‘You must choose a spot’

Heidi Thomson
Victoria University of Wellington

RE: Keats’s 5 September 1819 letter to John Taylor


August 2018. I’m in London, doing research in the Dr Williams’s Library (‘The Library of Protestant Dissent’) in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. Every morning I am admitted after ringing the bell, the sole reader during the whole week. It’s just the library staff, me, and the film crew. It turns out that the Library makes a bit of money by renting out the premises, and the shooting of a Led Zeppelin documentary (about themselves, naturally) is in progress. Jimmy Page passes through the corridor to the toilets. There is a mood of somewhat redundant secrecy in the air. The library closes during the lunchtime break, and I eat my Tesco sandwiches in the small park on Gordon Square. I need a break from London for the weekend, I want to be among more trees, inhale better air. I must choose a spot. A friend writes: ‘If the weather is good I’d recommend a day out in Winchester: off-peak day return from Waterloo is £36.40 (means you can take any train back). Takes around an hour each way. There’s the cathedral and grounds, bookshops, college, rivers, and you can walk across water meadows to St Cross, ‘a very interesting old place’ as Keats called it’ (email, 23 August 2018).


Saturday 25 August 2018 was a glorious late summer day. The path to the Hospital of St. Cross starts behind the College, down the road from the house where Jane Austen died in 1817, and winds its way through water meadows, along blackberry patches and cows, to the charitable almshouse.[efn_note]http://hospitalofstcross.co.uk/ and https://www.visitwinchester.co.uk/listing/keats-trail/[/efn_note] ‘There are the most beautiful streams about I ever saw—full of Trout’ (KL 2.148), Keats writes to his sister Fanny on 28 August 1819. Winchester and the walk along the water meadows to the Hospital of St Cross was everything Keatsian I wanted it to be: a chosen spot of tranquil beauty. I took pictures, confirming and enshrining my ‘affective investment’ in Keats.[efn_note]Brian Rejack uses the term ‘affective investment’ in ‘The SRPR Review Essay: Taking Joy in Keats, the Comedian Poet.’ The Spoon River Poetry Review, vol. 43, no. 2, Winter 2018, pp. 104-23, p. 108.[/efn_note]

Between Winchester and the Hospital of St. Cross, 25 August 2018. Photos by the author.

I decided to write on Keats’s letter of 5 September to John Taylor because, in a life characterized by ill health and financial worries, Keats was, in Winchester, momentarily, in a good spot, so good in fact that he tries to give his unwell friend some well-intentioned medical advice.

The significance of a spot always exceeds its mere location. Its characteristics extend into our state of being, enhancing or depressing physical and mental well-being. Medical topography was booming by the early decades of the nineteenth century, with increasingly detailed analyses of geography, geology, atmosphere, climate, weather patterns, the various forms of industrial or agricultural activity as determining factors of a population’s health.[efn_note]For a detailed example, see David H. Scott, “The Medical Topography of Cove.” The Dublin Journal of Medical Science, vol. 13, 1838, pp. 55-104.[/efn_note] Its boom coincided with the documented surge in ‘consumption’ in Britain, as cities and pollution grew, and levels of contagion increased accordingly. While the connection between contagion and living conditions was not made explicitly, it was obvious that well-aired, dry conditions depressed the consumptive symptoms and were conducive to fortifying people’s bodies and minds. Then, as now of course, the choice of a spot, any spot, was the prerogative of the privileged few who could afford to move around, who were not tied to the local labour that precariously sustained them.

The Hospital of St Cross, 25 August 2018. Photos by the author.

