Letter #42: To George and Tom Keats, 13/19 January 1818

Regular readers of the KLP will know that one of our frequent preoccupations is the sad fact that six of Keats’s letters come to us from just one source: the unreliable transcripts of John Jeffrey. The negative capability letter is the most famous of these, but this letter–begun on 13 January and completed almost a week later–is another of them. One would hope that someday some or all of these six letters would resurface, if only to show how many mistakes Jeffrey made in his transcripts (sorry, Jeffrey!). Alas, no luck so far.

Now, what follows is an extreme long shot, but it nonetheless shows that the search for known unknown Keats letters really ought to be undertaken in a concerted fashion. There’s plenty that we know about some of these manuscripts, and with what speculations and suppositions we can add to that certain knowledge, we have plenty of archival rocks under which to look. First, then, here’s what we know about this letter. Jeffrey made a transcript in summer 1845. He sent that transcript to Richard Monckton Milnes that fall, and Milnes published some of the letter based on that transcript in his 1848 Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats. Jeffrey misdated the letter as 21 April 1818–specifically Jeffrey writes at the letter’s opening, “Tuesday Hampstead 1818 / April 21.” In Jeffrey’s defense, 21 April and 13 January 1818 were both Tuesdays, so perhaps there’s some reasonable explanation for his mistake (since Keats finished writing the letter on 19 January, it’s possible that a postmark may have included “21” for the date of sending or receipt… as for the April for January bit, who knows). In any case, in Milnes’s 1848 and 1867 editions, the letter is dated as such. Milnes also excises a sizable portion of Jeffrey’s transcript, and for an understandable reason. In that portion Keats details infighting between members of the Keats/Hunt circle: namely, between John Hamilton Reynolds and Benjamin Robert Haydon, and between Leigh Hunt and Haydon. In 1848 Hunt was still alive, and Haydon had only recently died, so one can see why Milnes might want to keep the petty squabbles out of public notice.

After 1845 the letter likely remained under Jeffrey’s care for some time, eventually being passed on to Emma Keats Speed (1823-1883). EKS is known to have been the family steward of her uncle John’s letters and papers. In part we know this because there are examples of documents she presented to people as gifts. The most famous of these gifts was one presented to Oscar Wilde (in an 1886 essay for the Century Guild Hobby Horse Wilde tells the story of his encounter with EKS in Louisville in 1882). It seems likely that she also gave a letter (3-9 July 1818 to Tom) to James Freeman Clarke when he visited Louisville in 1873. Clarke was a friend of George Keats back in the 1830s, when Clarke lived in Louisville for a brief time. In his magazine The Western Messenger in 1836 he published two of Keats’s letters from his tour of Scotland in 1818 (we’ll get to those this June!). Unfortunately the manuscript of one of those two letters (25-27 June 1818 to Tom) is now lost, so the text from Clarke’s magazine is our only source for it. But the KLP does not think Clarke is responsible for its disappearance. He clearly returned to George the other letter (23, 26 July 1818 to Tom) since that MS still exists, and since it was copied by Jeffrey in 1845. Somehow that one made its way to England and ended up in the “Crewe Collection,” the materials assembled by Milnes and preserved by his family after his death. Ok, we’re getting in the weeds now–sorry!

There’s at least one other letter we know Emma Keats Speed gave away: the 12 November 1819 letter to George and Georgiana. In February 1869 she gave the manuscript to a Philadelphian collector named Frank Marx Etting (who, incidentally, had just recently married Alice Taney, daughter of Chief Justice Roger Taney, notorious for writing the Dred Scott decision–perhaps the newlyweds honeymooned in Louisville). Etting had a friend named Brantz Mayer who was also a collector of autographs and manuscripts. On 18 March 1869, when it seems Etting was still in Louisville, Mayer wrote to his friend and asked him, among other things: “GET ME THAT KEATS autograph.” (Since HTML won’t allow–as far as we can tell with our limited skills–a double underscore, we’re going with the small caps for the first part of the quotation.)

Brantz Mayer to Frank Marx Etting, 18 March 1869. Courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Mayer runs out of space and so writes “autograph” vertically on the facing leaf.

