Letter #14: To Charles Cowden Clarke, 25 March 1817

Today we return to the early friend and mentor of Keats, Charles Cowden Clarke, about whom we heard a great deal during the first year of the KLP. Five of the ten letters from 1816 were addressed to Clarke. To the shock of the KLP editors, we realized only upon preparing for today’s letter that it is in fact the last extant letter from Keats to Clarke! The two, of course, remained friends, but certainly after the spring of 1817 they saw less of each other. It seemed like we were just getting to know friend Charles, and now he’s about to disappear from Keats’s epistolary record.

Now, it’s worth reminding our dear readers that for each letter which has survived, there are probably another dozen which have not (caveat: not a mathematically sound or statistically informed estimate). According to Clarke himself, there’s at least one other letter from Keats to him, written in the aftermath of young Tom Keats’s death in early December 1818. In the close of Clarke’s 1878 Recollections of Writers (a work discussed in an earlier post about another Clarke letter), he notes that Keats expressed to him his “firm belief in the immortality of the soul,” a belief he says the recently departed Tom also held. (In other letters Keats’s belief seems less firm.) Surely some other letters were sent and received long after 25 March 1817 as well.

Speaking of lost letters, we’re lucky to have today’s letter! It was not printed until 1932. Long before that, Clarke gave the letter to an Edinburgh collector, bookseller and sometime printer named William Finley (or Findlay) Watson. When exactly remains a mystery. Watson ran his shop (and probably maintained lodgings above it) at 52 Princes Street in Edinburgh–next door to the famous Jenners department store–until at least 1860, and perhaps later. One imagines that at least some of those Victorian shoppers might have wanted to extend their window-shopping route over to Watson’s for a peak at Keats! In any case, after Watson’s death in 1881, he bequeathed his collection of thousands of prints, drawings, manuscripts, paintings, and autograph letters to the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland. The letter to Clarke was found there in 1929 by Louis Arthur Holman, an eccentric Bostonian Keats acolyte (about whom you can read more in Ann Rowland’s excellent essay in her recent collection co-edited with Paul Westover, Transatlantic Literature and Author Love in the Nineteenth Century). 1929-32 may have been a rough time for the global economic system, but it was quite the boom period for newly discovered Keats letters! Regular KLP readers will recall that the 9 October 1816 letter to Clarke was discovered during these years as well, thanks to some dumb luck by a Melville scholar named John Howard Birss–and when he found that letter at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the 12 November 1819 letter to George Keats turned up for the first time as well! Holman printed accounts of all three letters’ reentries into the light of day in his short-lived magazine, Within the Compass of a Print Shop. One of the KLP editors may have recently purchased a copy of said magazine. We’ll make sure to update this post if it yields any more intriguing tidbits.

That checkered history out of the way, let’s proceed to the letter! Even though last time we encountered Keats writing to Reynolds about his need for solitude, we know Keats felt some ambivalence about that future prospect. Well, here he is again in the thick of a wine-, music-, poetry-, and friend-filled evening. He tells Clarke to join him, Leigh Hunt, and Vincent Novello the next evening, where they will presumably discuss Hunt’s and Keats’s latest poetic efforts, and, of course, our favorite component, sing “a Hymn of Mr H.’s composing 4 voices.” What an evening it must have been.

Since we don’t yet have Holman’s magazine copy of the letter to share with you, we’ll just go ahead and offer a transcription of our own. And then you can head over to read Christine Woody’s fabulous response! As have many of our earlier correspondents, Woody wonderfully captures the excitement and potential represented by Keats’s sociability during these early years, and what the experiences described and alluded to in the letters must have meant for Keats’s developing notion of himself as a poet. Also be on the lookout for Woody’s article on this topic (specifically on the trope of the “Cockney” author) in the Keats-Shelley Journal later this year.



Hampstead Tuesday Aft

My dear Charles,

When shall we see each other again? In Heaven or in Hell, or in deep Places? In crooked Lane are we to meet or on Salisbury Plain? Or jumbled together at Drury Lane Door? For my part I know not where it is to be except that it may be possible to take place at Mr Novello’s tomorrow evening whither Mr Hunt and myself are going and wher Mr Novello requested Mr Hunt to invite you per Letter the which I offered to do. So we shall meet you there tomorrow evening–Mr H. has got a great way into a Poem on the Nymphs and has said a number of beautiful things I have also written a few Lines and a Sonnet on Rimini which I will copy for you against tomorrow–Mr H. desires to be remembered to you–

Your’s sincerely
John Keats–

 N.B. we shall have a Hymn of Mr H.’s composing 4 Voices–go it!

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