Winchester and Keats

As Nicholas Roe’s chapter in Keats’s Places tells us: Winchester ‘offered Keats beauty, antiquity, health, history, landscape and a seventh-century cathedral.’[efn_note]Nicholas Roe, ‘John Keats at Winchester’, Keats’s Places, ed. Richard Marggraf Turley (Springer, 2018), p. 226.[/efn_note] In this atmosphere of calm productivity he worked on The Fall of Hyperion, Otho the Great, Lamia, and composed ‘To Autumn’ around the September equinox. ‘It is the pleasantest Town I ever was in,’ he writes to sister Fanny on 28 August 1819, two weeks after his arrival in Winchester. It was certainly pleasanter than his previous abode, the seaside resort of Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, where his entire stay had been marred by the cold he caught on the Portsmouth coach (KL 2.125). Despite the dire financial straits he found himself in, Keats imbued his (and Brown’s) stay in Winchester with the declared intention of  creative well-being from the very start: ‘We removed to Winchester for the convenience of a Library and find it an exceeding pleasant Town, enriched with a beautiful Cathedrall [sic] and surrounded by a fresh-looking country’ (KL 2.139).

By contrast, Shanklin, despite the ‘very pleasant Cottage’ and the ‘beautiful hilly country’, was steeped in unease right away, with Fanny Brawne bearing the brunt of Keats’s mood in this letter of 1 July: ‘I have never known any unalloy’d Happiness for many days together: the death or sickness of some one has always spoilt my hours—and now when none such troubles oppress me, it is you much confess very hard that another sort of pain should ahunt me. Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom’ (KL 2.122-123). Winchester, however, in the early Autumn of 1819, at the tail end of the first real summer since the catastrophic 1815 Tambora eruption caused disastrous havoc with the weather globally, did produce many days of ‘unalloy’d happiness’ and contributed substantially to Keats’s final burst of concentrated creativity.

John Taylor and John Keats

As his publisher, John Taylor (1781-1864) played a prominent part in Keats’s mature life. Taylor and James Augustus Hessey set up their publishing business in 1806. Their bread and butter came from bestsellers like Ann Taylor’s Practical Hints To Young Females, on the Duties of a Wife, a Mother, and a Mistress of a Family originally published in 1814 and into its tenth edition by 1822, and their own version of a blank commonplace book, the Literary Diary; or Improved Common-place Book ((Blunden, 33-34).[efn_note]https://archive.org/details/practicalhintst00taylgoog/page/n11[/efn_note] The need to keep their target audience—young women and their parents—on their side explains to some extent Taylor and Hessey’s outrage and caution about Keats’s sexually explicit passages in The Eve of St Agnes. The stable income from the more popular conduct books also enabled them to publish new talent : between 1816 and 1826, they published, in addition to Keats, the works of Lamb, Hazlitt, Clare, De Quincey, Hood, Coleridge, Reynolds, Landor, Carlyle, George Borrow, and Henry Cary; ‘few publishers before or since, indeed, can have created a list as full of imaginative literature that was destined to survive its own age’ (Chilcott, vii). Taylor and Hessey had a keen interest in Keats’s creative life, and the sense of stability they provided was priceless: ‘By the end of April [1817], not only had the firm offered to take from Olliers all the unsold copies of the first volume and attempt to sell them, but they had also made a firm promise to keep Keats in funds for the first refusal of all his future works’ (Chilcott, 27).

But Taylor was much more than a publisher to Keats: he was his confidant, friend, champion (against the reviewers of Endymion), and, above all, unstinting financial supporter.[efn_note]For more about John Taylor, see Edmund Blunden, Keats’s Publisher: Memoir of John Taylor (1781-1864). 1936. Reprinted, Augustus M. Kelley Publishers 1975; Tim Chilcott, A Publisher and His Circle: The Life and Work of John Taylor, Keats’s Publisher. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972; Hyder Edward Rollins, ‘John Taylor and James Augustus Hessey’ in The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, vol. 1, Harvard UP, pp. 91-92; Hyder Edward Rollins, ‘John Taylor and James Augustus Hessey’ in The Keats Circle: Letters and Paper and More Letters and Poems of the Keats Circle, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Harvard UP, pp. cxxxviii-cxliv. John Taylor was an expert on money in his own right, publishing books about measures of value, currency, and banking from the 1820s until the 1850s (Blunden, 249-52).[/efn_note] Most letters between Keats and Taylor involve money, in one way or another, with Taylor generously lending sums to Keats who in turn, and to his own detriment, would pass on the borrowed money to other friends who asked for loans. Just 5 days before Keats’s September letter to Taylor, Richard Woodhouse wrote to Taylor about the request for a £50 loan: ‘I wish he could be cured of the vice of lending—for in a poor man, it is a vice’ (KL 2.51). Taylor’s money enabled Keats to find salubrious spots for writing, and it was Taylor who paid for Keats’s and Joseph Severn’s journey to Italy. The most graphic record we have of Keats’s suffering during his final months are Severn’s detailed letters to Taylor, a sure indication of the extent to which Severn felt he could unburden himself to Taylor (KC, letters nos. 85, 94, 107).