Perhaps Mayer wants Etting to show him the one letter we know he received from EKS. But the “GET ME”  seems to imply something other than merely “show me.” What if Etting left Louisville with not just one Keats letter (the 12 Nov 1819 letter which makes it to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania after Etting dies in 1890)… what if he left with TWO? More digging is to be done in order to ascertain where Mayer’s autograph collection went to. One contemporary source, An Essay on the Autographic Collections of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution (1889), claims that Mayer’s collection of autographs was sold at auction in November 1879, nine months after Mayer’s death. It’s certainly possible that among the items auctioned off was a bit of Keats memorabilia, even if just a cut-out signature, or perhaps a scrap of a poetic manuscript (Emma Keats Speed gave a cut-up piece of Otho the Great to Sallie M. Hunt, the wife of a business partner (A. D. Hunt) of her son George Keats Speed–complicated, we know). If today’s letter, or any of the letters for which we rely on Jeffrey’s transcripts, were to reappear, who knows what we might learn. It might be minor. Jeffrey often cuts just a sentence or two here or there, as opposed to cutting much longer sections (of course, in a few cases he does cut very big sections). But even if the original letter revealed just an additional sentence or two, it could still go a long way toward further refining what we know about Keats, his epistolary writing, and the many ideas and concerns he tackles therein.

Take the primary issue in today’s letter: the difficulty of seeing and valuing genuine human kindness when it coexists with instances of petty vindictiveness. What other nuances might we encounter were we to get a new sentence or two added to this letter? In some ways the question is a vain one. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that this letter will never be rediscovered. So while still holding out hope, let’s at least recognize the depth of thought on display in the letter as it comes to us via Jeffrey.

A remarkable thing happens at the beginning of this letter to his brothers: Keats essentially disavows his investment in “works of genius.” In a letter to Haydon a few days before he began this one, Keats had identified Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion, Haydon’s paintings, and William Hazlitt’s “depth of Taste” as “three things to rejoice at in this Age.” Now he repeats the remark to George and Tom, but then quickly denies that “works of genius were the first things in the world.” What, then, ranks more highly in Keats’s estimation? Turns out it’s the everyday goodness of human beings, exemplified in Keats’s mind by his friend Benjamin Bailey. He writes, “that sort of probity & disinterestedness which such men as Bailey possess, does hold & grasp the tip top of any spiritual honours, that can be paid to any thing in this world.”

Here we should emphasize again that these comments come amidst Keats’s growing frustration with the all-too-remembered acts of unkindness occurring between some of his friends. In typically Keatsian fashion, we see him vacillating from asserting that “there is nothing stable in the world—uproar’s your only musick,” to then claiming that he values good-hearted sociability above all else. The strength of the latter feeling, he notes, is what led him to begin this letter to his brothers: “And moreover having this feeling at this present come over me in its full force, I sat down to write to you with a grateful heart, in that I had not a Brother, who did not feel & credit me, for a deeper feeling & devotion for his uprightness, than for any marks of genius however splendid.” As much as we may engage with Keats’s life and work because of those “marks of genius,” it’s worth remembering as well how that spirit of genius emanates from a deeply-felt commitment to human connection. The letters often show Keats’s genius, but they are also remarkable for the traces of love, kindness, and goodness that they preserve and transmit to us.

At the same time, the letters also show the human failures which exist within the very structures of sociability that make possible expressions of “deeper feeling” and “uprightness.” And what are the grievous wrongs about which Keats’s pals were feuding? 1) John Hamilton Reynolds didn’t RSVP for Haydon’s dinner party, and 2) Haydon chastised Leigh Hunt and his wife for not returning borrowed silverware in a prompt enough manner. FOR SHAME! We venture here to say that Keats’s true “marks of genius” shine through most brightly precisely when he has insights about the smallness of human character. And that means not just the pettiness of squabbles related to etiquette. It’s also about the minor moments of beauty, of care, of friendship and love. It’s about the “spiritual yeast” contained within us and which “creates the ferment of existence,” as Keats will put it to Bailey in a letter a few days after finishing this one to his brothers. While we surely do not know all the dimensions of Keats’s thinking on these issues—especially considering that the Jeffrey transcript on which we rely contains, without a doubt, less than the original letter—we nonetheless see him articulate momentary clearings in the “Mist” of social being, and we hear his subtle melodies overtaking the uproar.

To read the letter for yourself, you can check out Harry Buxton Forman’s 1889 edition. This was revised reissue of the 1883 edition, and one of the changes for 1889 was printing the entirety of Jeffrey’s transcript. It appears that at some point between 1883 and 1889 Forman got his hands on the transcript (perhaps he had better luck working with Milnes ancestors than with Milnes himself, who died in 1885). Images of Jeffrey’s transcript also included below.

Page 1 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 13/19 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 2 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 13/19 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 2 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 13/19 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).


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