstanding their different assessments (or lack thereof) of the letter’s tone, Keats’s most recent biographers concur, it seems, that the poet regarded childhood in a quintessentially Romantic manner—that is, as a period when the whole world feels pleasantly (if, sometimes, too pleasantly) intimate and immediate. Grown-ups have learned (or so the Romantic story goes) to establish certain boundaries between self and other, but the “openhearted” childhood years both seed adulthood’s valuable “philosophic mind” and, later, periodically reinvigorate it through memory. The latter quotation derives from William Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode, but the sentiment in question is perhaps most famously articulated in “Tintern Abbey,” the Romantic touchstone in which Wordsworth addresses his sister. Wordsworth has matured since he last visited the spot identified in that poem’s title—“I have learned,” he writes, “To look on nature, not as in the hour / Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes / The still sad music of humanity”—but Dorothy, he argues, has yet to ripen: “[I]n thy voice I catch / The language of my former heart, and read / My former pleasures in the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes.” To my mind, those lines neatly capture the Keats that Roe, Bate, and Motion imagine (in aggregate) to have written to Fanny in October of 1818: a man freshly “in touch with his childhood” but willing to “rebuke” (Wordsworth’s “wild,” my literature students are always quick to note, isn’t exactly respectful) or at least critique his sister’s “thoughtless[ness],” her juvenile lack of both foresight and insight. From my vantage, however, that portrait doesn’t account for the palpable sympathy that Keats expresses or, I daresay, his pediatrician-esque desire to ameliorate with a simple prescription: a license to lie.

A license is a document that authorizes its holder to exercise his or her judgment in a type of complex situation—while driving a car, say, or performing a medical procedure—and implicit in its issue is the understanding that our world is rarely perfect, ideal. A licensed driver, for instance, knows the rules that, under the best conditions, govern lane changes, but when she’s cut off on the highway, she recognizes that changing lanes without pausing to flick the turn signal might be the safest course of action. Likewise, to hold a driver’s license is not to be authorized to drive under any and all circumstances; when certain factors either external (e.g. the weather) or internal (e.g. intoxication) to the driver impede her ability to drive well enough, she’s expected not to drive at all, the card in her wallet notwithstanding. Put simply, a licensee of any sort is always an arbiter, an agent who knows that the best course of action in this flawed world is often less unassailable than closest to right. And indeed, almost as soon as he mentions having “called on Mr. Abbey… last week,” Keats explains that he, older and wiser than Fanny, doesn’t regard what she did or said to have been “wild,” to have been morally or socially inappropriate: “I do not mean to say that you did wrongly in speaking of it, for there should rightly be no objection to such things.” However, as his hedging diction (“I do not mean to say,” “there should rightly be”) suggests, a problem persists, and it’s less about rightness and wrongness than about the kind of “People [with whom] we are obliged in the course of Childhood to associate”—with, that is, the Goldilocks-picky i-dot measurers who wield like a weapon their authority to call things either right or wrong. According to Keats, their “conduct” “forces” the children in their charge to behave toward them with “duplicity and fa[l]shood,” and although he’s careful to “recommend” not “duplicity but prudence with such people,” it’s clear that he conceives of truth and “fa[l]shood” as abstract endpoints on an infinitely nuanced spectrum or, perhaps, as phenomena akin to chemical substances that, impotent or dangerous in their undiluted forms, can be mixed to produce a safe and effective solution. Fanny, Keats explains, must play the role of chemist, titrating her admirable “openhearted[ness]”—“To the worst of People we should be openhearted,” the poet writes—with just enough omission and equivocation to preserve the health of that heart, of her authentic self: “…but it is as well as things are to be prudent in making any communication to any one, that may throw an impediment in the way of any of the little pleasures you may have.”

