It’s tempting to attribute great significance to every word written in Keats’s correspondence–some may go so far as to create an entire website dedicated to chronicling each and every letter as they hit their bicentennials! What fools or knaves would do such a thing?? Anyway, we every once in a while get a reminder from Keats himself that these documents are product of a particular moment, and the sentiments contained therein might have persisted in their author only as long as it took to write them out. One such reminder comes in today’s letter to Benjamin Bailey.
If you look back at the previous two letters to Bailey (21, 25 May and 10 June), you’ll notice that Keats was a bit down in the dumps when writing them. Heck, if you take everything Keats says in those letters with utmost seriousness, you’d probably conclude that Keats was in the midst of a deep depression. And perhaps he was. But it’s worth viewing his statements like “I am in that temper that if I were under Water I would scarcely kick to come to the top” and “now I am never alone without rejoicing that there is such a thing as death” in the context of his epistolary habits as a whole and his habits in letters to Bailey specifically. When writing to Bailey, Keats often ventures into his most serious philosophical ruminations. As he writes again and again, though–both to Bailey and to others–Keats conceived of himself as a playful, speculative, and inconsistent thinker. Here’s what he says on the matter in today’s letter: “I carry all matters to an extreme–so that when I have any little vexation it grows in five Minutes into a theme for Sophocles–then and in that temper if I write to any friend I have so little selfpossession that I give him matter for grieving at the very time perhaps when I am laughing at a Pun.” This conundrum is endemic to letter-writing. It’s what Charles Lamb, as Elia, will call the “solecism of two presents.” Letters are written in one moment and read in another. Keats may write while in the depths of despair, but by the time Bailey reads the letter, Keats has moved on to laughing at a pun! Let’s keep Keats’s caution in mind, then: “I know my own disposition so well that I am certain of writing many times hereafter in the same strain to you–now you know how far to believe in them.”
Which brings us to the main subject of Keats’s letter: his sense that he has “not a right feeling towards Women.” We’ve come across the topic before, but today’s comment is the most extensive offered thus far in the correspondence. Keats claims that “When I am among Women I have evil thoughts, malice spleen–I cannot speak or be silent–I am full of Suspicions and therefore listen to no thing–I am in a hurry to be gone.” Why does he feel this way in the company of women? Is it just your garden-variety nineteenth-century misogyny? Well, surely that’s some part of it, but Keats does show some level of self-awareness about the origin of his feelings, and the unfairness of his having them. First, he ponders if his “suspicions” emerge from being acculturated in a particular way since youth–namely, the notion that “a fair Woman” is “a pure Goddess,” which leads him to “expect more than their reality.” Keats recognizes that he has “no right” to such an expectation. But nonetheless, he feels malice and spleen when in the company of real women who “fall so far beneath [his] Boyish imagination.” To his credit, he at least recognizes that he “must absolutely get over this.”
The question to which he does not yet have an answer is how to get over it. As he notes, “an obstinate Prejudice can seldom be produced but from a gordian complication of feelings, which must take time to unravell and care to keep unravelled.” To what extent Keats succeeded in so doing can perhaps be gleaned from continuing with his letters over the next several years. Of course, the letters to Fanny Brawne are notable for exactly the kind of “obstinate Prejudice” he’s already aware of here in summer 1818, several months before meeting Fanny. So maybe the gordian knot remained a bit tangled. And maybe after writing this letter he changed his thinking on the matter completely, as he claims he is wont to do. The commingling of seriousness and play is already there in the letter itself, after all. As we so often find with Keats, there’s a moment of levity to accompany his serious contemplations: “I do think better of Womankind than to suppose they care whether Mister John Keats five feet hight likes them or not.”
In terms of the tour with Brown and how it proceeds, Keats actually connects their travels with the desire to rid himself of prejudice: “I should not have consented to myself these four Months tramping in the highlands but that I thought it would give me more experience, rub off more Prejudice, use [me] to more hardship, identify finer scenes load me with grander Mountains, and strengthen my reach in Poetry, than would stopping at home among Books even though I should reach Homer.” As he and Brown approached the end of their journey, it certainly seems that Keats had become accustomed to hardship. And if his poetry of the next year is any indication, his reach in it was extended just a wee bit.
The letter currently resides at Harvard. Images below courtesy of Houghton Library. A print version of the letter can be read via Forman’s 1895 edition.