Letter #13: To J. H. Reynolds, 17 March 1817

As with our last letter, today we find Keats again writing to his pal John Hamilton Reynolds (and again we have the text of the letter thanks only to Richard Woodhouse’s transcription). If you’ve been following This Week in Keats (because who wouldn’t??), you know that Keats’s first volume of poetry came out in early March 1817, and you know that as much as he must have been proud of the accomplishment, he doesn’t waste any time getting started on the next thing. His new project will become Endymion, a poem which is, according to the KLP’s favorite damning praise of it, “at least as full of genius as of absurdity” (so claimed Francis Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review late in 1820, too, too late to defend Keats against Blackwood’s and the Quarterly–but as is our wont, we do get ahead of ourselves).

Never one to shy away from a grand undertaking, with Endymion Keats sets out to “make 4000 lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry.” We know this was his intention thanks to Keats’s own act of epistolary transcription. Sometime during the spring of 1817, Keats wrote to his brother George expressing that sentiment as well as other thoughts about his new poetic aspirations. But that letter has been lost. We only know it existed because Keats himself copied extracts from it in a letter to Benjamin Bailey in October 1817 (which has survived). If anyone happens to find that letter to George, let us know! Wouldn’t that be nice?

It may be just after Keats writes to Reynolds on 17 March that he writes the now-lost letter to George, because as we learn from today’s letter to Reynolds, Keats is preparing to leave town. Jacob Risinger’s response for today expertly sketches Keats’s ambivalence about leaving behind his friends (including his brothers) in London. Keats knows the potential value in seeking solitude so that he can work on his poetry in peace. But he also knows the pain his absence will cause his friends (and, though he doesn’t say so explicitly, the pain it will cause him as well). Keats leaves for the Isle of Wight (via Southampton) on 14 April, but stays there only a week or so. He then relocates to Margate, where he will reunite with Tom. As Risinger notes, part of Keats’s reasoning for leaving the Isle of Wight after such a brief stay was his being “too much in Solitude.” What we see today–and what we’ll continue to see throughout the letters from this spring–is Keats sorting out how his different social and personal connections affect his continuing commitment to poetry. So please enjoy this lively letter, and come back to see the several others on the docket over the coming weeks!

Transcript of Keats’s letter to J. H. Reynolds, 17 Mar 1817 (click for full size). From Richard Woodhouse’s letter notebook. John Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.


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