Yet can I gulp a bumper to thy name,—
O smile among the shades, for this is fame!
On June 22, 1818, two years to the day before he sat in Leigh Hunt’s living room having his one and only tea with the Gisbornes, John Keats and his brother George and his brother’s bride, Georgiana, along with Charles Brown, boarded the Prince Saxe Cobourg Liverpool coach, bound west-northwest through “Stony-Stratford, Lichfield, and the Potteries.” It was a Monday morning, and they left just before noon, expecting to arrive in the port of Liverpool thirty-two hours later. They all probably rode on the top of the coach, both for the view and the reduction in expense. In all likelihood, top-heavy, too, was the boot of the coach, since George and Georgiana carried with them their worldly possessions-as much, at least, as could be sensibly borne across the Atlantic to the interior of America. George was dressed like any early eighteenth-century English gentleman-high-collared waistcoat, breeches, stockings, smart shoes; Georgiana, in a high-waisted muslin gown and either a coal-scuttle bonnet or a country straw hat tied under the chin with ribbons. George had just turned twenty-one, Georgiana between seventeen and nineteen, depending on the conjecture of her birth date. Neither one had the bearing, let alone the appearance, of an emigrant. Brown, on the other hand, the inveterate traveler, was flushed out in a tartan suit, a plaid over the shoulder, and a white hat for his bald head, plus an oilskin packed for the rain, a regular “Red Cross Knight,” according to Keats. Keats himself, no less noticeable, wore a fur hat, a well-weathered jacket, and a plaid. He and Brown were taking a different kind of journey altogether from the newly married couple-theirs was to be a full-summer walking tour, first of the English Lake District, then north into the Highlands, eventually topping off in John o’Groats, the northernmost point in Scotland, before starting south and home along the North Sea coast.
Tom Keats, in the summer of 1818, was somewhat conspicuous by his absence. The summer before, Tom and George had spent a happy yet expensive time in Paris, while John had lodged in Oxford trying to get his first test at a major poem—Endymion—off the ground. Restlessness was part of all three brothers’ dailiness. They were always planning trips, always on the move, whether in town or out of town. Restlessness was one of the results of their orphaning. Fanny Keats, kept like a captive princess within their guardian Abbey’s household, must have felt the need to get out and about keenly. By the fall of 1817, however, when the brothers had returned to Hampstead and Well Walk from their various journeys, it was clear that something, perhaps serious, was wrong with Tom. He was already, in fact, spitting blood. Though taller than his older brothers, Tom was also considerably thinner—bird-chested, delicate-featured, more like a Shelley than a Keats. John, the oldest and the shortest, was robust, broad-shouldered, like their father. George was a type in between, medium in height, medium and temperate in every other way. But the bird-like Tom looked frail, always had. It is as if, in the diminuendo of male birth, there had been a falling off in the birthing of the Keats brothers, with John the healthiest, and Edward, the fourth Keats son, dying in childhood. Tom was third in line. Tom’s relative health at this moment is crucial because George and John have come of age and in no time so will Tom. Their intimacy with and dependency on one another is beginning to come to closure. George has plans; John has plans; Tom, for some while, seems to have set for himself, involuntarily, a career as a patient.
More travel, in fact, seems to be Tom’s only plan. The irony cannot be lost that one of the trips he and John have in mind is that when John returns from his “Scottish tour” they will spend the winter in Italy, with the hopes that a softer climate will make the difference and reverse Tom’s “English” illness. In two short years, it will be John, not his brother, as the patient contemplating Italy. For now, though, Tom is resting at their Well Walk address, being attended by friends and Mrs. Bentley, their benevolent landlady. Tom has been, certainly in John’s eyes, the sort of heart-center of the triad of the brothers. On one of their most companionable evenings, when they were still living in Cheapside, it is Tom whom Keats celebrates in one of his most tender sonnets, “To My Brothers”:
Small, busy flames play through the fresh-laid coals,
And their faint cracklings o’er our silence creep
Like whispers of the household gods that keep
A gentle empire o’er fraternal souls.
And while, for rhymes, I search around the poles,
Your eyes are fixed, as in poetic sleep,
Upon the lore so voluble and deep,
That aye at fall of night our care condoles.
This is your birthday Tom, and I rejoice
That thus it passes smoothly, quietly.
Many such eves of gently whispering noise
May we together pass, and calmly try
What are this world’s true joys—ere the great voice,
From its fair face, shall bid our spirits fly.
The great voice, fair-faced or otherwise, has been audible within Tom’s hearing for longer than either of his brothers has been willing to admit. This poem marks Tom’s seventeenth birthday; it also, pretty closely, marks the beginning of the burden his health will represent to George and John, who will for the next year or so alternately serve as companion and nurse. Each of the brothers will suffer the weight and guilt of the experience.
John, in particular, with his medical training and his boyhood nursing of his mother, is well aware of the symptoms of consumption, blood-spitting being the first. This—this late-spring, early-summer period of 1818—is what might be termed, in the young lives of the three Keats brothers, a crossing moment, a moment when certain decisions cannot be reversed, cannot be quite yet understood—“we are in a Mist,” writes Keats to John Reynolds in May, from Teignmouth—and cannot be controlled or known for their possible unintended consequences. George, who for so long has brother-sat Tom while John has moved about trying to complete Endymion, has decided to strike out on his own: get married and seek opportunity in the New World, especially as, except for companioning his young brother, he has not been gainfully employed for more than a year. (“You know,” Keats writes to Benjamin Bailey, “my Brother George has been out of employ for some time. It has weighed very much upon him, and driven him to scheme and turn things over in his Mind.”) With the completion of his trial-by-poem, his first attempt at an epic, Keats will now be expected to take over more or less full-time care and concern for Tom. Yet Keats has his own intentions and hopes for the summer, primary among them is “a pedestrian tour through the north of England and Scotland as far as John o’ Groats.” He has high, ambitious reasons for such a journey, which will “make 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. I will clamber through the Clouds and exist.” As for Tom, the last thing he wants to be is a burden, and he, no less than his brothers, closes at least one eye on his true condition, a pattern that will repeat itself when Keats takes on similar symptoms. Just within a few short days in March, for example, Tom’s plight goes from “Tom saying how much better he had got” (March 13) to “Poor Tom—who could have imagined such a change” (March 18) to “Tom has been much worse: but is now getting better” (March 21). Throughout the spring and into the summer, the wish for health will obscure the fact of it.
Teignmouth, on the coast of Devon, had been the hoped-for winter retreat from the bone chill of London, with George and John taking turns caring for Tom. Instead it had been storm-wind and horizontal rain almost constantly, which meant—now that John was there in close quarters with his brother, in rooms practically sealed off—an unhealthy proximity, a pattern that would be repeated in the fall, in Hampstead, once John returned from his Northern walks. At fourteen, Keats had already played physician to their mother, whose wasted consumptive body surely rose in his imagination here with the pale, withering Tom, who by this time had begun to hemorrhage. And it takes no imagination to connect Tom to their mother and her several relatives who have died of consumption, and to link that lineage to oneself. Within days of Tom’s first violent convulsion of blood, Keats tries to joke away his obvious depression in a telling comment to Bailey, complaining, of all things, about the wet weather. “When a poor devil is drowning, it is said he come thrice to the surface, ere he makes his final sink if however, even at the third rise, he can manage to catch hold of a piece of weed or rock, he stands a fair chance,—as I hope I do now, of being saved.” (Hemorrhaging, as Keats will discover, is a lot like drowning.) But as Tom’s health, in the weeks ahead, has stabilized, they both feel it is time to return to London, to George, and to the future, a future in which George is soon to join a world of independent responsibilities.
The beginning of the trip from Teignmouth back to London goes well enough—“My Brother has borne his Journey thus far remarkably well,” so Keats writes to friends from Honiton. But outside of Bridport, in Dorset, in what will become Hardy-country, Tom has another hemmorhage. Many days later, in a long thank-you note to “Miss Mary Ann Jeffrey / Teignmouth / Devonshire,” thanking her for “kind solicitude,” Tom writes from Well Walk that “the rest of the journey pass’d off pretty well after we left Bridport in Dorsetshire—I was very ill there and lost much blood—we travell’d a hundred miles in the last two days—I found myself much better at the end of the journey than when I left Tartarey alias Teignmouth—the Doctor was surprised to see me looking so well, as were all my Friends—they insisted that my illness was all mistaken Fancy and on this presumption excited me to laughing and merriment which has deranged me a little—however it appears that confinement and low spirits have been my chief enemies and I promise myself a gradual recovery—.”
