Letters of John Keats to His Family and Friends, by John Keats

58. — To Thomas Keats.

My dear Tom — We are now in Meg Merrilies’s country, and have this morning passed through some parts exactly suited to her. Kirkcudbright County is very beautiful, very wild, with craggy hills, somewhat in the Westmoreland fashion. We have come down from Dumfries to the sea-coast part of it. The following song you will have from Dilke, but perhaps you would like it here.71 . . .

[Newton Stewart,] July 5th [for 4th].

Yesterday was passed in Kirkcudbright, the country is very rich, very fine, and with a little of Devon. I am now writing at Newton Stewart, six miles into Wigtown. Our landlady of yesterday said very few southerners passed hereaways. The children jabber away, as if in a foreign language; the bare-footed 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, etc. — it may be — they are very squat among trees and fern and heath and broom, on levels slopes and heights — but I wish they were as snug as those up the Devonshire valleys. We are lodged and entertained in great varieties. We dined yesterday on dirty Bacon, dirtier eggs, and dirtiest potatoes, with a slice of salmon — we breakfast this morning in a nice carpeted room, with sofa, hair-bottomed Chairs, and green-baized Mahogany. A spring by the road-side is always welcome: we drink water for dinner, diluted with a Gill of whisky.

[Donaghadee] July 6.

Yesterday morning we set out from Glenluce, going some distance round to see some rivers: they were scarcely worth the while. We went on to Stranraer, in a burning sun, and had gone about six miles when the Mail overtook us: we got up, were at Port Patrick in a jiffey, and I am writing now in little Ireland. The dialects on the neighbouring shores of Scotland and Ireland are much the same, yet I can perceive a great difference in the nations, from the chamber-maid at this nate toone kept by Mr. Kelly. She is fair, kind, and ready to laugh, because she is out of the horrible dominion of the Scotch Kirk. A Scotch girl stands in terrible awe of the Elders — poor little Susannahs, they will scarcely laugh, and their Kirk is greatly to be damned. These Kirk-men have done Scotland good (Query?). They have made men, women; old men, young men; old women, young women; boys, girls; and all infants careful — so that they are formed into regular Phalanges of savers and gainers. Such a thrifty army cannot fail to enrich their Country, and give it a greater appearance of Comfort, than that of their poor rash neighbourhood — these Kirk-men have done Scotland harm; they have banished puns, and laughing, and kissing, etc. (except in cases where the very danger and crime must make it very gustful). I shall make a full stop at kissing, for after that there should be a better parenthesis, 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 rot72 in things attainable, that it may not have leisure to go mad after things which are not. No man, in such matters, will be content with the experience of others — It is true that out of suffering there is no dignity, no greatness, that in the most abstracted pleasure there is no lasting happiness — Yet who would not like to discover over again that Cleopatra was a Gipsy, Helen a rogue, and Ruth a deep one? I have not sufficient reasoning faculty to settle the doctrine of thrift, as it is consistent with the dignity of human Society — with the happiness of Cottagers. All I can do is by plump contrasts; were the fingers made to squeeze a guinea or a white hand? — were the lips made to hold a pen or a kiss? and yet in Cities man is shut out from his fellows if he is poor — the cottager must be very dirty, and very wretched, if she be not thrifty — the present state of society demands this, and this convinces me that the world is very young, and in a very ignorant state — We live in a barbarous age — I would sooner be a wild deer, than a girl under the dominion of the Kirk; and I would sooner be a wild hog, than be the occasion of a poor Creature’s penance before those execrable elders.

It is not so far to the Giant’s Causeway as we supposed — We thought it 70, and hear it is only 48 miles — So we shall leave one of our knapsacks here at Donaghadee, take our immediate wants, and be back in a week, when we shall proceed to the County of Ayr. In the Packet yesterday we heard some ballads from two old men — One was a Romance which seemed very poor — then there was “The Battle of the Boyne,” then “Robin Huid,” as they call him —“Before the King you shall go, go, go; before the King you shall go.”

[Stranraer,] July 9th.

We stopped very little in Ireland, and that you may not have leisure to marvel at our speedy return to Port Patrick, I will tell you that it is as dear living in Ireland as at the Hummums — thrice the expense of Scotland — it would have cost us £15 before our return; moreover we found those 48 miles to be Irish ones, which reach to 70 English — so having walked to Belfast one day, and back to Donaghadee the next, we left Ireland with a fair breeze. We slept last night at Port Patrick, when I was gratified by a letter from you. On our walk in Ireland, we had too much opportunity to see the worse than nakedness, the rags, the dirt and misery, of the poor common Irish — A Scotch cottage, though in that sometimes the smoke has no exit but at the door, is a palace to an Irish one. We could observe that impetuosity in Man and Woman — We had the pleasure of finding our way through a Peat-bog, three miles long at least — dreary, flat, dank, black, and spongy — here and there were poor dirty Creatures, and a few strong men cutting or carting Peat — We heard on passing into Belfast through a most wretched suburb, that most disgusting of all noises, worse than the Bagpipes — the laugh of a Monkey — the chatter of women — the scream of a Macaw — I mean the sound of the Shuttle. What a tremendous difficulty is the improvement of such people. I cannot conceive how a mind “with child” of philanthrophy could grasp at its possibility — with me it is absolute despair —

At a miserable house of entertainment, half-way between Donaghadee and Belfast, were two men sitting at Whisky — one a labourer, and the other I took to be a drunken weaver — the labourer took me to be a Frenchman, and the other hinted at bounty-money; saying he was ready to take it — On calling for the letters at Port Patrick, the man snapped out “what Regiment?” On our return from Belfast we met a sedan — the Duchess of Dunghill. It is no laughing matter though. Imagine the worst dog kennel you ever saw, placed upon two poles from a mouldy fencing — In such a wretched thing sat a squalid old woman, squat like an ape half-starved, from a scarcity of biscuit 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 puffed out the smoke, while two ragged tattered girls carried her along. What a thing would be a history of her life and sensations; I shall endeavour when I have thought a little more, to give you my idea of the difference between the Scotch and Irish — The two Irishmen I mentioned were speaking of their treatment in England, when the weaver said —“Ah you were a civil man, but I was a drinker.”

Till further notice you must direct to Inverness.

Your most affectionate Brother

John.

71 Keats here repeats for his brother the Meg Merrilies piece contained in the preceding letter to Fanny.

72 Reading doubtful.

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