Taylor’s steadfast personal affection for Keats and his confidence in Keats’ creative genius was almost a source of bafflement to himself, as in this revealing letter to Sir James Mackintosh of 5 December 1818:

But whatever this Work is, its Author is a true poet—He is only 22, an Orphan at an early Age, & the oldest of 4 Children, one of whom, a Brother aged 19, died last Monday of Consumption,–another Brother has joined B. in America, & his Sister is a Girl at School. These are odd particulars to give, when I am introducing the Work & not the Man to you,–but if you knew him, you would also feel that strange personal Interest in all that concerns him.—Mr Gifford [of the Quarterly Review] forgot his own early life, when he tried to bear down this young Man. Happily it will not succeed. Keats will be the brightest Ornament of this Age. (KC 1.68-69)

The connection between Taylor and Keats was strong, and both expressed a sympathetic interest in the details of each other’s health. Even though Taylor & Hessey’s firm was based at 93 Fleet Street, central London was most definitely not Taylor’s preferred ‘spot’, and his letters vividly suggest how much his sense of loneliness and alienation was connected with city life.[efn_note]Barry Symonds, “Taylor, John (1781-1864), publisher and writer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. September 23, 2004. Oxford UP.[/efn_note] ‘I have the Headache & lowness of Spirits,’ Taylor admits to his brother James on 6 March 1805: ‘In this great town, as in a great pit full of People, to observe one scrambling over another, kicking, scratching, biting and all Sorts of unfair Tricks practised to raise each Man higher than his Neighbour is absolutely disgusting’ (quoted in Chilcott, 10). And, again to James, on 11 April 1813: ‘My Solitude seems more lonely then, when all I see around me are so gay, & apparently happy’ (quoted in Chilcott, 17). In 1813 Taylor leaves the crowded city for lodgings at The Spaniards Inn, next to Hampstead Heath, and his health improves dramatically: ‘You can’t think how pleasant it seems to me to go there after so long a confinement in London. I walk both Morning and Evening and the Distance is at least 5 miles from Fleet Street’ (quoted in Chilcott, 17). Taylor is remarkably forthcoming and articulate in descriptions of his state of well-being, a trait he shares with Keats who, early on in their acquaintance, already confided: ‘instead of Poetry I have a swimming in my head—And feel all the effects of a Mental Debauch—lowness of Spirits—anxiety to go on without the Power to do so which does not at all tend to my ultimate Progression’ (16 May 1817; KL 2.146).

‘You must choose a spot’