At the close of the Jeffrey letter, Tom alludes to his much mulled over project of going to Italy—“most likely to the town of Paiva”—where he looks forward to acquiring “a stock of knowledge and strength which will better enable me to bustle through the world—I am persuaded this is the best way of killing time.” If John gets back soon enough from his summer “in the Clouds,” all the better. They can once again travel together. For the time being, though, “I shall be here alone and I hope well—John will have set out on his Northern Expedition George on his Western . . . Johns will take four months at the end of that time he expects to have achieved two thousand miles mostly on Foot—George embarks for America.” The three brothers, from that June 22 moment when George and John leave Tom very much alone in order to start their separate, disparate journeys, will never be together again. At the port of Liverpool, George, with his bride Georgiana, will sail off into a whole new and unchartable life, far into the rough interior of a new world. John, with his new resolve to put the apprenticeship of Endymion behind him and with his new friend Brown as a tour guide, will test himself in more ways than he can imagine in the next demanding two—-not four—months. Tom, of course, will not get to Italy, he will not get anywhere, and will be waiting for John in Well Walk once the abortive Northern tour is over. It may be true of all families of multiple brothers or sisters—of, say, the Bronte sisters, where of the three one dominates and takes on qualities of the other two: becomes, in fact, a resolution of the other two, the way Charlotte, the eldest, combines the lyricism of Emily and the darkness of Anne, the way that Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are aspects of one consciousness—it may be true that siblings of the same sex form a kind of singularity and that one brother or one sister stands out or represents the whole, particularly when they come in threes. George and Tom were not writers, but they were intimates of the work of their elder brother; they were, in their turn, muse and matter in the work.
Until he left for America, George either kept Keats’s poems or copied them or both, serving very often as John’s agent and social facilitator; indeed, introducing Keats to what became, in history, much of the Keats circle, including Joseph Severn, Charles Dilke, and William Haslam. “George has ever been more than a brother to me, he has been my greatest friend,” Keats says in 1818, and a year later, well after George has emigrated, “George always stood between me and any dealings in the world.” To the extent that Keats has any practical sense, any job-seeking or money-managing awareness, George represents that grounded part of his character. Tom, on the other hand, “who understood John’s character perfectly,” and who also, worshipfully, kept copies of his brother’s early poems, represents something of the soul of Keats. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Tom’s long illness and the long-suffering of their mother’s illness and death that it reinacts, along with Tom’s and the mother’s emotional vulnerability, even innocence, go to the core of Keats. Tom, especially, in so many ways, as a vital yet paling presence, anticipates Keats’s maturing, sympathetic contract with the world; he becomes the living correlative for Keats’s forgiving emotion. And when Tom does, finally, give in to the consumption that has reduced him to a ghost, just days following his nineteenth birthday—December 1, 1818—he becomes that central quality of imagination we call inspiration, a grief figure that again and again needs to be addressed, reinvoked, reconciled—not simply as a knight-at-arms or a youth grown “pale, and spectre-thin,” but as an enlarging emblem, a motivating measure, a rich resource of loss, to which—to paraphrase Wordsworth—the poet repairs as to a fountain. Whatever Tom’s literal death meant to Keats—and with George “lost” in the middle of America and Fanny Keats virtually locked away, it meant everything—he becomes for Keats a fountain of an elemental fraternal emotion. “I Have two Brothers one is driven by the ‘burden of Society’ to America the other, with an exquisite love of our parents and even for early Misfortunes has grown into a affection ‘passing the Love of Women’—I have been ill-temper’d with them, I have vex’d them—but the thought of them has always stifled the impression that nay woman might otherwise have made upon me—I have a Sister too and may not follow them, either to America or to the Grave—Life must be undergone, and I certainly derive a consolation from the thought of writing one or two more Poems before it ceases.”
These words written a little over a week before George is to set sail certainly imply Keats’s state of mind, a melancholy mixture of fatalism, ambition, and profound affection—that “temper that if I were under Water I would scarcely kick to come to the surface”—but they also reveal how necessary family, in one form or another, is to him. George’s imminent “disappearance,” the thought of it as much as the fact of it, has placed Keats into one of his deepest depressions. Tom’s vexing illness and ultimate death will then shift the emotional scale beyond the warp and woof of “despair and energy,” as Keats has once characterized it, to something more transforming, since beginning with the winter of 1819 and the escapist “Eve of St. Agnes” through the great spring and autumnal odes of the rest of the evolving year, Keats will discover his full, creative life, the so-called “living year.” Tom, in death, will turn into a source, a figure at once ambiguous, exclusionary, and sometimes conspiratorial, a kind of collaborator, whose existential example will both inspire and confirm to Keats that he, too, may die from what has killed his brother. Worse, in the way that news and rumor are passed on, with Tom’s death, at the transition between autumn and winter, Keats will sense that he has in fact begun to die; is, in little pieces, dying. “Life must be undergone, and I certainly derive consolation from the thought of writing one or two more Poems before it ceases”—this in a letter to Bailey days before the trip to America and the journey north begin.
So with the hopeful Tom more or less ensconced at Well Walk in Hampstead, George and John and John’s new sister-in-law and the intrepid Charles Brown ride on the outside of the Liverpool coach through Redbourn then “over the Chiltern hills and across the Ouse at Stony-Stratford, through Northamptonshire and Warwickshire in the brief summer night, and into the quiet cathedral city of Coventry at dawn; along the borders of Shropshire as the sun swung high and down into the plains of Cheshire with the mountains of Wales showing blue toward the west; then across the Mersy and into Liverpool at last in the early evening”—as one of Keats’s fine biographers imagines the trip, which was a full waking day and almost a half. Keats and Brown are set to start their walking tour early the next morning, George and Georgiana are not sure when the tide and ship’s schedule will mesh. And as there is no point in not letting the newlyweds sleep in, all good-byes are said on the night they arrive in Liverpool, with the expectation that John, and perhaps Tom, will join the American Keatses within a year or so and become citizens of the New World. Keats has joked a month ago, once he is sure of George’s commitment to emigration, that he looks forward to becoming America’s first great poet.
As luck would have it, Keats’s tour of the north of the Mother Country in the old world begins with a coach ride and ends with a boat ride. The ground is too uninteresting between Liverpool and Lancaster to waste leather walking, thus Lancaster, forty miles north, is to be his and Brown’s intended true starting place. They might as well have skipped Lancaster, too, with its spinning mills (“That most disgusting of all noises”) and poverty and parliamentary election politics at full bore. (Wordsworth, Keats will soon find out, is campaigning for the Tory incumbent, Lord Lowther, against the Liberal Henry Brougham, who has defended Hunt at his infamous trial.—“Wordsworth versus Brougham!! Sad—sad—sad—.”) They are out of there before dawn the next day, and henceforth truly on foot. Several and various themes dominate Keats’s and Brown’s well-documented Northern tour—documented by Keats through a series of a dozen letters and by Brown through a partly-published journal. For Brown, the major theme is a return to Scottish roots he has not experienced before; “return,” that is, to a sense of ancestry, to sources that indeed mark his character, mark his thrift, his puritanical purchase on justice and injustice, his plain-spoken practicality, his strict business acumen, his selective generosity, his aggressive maleness, his narrowness, his bawdy humor, his survival skills. The Northern tour for him is a kind of confirmation of a conjured heritage, a familial past that supersedes his difficult younger years. It will be a physical challenge and exotic adventure for sure, but it will also be a personal experience—“We were not bound on a journey of discovery into the busy haunts of men.” For Keats, the walking tour is meant not only “to make a sort of Prologue to the Life I intend to pursue,” but to announce a life as a practicing poet as opposed to a practicing physician. This is what might be called a voluntary theme, a theme by choice. Other major themes, however, quickly begin to define Keats’s and Brown’s journey, involuntary themes. The weather, for instance: weather that proves daunting, often enervating, especially in the form of relentless rain, of every description and degree, and often including a steady, chill wind. The weather has a direct and ultimate effect on Keats’s health, which becomes the dominant involuntary theme. There is also the leitmotif of the odd assortment of people they encounter, which could be considered a theme of circular descent, a la Dante, were it not for the fact that a good portion of the time they are climbing, “through the Clouds,” up Skiddaw, the cliffs of Staffa, and Ben Nevis. Inevitably, there is the theme of the undulant, terra incognita of the landscape itself, sometimes domestic, sometimes rustic, sometimes wild, but always strange, “views . . . that make one forget the divisions of life.”
The original plan was essentially to circumnavigate the northern tier—frontier, really—of the British Isles, a plan that would come to include a brief crossing to Northern Ireland; though, on the whole, the trip became, for Keats, a mixed long walk from Lancaster to Inverness, along a bleak, sometimes beautiful path through the Lake District and Cumberland mountains, the Borders (with a side trip to Donaghadee and Belfast), up into the western loch country of Scotland, then over to the Isle of Mull and the Inner Hebrides, then up the Great Glen and the southeastern shore of Loch Ness, and, finally, Inverness itself; a trek—discounting the distraction of Ireland—of some four hundred foot miles, miles that do not fully account for the ascensions of and climb-downs from a variety of mountains. They average ten miles a day, and on a good day, when the rain is either in recess or softened into a “Scotch mist,” twice that distance. Some days they rest or are stymied. “ ‘Weather permitting,’ unless of the bad and excessive kind, was not of much force in our agreement. But, on the morning of our departure, ready to start at four, a heavy rain detained us till seven. The interim was occupied with Milton, and I particularly preached patience out of Samson Agonistes. When the rain subsided into a Scotch mist, we chose to consider it as appropriate and complimentary”—this from the beginning of Brown’s journal. Well into the trip, he is less complimented: “During the night there had fallen much rain; many fleas in the beds; and in the morning, clouds and drizzling rain prevented us from ascending Helvellyn.” One commentator speaks of “the sheer wetness of the walking tour” and makes a point of “the irony of the inscription Keats composed for his own tombstone in Rome three years later: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ ” They had planned to cover two thousand difficult miles, including the distance from London.
