Keats’s progress on Endymion continues to be steady, as he now heads toward completion of Book IV. In this multi-day letter to Bailey, Keats includes the opening lines of the poem’s final book. He’ll also quote the ‘Ode to Sorrow’– the little song or ’roundelay’ which the Indian Maid sings to Endymion at the opening of Book IV–in his next letter to Jane Reynolds, and then again to Bailey on 3 November. This letter to Bailey also includes some criticism of Wordsworth, via Hazlitt, which hints at the more full-throated criticism to come in spring 1818 (when Keats will decry poetry that has a “palpable design upon us”) and fall 1818 (when Keats will distinguish his notion of the “poetical Character” from that of “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime”).
As you can see from the below images, this letter is one of Keats’s more difficult to read letters. The letter is crossed. Although the KLP could have sworn we’d already come across a crossed letter, it appears that today’s letter is the first example of such a thing from Keats. So, let’s explain what a crossed letter is. We have four pages: two leaves formed by folding one sheet. Typically the letter-writer writes on each of the four pages, leaving the proper space on the last page for folding and addressing. After writing on all of those spaces, the letter-writer would go back to page 1, rotate the paper 90 degrees, and write cross-wise over the original writing. It allows the writer to include twice as much writing on the same amount of paper. It also makes it a bit difficult to read!
Keats does some weird stuff, though, that makes it even harder to follow what’s happening in this letter. It appears that Keats wrote only on the first three pages, and then went back to page one, rotated the sheet, and started writing cross-wise. Things get tricky again on page two, because Keats had copied the lines from Book IV of Endymion, and Keats seemed to think that he ought not to write cross-wise over the lines of verse. As such, after writing cross-wise on page one, Keats then went to page 4 (which he had not yet written on at all), where he wrote the remainder of the letter on the wings (the top and bottom spaces which would be folded into the sheet before being addressed and sent).
But wait, there’s more! Keats crossed his writing on the wings, or at least part of the original writing, taking up enough space to get in his parting wishes for Bailey to find marital bliss (“with a little Peona Wife”). Then, not content to leave any blank spaces, Keats goes back to page two, and writes cross-wise in the space left available from the indented lines of verse and over the prose writing from the first go-through on the top half of the page. Then on page three he adds a little “x” at the bottom right corner which points toward another “x” in the blank space on the left side of the page where Keats writes one final little post-script.
All of this is to say, Keats sure is all over the place! One suspects that Bailey found himself a bit lost in this “sea of prose.” He kept the letter for several decades, however, taking it with him to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), where he became Archdeacon at Colombo. Richard Monckton Milnes, in 1848, incorrectly consigned Bailey to the grave, noting in his Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats that “Mr Bailey died soon after Keats.” In October of 1848, after having read of his own early demise, Bailey wrote a letter to Milnes explaining that he was in fact still alive and well. With his letter to Milnes, Bailey included the MS of the 28-30 October 1817 letter, and offered to let Milnes print the letter in any future editions of his life of Keats (he did so in the updated edition published in 1867). This particular letter, then, spent many years far from London and Oxford, between which it first traveled back in 1817. The letter remained in Milnes’s family collection and eventually found a home at Harvard’s Houghton Library.
Courtesy of Harvard, here are images of the letter–good luck trying to track all of Keats’s scribblings! A print version of the letter can be found here, via Harry Buxton Forman, who used Milnes 1867 Life as his copy text. He follows Milnes in leaving out the Endymion extract and some other minor parts.