Work in Fleet Street took its toll on Taylor’s health, and he regularly escaped from London. Keats’s letter of 5 September was addressed to Taylor’s parental home in Retford, Nottinghamshire, where he was convalescing. After acknowledging receipt of a loan of £30, Keats launches straight into medical prescription mode: ‘You should no[t] have delay’d so long in fleet [sic] Street; leading an inactive life as you did was breathing poison: you will find the country air do more for you than you expect. But it must be proper country air; you must choose a spot’ (KL 2.155). Low-lying, water-logged, flood-prone Retford in Nottinghamshire would probably not have been the kind of spot Keats had in mind. Moving on from his own bad experience in Shanklin where ‘the air would for days together take on an unhealthy idiosyncrasy altogether enervating and weakening as a city Smoke—I felt it very much,’ he turns to the salubrious effect of Winchester: ‘Since I have been at Winchester I have been improving in health—it is not so confined—and there is on one side of the city a dry chalky down where the air is worth six pence a pint’ (KL 2.156). What follows, for the next 500 words or so, is probably the most extensive, sustained piece of health advice in the whole of Keats’s correspondence; it is also an unusually strange piece of hectoring rhetoric. The passage concludes with the firm advice that Taylor ‘should be on the slope of one of the dry barren hills in somersetshire [sic]. I am convinced there is as harmful Air to be breath’d in the country as in Town’ (KL 2.157). Along the way to this conclusion, Keats includes opinions about connections between health, air, and soil; various occupations and health (peasant and butcher); associations between habitation, disposition, and personality (flatland men and mountaineers); and a particularly racist observation on how the agricultural conditions and climate are ‘a great cause of the imbecillity of the Chinese’ (KL 2.156). Hyder Rollins’ footnote on this observation refers to H. E. Briggs’ 1944 article in PMLA which invokes William Robertson’s History of America (1777) and Hazlitt’s essay ‘On Manner’ in The Round Table (1817) (KL 2.156, n.3). Briggs attributes Keats’s statement to a conflation of ideas from Robertson and Hazlitt for the connection of agriculture with degeneracy and weakness (in the sense of ‘imbecillity’), compounded by the racist stereotype of the east as luxurious and lazy.[efn_note]H. E. Briggs, “Two Notes on Hazlitt and Keats.” PMLA, vol. 59, 1944, pp. 596-98.[/efn_note] The reference is a worthy of further examination, because Keats does not know much about China, and neither does he refer specifically to China in his own work. Hyder Rollins’ footnote (KL 2.156, n. 3) refers to Keats’s health and climate account in this letter as a ‘harangue’, a good word choice for what sounds, unusually so for Keats, like a ‘tirade’.[efn_note]“harangue, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/84094. Accessed 19 August 2019.[/efn_note]

‘The nature of air and soil’

Keats’s imperative to ‘find a spot’ is closely connected with deepening anxiety about his own precarious health. Considering there was no cure for consumption, finding the right spot to alleviate the symptoms greatly occupied Keats’s mind. Diagnostic and curative constructions of consumption revolved around identity and location, in varying degrees of preponderance. Damien Walford Davies’s chapter in John Keats and the Medical Imagination explains Keats’s speculation about ‘divergent contemporary theories of pulmonary tuberculosis’ and claims that ‘competing (and in some forms reconcilable) contemporary theories of tuberculosis as inherited, constitutional / behavioural  (or “essentialist”), environmentally triggered, and contagious presented Keats with highly serviceable, if always distressing, models through which he sought to understand his biological and literary place in the world and calibrate his proximity to others years before he received bloody proof on 3 February 1820 of his own pulmonary malady in the form of his first episode of haemoptysis.’[efn_note]“Keats’s Killing Breath: Paradigms of a Pathography.” John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe (Palgrave, 2017), pp. 207-242, pp. 209-210.[/efn_note] Alan Bewell’s chapter on ‘Keats and the Geography of Consumption’ in Romanticism and Colonial Disease (Johns Hopkins, 1999) spells out how ‘Keats’s letter [of 5 September 1819] belongs to a burgeoning literature that sought to provide medical advice to a growing number of invalids who were seeking to recover their health through a “change” of climate or air’ (162-163). Opinions differed greatly on this matter. Thomas Beddoes’ Essays on the Causes, Early Signs, and Prevention of Pulmonary Consumption for the Use of Parents and Preceptors (1799) argues in favour of sea voyages but does not believe that warmer climates (Italy, Portugal, Madeira are referred to) make a big difference.[efn_note]https://archive.org/details/essayoncausesear00bedd/page/n4[/efn_note] Davies refers to Beddoes’ text in the context of Keats’s reference to Butchers in his letter: Beddoes ‘devotes a whole chapter to “Butchers” as “class exempt” from consumption (along with catgut-makers, who also “pass much of their time amidst the stench of dead animal matters”)’ (230). ‘See the difference between a Peasant and a Butcher. I am convinced a great cause of it is the difference of the air they breathe,’ Keats writes in his letter, pointing to the argument that ‘[o]ur hea[l]th temperament and dispositions are taken more . . . from the air we breathe than is generally imagined’ (KL 2.156).

