Letter #39: To George and Tom Keats, 5 January 1818

Happy New Year, Keats fans! As 1817 turned to 1818, Keats was up to much of the same as he’d been up to in December 1817: lots of eating, drinking, socializing, and “hanging out” (a Regency slang term Keats picks up from his friend James Rice and uses in today’s letter). One of the remarkable things about this letter, as KLP co-founder Ian Newman explains in his response, is that Keats spends very little time detailing the events of the “Immortal Dinner” (the dinner party of 28 Dec at Haydon’s which Keats attended among other luminaries including Charles Lamb and William Wordsworth), but quite a bit of time and detail on a rather more mortal dinner. This was an evening at George Reddell’s (or Redhall, as Keats has it), probably on 3 or 4 January.

As will become clear from Newman’s response, this other dinner involved quite a bit of bawdy conversation. Even though the Immortal Dinner featured fair amounts of silliness and rowdiness–notably Keats himself with his “pertinacity in favour of drinking–keeping [his] two glasses at work in a knowing way”–one imagines that some of the bawdy jokes and crude conversation at the dinner hosted by Reddell would have made Wordsworth even more uncomfortable than he’d been when his old friend Lamb got in his cups back at Haydon’s. Newman situates Keats’s retelling of the dinner and its conversation in two crucial contexts: the culture of male conviviality in Regency London, and Keats’s continued thinking on issues raised in the negative capability letter back at the end of December 1817. Drawing on Brian Bates’s recent post detailing the significance of the Christmas pantomime for the negative capability letter, Newman offers another astute analysis which reminds us of Keats’s frequent “leveling” of high and low, serious and absurd, sacred and profane.

One other detail to note about this letter and what insight it might provide about the original manuscript of the negative capability letter (we can’t quit you, negative capability!). Regular readers and negative capability acolytes will recall that the letter featuring Keats’s coinage comes to us not from the original MS (now lost or destroyed), but from an unreliable transcript by John Jeffrey (you can read more about Jeffrey and the MS here and here). Presumably, the negative capability letter (which we know was sent on 27 or 28 December 1817) was the last letter Keats sent his brothers until today’s letter (which was written and sent on 5 January 1818). We can infer as much because Keats begins the letter from today with this apology: “I ought to have written before, and you should have had a long Letter last week.”

As Rollins writes of this phrase, it is an “odd remark.” Did Keats not send them a letter just last week (if it was sent on 27 or 28 December)? Is he merely apologizing that the letter he did send wasn’t as long as he intended it to be? If so, the negative capability letter is not all that short–especially considering that Keats’s original manuscript most likely included a decent amount more than Jeffrey’s transcript–so it still seems a bit odd to apologize here. One other possibility, although we warn you that it’s a highly unlikely one, is that… wait for it… wait for it… what if Keats never actually sent the negative capability letter??

Ok, so here’s why that’s probably not the case. In today’s letter, he mentions that he “must … correct a little misconception of a part of my last Letter.” This he writes after he’s started mentioning “Your last Letter.” What’s happening basically looks like this: Keats sends the negative capability letter (“my last Letter”) and it arrives in Teignmouth around 29 December; Tom and George write a reply (“Your last Letter”) and send it by, say, 2 January; Keats receives it (maybe 3 January) and then writes his reply on 5 January. Since we don’t have the letter written by Tom and George, we don’t know exactly what they had to say about the negative capability letter or anything else they cared to share with their brother at the time. But Keats does say that “Your [Tom and George’s] last Letter” gave him “great Pleasure” because it suggested to him that Tom was “in a better spirit there along the Edge [i.e. on the seashore].” And then he gets to the misconception about which he wants to clarify matters for George.

Here is where things get curious again. Keats writes following the bit about the misconception: “The Miss Reynolds have never said one word against me about you [presumably meaning against George to John], or by any means endeavoured to lessen you in my estimation. That is not what I refered to: but the manner and thoughts which I knew they internally had towards you–time will show.” However, nothing about the Reynolds sisters and their opinions of George appears in the negative capability letter! So if George is concerned about something his brother mentioned regarding the Reynolds sisters in a previous letter, it was either in another (unknown) letter, or it was part of the negative capability letter that John Jeffrey excised. Either way, today’s letter demonstrates yet again how much we simply do not know about the original letter in which Keats wrote one of his most famous phrases.

Of course, there is more to say on the matter, including the fact that Jeffrey also copied today’s letter, the MS of which still survives (now in the New York Public Library). It was acquired at some point by Carl Pforzheimer, Jr., who bequeathed it to the NYPL in 1986. Although Jeffrey transcribed the letter and sent it to Richard Monckton Milnes in 1845, Milnes did not include the letter in his 1848 biography of Keats (perhaps because of the letter’s more bawdy moments). The MS appears to have stayed in the Keats family, first with Emma Keats Speed, daughter of George and Georgiana Keats, and then with her son, John Gilmer Speed, who published an edition of Keats’s letters and poems in 1883. As far as the KLP can tell at this point, Gilmer Speed’s edition is the first time this particular letter was published. The KLP would like to tell you more about the provenance of the 5 January 1818 letter, but at this point we cannot! We’ll keep looking into it, as we are wont to do.

We point you toward Gilmer Speed’s edition for some of the letter, but he unsurprisingly excises the section including the more controversial bits. (His footnote to that part of the letter, however, reveals more than it probably attempts to conceal!) For the rest of the letter, we include the images below of the final paragraphs as printed in the Rollins edition.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *