Keats’s Oxford stay is nearing its end, as he’ll be heading back to London in early October. But we have one final letter written during the trip: today’s is to Benjamin Robert Haydon, about whom we last heard back in August (check out the episode of This Week in Keats inspired by that letter). The primary topic of today’s letter is a young man named Charles Cripps. Haydon had asked Keats to inquire about Cripps (who was apparently studying at Magdalen College at the time) and to gauge Cripps’ interest in training as a painter under Haydon’s tutelage. Keats did so, and in this letter he reports back. He also offers some of his own thoughts on Cripps’ potential as a painter (“I have a great Idea that he will be a tolerable neat brush”).
Here at the KLP we often attend to the material details of Keats’s letters. One feature we have not yet discussed, however, is how the letters are sealed. Yes, we’ve discussed how the letters were folded (see here and here, for instance). But what about the wax seals? Well we have a nicely preserved one on today’s letter which gives us an occasion to discuss the matter a bit. It’s still a bit hard to make out in the image from Harvard, but you can sort of see the outlines of a head. That just so happens to be the head of Shakespeare, as designed by James Tassie (or William Tassie, James’s nephew who had taken over the business after his uncle’s death and who set up a fashionable shop on Leicester Square).
These “Tassie” gems were incredibly popular, and Keats owned several. In March 1819 he wrote to his sister Fanny about them, noting that he had recently passed through Leicester Square and thought about buying some for her (he did not, for fear of buying any she might already own).
Unsurprisingly, Keats enjoyed his Shakespeare seal. But perhaps his other favorite was the one depicting an image of a lyre, with the affixed motto, “Qui me néglige, me désole” (roughly, “whoever neglects me, saddens me”). The broken lyre will become, of course, an image associated with Keats after his death thanks to the gravestone design by Severn. But this particular lyre ought to serve as a reminder of how Keats’s thinking about classical culture was filtered through his own contemporary consumer culture. Psyche may have been “Too, too late for the fond believing lyre,” but Keats had plenty of lyres around him–they just happened to be markers of his own belatedness precisely because of their circulation as products of capitalist enterprise.
That’s all for now, but we’ll have more on Tassie gems in the future–always be on the lookout for those letters that feature well-preserved wax!
Images of the letter are courtesy of Houghton Library at Harvard. For a good reading edition, we direct you again to Forman’s 1895 one-volume edition. Enjoy!
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