The complex of issues facing Keats at this moment, this summer of 1818, still almost a year before the great spring odes, is crucial. Tom is dying, in the hands of friends; Keats’s undercurrent of guilt about leaving his brother is manifest in the number and length of letters (seven of the twelve) written to Tom in sometimes antithetical circumstances. Keats himself has begun his tour in far less than perfect shape; two weeks before starting out he writes Severn that “The Doctor says I mustn’t go out” and to Bailey that “I am not certain whether I shall be able to go on my Journey on account of my Brother Tom and a little indisposition of my own”—both prophetic admissions. Another prophecy, related to weather and health, is his complaint to Reynolds, from Teignmouth two months before, that “We are here still enveloped in clouds—I lay awake last night—listening to the Rain with a sense of being drown’d and rotted like a grain of wheat.” Yet another central issue is Keats’s sense of mission regarding this prologue to the life he intends, however long or brief that life may be. “I find cavalier days are gone by,” he writes his publisher, Taylor, “I know nothing I have read nothing and I mean to follow Solomon’s directions of ‘get Wisdom—get understanding,’ ” by which he means to seek out experience itself, particularly the experience of the sublime, that surpassing sense, for instance, that landscape and the natural world, at their most awe-inspiring, gift to the viewer. “There is no such thing as time and space, which by the way came forcibly upon me on seeing for the first hour the Lake and Mountains of Winander—I cannot describe them—they surpass my expectation—beautiful water—shores and islands green to the marge—mountains all round up to the clouds”—this from his first journal-letter to Tom barely twenty-four hours north of Lancaster.
A few days later, July 1, landscape as a fact, if not as a sublimity, will have temporarily degenerated to little more than scenery. It is the nobility and “the glory of Patriotism” in the guise of Scottish dancers—“as fine a row of boys and girls as you ever saw”—that will, for now, supersede the countryside. The preference for people over the picturesque is not new for Keats, but here, in this passage in Ireby (“the oldest market town in Cumberland”), in which “The difference between our country danes and these scotch figures, is about the same as leisurely stirring a cup o’Tea & heating up a batter pudding,” his love of true community is revalued. “This is what,” he says in his second letter to Tom, “I like better than scenery.” But most of the people he and Brown encounter are far from being fresh country dancers. Many are either wandering veterans of King George’s various wars, men like Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer, unemployed, marginalized, surviving; or simple, poor tenant farmers, who live with their families in dirt-floor cottages or “very small and low” huts. Sometimes, as one contemporary travel writer puts it, the housing is so temporary it “must very soon fall down,” consisting “of four stakes of birch, forked at the top, driven into the ground; on these they lay four other birch poles, and then form a gavel at each end by putting up more birch sticks, and crossing them sufficiently to support the clods with which they plaster this skeleton of a hut all over, except a small hole in the side for a window, a small door to creep in and out at, and a hole in the roof. . . . The covering of these huts is turf cut about five or six inches thick and put on as soon as taken from the moor. . . .” Ireland, Keats comes to believe, in just the briefest of visits, is even worse on the human poverty scale. The Scots are at least relatively clean and orderly. “The barefoot Girls look very much in keeping—I mean with the Scenery about them—Brown praises their cleanliness and appearance of comfort—the neatness of their cottages &c It may be—they are very squat among trees and ferns and heaths and broom, on levels slopes and heights—They are very pleasant because they are primitive—but I wish they were as snug as those up the Devonshire vallies.”
In addition to old soldiers, farmers, shepherds, and barefoot girls, they will run across any number of characters, from “an old toper, Richard Radshaw, drunk as a sponge,” once prominent and well off, but then his good wife died, to the “Traveller” who claims to have seen Edmund Kean on stage in a Shakespeare play, though he cannot remember which, plus numerous landladies and guides. In Ireland, the encounters with “poor dirty creatures,” will set, in Keats’s mind, the low standard, including a site between Portpatrick and Belfast of such grotesquerie that Keats is both repulsed and fascinated. He records it as if he were rendering a landscape, or a portrait. He writes to Tom, in his fifth letter: “On our return from Bellfast we met a Sadan—the Duchess of Dunghill—It is no laughing matter tho—Imagine the worst dog kennel you ever saw placed upon the two pole from a mouldy fencing—In such a wretched thing sat a squalid old Woman squat like an ape half starved from scarcity of Buiscuit in its passage from Madagascar to the cape,—with a pipe in her mouth and looking out with a round-eyed skinny lidded, inanity—with a sort of horizontal idiotic movement of her head—squat and lean she sat and puff’d out the smoke while two ragged tattered Girls carried her along—What a thing would be the history of her Life and sensations.”
And sensations. The senses, the sensual, the feeling life, the emotive imagination, that will become the trademark and hallmark of the personality of Keats’s best work, will come to stand in direct contrast to his most self-consciously ambitious work, which is to write with what he imagines to be philosophic impact and import. But Keats’s intellectual ambitions will ultimately be absorbed, since his empathic, undeviating, emotional intelligence is essential to his artistic temperament. Cowden Clarke remarks that a young Keats’s response to a detail from Spenser’s Fairie Queen was to hoist “himself up, and looked burly and dominant, as he said, ‘what an image that is—sea-shouldering whales!’ ” And another time, Clarke remembers, “when we were reading the Cymbeline aloud, I saw his eyes fill with tears, and his voice faltered when he came to the departure of Posthumous, and Imogen saying she would have watched him—
’Till the diminution
Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle;
Nay follow’d him till he had melted from
The smallness of a gnat to air; and then
Have turn’d mine eye and wept.”
Years later, Keats would tease Woodhouse with the extravagance that he could enter the life of a billiard ball as it rolled the tabletop, with “a sense of delight from its own roundness, smoothness, volubility, & the rapidity of its motion.”
Speaking through the correlatives of the senses and identifying with the correct colors and shadings of emotion, finding that language will become second nature to Keats. But after the sleepy dusks and odorous shades of Endymion, after the grotesque luxuries of Isabella combing the hair, kissing the face, planting the corpse of her dead lover’s severed head into a grand pot of basil—as if it were an urn—, after the floral influence of Hunt and the high-minded hyperbole of Haydon, after “The stretched metre of an antique song” that Endymion and Isabella represent, Keats is looking to treat his subjects “in a more naked and Grecian Manner.” Of all the great poetic hopes implicit in the intended transformative length and depth of the Northern tour, the powerful effects of the landscape and its people and the rich testing experience of travel are preeminent. The Duchess of Dunghill represents a kind of gothic landscape, just as the mountains and lakes, waterfalls and sun-streaking clouds are valuable only to the extent they can be identified with, not as personifiers but as collaborators of thought and feeling and awe. The impulse is Wordsworthian, the practice, in the mode of the objective lyric, will become Keatsian. And though both approaches to nature interrogate and celebrate the human, for the poet there is always the core question of style, of form, of reach, of numinous emotional power. When Keats writes Haydon—who is still a mentor in January of 1818—that “in Endymion I think you may have many bits of the deep and sentimental cast—the nature of Hyperion will lead me to treat it in a more naked and Grecian Manner—and the march of passion and endeavour will be undeviating,” he is already understanding that something remarkable must change in his art. How it will change is something else again. The beauties and luxuries of the Hunt era in his poems must turn into writing that is harder, truer, larger, what he is consistently referring to as “more philosophic.” In Keats’s mind the greater lyric he is looking for, as an accommodation to the size of his ambition—an ambition to compete with Wordsworth, Milton, even Dante—is not lyric at all but a new notion of epic, which his first references to Hyperion suggest. The march of passion and the undeviating “endeavour” speak to length, scope, totality. Hyperion, his by far most ambitious conception of a poem to date, is part of his plan well before he has any clear program of how to achieve it, how to start, how to set himself up to write it. He is intuiting that the bower enclosures of his early poems, right on up through the embowering in Endymion—which he has really just completed in the winter of 1817—must open or at least enlarge to include the complexity, the simultaneous light and dark, of an imaginative world capable of “negative capability.”
Much of his important thinking, thinking well beyond the skills and substance of the early poems, is replete in the letters, in which the discussion and debate—really with himself—has been going on a year or more before the commitment to traveling, walking through the north, is ever sealed. The letters to Reynolds, to Bailey, to his publisher Taylor, even to his brothers, in this period between the fall of 1817 through the spring of 1818, create close to a narrative of his transformation as a meditator and then maker of poetry. Many of his most famous utterances on the shape and spirit of his mission appear in advance of its execution as poetry—not as theory so much as a thoughtful working-out, a workshop of ideas put to practical use, as well as a valuing of the past, particularly the aspects of those past poets useful to his project. In November 1817, he writes to Bailey that he is “Certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affection and the truth of Imagination—What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth.” In December, he writes to George and Tom that “several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” In February 1818, he writes to Reynolds that “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.—How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, ‘admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose!’ ” In May, to Reynolds again, “I will put down a simile of human life as far as I now perceive it . . . I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors to the rest being as yet shut upon me—The first step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think—We remain there a long while, and not withstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, show a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle—within us—we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere.”
