Letter #77: To Tom Keats, 25-27 June 1818

“Here beginneth my journal, this Thursday, the 25th day of June, Anno Domini 1818.”
–John Keats to Tom Keats, 25 June 1818

Here beginneth the KLP’s chronicling of Keats’s Northern Tour, this Monday, the 25th day of June, Anno Domini 2018. For the next two months we’ll be following along as Keats and Charles Brown follow their noses to the north (see here for the reference). It’s a fascinating journey. Keats imagined it as “a sort of Prologue to the Life I intend to pursue–that is to write, to study and to see all Europe at the lowest expence.” (see his letter to Haydon from 8 April 1818). He planned to “go to gorge wonders,” (letter to Reynolds from 9 April 1818), and in so doing to add to his store of poetic materials: “I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavor of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, by the finest spirits, and put into etherial existence for the relish of one’s fellows” (from today’s letter!).

We’ll here more about this letter on Wednesday, when the KLP’s own will provide us with a more sustained response to this opening missive from Keats’s journey. But before we leave you today, here is some background on the history of this particular letter. The manuscript is now lost, but the text of the letter does not come to us from a usual source like a John Jeffrey or Richard Woodhouse transcript. Instead it comes from the June 1836 issue of The Western Messenger, a magazine founded by James Freeman Clarke and a group of other Unitarian ministers in the (then) western United States. What was Clarke doing publishing a letter by John Keats in his magazine? Well, Clarke had been living in Louisville, Kentucky since 1833, and during his time there he had befriended a local pillar of the community who just happened to be the brother of some fancy-lad poet from England. Yes, Clarke and George Keats became fast friends.

One fruit of that friendship was the publication of this first letter from Keats’s tour in the June 1836 Western Messenger (and part of the 23 and 26 July 1818 letter to Tom in the July 1836 issue of the magazine). Clarke heaps praise on Keats’s letters, calling them “of a higher order of composition than his poems.” If he thought the letters were so precious, then maybe he shouldn’t have lost this one, no?? But hold on a second. Let’s not rush to blame Clarke for the letter’s disappearance. Here are a few reasons why it’s plausible that today’s letter was lost through the fault of some other person.

First, Clarke obviously did value the letters quite highly. He notes in his intro, “We hope that they [i.e. the letters] will ere long be put into the possession of the public.” More significantly, the other letter which Clarke publishes in the July issue of The Western Messenger still does exist. It’s now at Harvard, having at some point made its way into what became known as the “Crewe Collection,” the materials assembled by Richard Monckton Milnes and then maintained by his son Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe-Milnes, later the first Marquess of Crewe. What’s strange about this letter, though, is that it didn’t make its way into that collection until sometime much later than most of the other materials. Milnes collected most of his stuff prior to the 1848 publication of Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats. The manuscript of the 23 and 26 July 1818 letter to Tom was not one of those. The text of the letter did appear in the 1848 book, but it was based on a transcript made by John Jeffrey in 1845. For Milnes 1867 edition, he was still relying on the Jeffrey transcript. Some letters that had been in the American Keats family possession were given to John Gilmer Speed by his mother Emma Keats Speed (daughter of George) before his 1883 publication of an edition of Keats’s letters and poems. But for the text of the July 1818 letter to Tom, Gilmer Speed relied on Milnes, who had relied on Jeffrey’s transcript. So sometime between 1845 and 1883, it’s likely that Emma Speed gave the July letter to someone, and that it made its way to the Crewe collection through sale sometime toward the end of the nineteenth century or beginning of the twentieth.

Ah, but what about the 25-27 June 1818 letter? Well, we remain skeptical that Clarke owned it and lost it, even though he certainly could have printed and copied two letters for The Western Messenger, returned one of them (the 23-26 July letter) and kept the other (today’s letter). There is one other letter that James Freeman Clarke most certainly did own, and which still survives to this day. That’s the 3-9 July 1818 letter to Tom. It remained in the Clarke family until 1946, when they gave the letter to Harvard. Here’s the rub, though–this letter was not given to Clarke by George in 1836. We know this for two reasons: first, he didn’t publish it in his magazine, which seems like something he would have done either then or in the future if he owned from 1836 onward. Second, John Jeffrey made a transcript of the 3-9 July letter in 1845. He could not have done so if Clarke owned the letter, since Clarke was not living in Louisville in 1845. Clarke left Louisville in 1840 and lived in Boston for most of the rest of his life. He traveled to Louisville in summer 1851 and again in May 1873. From his letters we know that during the latter visit he spent two days visiting with Emma Keats Speed, during which time it seems plausible she may have given her old friend the Keats letter as a parting gift.

So there are three letters connected with Clarke. Two survive, one having been passed down through his family after it was likely given to him by Emma Keats Speed in either 1851 or 1873, the other having been used by him in 1836 and most likely promptly returned to George Keats, after which the letter stayed in the Keats family and was probably given by EKS to someone else. As for the third letter, today’s letter, the first from the Northern Tour–well, we just don’t know. Perhaps EKS gave it to a young Abraham Lincoln when he visited the Speed family plantation in July 1841, just after Emma had married Philip Speed, the brother of Lincoln’s good friend Joshua Speed. Lincoln and Joshua Speed met in Springfield, Illinois, where Speed owned a general store. Maybe Emma wanted to get in good with her new family by making a nice gesture to the tall, lanky guy visiting Joshua. Yes, we’re gonna go ahead and blame Lincoln for losing today’s letter. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it!

Regardless of what happened to the letter after 1836, we at least have the text of it thanks to Clarke’s insertion of it in his magazine. And that’s how we’ll give you the letter for today (along with Clarke’s intro to the letter). Enjoy, and come back in two days to read more about the content of the letter!

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