Taylor is not to consider his own intrinsic constitution as the sole source of his weakness: ‘So if you do not get better at Retford do not impute it to your own weakness before you have well considered the nature of the air and soil’ (KL 2.156). Keats’s medical topography goes beyond the landscape itself. It includes the ways in which humans interact with the landscape in their occupations: ‘The teeming damp that comes from the plough furrow is of great effect in taming the fierceness of a strong Man more than his labour—let him be moving furze upon a Mountain and at the days end his thoughts will run upon a withe axe if he ever handled one, let him leave the Plough and he will think qu[i]etly of his supper—Agriculture is the tamer of men; the steam from the earth is like drinking their mother’s milk—It enervates their natures’ (KL 2.156). All of a sudden we are guided along from a professed connection between constitutional health and occupation (labour on a mountain versus ploughing on flat land) towards an assertion of essential debility or weakness associated with a whole population in a particular area: ‘Agriculture is the tamer of men.’ As Keats’s rhetoric morphs into generic journalese the assertions are no longer about whether Retford stands comparison with Winchester as a salubrious spot;  the scale is now global and racial with this bomb shell: ‘This appears a great cause of the imbecillity of the Chinese’ (KL 2.156).

‘the imbecillity of the Chinese’

How can we read this statement? Even allowing for the contextual use of the word ‘imbecillity’ in the now obsolete medical sense of ‘infirmity’ or an ‘instance of weakness or feebleness’, without the demeaning connotation of intrinsic inferiority, this is a singular statement in Keats’s extant writing.[efn_note]See “imbecility, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/91685. Accessed 19 August 2019.[/efn_note] There isn’t much Keats criticism which refers to this passage at all, but there is large body of work, by Peter Kitson and others, about Romantic representations of China which point to the racializing of writing about environment and health.[efn_note]Many thanks to Peter Kitson for responding to my email inquiry on 30 July 2019, drawing my attention to the failed Amherst embassy to China of 1817. In addition to Damien Walford Davies and Alan Bewell, Porscha Fermanis also refers to Keats’s letter in John Keats and the Ideas of the Enlightenment (Edinburgh UP, 2009), p. 77. For racial and Romantic Constructions of China, see Peter J. Kitson, Romantic Literature, Race, and Colonial Encounter (Palgrave, 2007); Eric Hayot, The Hypothetical Mandarin: Sympathy, Modernity, and Chinese Pain (Oxford UP, 2009); Michael Keevak, Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (Princeton UP, 2011); Peter J. Kitson, Forging Romantic China: Sino-British Cultural Exchange 1760-1840 (Cambridge UP, 2013); Peter J. Kitson and Robert Markley, editors. Writing China: Essays on the Amherst Embassy (1816) and Sino-British Cultural Relations (Boydell and Brewer, 2016).[/efn_note] In Forging Romantic China Kitson writes about the satirically racist connections between the failed 1817 embassy to China (for Amherst’s refusal to kowtow), and the scandalous reputation of the reviled Prince Regent, later King George IV, who indulged in an expensive taste for luxurious chinoiserie artefacts.[efn_note] For a short biography of the Prince Regent, see Hibbert, Christopher. “George IV (1762–1830), king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and king of Hanover.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  January 03, 2008. Oxford University Press.[/efn_note] The connections between China and Regency England were satirized by the likes of  Leigh Hunt (e.g. his 1817 Examiner piece of the interior decorations of the Drury Lane theatre) and George Cruickshank, whose savage 1816 cartoon depicting ‘The Court at Brighton à la Chinese’ grafted racist, English versions of Chinese culture onto English political corruption (178-79, 226-28). These popular associations, in which racism and anti-Regency sentiments converge in a toxic blend, would have been at the forefront of Keats’s mind at the time, particularly since his arrival in Winchester coincided with the Peterloo Massacre of 16 August, a massacre based on the presumed inferiority of the working classes and for which the Prince had sanctioned the excessive crackdown authorized by the Manchester magistrates. At the moment when his people were being murdered by their own army, the Prince himself was sailing off the Isle of Wight at Cowes, a sight recorded by Keats in his letter to Fanny Brawne of 16 August (KL 2.142).