Gradually, Keats continues, this chamber of maiden thought becomes darkened “and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages—We see not the ballance of good and evil.” He concludes—and includes Reynolds—“We are in a Mist—we are now in that state—We feel the ‘burden of the Mystery.’ ” The growth of mind over this relatively short period anticipates the growth in the quality of the poetry, though it does not guarantee it. Way back, a long year before, in the fall of 1816, Keats apologizes to Severn that he will not be able to meet for a Saturday afternoon walk through some ambient countryside, “especially because I particularly want to look into some beautiful Scenery—for poetical purposes.” This is a light year, at least, from the philosophical passage of letters that will soon follow and the decision to take on the Northern walking tour, with all its sublime scenic promise for Keats’s post-Endymion poetry. In his brightest moments, Keats was always looking for a new era in his existence, whether it was meeting Hunt or Haydon or Wordsworth or encountering intimate or great landscapes or confronting the awesome Elgin Marbles or falling in love. Endymion had been “a test of Invention”; Hyperion, as thought up and thought about, would be on a whole different stylistic and conceptual scale altogether. Keats sees the walking tour as the literal first step in achieving his ambition, an ambition directed toward the writing of an epic poem, or a poem on an epic stage, worthy of the English poets—of Spenser, Milton, and Wordsworth, whose Prelude, the last true English attempt at a new epic vision, he will never know about. “Why endeavour after a long Poem? . . . Do not the Lovers of Poetry like to have a little Region to wander in where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second Reading: which may be food for a Week’s stroll in the Summer.” This certainly describes the method in Endymion, an exercise of “4000 Lines of one bare circumstance” filled with set-pieces of poetry, and filled out episodically. Hyperion, however, will need a different, inherently compelling method, a means transparent to the energy, sweep, and story of its subject. It will need a language purged of every excess but power. It will need an organic yet commanding raison d’être.
“Did our great Poets ever write short Pieces?” This youthful, and largely rhetorical question, begs the question of length that has preoccupied Keats from the beginning of his commitment to poetry, the result being that until the spring of 1819, his breakthrough spring, he tends to write exclusively what might be termed “spot” sonnets—that is, sonnets in and of the moment—or protracted verse narratives, rhyming in couplets, thought out in couplets, saved from their closed-in eighteenth-century datedness by their continuing enjambments—and, of course, by their whole feeling life. “I stood Tip-Toe . . .” and “Sleep and Poetry” are the obvious hopeful examples. Endymion stretches almost past endurance the beautifications of these two earlier poems, and though it keeps the couplet intact, the result is to much greater, more complicated, accumulating effect. (“And, as he passed, each lifted up its head, / As doth a flower at Apollo’s touch. / Death felt it to his inwards—’twas too much: / Death fell a-weeping in his charnel-house. / The Latmian persevered along, and thus / All were re-animated.”) Hyperion will choose Milton as its model and speak in martial blank verse, a profound adjustment for Keats, once he has configured what he wants to say and how to structure—really, how to begin—what is for him a more demanding and searching form—“the Polar Star of Poetry,” an epic structure of undulant lyric intensity, a construct of the mind about the mind divided, a sustained archetypal act of the negatively capable imagination.
First, though, the trial and error of eye-level experience. If Hyperion becomes, in part, Keats’s response to his inward Northern journey, the letters to Tom, and to a few favored others, are the record, however elevated, of the visible, physical tour, which is for Keats no less an expectant traveling to a new world than George’s crossing to America. “Here beginneth my journal, this Thursday, the 25th of June, Anno Domini 1818,” he self-mockingly writes to Tom. In the course of the twelve letters—which in the main amount to a running account of their place-to-place daily excursions and his and Brown’s commerce with the local population—Keats consistently touches on the bad food (“we dined yesterday on dirty bacon dirtier eggs and dirtiest Potatoes with a slice of Salmon”), the weather (“We are detained this morning by the rain.”), and his health (“I shall be prudent and more careful of my health than I have been.”). He also, curiously, brings up the more serious matter of his mortality, or immortality—more than once and in different disguises. In his second journal letter, to George and Georgiana, he closes with the cryptic comment that “We will before many Years are over have written many folio volumes which as a Matter of self-defence to one whom you understand intends to be immortal in the best points and let all his Sins and peccadillos die away.” In his sixth letter, to Reynolds, at the end of a commentary on what comes out as “Family values”—praising Reynolds’s soon-to-be wedding, celebrating George’s choice of a mate, anticipating “my little Nephews in America”—he concludes that “Things like these, and they are real, have made me resolve to have a care of my health.” And in the ninth letter, to Bailey, in a reference to his young sister, “She is very much prisoned from me—I am afraid it will be some time before I can take her to many places I wish—I trust we shall see you ere long in Cumberland—at least I hope I shall before my visit to America more than once I intend to pass a whole year with George if I live to the completion of the three next.”
The three years next add up to something over a thousand days. If you count the date of the letter to Bailey, July 18, 1818, Keats has almost exactly nine hundred and forty-five days more to live. You need not get into misty areas of numerology, psychic phenomenon, or the palmistry of fate to be aware that Keats is intuiting a fatalism well supported by the evidence of his family, particularly on his mother’s side, where consumption has been a common source of death—indeed it is common in the culture, just as the pale, suffering artist, coughing into a white handkerchief, is a cultural cliché. After all, Keats has written, mere months before, his highly rhetorical, Shakespearean sonnet, “When I have fears that I may cease to be”—is that not a prediction, or at least a preoccupation? Well, yes, in a sort of Romantic poet sort of way; but when you hear the poem out it becomes much more interested in love than in death, appealing more to carpe diem than mortis causa (“And when I feel, fair creature of an hour! / That I shall never look upon thee more . . .”). This reference in the letter to Bailey, however, is different. It is written straight out in prose and it is located within the context of Keats’s family, not his art. It is addressed to someone directly. And it is different in tone and impulse from the “morbidity of temperament” often assigned to Keats—his “blue devils,” his sudden changes of mood, his ups and downs so evident in so many of his letters, where in a moment he can go from self-mockery and brilliant wit to self-analysis to depression or indolence. The run of letters from the Northern tour are only just less ambivalent in state of mind, and thoroughly muted in those to Tom. Yet nowhere in the travel letters, nor in their actual travels, does Keats’s combination of concerns come into greater focus than in his and Brown’s stopover visits to Robert Burns’s—the Scots national poet—burial place and birthplace, in Dumfries and Alloway, respectively, at the beginning and in the middle of July.
Wordsworth had been a disappointment. He had been an absent monument, and worse was the reason for his absence, his apparent conversion to the Tory cause, demonstrated, first hand, in his canvassing for the Viscount Lowther. Thanks to Tory support he had been able to give up poverty in the process of his political support. Burns, on the other hand, who died of drink at thirty-six, the year after Keats’s birth, had stayed true to his birthright liberal principles, whether by poverty, passion, or poetry. As Keats writes to Tom, in the third letter, “You will see by this sonnet that I am at Dumfries . . . Burns’ tomb is in the Churchyard corner, not very much to my taste, though on a scale, large enough to show they wanted to honor him—Mrs. Burns lives in this place, most likely we shall see her tomorrow—This Sonnet I have written in a strange mood, half asleep.” Throughout the travel letters Keats supplements his journal prose with poems, some serious, some comic, some parodies of the locals, some plain bad—this was a habit in much of his correspondence his whole writing life. As a practice it seemed to remove a certain pressure to compose: if he could fold a poem in among a kind of conversation it might enter the world sidelong, like an afterthought or extracurricular activity. Even the odes seem to have been sketched on scraps of paper before being organized and fair-copied. The sonnet he offers Tom just pops up in some news about hearing from Georgiana, a letter forwarded from Liverpool. Keats likes the poem enough to pass it on, even though it is reminiscent of praise sonnets to Hunt and Haydon and others he has admired from an earlier era in his development.
The Town, the churchyard, & the setting sun,
The Clouds, the trees, the rounded hills all seem
Though beautiful, Cold—strange—as in a dream,
I dreamed long ago, now new begun . . .
There follow a few weak lines and then an abrupt insight: “All is cold Beauty; pain is never done.” And then a closing apology: “I have oft honoured thee. Great shadow; hide / Thy face, I sin against thy native skies.” Except for a possible feeling of humility, it is not clear why Keats feels the need for an apology to Burns, even rhetorically. Perhaps the effects of his first experience with scotch have already started (“half asleep”), instead of the next day, as he claims. “There are plenty of wretched Cottages, where smoke has no outlet but by the door—We have now begun upon whiskey, called here whuskey very smart stuff it is—Mixed like our liquors with sugar & water tis called toddy, very pretty drink, & much praised by Burns.”
Of course, there is no reason to question Keats’s letter inclusion of his sonnet “On visiting the Tomb of Burns”; it is in part his homage to a figure he admires, in addition to being a compositional habit. It is as well an attempt to make a meaningful moment memorable. A week later he writes to Tom that “These kirkmen have done Scotland harm—they have banished puns and laughing and kissing (except in cases where the very danger and crime must make it very fine and gustful. I shall make a full stop at kissing for after that there should be a better parentthesis: and go on to remind you of the fate of Burns. Poor unfortunate fellow—his disposition was southern—how sad it is when a luxurious imagination is obliged in self defence to deaden its delicacy in vulgarity, and riot in things attainable that it may not have leisure to go mad after things which are not.” This remarkable statement—unusual in its discourse from Keats’s normal tone with Tom—suggests one poet’s further empathy with another poet, then pushes toward a deeper identification. It is as if Keats were talking about himself, about a southern luxurious imagination in conflict with hard northern reality, and about the longing created by the impasse. The tomb sonnet for Burns is—whatever else it is—nonthreatening; its posture is familiar, celebratory; “Cold beauty” even anticipates “Cold Pastoral” in the urn ode, both funereal oxymorons. Two weeks after the visit to Burns’s grave, Keats and Brown arrive in Alloway, outside of Ayr, where Burns was born. In the letter to Reynolds, Keats seems to be writing en route: “I am approaching Burns’s Cottage very fast—We have made continual enquiries from the times we saw his Tomb at Dumfries—his name of course is known all about—his great reputation among the plodding people is ‘that he wrote a good MONY sensible things’—One of the pleasantest means of annulling self is approaching such a shrine as the Cottage of Burns—we need not think of his misery—that is all gone—bad luck to it.”
