Here we have the earliest letter written by Keats for which we have an extant manuscript (you can read the text of the poem here, and also read more about that particular digital copy here). Like so many of the Keats manuscripts (both letters and poems), this one resides at the Houghton Library as part of the Harvard Keats Collection. Their wonderful website offers digitized images of dozens of manuscripts (some of the transcripts from Richard Woodhouse and John Jeffrey, as well as those in Keats’s autograph). For the Keats scholar and Keats lover alike, the Harvard Collection is indispensable, and we here at the KLP are grateful for their embrace of the spirit of open access and free use. We will frequently direct our readers to the Harvard site, and if you don’t already have it bookmarked, you ought to!
So it’s August 1816, and Keats and his brother Tom are staying at Margate for a several week visit. During this time Keats writes two verse epistles, this one to George, and another to Charles Cowden Clarke in September (be on the lookout for a response to the Clarke epistle soon!). Although we have the manuscript of the poem (and the few words Keats writes by way of preface and conclusion), we also know that part of the letter is missing. To understand about that missing piece, it’s important to recognize that during this period letters were not sent in envelopes–instead, writers folded the letter in such a way as to seal itself (here’s a handy guide on how to fold nineteenth-century style, from the Iowa State University library). In order to keep his poetry manuscript protected from any damage in transit, Keats took another sheet of paper and used it to enclose the poem. Sadly that enclosing sheet, along with Keats’s few words of “downright prose” for George included on it, has disappeared. Perhaps it still lingers in an old attic somewhere in Louisville, Kentucky, since we know George took the existing manuscript with him to America in 1818, and perhaps at that time still had the enclosing sheet as well. The man who married Georgiana Keats after George’s death, John Jeffrey, when he made copies of several letters to send to Richard Monckton Milnes in 1845 (who was then preparing his biography of the poet), neglected to transcribe the verse epistle because it had been previously published–at the top of the first page of the manuscript Jeffrey wrote, “(published).” As Jeffrey was by no means a careful textual scholar, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that if the enclosing sheet was still there, he found the words of “downright prose” not worth his time either. In any case, with or without that enclosing sheet, the poetry manuscript at some point made its way into the collection of William Arnold Harris, an American book collector who owned a handful of Keats manuscripts at the time of his death in 1923 (including one of the most haunting of Keats’s manuscripts, that containing the blood-chilling fragment, “This living hand”). At the auction of Arnold’s collection held in New York on 10-11 November 1924, Amy Lowell purchased the verse epistle to George (and “This living hand,” although a few other items were claimed by other collectors, presumably to Lowell’s extreme disappointment). Thanks to the work of assiduous collectors and that of equally–if not more–assiduous librarians and archivists, this letter to George can be glimpsed in digital form alongside a wealth of other Keats manuscripts. Enjoy! And also enjoy Michael Theune’s deft exploration of the poem’s dolphin-like leaps and turns!