Keith Thomas’s recent In Pursuit of Civility (Yale UP, 2018) draws attention to the widespread eighteenth-century ideas of racial hierarchies, contrary to the Enlightenment concept of a single humanity. Thomas refers specifically to David Hume who included a footnote in his essay ‘Of National Characters’ that ‘there were four or five different species of men and that the nonwhites were “naturally inferior”. “There never was,” he added, “a civilized nation of any other complexion than white”’ (Thomas, 236). ‘My heart sank to find the humane and rational David Hume proclaiming this,’ writes Jenny Uglow in her NYRB review of Thomas’s book.[efn_note]‘Civility and Its Discontents,’ New York Review of Books, vol. 66, no 13, 2019, p. 53.[/efn_note] Aaron Garrett and Silvia Sebastiani, in their chapter about ‘David Hume on Race’, examine the fact that this footnote, in an attempt to exculpate Hume of racism, is often characterized as an ‘offhand comment’—after all, Hume has the reputation of a ‘secular saint’—and they contextualize the reasons why Hume upheld these ideas. They conclude that there is ‘a tendency when dealing with important philosophers to ignore or sideline their beliefs when we find them repellent and to trumpet them when they correspond to beliefs that we hold to be correct . . . This makes for bad apologist history and bad philosophy. For this reason alone, it is important to highlight the cases when undeniably great philosophers held considered beliefs that we hold to be morally repugnant . . .  It is also important to recognize that these positions have an afterlife due to the esteem in which these figures are rightly held.’[efn_note] Zack Naomi, Aaraon Garrett, and Silvia Sebastiani. “David Hume on Race.” The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race. Oxford UP, 2017. Online.[/efn_note]

The same idea applies to writers like Keats whose charisma not only affected his contemporaries, but extends into the present day.[efn_note] For an examination of books and ideas about ‘Keats love’, see Brian Rejack’s ‘The SRPR Review Essay: Taking Joy in Keats, the Comedian Poet’ in The Spoon River Poetry Review, vol. 43, no. 2, Winter 2018, pp. 104-23.[/efn_note] I don’t have an answer to the question as to why Keats invokes the Chinese in this way, or which specific source he may have had in mind (apart from Robertson and Hazlitt). There is, however, a satirical association between the Regency (and its political imbecility), with its penchant for luxurious consumption (including chinoiserie), and the racist characterisation of the Chinese. Already in the Examiner of 2 June 1811 Leigh Hunt, Keats’s friend and mentor, had explicitly referred to the ‘imbecility’ of both the Duke of York and Prince Regent, after the latter had reinstated the former as ‘Commander-in-Chief’. After referring to the Duke of York as ‘one of the most imbecile persons existing’ and alleging that the Prince Regent would have had ‘proofs without number of this imbecility since he was a boy’, Hunt attributed the reinstatement decision to the Prince Regent’s own ‘native imbecility—an inborn rickettiness of mind, which it is now too late to rectify.’ [efn_note]Danie [Leigh Hunt]. “The Political Examiner.” Examiner, no 179, 1811, pp. 337-40. [/efn_note] And if we keep that in mind, there may be some food for thought in the crossed section of the letter to Taylor.    