Keats’s spirit seems high—he and Brown are “talking on different and indifferent things, when on a sudden we turned a corner upon the immediate county of Aire—the Sight was as rich as possible—I had no Conception that the native place of Burns was so beautiful—the Idea I had was more desolate, his rigs of Barley seemed always to me but a few strips of Green on a cold hill—O prejudices! it was rich as Devon.” Keats’s investment in what he is seeing, as he warms to the sight, feels profoundly more personal than the reports from the Lake District. “I endeavour’d to drink in the Prospect, that I might spin it out to you”—he is still writing to Reynolds—“as the silkworm makes silk from the Mulbery leaves.”
Besides all the Beauty, there were the Mountains of Annan Isle, black and huge over the Sea—We came down upon every thing suddenly—there were in our way, the ‘bonny Doon,’ with the Brig that Tam O’Shanter cross’d—Kirk Alloway, Burns’s Cottage and then the Brigs of Ayr—First we stood upon the Bridge across the Doon; surrounded by every Phantasy of Green in tree, Meadow, and Hill,—the Stream of the Doon, as a Farmer told us, is covered with trees from head to foot—you know those beautiful heaths so fresh against the weather of a summers evening—there was one stretching along behind the trees.
Then Keats’s high spirits get the better of him.
I wish I knew always the humour my friends would be in at opening a letter of mine, to suit it to them as nearly as possible I could always find an egg shell for Melancholy—and as for Merriment a Witty humour will turn any thing to Account—my head is sometimes in such a whirl in considering the million likings and antipathies of our Moments—that I can get into no settled strain in my Letters—My Wig! Burns and sentimentality coming across you and frank Floodgate in the office—O scenery that thou shouldst be crush’d between two Puns—
One of the puns is allusive, the other private: “I can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs” (As You Like It, II, ls.12-14); Frank Fladgate Sr. had taken Reynolds on as a “pupil” in his law office, along with Frank Fladgate Jr. Keats’s head in a whirl is just where his head is at this moment, with or without the toddies. “We went to the Cottage and took some Whiskey—I wrote a sonnet for the mere sake of writing some lines under the roof—they are so bad I cannot transcribe them.” The sonnet at the grave sight invokes the same idea: a moment’s monument to honor its memory. But apparently Keats has a better opinion of the first than of this second birthplace sonnet. Once inside the birth cottage his mood shifts, radically. “The Man at the Cottage was a great Bore with his Anecdotes—I hate the rascal—his Life consists of fuz, fuzzy, fuzziest—He drinks glasses five for the Quarter and twelve for the hour,—he is a mahogany faced Jackass who knew Burns—He ought to be kicked for having spoken to him.” You could chalk up this abrupt change in mood to many sources, not the least the whiskey (Keats’s small body had low tolerance). But four days later he is still bringing the birth-cottage incident up, this time to Tom. “Then we proceeded to the Cottage he was born in . . .We drank some Toddy to Burn’s Memory with an old Man who knew Burns—damn him—and damn his Anecdotes—he was a great bore—it was impossible for a Southren to understand about 5 words in a hundred—There was something good in his description of Burns’s melancholy the last time he saw him. I was determined to write a sonnet in the Cottage—I did—but it is so bad I cannot venture it here—.” And the next day, in his letter to Bailey, he mentions the cottage visit and the failed sonnet again—“I had determined to write a Sonnet in the Cottage. I did but lauk it was so wretched I destroyed it.”
Later, in his aborted biography of Keats, Brown notes that the turning of Burns’s birthplace into what amounts to a whiskey shop had a considerable effect “towards the annihilation of Keats’s poetic power.” Brown, however, as was his tendency with many of Keats’s poems, saved the much-referred-to sonnet anyway—entitled, prophetically, with its first line, “This mortal body of a thousand days.” (Indeed, there is a goodly list of Keats’s poetry-savers, fair-copiers, and poem-keepers. At different times George, Tom, Brown, Woodhouse, even Charles Dilke and Cowden Clarke, among others, preserved the poetry, recognizing the need and the importance for the future. Keats, though, had something of a quixotic attitude toward the maintenance of his poems, his shorter poems in particular. This is not to suggest that he was in any way indifferent to their value as potentially published works, but rather that for a mind in a whirl of “considering the million likings and antipathies of our Moments” anything more than the fluidity of composition was beyond his immediate concentration if not concern. Brown, in the biography, recalls that “In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest in my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took a chair from the breakfast-table to the grass plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind his books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, containing his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale. The writing was not well legible; and it was difficult to arrange the stanzas on so many scraps. With his assistance, I succeeded.” You have to wonder what “Ode to a Nightingale” might have become without Keats’s ordering assistance, let alone his rendering of murky individual stanzas on scraps.)
Scraps and throwaways and parts of letters—Keats did, usually, get around to fair-copying his own lyric poems, though not always. He had ambition’s eye regarding his perception of the lyric, the shorter form. He believed in it insofar as it went. It was not long enough nor big enough nor, sometimes, in the case of his occasional sonnets, important enough to think of beyond the therapy or comedy of the moment. This is not to say that he was a disinterested sonnet and/or lyric writer; he is among the finest makers of sonnets in the language; while the great odes depend, in their stanzaic intelligence, on an editing and variation of the English, Italian, and Spenserian sonnet forms and the Spenserian stanza. It is to say that for Keats to write to George, two months after returning from the Northern tour and after the first, and most damaging, of the Endymion reviews had appeared, that the bad notices are “a mere matter of the moment—I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death”: it is to say that Keats believed not only that the epic, or long, long poem, was the means to immortality but that he believed he had the gift and endurance to create one, perhaps more than one. All he needed was time. Endymion, as he had said all along, was a young man’s practice, an apprenticeship, not unlike those years he had spent preparing for and studying at Guy’s Hospital. Short pieces might be the jewel in the symbolist’s eye, the world in small for the sonneteer, but they were not, in Keats’s mind, capable of the scale of the sublime as he imagined necessary for posterity. Yet his first breakthrough poem, after some thirty poems of mostly sonnets, epistles, and occasional flatteries, was a grand sonnet entitled “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” a gesture of no small visionary sweep within small compass, a poem drawn from a book among other books, with a mistake in it. That was more than a year ago. Since then he had published his first collection of poems, plus Endymion. Most of the poems, by title, were sonnets, short pieces.
The “Chapman’s Homer” sonnet proposes a landscape of the mind, a summary of poetic allusions from reading “in the realms of gold.” None of the “goodly states and kingdoms,” however, compare to the revelation, the “pure serene,” of “deep-browned Homer” as translated by the Elizabethan George Chapman, especially when read “out loud and bold.”
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
It is probably unfair, in terms of apples and oranges, to place states and kingdoms against the skies and the discovery of a whole new ocean—the sheer geography reduced in size and focused here is amazing, and in its way puts the size and scale of the sonnet form to the test. And it is ironic that the source of the epiphanic vision is Homer himself, epic poet. Keats gets so lost in the excitement of his vision that he confuses Cortez, conqueror of the Quetzalcoatl cultures, with Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who actually did discover the Pacific. Regardless, after this October 1817 sonnet, Keats’s first of an objectifying authority, he really does begin to travel in green and golden realms as he starts to work out, in both his letters and in the best of the poems, a sense of his aesthetic “principles” as well as a commitment to the call of forms transcendent of a page or two. At the core, this developing idea of his mission is his chief motive for the Northern tour—to find sources and the scale for great poetry, large poetry, poetry with philosophic backbone, mythic proportion. Thus far in his life he has been limited to fine pastoral scenes within the radius or a coach-ride of London, landscapes he has grown up with: fields ready for harvest, cathedral elms parted by country lanes, heath, heather, and moor. Or he has poured his eyes into books, paintings, and sculpture. The North country, beginning with the Lake District and the Lowlands and climaxing in the Inner Hebrides, the Highlands, and Ben Nevis, is his first experience with the wild, the free-ranging, and the other-worldly.
