It’s fairly common for chroniclers of Keats’s life to point toward summer and fall of 1818 as the true beginning of the tragic phase that will end with Keats’s death in February 1821. Yes, he soon comes down with a sore throat that will force him to cut short his trip with Brown, and he will return to find Tom’s health at its worst yet, and we’ll soon enter the “living year” during which Keats will write the majority of his great poems, many of which are pitched in at least a somewhat tragic key. And yet, despite all the stress and suffering attendant to their travels in the north, Keats and Brown seem to be having a lot of fun. So let’s not don permanently the tragedy mask–comedy is alive and well here in summer 1818!
The opening bit of playfulness finds Keats (allegedly with Brown’s wit driving him) engaged in one of his more ribald moments. Many editors have blushed at or shown themselves a bit too innocent to fully pick up on what Keats and Brown are putting down. Forman in 1895 chooses to cut most of the place-name puns while adding this note: “The passages omitted consist of somewhat incoherent strings of place-names arranged apparently with an ulterior view to puns; [that’s one way of putting it!] but the intention is not quite clear, and the sentence ends abruptly without any construction as far as I can make out.” Rollins in 1958 tries his best, but we’ll go with Jon Mee’s suggestion that “Corry stone Water” out to be “Cony stone Water,” playing on Coniston Water in the Lake District, as opposed to Corrystone in Scotland. The boyish imagination appears to have been going strong the day before Keats would coin that term in his letter to Bailey.
As the letter continues over the course of five days, Keats’s good humor continues. It is interspersed with some moments of complaint, but on the whole, we’d say the comedy mask wins out in the end. Two comic poems are included here, one on the gadfly, which Keats says has “been at me ever since I left the Swan and two necks” (i.e. since leaving London at the end of June). The second poem is a sonnet mulling the “dainty” sound of the bagpipes. Remember, then, when you’re tempted to ascribe to Keats intimations of his own early death and all the other tragic things that will befall him, in the moment he was living his life and often having a jolly time so doing. It’s all fine and good to talk about Keats’s commingling of joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, life and death–but all too often, in our humble opinion, we end up more than half in love with the latter elements at the expense of the former ones.
And now we will descend from our hobby horse and present you with Keats’s letter, via Forman’s 1895 edition (minus some of the bawdier puns). You’ll notice that Forman provides a facsimile of Keats’s sketch of Loch Lomond from early in the letter. Not a bad little drawing! Once you’ve read the letter, check out Evan Gottlieb’s response to it, which emphasizes and explores some of Keats’s humor, while also drawing some parallels to Gottlieb’s own experiences traveling around Europe here in anno Domini 2018.