Letter #1: To George Felton Mathew, Nov. 1815

Read the KLP founders’ responses to Keats’s verse epistle here.

This text, the earliest extant letter by Keats, is widely available in a variety of forms, given that the verse epistle was published in Keats’s first volume of poetry, Poems (1817), and has been reprinted in editions of his work many times since. The manuscript of the letter–if it was indeed ever sent as a letter (according to Richard Woodhouse, it was)–no longer exists.

We reproduce the text of the poem below, but should you like to see it in another form, HathiTrust has a text of particular interest with respect to the layering of different temporal moments through which Keats’s letters so often come to us. If you search for “Keats” in the author field and limit your search to the year 1817, you’ll get exactly one result.


Hey, isn’t that handy! It appears that the University of Wisconsin owns a copy of the 1817 edition and has made a scan of it available for all to view–hooray! Upon first looking into the scan of this book, you might not notice that what you’re actually looking at is a scan of a facsimile edition of the 1817 volume which was published in 1927. That facsimile was produced from the copy owned (at the time) by the British Museum, so you’ll find some marks indicating as much. The 1817 book, now at the British Library, was owned in the nineteenth-century by book collector Frederick Locker (many of the Keats materials from his ‘Rowfant Library’ made their way to Harvard via Amy Lowell in the 1920s). In his copy of the book, Locker added a manuscript note on the flyleaf, reading: “Robert Browning dined with me today, and looking at this volume he said that it was a copy of this edition of John Keats’ Poems that was found in the bosom of the dead body of Shelley. / F. Locker. 20 Feb 1869.” Well somebody got mixed up (Shelley had Keats’s 1820 volume with him when he drowned), but that’s beside the point. In seeking out this poem, the first of our letters of Keats around which this project is circulating, what you’ll find is a record of material and textual exchanges that includes, among others: the poem as it was published in 1817, one particular copy’s journey into the hands of Frederick Locker and then (with a detour in 1869 involving Robert Browning) to the British Museum and then British Library, the facsimile production of that copy in 1927, and the scanning of the University of Wisconsin’s copy of a copy with the help of Google and HathiTrust. Keats’s “brotherhood in song” may have begun with only two voices, but as we encounter it now, it’s thanks as well to many others who have kept the tune going.

‘To George Felton Mathew’

Sweet are the pleasures that to verse belong,
And doubly sweet a brotherhood in song;
Nor can remembrance, Mathew! bring to view
A fate more pleasing, a delight more true
Than that in which the brother Poets joy’d,
Who with combined powers, their wit employ’d
To raise a trophy to the drama’s muses.
The thought of this great partnership diffuses
Over the genius loving heart, a feeling
Of all that’s high, and great, and good, and healing.

Too partial friend! fain would I follow thee
Past each horizon of fine poesy;
Fain would I echo back each pleasant note
As o’er Sicilian seas, clear anthems float
‘Mong the light skimming gondolas far parted,
Just when the sun his farewell beam has darted:
But ’tis impossible; far different cares
Beckon me sternly from soft “Lydian airs,”
And hold my faculties so long in thrall,
That I am oft in doubt whether at all
I shall again see Phoebus in the morning:
Or flush’d Aurora in the roseate dawning!
Or a white Naiad in a rippling stream;
Or a rapt seraph in a moonlight beam;
Or again witness what with thee I’ve seen,
The dew by fairy feet swept from the green,
After a night of some quaint jubilee
Which every elf and fay had come to see:
When bright processions took their airy march
Beneath the curved moon’s triumphal arch.

But might I now each passing moment give
To the coy muse, with me she would not live
In this dark city, nor would condescend
‘Mid contradictions her delights to lend.
Should e’er the fine-eyed maid to me be kind,
Ah! surely it must be whene’er I find
Some flowery spot, sequester’d, wild, romantic,
That often must have seen a poet frantic;
Where oaks, that erst the Druid knew, are growing,
And flowers, the glory of one day, are blowing;
Where the dark-leav’d laburnum’s drooping clusters
Reflect athwart the stream their yellow lustres,
And intertwined the cassia’s arms unite,
With its own drooping buds, but very white.
Where on one side are covert branches hung,
‘Mong which the nightingales have always sung
In leafy quiet: where to pry, aloof,
Atween the pillars of the sylvan roof,
Would be to find where violet beds were nestling,
And where the bee with cowslip bells was wrestling
There must be too a ruin dark, and gloomy,
To say “joy not too much in all that’s bloomy.”

Yet this is vain — O Mathew lend thy aid
To find a place where I may greet the maid—
Where we may soft humanity put on,
And sit, and rhyme and think on Chatterton;
And that warm-hearted Shakspeare sent to meet him
Four laurell’d spirits, heaven-ward to intreat him.
With reverence would we speak of all the sages
Who have left streaks of light athwart their ages:
And thou shouldst moralize on Milton’s blindness,
And mourn the fearful dearth of human kindness
To those who strove with the bright golden wing
Of genius, to flap away each sting
Thrown by the pitiless world. We next could tell
Of those who in the cause of freedom fell;
Of our own Alfred, of Helvetian Tell;
Of him whose name to ev’ry heart’s a solace,
High-minded and unbending William Wallace.
While to the rugged north our musing turns
We well might drop a tear for him, and Burns.

Felton! without incitements such as these,
How vain for me the niggard Muse to tease:
For thee, she will thy every dwelling grace,
And make “a sun-shine in a shady place:”
For thou wast once a flowret blooming wild,
Close to the source, bright, pure, and undefil’d,
Whence gush the streams of song: in happy hour
Came chaste Diana from her shady bower,
Just as the sun was from the east uprising;
And, as for him some gift she was devising,
Beheld thee, pluck’d thee, cast thee in the stream
To meet her glorious brother’s greeting beam.
I marvel much that thou hast never told
How, from a flower, into a fish of gold
Apollo chang’d thee; how thou next didst seem
A black-eyed swan upon the widening stream;
And when thou first didst in that mirror trace
The placid features of a human face:
That thou hast never told thy travels strange,
And all the wonders of the mazy range
O’er pebbly crystal, and o’er golden sands;
Kissing thy daily food from Naiad’s pearly hands.