Good or bad, sonnets are a natural form for him, a kind of note-taking of a heightened moment, whether the occasion is located in society or in nature. Because he is writing under difficult circumstances, the poetry parts of his letters from the North must needs be entertainment (ballads, parodies) or short serious poems (sonnets). Of the many examples of his various moods, the poem “To Ailsa Rock” is, he says to Tom, “the only Sonnet of any worth I have of late written.” It is July 10, and he and Brown are making their way up the western coast of Scotland, hoping to arrive in Ayr, and at Burns’s birthplace, the next day. It is, of course, raining, not too heavily but nonetheless a slow soak. Everything is shades and intensities of green. “After two or three Miles of this we turned suddenly into a magnificent glen finely wooded in Parts—seven Miles long—with a Mountain Stream winding down the Midst. . . . At the end we had a gradual ascent and got among the tops of Mountains whence In a little time I descried in the Sea Ailsa Rock 940 feet hight—it was 15 Miles distant and seemed close upon us—The effect of ailsa with the peculiar perspective of the Sea in connection with the ground we stood on, and the misty rain falling gave me a complete Idea of a deluge—Ailsa struck me very suddenly—.” This was the degree of visual experience Keats had begun to realize in Wordsworth country two weeks before, and now the ante had risen. The sonnet itself is like a real life parallel to the bookish Chapman sonnet, with, this time, Keats in the role of explorer, discoverer.
Hearken, thou craggy ocean pyramid!
Give answer by thy voice, the sea-fowls’ screams!
When were thy shoulders mantled in huge streams?
When from the sun was thy broad forehead hid?
The poem continues with four more lines of rhetorical questions—an interrogative mode in many of his lyrics—and answers them with “Thou answer’st not; for thou art dead asleep. / Thy life is but two dead eternities— / The last in air, the former in the deep, / First with the whales, last with the eagle-skies.” Sonnets are not only natural to Keats, they can be, as he would conclude later, fairly easy to write—fun, in fact, regardless of the subject. What is interesting here is the value he places on this sonnet compared with, say, the more personal, revealing, and certainly intimate sonnet “On Visiting the Tomb of Burns,” written a few days before the “complete Idea” of Ailsa. (Keats, remember, will also speak most highly of “Ode to Psyche” in the mix of the spring odes of 1819.) Something about the elevation of thought and language, the idea, appeals to Keats. “Ailsa Rock” is more public as a performance, safer, distant. It is, indeed, about distance, perspective—temporal as well as spatial—the sublime writ small. “Thy life is but two dead eternities, / The last in air, the former in the deep— / First with the whales, last with the eagle skies. . . .” The day after this recommended sonnet is the day he and Brown spend much of the afternoon with the “mahogany faced old Jackass” who runs the whiskey shop that is, in the Scots national memory, Burns’s birthplace; the jackass who, to Keats, is an insult to Burns’s integrity and to the gravesite memorial and who is “the flat dog” who “made me write a flat sonnet.” That is, on July 11, roughly nine hundred and fifty days before the end.
“This mortal body of a thousand days” is considered by Keats so bad that he must destroy it, an act so unusual in his career that you would have to go back to his earliest days as a fledgling poet, when some of his verse was bad, to find a similar purging. The question arises, why would he value even the least of his spontaneous lyrics and sonnets and parodies on this walking trip and so expressly devalue the sonnet he writes in Burns’s birth cottage—a poem he intends as a more appropriate homage than even the tomb sonnet, days before, written at the grave, a sonnet that practically genuflects its humility (“Great shadow, hide / Thy face! I sin against thy native skies.”)? Could the old whiskey-seller be that much of a distraction? “His gab,” says Keats to Reynolds, “hindered my sublimity.” On the other hand, Keats seems to be blaming Burns, too, when he continues, in the Reynolds letter, toward the sad conclusion that Burns’s “Misery is a dead weight upon the nimbleness of one’s quill—I tried to forget it—to drink Toddy without any Care—to write a merry Sonnet—it wont do—he talked with Bitches—he drank with Blackguards, he was miserable—We can see horribly clear in the works of such a man his whole life, as if we were God’s spies.” Horrible clarity does not sort well with trying “to write a merry Sonnet,” for sure. And being a spy capable of reading the hidden life between the lines of anyone’s work is itself a mixed blessing, since, invariably, the work reads you. The July 11 sonnet, composed in minutes within the confines of the spiritus mundi of Burns’s birthplace, while outside lies the Tam o’Shanter, intimate Burns countryside and beyond that, south and north, the majestic Ailsa Craig and the mountains of the island of Arran (“a grand Sea view terminated by the black Mountains of the isle of Annan. As soon as I saw them so nearly I said to myself ‘How is it they did not beckon Burns to some grand attempt at Epic?’ ”)—this July 11 sonnet is almost painful in its nakedness and directness.
This mortal body of a thousand days
Now fills, O Burns, a space in thine own room,
Where thou didst dream alone on budded bays,
Happy and thoughtless of thy day of doom!
My pulse is warm with thine own barley-bree,
My head is light with pledging a great soul,
My eyes are wandering, and I cannot see,
Fancy is dead and drunken at its goal:
Yet can I stamp my foot upon the floor,
Yet can I ope thy window-sash to find
The meadow thou hast tramped o’er and o’er
Yet can I think of thee till thought is blind,
Yet can I gulp a bumper to thy name—
O smile among the shades, for this is fame!
Whatever its confessional exposure—and Keats would have, first of all, rejected that direct an exposure—the rather didactic impulse of this sonnet is against a basic poetic principle of Keats, that poetry must not have a palpable design on the reader. The poem is not only obvious, it is angry; it is, a bit, “drunken at its goal.” It is, clearly, aggressive, with a muscling attitude unusual in Keats. Its rhetorical stance, in keeping, is no less out front, assertive line by line. Although its rhyme scheme is English (three quatrains and a closing couplet), its argument is Italian (octave, sestet): the first eight lines define a state of being, the follow-up six pledge what “can be,” thus, also, what is. The hyperbolic tone, however, is more than simply barley-bree rhetoric. It is a way, emotionally, to fill the figurative room of the sonnet form and the literal room of Burns’s space. The poem must have scared Keats because of its unmitigation, because of its apparently untransformed identification with the misery, the narrowness, the limitation of Burns’s perceived life. The stamping on the floor, the opening of the window are vain attempts to break out of the claustrophobia; even thinking becomes blind, and the best I can do is to do what you did: gulp a bumper. Keats toasts Burns, but with the knowledge that this is what fame comes to—a smile among the shades, a name written in water. It comes to having your birthplace turned into a whiskey shop, as if to honor the cliché, the popular image of Burns, rather than the right words in the right order themselves. Part of Keats’s fear, here in this sonnet as well as in the travel letters, is that fame is not only ephemeral but founded in the least of things: flaws, popularity, inaccuracies, various memory.
As for immortality—it seems mortal, too. Keats, literally, has just fifty days less than a thousand left; the figurative thousand, where does that come from? So far he has written a few excellent sonnets and many “weak-sided” ones, including, in his opinion, “This mortal body of a thousand days.” In fact, it is so weak, or so revealing, he is compelled to destroy it. Endymion, his apprentice try at an epic, is really, in hindsight, an exercise. Tom is ill, seriously ill, and he knows it; he may or may not ever see George again. His sister is virtually locked away. He understands the lineage of health—or ill health—he has inherited. He has written nothing, before or here in the middle of the summer, in the middle of nowhere, 1818, that would even suggest immortality, let alone earn it. And what is fame anyway, if Burns is the template and this cottage, this space, a testament to his memory and that out-sized mausoleum, in Dumfries, the grave of his poems? What is fame but a silent toast from an admirer, who should, perhaps, have stayed silent? Aileen Ward, in her marvelous psychoanalytic narrative of Keats’s life, states that the irony of “This mortal body of a thousand days” is summed up in the last line, “but the terror is in the first . . . Keats found himself staring at the prospect of his own death, less than three years ahead. The thought he meant never to express had slipped out, and as soon as he regained his balance he tried to expunge it.” If Ward is speaking in terms of Keats’s anxieties, and anxieties only, she may be correct. But why a thousand? Is it just a poetic number? If so, how could it be so close to the actual time line? Even Keats’s medical knowledge does not account for the accuracy, especially since he was the most robust of the three brothers, Tom the most delicate. George, after all, lived into his forties. Keats, living into his forties, imagine that. Of course, then you would have to imagine Keats employed or making a living from his writing, his fame. You would have to imagine Keats owning property, voting Whig, or emigrating to America to become the first great American poet, famous or otherwise.
Another question arises. Keats knows his family’s medical history in his bones; and for some time he has been painfully aware of Tom’s marginal condition, an awareness reinforced by the fact of the sequence of travel letters, primarily to Tom. He may even have felt that, for the time being anyway, there was nothing more, medically, required for Tom, so why not take Brown’s offer of companionship on a great walk. Tom himself seems to have encouraged both brothers in the fiction of his “doing better.” This may not relieve the guilt, but it does change the scene and somewhat adjust the burden. Yet Keats, too, has been nagged by symptoms—by colds, a certain indolence, and, specifically, an on-again, off-again sore throat—he has complained of a serious sore throat for no little while well before the trip north. Indeed, he has almost backed out on making the journey at the last minute for just that reason. Nevertheless, here he is, in the middle of one of the worst cold-catching climates on earth, when nearly a whole year before he has “not been well enough to stand the chance of a Wet night.” After the encounter with the ghosts of Burns, he and Brown head farther up the western coast of Scotland, to the Isle of Mull and environs, then, a week later, inland up through the Great Glen to make the climb of Ben Nevis, the highest point in Britain (4400 feet). In the tenth letter, to Tom, Keats notes that “We set out, crossed two ferries, one to the isle of Kerrara of little distance, the other from Kerarra to Mull 9 Miles across—we did it in forty minutes with a fine Breeze—The road through the Island, or rather the track is the most dreary you can think of—between dreary Mountains—over bog and rock and river with our Breeches tucked up and our Stockings in hand—.” It is one thing to ride on the outside of the coach, the night coach, or coach in rain; it is another thing to walk over bog and rock and through mountain cold river water in your bare feet. And it is a third, worst thing, to take to bed all that cold and dampness in “a shepherd’s Hut” in “little compartments with the rafters and turf thatch blackened with smoke—the earth floor full of Hills and Dales.”