‘I will cross the letter with some lines from Lamia,’ Keats writes at the end of his address to Taylor (KL 2.157). We turn the page ninety degrees, and perpendicular on the advice to Taylor, Keats evokes the gilded cage Lamia finds herself in. Lycius has decided on a big, fat Corinthian wedding, and the included passage starts off with a description of the vulgarly magnificent banquet set-up, with Lamia famously floating in ‘pale contented sort of discontent’ (KL 2.158). Less than two weeks after including this passage Keats writes to George and Georgiana about Lamia that he is ‘certain there is that sort of fire in it which must take hold of people in some way—give them either pleasant or unpleasant sensation. What they want is a sensation of some sort’ (KL 2.189). And ‘sensation’ they get. The message to Taylor is the message to a publisher: the public will want this. They may not understand the extent to which they are reading a satirical portrayal of themselves as voyeuristic consumers, but they will lap it up. It’s an early nineteenth century reality-show, an experiment in disastrous coupling, combined with a touch of extreme make-over, in an resort-like setting, and with a crusty know-all, spoilsport judge (Apollonius) thrown in. The gawking crowd, whose ‘common eyes’ devour the set, can’t quite believe their luck that they’re actually invited, somehow, to this party. One could conceive of this passage as a Cruikshank cartoon—Inconveniences of a Crowded Drawing Room (1818) come to mind—satirizing the ‘herd’ who have elbowed their way in. The decorations include ‘jasper pannels’, which could refer to precious stones but also suggested the jasperware pottery invented by Wedgwood for which there was a strong appetite at the time.

How does the address to Taylor talk to this passage from Lamia, I wonder? Both show an underbelly of humanity, an ebullient darkness and vulgarity which we do not want to associate with our more etherial version of Keats. In the wake of the damning Endymion reviews he is keen to prove that he’s a Butcher rather than a Peasant, that he can’t be classified with the weak, that he too can pull out all the stops. The passage from Lamia in this letter to Taylor differs from all other versions by the inclusion of eighteen lines ‘subsequently discarded’.[efn_note]See Jack Stillinger, The Texts of Keats’s Poems (Harvard UP, 1974), pp. 254-57 for the textual history of Lamia: ‘There is an intermediate draft version of II.122-162 plus eighteen lines subsequently discarded, in Keats’s letter to Taylor of 5 September 1819 (MS at Harvard—text in Letters, II, 157-159, with facsimile of the first twenty-two lines facing II, 208; there is also a transcript by Woodhouse in his letterbook)’ (255).[/efn_note] And overall, this version is more extreme, with Lycius described as ‘Dolt! Fool! Madman! Lout!’ (KL 2.158).

‘saith Glutton “Mum!”’

The lines which were later omitted depict, in broadly humorous strokes, the merriment of the guests:

And, as the pleasant appetite entic’d,
Gush came the wine, and sheer the meats were slic’d.
Soft went the Music; the flat salver sang
Kiss’d by the emptied goblet,–and again it rang:
Swift bustled by the servants:–here’s a health
Cries one—another—then, as if by stealth,
A Glutton drains a cup of Helicon,
Too fast down, down his throat the brief delight is gone.
“Where is that Music?” cries a Lady fair.
“Aye, where is it my dear? Up in the air”?
Another whisphers ‘Poo!’ saith Glutton “Mum!”
Then makes his shiny mouth a <k>napking for his thumb. & & & – (KL 2. 159)

The arch-glutton at the time was of course the Prince Regent, portrayed as fat and gross in the cartoons of the period, and specifically referred to as the ‘fat Regent’ in Keats’s letter to Fanny Keats of 28 August 1819 (KL 2.149). Stylistically, this passage is the territory of Chaucer rather than Dryden, the avowed model for Lamia, with the final lines redolent of Nicholas and Alisoun’s prank on John the Carpenter in The Miller’s Tale. As Chaucer’s characters all hide in the mounted barrels supposedly awaiting the flood, they pronounce ‘clom’ (‘quiet’) in the same way as ‘poo’ and ‘mum’ are articulated in this passage. In addition, we also get a potential reference to Absolon’s itching mouth, before he ends up kissing Alisoun’s bottom.[efn_note]https://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/teachslf/milt-par.htm#TALE, see ll. 3638-3741 in particular.[/efn_note] These provocative lines from Lamia foreshadowed Keats’s letter to Taylor of 17 November when he professed that ‘Wonders are no wonders to me. I am more at home amongst Men and women. I would rather read Chaucer than Ariosto [which he was reading in September]’ (KL 2.234). By November Keats’s mind was fully set on satire, because that is what he was working on.

