There are many letters that we wish still existed in their original manuscripts–here’s looking at you, negative capability–but today’s letter surely ranks pretty highly on the list. In this case the reason is different that it is with the negative capability letter, which we have only via John Jeffrey’s unreliable transcript (curse you, John Jeffrey! But also, thanks for trying at least). Today’s letter to Reynolds comes to us from a transcript by Richard Woodhouse, whose work can be trusted much more than that of Jeffrey. What we miss out on with this letter is Keats making a visual pun as he crosses his letter! We know it exists because Woodhouse makes a note explaining it. But oh my, it’d be great to see precisely how it looked in that original manuscript.
If you’re new here, you might not know what a “crossed letter” is. So here’s a primer for you. They are “fun” to read. Not the easiest task, that’s for sure. It’s a good thing Woodhouse possessed such a diligent bureaucratic sensibility, which is really put to the test with a letter like this one. And actually, it’s long past time that we recognize the heroic efforts of Woodhouse’s clerks. They actually did the majority of the transcribing, after which Woodhouse would look over their work and offer corrections where he identified them. As far as we know here at the KLP, no one has ever attempted to do any research into who those clerks might have been. But they’re important, too. Woodhouse shouldn’t get to hog all the credit!
But back to Keats. Here’s the bit when he makes his joke with the crossing:
Have you not seen a Gull, an ord, a sea Mew, or any thing to bring this Line to a proper length, and also fill up this clear part; that like the Gull I may ‡ dip–I hope, not out of sight–and also, like a Gull, I hope to be lucky in a good sized fish–This crossing a letter is not without its association–for chequer work leads us naturally to a Milkmaid, a Milkmaid to Hogarth Hogarth to Shakespeare Shakespear to Hazlitt–Hazlitt to Shakespeare and thus by merely pulling as apron string we set a pretty peal of Chimes at work–Let them chime on while, with your patience,–I will return to Wordsworth
Let’s unpack what’s going on here. Again, we only know what’s going on because Woodhouse (and here it is Woodhouse, not his clerk) offers this note of explanation: “(Here the first page of the letter is crossed–and the 2 first lines to this mark ‡ are written in the clear space left as a margin –& the word “dip” is the first word that dips into the former writing–.”
Here it’s useful to return again to how crossing works. Keats would have turned back to the first page of his letter, turned the paper 90 degrees, and written perpendicularly in relation to the written text from earlier in the letter. Because there would have been a bit of a margin on the left side (now the top of the page after being turned 90 degrees) which is “this clear part.” It seems possible that the sentence begins (“Have you not seen…”) on the fourth page and concludes there with “bring this Line to a proper length,” at which point the remaining text (“and also fill up this clear part; that like the Gull I may ‡ dip”) would fit in the margin of page one before dipping into the original next. But Woodhouse’s note implies that all of the two sentences appear cross-wise on page one. So who knows. This is why we need to see the original MS!
Another reason we might want to the original MS is to know where underlining actually occurs in Keats’s text and which instances of underlining are added by Woodhouse and clerks. (Regular readers will recall that Keats and underlining is a favorite arcane topic of the KLP’s Brian Rejack.) Is the “dip” underlined by Keats in order to emphasize his play on the dip into the letter’s earlier “sea of prose”? If it is, what about this more famous bit: “We see not the ballance of good and evil. We are in a Mist–We are now in that state–We feel the ‘burden of the Mystery.'” Did Keats underline that third “We” to distinguish between the inclusive “We” of the first two phrases and his shift toward an inclusive we (i.e. Keats and Reynolds)? What if he underlined it because that particular “We” was right in the middle of another word? Remember it’s a crossed letter, so it could certainly be the case that the word We is in a Mist because it can’t be seen very easily (remember earlier, Keats’s words dip “I hope, not out of sight”). Or what if a clerk mistook a stroke of the pen from one of the perpendicular words for an underlining of that third “We“? These are the kinds of questions that we need to have answered! One last thing and then we’ll move on–this is a long letter! Of course, it’s crossed, so there’s that. But still, it’s really long. One wonders if Keats was using larger paper than the typical 23 X 18 cm (approximately) sheets of most of his letter from earlier in 1818. Perhaps he had by this point purchased some of the 33 x 21 cm (approximately) sheets he’d use during his Northern Tour in June and July. Again, crucial questions!
If you’re less interested in the textual details like these, perhaps you’d rather hear about what makes this letter so remarkable. Yes, let’s talk about the “Mansion of Many Apartments.” This is Keats’s “simile of human life,” which begins in “the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think–We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it.” Notice the continuing attention to vision and light, which Keats began with respect to hoping that Reynolds would be able to see the crossed writing. Maybe the idea that Keats would play with the crossing and “We” being in a mist isn’t all that crazy?? But to return, we arrive at the second chamber, or “the Chamber of Maiden-Thought,” where “we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight.” Here think of a youthful Keats writing poems in which he’s in awe of flowers, rolling around in the grass, pining for the moon, etc. That intoxicating “atmosphere” soon produces a different kind of experience of this chamber:
However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man–of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression–whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open–but all dark–all leading to dark passages–We see not the ballance of good and evil. We are in a Mist–We are now in that state–We feel the ‘burden of the Mystery,’ To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote ‘Tintern Abbey’ and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages. Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them.
Of course, Keats did live (though only a few more years), and we daresay he did some high quality exploring of those dark passages. Even here, though, at the end of the letter Keats gives a hint of what might be found at the end of those corridors leading to further chambers. It’s a lovely sentiment, and one that we think Keats puts in practice in his life and work: “Tom has spit a leetle blood this afternoon, and that is rather a damper–but I know–the truth is there is something real in the World Your third Chamber of Life shall be a lucky and a gentle one–stored with the wine of love–and the Bread of Friendship.” As Keats himself writes earlier in this same letter, “axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses.” So let’s strive to bring the wine of love and the bread of friendship into this world of “Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression.”
To read the rest of this remarkable letter, you can view images from Woodhouse (and clerk) below, courtesy of Harvard. Or read the text from Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition here.