The lodgings, the food (all oatcakes and watered whiskey), the chilblain climate of coastal Scotland and the inner islands must feel like punishment—Dr. Johnson thought so, humbled on his Shetland pony, when, along with Boswell, he tried to traverse the same territory. These elements certainly stand in contrast to the lake country Keats and Brown began their journey in: the Ambleside Waterfalls, for instance, near “Wynandermere,” where “the weather is capital for views,” and the “morning beautiful—the walk easy among the hills.” The Falls themselves Keats spends a page on, as if to follow the stages of their tumbling. “What astonishes me more than any things is the tone, the coloring, the slate, the stone, the moss, the rock-weed,” he writes in his first enthusiastic letter to Tom, praising “the intellect, the countenance of such places.” He goes on:
The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. 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 existence for the relish of one’s fellows. I cannot think with Hazlitt that these scenes make a man appear little. I never forgot my stature so completely—I live in the eye; and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest.
There is a quality of the intimate sublime in this reaction; there is also innocence, the hype of new experience turned into extravagance, with a seasoning of high-mindedness and literariness. Weeks later, having “surpassed” the poverties of the Lowlands and Eastern Ireland, the Presbyterian graveyard and birthplace of Burns, a calendar of “characters,” the soaking rains, the twenty and more miles a day of walking, the same clothes, the same food, the same gray hostels and cottages—overnights they could afford—after weeks of this, Keats has become wiser about the great wild country he is seeing but no less alive to it. And he understands he has paid a price. “I should not have consented to myself these four Months tramping in the highlands,” he writes on July 22 to Bailey, “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.” More, of course, like four weeks, in reality, than four months.
And if, in his sonnet responding to Chapman’s translation, he had reached Homer, he had not, by any stretch, even begun to achieve the reach of Homer, the epic. That does not mean he would not die trying. Ambition seemed to be surpassing the “prudent and more careful” concern of health. The Northern excursion had been meant, in great part, as a curative to the safe indulgences of Endymion—as a first-hand access to finer scenes, grander mountains, realer places. Yet in the same letter, in which he reiterates his artistic ambition, the letter in which he destroys the “body of a thousand days” sonnet and offers Bailey its antidote: an extended fourteener in couplets, also preoccupied with “mortal days” and dying “of fame unshorn”: in the same letter he underscores his prescience of a mortal timetable: “I intend to pass a whole year with George if I live to the completion of the next three”: a timetable that he almost meets exactly. He and Brown cross from Oban to Mull by ferry on July 22, then find themselves on “a most wretched walk of 37 miles across the Island,” more tired, more wet and chilled with every mile. From Mull they will boat to Iona and from there to Staffa and to one of Keats’s ultimate destinations, Fingal’s Cave. In spite of his cold and sore throat, Keats’s spirits are high. In his next to last letter to Tom (July 26) he runs a stream of descriptive detail as to the sights he is seeing, most of them ancient kirk artifacts and ruins (“But I will first mention Icolmkill . . .Who would expect to find the ruins of a fine Cathedral Church, of Cloisters, Colleges, Monasteries and Nunneries in so remote an Island?”) or “magnificent Woods” and “many tombs of Highland Chieftans,” culminating in a boat passage around and careful mooring at Staffa.
I am puzzled how to give you an Idea of Staffa . . . One may compare the surface of the Islands to a roof—this roof is supported by grand pillars of basalt standing together as thick as honey combs The finest thing is Fingal’s Cave—it is entirely a hollowing out of Basalt Pillars. Suppose now the Giants who rebelled against Jove had taken a whole Mass of black Columns and bound them together like bunches of matches—and then with immense Axes had made a cavern in the body of these columns—of course the roof and floor must be composed of the broken ends of the Columns—such is Fingal’s Cave except that the Sea has done the work of excavations and is continually dashing there—so that we walk along the sides of the cave on the pillars which are left as if for convenient Stairs—
“The Cave,” concludes Keats, “far surpasses the finest Cathedrall” for “solemnity and grandeur.” He had found what he imagined he had been looking for—a sense of the sublime beyond “mere Scenes,” in a natural setting worthy of awe, and alive with visual drama. The visit to these inner islands off the Scottish coast and port town of Oban mark the actual beginning of Keats’s transformation from the Endymion poet to the Hyperion poet, with the one in print and available to criticism, and the other in mind and still to be realized. The cloistered, lush bower, exposed to Apollonian sunlight, becomes, in various later versions, “Like natural sculpture in cathedral cavern,” just as “the Druid temple” near Keswich, early in the trip, becomes, once Keats’s vision is clear of its penchant for foliage, “like a dismal cirque / Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor, / When the chill rain begins at shut of eve.” More than anything it is the scale of Fingal’s Cave that impresses Keats. The “roof is arched somewhat gothic wise and the length of some of the entire side pillars is 50 feet—About the island you might seat an army of Men each on a pillar—The length of the Cave is 120 feet and from its extremity the view into the sea through the large Arch at the entrance—the colour of the columns is a sort of black with a lurking gloom of purple therin—.” Interiors, intimate or grand, will play an important part in Keats’s imaginative life henceforth. As for his literal life, by the time he and Brown make their way back to the mainland, he is reacknowledging his “slight sore throat and think it best to stay a day or two at Oban. Then we shall proceed to Fort William and Inverness.”
Brown’s report, in his Life of Keats, elaborates a bit: “For some time he had been annoyed by a slight inflammation in the throat, occasioned by rainy days, fatigue, privation, and, I am afraid, in one instance, by damp sheets. It was prudently resolved, with the assistance of medical advice, that if, when we reached Inverness, he should not be much better, he should part from me, and proceed from the port of Cromarty to London by sea.” The notable adjective, in both their references, is “slight,” an understatement of hope in the face of fact. Keats’s sore throat had been around for months, well before the tour. “Slight” is both stiff-upper-lip and dangerous denial, and denial will become, as it has for Tom, the hallmark of diagnosis, whether it relates to Keats’s inflammation, depression, or consumption. Keats, in his comment to Tom, mentions both Fort William, which is at the south end of the Great Glen, and Inverness, which is at the north end, a distance of seventy or so walking miles. Brown mentions Inverness only, implying an assumption about their stay in Fort William, an assumption of crucial consequences. Fort William is at the base of Ben Nevis, the cruelest, most perilous, most deceptive of mountains, since it seems small by Alpine standards but is a killer to the careless, still claiming lives every year. It is to height what Fingal’s Cave is to depth. In not alluding to either Fort William or Ben Nevis, Brown leaves the implication that, in spite of Keats’s long-standing sore throat and the tour’s punishment to his overall stamina, climbing the mountain, regardless of health considerations, is a foregone conclusion, with Keats himself equally complicit and in denial. Keats begins his last letter to Tom with a mixed signal (August 6). “We have made but poor progress Lately, chiefly from bad weather for my throat is in a fair way of getting quite well, so I have had nothing of consequence to tell you till yesterday when we went up Ben Nevis, the highest Mountain in Great Britain—On that account I will never ascend another in this empire—Skiddaw in no thing to it either in height or difficulty.”
From a distance, Ben Nevis resembles a massive shoulder or whale head, a sperm whale’s head, though it is a thousand feet higher than Greylock, the Massachusetts mountain that, in snow, inspired Melville’s Moby Dick. Snow covers Nevis, in parts, all year. Its superstructure of volcanic rock gives it an ancient appearance, and because of its actual old age, schist, shale, and great loose gravel form a good deal of its surface, making traction to the unwary tricky. At its summit, eight hundred feet short of a straight-up mile, lies a hundred acres of stony void, whose northeast face is a sheer drop. There are several drops, in fact, within its mass—“These Chasms,” remarks Keats, “are 1500 feet in depth and are the most tremendous places I have ever seen.” Ignoring the question of his health, Keats realizes that Nevis, perhaps even more than Fingal’s Cave, is the surpassing presence, the natural greatness, he has been in search of this whole journey. “We set out about five in the morning with a Guide in the Tartan and Cap and soon arrived at the foot of the first scent which we immediately began upon—after much fag and tug and a rest and a glass of whisky apiece we gained the top of the first rise and saw then a tremindous chap above us which the guide said was still far from the top.” Most of this final letter to Tom is the memory of the ascent. “After the first Rise our way lay along a heath valley in which there was a Loch—after about a Mile in this Valley we began upon the next ascent more formidable by far than the last and kept mounting with short intervals of rest until we got above all vegetation, among nothing but loose Stones which lasted to the very top.” There were three more miles of this stony climbing, vertical and narrow. “Before we got half way up we passed large patches of snow and near the top is a chasm some hundred feet deep completely gutted with it—Talking of chasms they are the finest wonder of the whole—they appear great rents in the very heart of the mountain though they are not, being at the side of it, but other huge crags arising round it give the appearance to Nevis of a shattered heart or Core in itself.”