China Walk, Lambeth

According to the Electronic Concordance to Keats’s Poems the word ‘China’ is used in Keats’s poetry twice, both in humorous contexts.[efn_note] https://romantic-circles.org/reference/keatsconcordance/ch_chi.html [/efn_note] The first instance is uncapitalized and refers to the ‘china closet’ of Mrs. C. which she has abandoned in order to climb Ben Nevis (‘Upon my life, Sir Nevis, I am piqu’d’, CP 213, l. 14). The second instance connects directly with the crass consumerism and gluttony of the Regency, as depicted in the Lamia passage of the letter to Taylor. By the end of 1819 Keats was working on a poem which in Woodhouse’s transcript was entitled ‘The jealousies. A faery Tale, by Lucy Vaughan Lloyd of China Walk, Lambeth’ (Stillinger, Texts, 268). The poem is a satire on the disastrous marriage of the Prince Regent (Emperor Elfinan in the poem) and Princess Caroline of Brunswick (Bellanaine) through an account of Bellanaine’s procession from Brunswick to her unwilling groom-to-be in London, as narrated by Lucy. Her names, ‘Vaughan’ and ‘Lloyd’, are Welsh, and ‘China Walk, Lambeth, was the site of the first English commercial pottery factory’; as Christine Gallant puts it: ‘Keats’s “Lucy Vaughan Lloyd” probably came from rural Wales to become one of the hardworking, badly paid pottery workers of China Walk.’[efn_note]Keats and Romantic Celticism (Springer, 2005), p. 135.[/efn_note] The naïve star-struck narrator of The Jealousies is a ‘working-class Welsh migrant to Cockney London’ (135). In 1815 potter John Doulton invested his savings in the Vauxhall Walk pottery of Martha Jones, and together with her foreman John Watts, they became ‘Jones, Watts, and Doulton’.[efn_note] Desmond Eyles, Royal Doulton, 1816-1965: The Rise and Expansion of the Royal Doulton Potteries. Hutchinson, 1965.[/efn_note] ‘Lucy Vaughan Lloyd’ would have worked in a pottery (china-ware) factory amidst dust, she would have been exposed to lead and chemical dies, and she would probably have lived in close proximity to the factory in squalid, urban conditions. Already by the early nineteenth century the area was entirely filled up with ‘poor quality, working class housing’ and by the 1870s it was notorious for its ‘poverty and crime’.[efn_note] https://www.lambeth.gov.uk/sites/default/files/pl-Lambeth-Walk-and-China-Walk-CA-appraisal-2017.pdf[/efn_note]

‘a spot’

There is much more to be said about The Jealousies and its relationship to Lamia, but, for now, the letter to Taylor with its cancelled Chaucerian passage about a ridiculous Glutton bridges the worlds of tragedy and comedy. The ‘fat Regent’ holding court ‘à la Chinese’ may be a figure of fun for his ‘imbecility’, but the consequences of his luxurious misrule are dire for those who cannot afford to ‘choose a spot’, who must labour where they can find work. The Peterloo Massacre was a horrific example of entrapment in a spot. I still do not fully grasp the extent and ramifications of Keats’s observation about the ‘imbecillity of the Chinese’, but the vivid association with the crass stupidity of the Prince Regent suggests in itself that there is an ‘imbecility’ problem within England itself. The Chinese labourers in the fields and the Welsh workers in the china factories of Lambeth definitely had that in common: they could not choose a spot.

About the author
Heidi Thomson works primarily on topics in British Romanticism and has published widely on the life and works of Thomas Gray, Maria Edgeworth, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats. Her book Coleridge and the Romantic Newspaper: The Morning Post and the Road to Dejection appeared in 2016. She also has recent essays on Keats in the collections Keats’s Places (Palgrave, 2018) and John Keats in Context (Cambridge UP, 2017)


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