Letter #17: To J. H. Reynolds, 17/18 April 1817

Since we last encountered Keats writing to his brothers from Southampton on 15 April, he’s continued on his journey and acquired lodgings at Carisbrooke. Wikipedia will tell you that this village on the Isle of Wight is “best known as the site of Carisbrooke Castle,” but the KLP editors respectfully disagree–it should be remembered for hosting Keats for 10 days 200 years ago! We may be biased. In any case, Keats should at least be mentioned on the Wikipedia page for Carisbrooke! Sad. In Wikipedia’s defense, though, it is a pretty castle.

The gatehouse at Carisbrooke Castle.

Keats claims that he could see the castle from his window, which has led some to speculate on where exactly Keats might have been lodging. Hyder Edward Rollins notes the history of some argument between a Mr. W. H. Wadham, Louis Arthur Holman, and Maurice Buxton Forman; the former two suggest Canterbury House (pictured below via Google’s all-seeing eye) or another building on Castle Road; Forman disagrees with them both; Rollins offers no opinion. Should the KLP settle the matter one day, we shall share the results of our inquiry. For now, here is where Keats might have stayed:


As Keats settled in, at the above building or elsewhere, he wrote a letter to his pal Reynolds in two sittings across two days. It is simply lovely. The proposal that the island ought to be named “Primrose Island,” but only if the “nation of Cowslips agree there to”–pure Keatsian gold! And we encounter in the second section of this two-day letter what could arguably be called the most famous phrase from the letters we’ve read thus far: “I find that I cannot exist without poetry.” We daresay there are some devoted Friends of Keats out there who have that phrase tattooed on their bodies. And, no, to the best of our knowledge, no KLP editors have Keats’s words tattooed on them, but now that we think of it, that really is something we ought to rectify.

Now, as today’s letter spans two days, the KLP has responses for you for today and tomorrow. First up is Allison Dushane (Angelo State University), who wonderfully captures Keats’s narvus state as he arrives in Carisbrooke and gets to the work of writing Endymion. She demonstrates how Keats in this letter poses his relationship to poetry as a bodily one–his narvus-ness is not just about unease, but a more general state of responsiveness to the world around him, including the poetry (and poets) all around him (Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton in this letter).

Tomorrow we’ll feature a response from Rosie Whitcombe (Birmingham City University). She focuses on a topic that Keats contemplates throughout his correspondence, and particularly in later letters when he’s sending packets across the ocean to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana: the limitations of epistolarity. These letters from spring 1817 are the first ones we have of Keats writing at a greater distance than within the bounds of London. As such, he finds himself tasked with how his letters can attempt to bridge that distance, even while reminding that the distance exists. Whitcombe’s response both illuminates these dynamics in this letter to Reynolds and gestures toward later letters in which similar dynamics will become even more pronounced.

And because we have a break in letters until May 10, the KLP will generously share a THIRD response to today’s letter during the interval. That final response (exact date TBA) is a special treat, as it is the first response written by an undergraduate student: Victoria Rego, a student at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. The KLP has several pedagogy-related initiatives in the works, and more broadly we aim to support and promote work by students on the site itself. Rego’s response will be the first entry toward that end. Look for it in late April or early May.

As mentioned back in March with the first letter to Reynolds, the vast majority (18 out of 21) of Keats’s letters to Reynolds come to us via transcripts from Richard Woodhouse. All are available via the Harvard Keats Collection, which we kindly (and with permission) reproduce for you here (click the images for the full size images). And for a readable printed edition, we suggest the same edition mentioned with the previous letter, Harry Buxton Forman’s 1883 volume.

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