“I live in the eye,” Keats had written his youngest brother at the start of the tour, “and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest.” This largely rhetorical, wishful observation—here, atop the highest place he would ever be, and the most dangerous yet awe-inspiring—is now turning out to be true in ways Keats could not have imagined. “The whole immense head of the Mountain is composed of large loose stones—thousands of acres.” Well, perhaps not thousands, but it must seem that way. “You are on a stony plain which of course makes you forget you are on any but low ground—the horizon or rather edges of this plain being about 4000 feet above the Sea hide all the Country immediately beneath you, so that the next object you see all round next to the edges of the flat top are the Summits of Mountains of some distance off—as you move about on all sides you see more or less of the near neighbour country according as the Mountain you stand upon is in different parts steep or rounded—but the most new thing of all is the sudden leap of the eye from the extremity of what appears a plain into so vast a distance.” This last comment about the sudden leap of the eye into so vast a distance: the epic setting granting epic vision: this is, for Keats, surpassing. Typical of his sense of himself, and his sense of humor, Keats will not let his visionary, “cloud-veil” view of things stand (“After a little time the Mist cleared away but still there were large Clouds about attracted by old Ben to a certain distance so as to form as it appeared large dome curtains which kept sailing about, opening and shutting at intervals . . .”); he must deflate the moment and give Tom a bit of entertainment. “On . . . one part of the top there is a handsome pile of stones done pointedly by some soldiers of artillery. I climed onto them and so got a little higher than old Ben himself.” “Mister John Keats five feet hight.”
Brown does not find this explorer’s pose all that humorous. “When on the summit of this mountain, we were enveloped in a cloud, and, waiting till it was slowly wafted away, he sat on the stones, a few feet away from the edge of that fearful precipice, fifteen hundred feet perpendicular from the valley below, and wrote this sonnet.” Perhaps Keats is remembering his “stout Cortez with eagle eyes,” but with a touch of irony, since the Ben Nevis sonnet is composed “blind in Mist” (“Upon the top of Nevis, blind in mist! / I look into the chasms . . .”). Keats ends his August 6, last letter to Tom, by reversing his opening optimism about his health. “My Sore throat is not quiet well and I intend stopping here a few days,” here being Inverness. Thus, having put himself at risk by making the difficult walk up the most difficult of British mountains, and making the difficult walk back down, he compounds the risk by walking in Scots weather the four days north to the dark capital of the Highlands. Inverness becomes the end of Keats’s Northern tour—six hundred miles, he claims, of walking, four hundred miles by coach. By coach is how he will get from the northern tip of Loch Ness to Beauly to Dingwall to Cromarty, from which he will sail, on The George, on August 8, back to London, a coast-hugging voyage of ten days, a third of the time it will take him two years later to sail to Italy. Luckily, not only is he able to rest heading home but is allowed better food—beef, for one thing, which cheers his health. Rest and an improved diet, however, do not cheer his appearance. He arrives in London on August 18, takes the Hampstead coach to Pond Street, walks down its long, windy hill to East Heath Road up to John Street and Wentworth Place, Brown’s and Dilke’s shared residence. It is twilight by this time and only Mrs. Dilke, Maria, is at home—he had hoped to surprise the Dilkes before moving on up to Well Walk and Tom. It is light enough that even standing in the doorway, Keats looks “as brown and shabby as you can imagine, scarcely any shoes left, his jacket all torn at the back, a fur cap, a great plaid, and his knapsack.” Once he has settled into a chair and made a joke (“Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee, thou art translated.”), Maria Dilke realizes Keats has not received her husband’s letter sent two weeks before to Inverness. Tom’s precarious condition, in mountain climbing nomenclature, has become precipitous. He is dying. Keats makes his quick good-bye and leaves immediately, thus there is not time for him to meet the Dilkes’ summer neighbors, a Mrs. Brawne and her three children, who have rented Brown’s half of the house until October. Mrs. Dilke has doubtless recommended Keats as an odd but interesting young man, close in age to at least one of the Brawne family. Hence her shock at seeing him so bedraggled from his journeys.
If we can recall Severn’s deathbed portrait drawing of Keats, we have a sense of what Tom must have looked like to his poet-physician brother, especially since the last-stage symptoms of tubercular consumption are universal and must have been familiar to Keats from all his years of medical training. Tom by now has been coughing blood consistently; that is, phlegm flecked with blood. “Softened tubercular matter was now passing into his bronchila tubes . . . the cavities in the upper lobes of his lungs became ulcerated, so the lower portion gradually became tubercular too.” It is clear to Keats that the time of pretense and false hope has passed; Tom is terminal, and until the end, with George now gone, he will have to assume, completely, the role of nurse, even doctor—roles, ironically, he has trained for, in a knowledge he knows too well, better than he may have wished. Poetry, in addition to his sense of his own health, will have to be placed in some parallel circumstance, beside the part of being his brother’s keeper. At some point, surely, Keats will find a balance between all the parts he must begin to play, a balance that will permit him to nurse-sit Tom and at the same time put to some use some of his summer’s sublime visual experience, which is to say writing while on death-watch. Perhaps, if Tom lingers, a few of their friends will give Keats a break, so that he can join in on the occasional social function. Perhaps the threat of Tom’s dying can be attenuated, postponed, particularly if we can assume a kind of daily normalcy. Such balances do, in the course of the autumn of 1818, work out. Keats begins, at Tom’s bedside, the early drafts of Hyperion; he manages to get to see, intermittently, friends; he takes walks on the heath; he even meets, at last, his once and future neighbor Fanny Brawne. September, October, November.
The fundamental fact, however, of this transitional period, this beginning, this first autumn of his so-called living year, is his confinement with Tom, which invokes the original muse figure in his imagination, his mother. Yet not so much, perhaps, the precise family figure as the configuration itself of dying, the familial, personal face of death. Keats, as a body and a temperament, favored his father, who was killed in a riding accident when Keats was eight; Tom, delicate Tom, resembled his mother, Frances, whose passionate, vulnerable nature led her to make, after her husband’s death, a series of bad decisions that caused not only a five-year separation from her children but a complete exhaustion of her financial, emotional, and physical resources. When Frances Keats returned to the fold—that is, her mother’s house, in which, now, her children were being raised—her son John was fourteen and she, like Tom, was well on her way to dying of what Keats would call “the family disease.” It says everything about the Keats we will come to know that he will appoint himself his mother’s dedicated nurse and accept in himself a profound need to heal. Haydon, of all sources, would report in his diary years later that “during her last illness, his devoted attachment interested all. He sat up whole nights in a great chair, would suffer nobody to give her medicine but himself, and even cooked her food; he did all, & read novels in her intervals of ease.” The juxtaposition of such a scene with the ongoing scene of his care for Tom is inescapable: the physician and the poet employing equal healing powers. Almost ten years apart, these archetypal tableaux reveal the writer and his muse bent within the same circle of contemplation, the act of suffering, then the art of suffering: the “wan face / Not pined by human sorrows, but bright-blanced / By an immortal sickness” become youth grown “pale, and spectre-thin,” “which happy death / Can put no end to.” In the future, in a lost instant, Keats would say he had “had no mother,” meaning no one, at the crucial hour, meeting that role. For too many crucial years she had been absent, drifting, alien. And then she was back, but briefly, and dying, and Keats himself would play the mother, the mortal witness. In Tom he could not help but see their mother’s wan face, and perhaps the ghost of his own, the face of the future. There is no more absent yet charged void than the room of the dying; everything feels poured and emptied out in a moment. The air, the light, the darker shadings, the sounds and odors, the shapes of the enclosure all trap the impulse of the isolation. The intensity as well as the silences are inseparable from the imagination.
When Keats’s mother died, in March 1810, and he returned to Enfield, to school, one of his classmates reports that he gave way “to such impassioned and prolonged grief (hiding himself under the master’s desk) as awakened the liveliest pity and sympathy in all who saw him.” Under the desk: as if to return to the womb source of life in order to start over. When Tom died on the morning of December 1, 1818, the first thing Keats did was to post a letter to their sister Fanny that had been written the night before—“I have scarce any hopes of him”—that could not yet speak of his death. He then walked down the High Street to a left on John Street and to Wentworth Place, where Brown—now well returned from having completed the Northern tour—was still asleep. He awoke to find Keats, like a sentinel, standing there. Brown knew why. Curiously, it was to Richard Woodhouse, Keats’s publisher’s lawyer and Keats’s mainstay literary friend, that Brown wrote the announcement.
1 December 1818
Tuesday 1st Dec
Mr Keats requests me to inform you his brother Thomas died this morning at 8 o’ Clock & without pain—Mr Keats is pretty well & desires to be remembered to you—
I am, Sir,
Your obed hum Serv
Haslam, the brothers’ long-time mutual friend, was asked to write George in America. “Pretty well” pretty well understates the emotional isolation Keats must have seemed to be in that morning. Brown, to his credit, grasped the state of things immediately and suggested to Keats that there was space for him right here, in his half of Wentworth Place. Unspoken in the offer was the evolving role of Brown as surrogate brother and the next-door Dilkes as surrogate family, though they both would be replaced, in time, by the somewhat itinerant Brawnes, who would, it turns out, be the first family to live in both halves of what would become known, in the twentieth century, as the Keats House, on Keats Grove, formerly John Street.