As he starts this letter to Bailey, Keats finds himself in a predicament which we’re sure no other writers ever find themselves in: feeling obligated to write but unable to do so. Here’s what Keats has to say on the matter: “I have this morning such a Lethargy that I cannot write–the reason of my delaying is oftentimes from this feeling–I wait for a proper temper–Now you ask for an immediate answer I do not like to wait even till tomorrow–However I am now so depressed that I have not an Idea to put to paper–my hand feels like lead–and yet it is and unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence–I don’t know what to write.”
After that portion of the letter, Keats doesn’t return to it for another four days! So he wasn’t kidding about not being in the proper temper. He had a pretty good excuse, though, which is more than the KLP can say for its delinquency in posting this response. Oh sure, we might try to fool you by backdating the post, but we know that you’ll see through that ruse. Ok, we admit it! It’s June and we were suffering from “a Lethargy” when this letter’s 200-year anniversary came around. If Keats can do it, so can we.
Now back to Keats’s reason for his depressed mood: it’s now official that his brother George will be emigrating to America. Keats understands his brother’s wish to seek out a better life. He notes that George “is of too independant and liberal a Mind to get on in trade in this Country–in which a generous Man with a scanty resource must be ruined. I would sooner he should till the ground than bow to a Customer.” George didn’t end up becoming a farmer, but he certainly succeeded in becoming an independent business man, and pillar of the community, in Louisville, Kentucky. One can understand why Keats would be anxious about his younger brother, however. Particularly as Tom’s health remained uncertain, the prospect of George’s departure had to be somewhat bittersweet. The three brothers had lived together almost uninterruptedly for the last few years, but now they have only a month left together. George would never again see Tom. And John would see George just one more time (for several weeks in January 1820) before his own death.
It’s perhaps unsurprising then that Keats tells Bailey on 25 May that his depression continues unabated. Indeed, it seems even worse than when he cut off the letter four days earlier. Keats offers what will become an oft-cited example of his tendency toward “melancholy fit[s]”: “I am in that temper that if I were under Water I would scarcely kick to come to the top.” He adds, “I feel no spur at my Brothers going to America and am almost stony-hearted about his wedding.” But even amidst the depression, Keats still maintains some optimism: “All this will blow over.”
And it certainly will, as Keats summons his energy to trek across Northern England and Scotland from late June to early August, and he writes some amazing letters during that trip. We also know that even if he was “stony-hearted” about George’s wedding, Keats was extremely fond of George’s wife, Georgiana Wylie Keats. The letters Keats sends to George and Georgiana in America contain some of his best epistolary writing, but also some of his most heartfelt expressions of familial love.
In any case, Keats makes his best effort to write something to Bailey despite his despondence. And in the process he devises a lovely metaphor for how the help of one’s friends buoy the spirit in times of trouble. Here it is: “There is a comfort in throwing oneself on the charity of ones friends–‘t is like the albatros sleeping on its wings.” And we’ll just leave it at that.
Text of the letter can be read in Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition (although beware–his dates are wrong). Images courtesy of Harvard below.