In sum, Keats isn’t “rebuk[ing]” or even offering practical advice in this letter to his sister. Rather, he’s letting Fanny in on the best kept secret about childhood: It’s really hard, and sometimes, it really stinks. For every youthful “spot of time” that we recall with fondness or that inspires in us Wordsworth-esque meditations about nature and instinct, there are whole swathes of childhood that, for most of us, evoke memories of frustration, confusion, or helplessness simply because truth is no synonym for beauty when a legal guardian, assigned teacher, or other authoritative adult fetishizes his or her own “philosophic mind.” That’s why my mother, now a doting grandmother, still says in utter seriousness that she “wouldn’t be a kid again if you paid me.” Mom didn’t have an especially difficult or unhappy childhood, but like all children, she was forced to suffer fools, a circumstance that rendered her youth (like mine, and probably yours, and maybe even my own kids’) less “splendor in the grass” than a real pain in the … well, I suspect you catch my drift. The best way to survive that trying period, my mother Keats-ishly suggested to Emily in the wake of the i-dot disaster, is to fib a little, to lie—but only as prescribed. For her own moral and physical safety, a child can neither enthusiastically embrace dishonesty nor wholly disavow it, and that’s the straitened path on which Keats hopes, in this October letter, to set his sister. What’s more, Keats acknowledges that the liar’s license he means to issue will come with a learning curve. At the close of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—the source of my reference, above, to the relationship between beauty and truth—the urn itself asserts with stony confidence that those terms’ equivalence “is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Those vatic lines have, like the images on the vessel itself, “tease[d] us [readers] out of thought” for centuries, but Keats eschews cold philosophy—i.e. the inarguable fixedness implied by “all ye need to know”—when he writes to Fanny. “Perhaps I am talking too deeply for you,” he says without a trace of urnish hauteur, but “if you do not now, you will understand what I mean in the course of a few years.” In other words, the necessity of the license he offers and the judgment it authorizes will become clearer to Fanny as she ages—not so much because she’ll come into intellectual maturity but because she’ll come out of childhood and, therefore, into real agency. After all, Fanny was only fifteen in 1818; Keats’s “few years,” then, seems to anticipate a condition more akin to legal independence than old-womanish sagacity. Once Fanny holds life’s reins, Keats intimates, she’ll recognize the degree to which the carefully delimited lying that he presently recommends has preserved—not compromised or eroded—her truest self.

Nicholas Roe indicates that Keats did indeed “[call] at Abbey’s on Tuesday the 27th,” when he “made another fruitless attempt to persuade [him] to let [Fanny] visit Tom” (279). That may be, but Keats also did something else on 27 October 1818, the day after he penned his note to Fanny: He wrote another (and much more famous) letter. There’s plenty to say about that iconic epistle to Richard Woodhouse, and although I’ll leave most of those points for others to articulate, I do want to observe that the discussion in the 27 October letter turns on a distinction between “the poetical Character” and “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime”—on, that is, a complaint about the artistic and ethical limitations that inhere in Wordsworth’s worldview. I can’t help but wonder whether the previous day’s empathic admission that childhood is no bed of roses assisted Keats in formulating this particular critique of Wordsworth, whose solipsism, I might argue, is most noticeable (and most insufferable) when he writes to or of figures with less legal or social agency—think beggars, gleaners, “idiots,” women, and, of course, children—than himself. In any case, Keats means to establish himself in his letter to Fanny and in his subsequent letter to Woodhouse as something or someone different. And notwithstanding the idiosyncratic charm of Keats’s handwriting—though typically visible, his i-dots tend to be unusually high, as if trying to escape the reach of their sticks—his points in those missives are clear enough.

Betsy Winakur Tontiplaphol is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Trinity University, where she teaches courses in nineteenth-century British literature, including a seminar on John Keats. Her first book, Poetics of Luxury in the Nineteenth Century, was published by Ashgate in 2011, and she is currently completing her second book, a study of the influence of ballet on nineteenth-century verse. Portions of that work, tentatively titled The Pointe of the Pen, have been published in the Byron Journal and European Romantic Review.

Works Cited

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1963.

Motion, Andrew. Keats. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. New Haven: Yale UP, 2012.

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