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

63. — To Thomas Keats.

My dear Tom — Just after my last had gone to the Post, in came one of the Men with whom we endeavoured to agree about going to Staffa — he said what a pity it was we should turn aside and not see the curiosities. So we had a little talk, and finally agreed that he should be our guide across the Isle of Mull. We set out, crossed two ferries — one to the Isle of Kerrara, of little distance; the other from Kerrara 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. About 8 o’Clock we arrived at a shepherd’s Hut, into which we could scarcely get for the Smoke through a door lower than my Shoulders. We found our way into a little compartment with the rafters and turf-thatch blackened with smoke, the earth floor full of Hills and Dales. We had some white Bread with us, made a good supper, and slept in our Clothes in some Blankets; our Guide snored on another little bed about an Arm’s length off. This morning we came about sax Miles to Breakfast, by rather a better path, and we are now in by comparison a Mansion. Our Guide is I think a very obliging fellow — in the way this morning he sang us two Gaelic songs — one made by a Mrs. Brown on her husband’s being drowned, the other a jacobin one on Charles Stuart. For some days Brown has been enquiring out his Genealogy here — he thinks his Grandfather came from long Island. He got a parcel of people about him at a Cottage door last Evening, chatted with ane who had been a Miss Brown, and who I think from a likeness, must have been a Relation — he jawed with the old Woman — flattered a young one — kissed a child who was afraid of his Spectacles and finally drank a pint of Milk. They handle his Spectacles as we do a sensitive leaf.

[Oban,] July 26th.

Well — we had a most wretched walk of 37 Miles across the Island of Mull and then we crossed to Iona or Icolmkill — from Icolmkill we took a boat at a bargain to take us to Staffa and land us at the head of Loch Nakgal,78 whence we should only have to walk half the distance to Oban again and on a better road. All this is well passed and done, with this singular piece of Luck, that there was an interruption in the bad Weather just as we saw Staffa at which it is impossible to land but in a tolerable Calm sea. But I will first mention Icolmkill — I know not whether you have heard much about this Island; I never did before I came nigh it. It is rich in the most interesting Antiquities. Who would expect to find the ruins of a fine Cathedral Church, of Cloisters Colleges Monasteries and Nunneries in so remote an Island? The Beginning of these things was in the sixth Century, under the superstition of a would-be-Bishop-saint, who landed from Ireland, and chose the spot from its Beauty — for at that time the now treeless place was covered with magnificent Woods. Columba in the Gaelic is Colm, signifying Dove — Kill signifies church, and I is as good as Island — so I-colm-kill means the Island of Saint Columba’s Church. Now this Saint Columba became the Dominic of the barbarian Christians of the north and was famed also far south — but more especially was reverenced by the Scots the Picts the Norwegians the Irish. In a course of years perhaps the Island was considered the most holy ground of the north, and the old Kings of the aforementioned nations chose it for their burial-place. We were shown a spot in the Churchyard where they say 61 Kings are buried 48 Scotch from Fergus II. to Macbeth 8 Irish 4 Norwegians and 1 French — they lie in rows compact. Then we were shown other matters of later date, but still very ancient — many tombs of Highland Chieftains — their effigies in complete armour, face upwards, black and moss-covered — Abbots and Bishops of the island always of one of the chief Clans. There were plenty Macleans and Macdonnels; among these latter, the famous Macdonel Lord of the Isles. There have been 300 Crosses in the Island but the Presbyterians destroyed all but two, one of which is a very fine one, and completely covered with a shaggy coarse Moss. The old Schoolmaster, an ignorant little man but reckoned very clever, showed us these things. He is a Maclean, and as much above 4 foot as he is under 4 foot three inches. He stops at one glass of whisky unless you press another and at the second unless you press a third —

I am puzzled how to give you an Idea of Staffa. It can only be represented by a first-rate drawing. One may compare the surface of the Island to a roof — this roof is supported by grand pillars of basalt standing together as thick as honeycombs. 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 roof is arched somewhat gothic-wise, and the length of some of the entire side-pillars is fifty 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 therein. For solemnity and grandeur it far surpasses the finest Cathedral. At the extremity of the Cave there is a small perforation into another cave, at which the waters meeting and buffeting each other there is sometimes produced a report as of a cannon heard as far as Iona, which must be 12 Miles. As we approached in the boat, there was such a fine swell of the sea that the pillars appeared rising immediately out of the crystal. But it is impossible to describe it —

Not Aladdin magian

Ever such a work began.

Not the Wizard of the Dee

Ever such a dream could see,

Not St. John in Patmos Isle

In the passion of his toil

When he saw the churches seven

Golden-aisled built up in heaven

Gaz’d at such a rugged wonder.

As I stood its roofing under

Lo! I saw one sleeping there

On the marble cold and bare.

While the surges wash’d his feet

And his garments white did beat

Drench’d about the sombre rocks,

On his neck his well-grown locks

Lifted dry above the Main

Were upon the curl again —

“What is this? and what art thou?”

Whisper’d I, and touch’d his brow;

“What art thou? and what is this?”

Whisper’d I, and strove to kiss

The Spirit’s hand, to wake his eyes;

Up he started in a trice:

“I am Lycidas,” said he,

“Fam’d in funeral Minstrelsy —

This was architected thus

By the great Oceanus.

Here his mighty waters play

Hollow Organs all the day,

Here, by turns, his dolphins all,

Finny palmers great and small,

Come to pay devotion due —

Each a mouth of pearls must strew!

Many a Mortal of these days

Dares to pass our sacred ways,

Dares to touch, audaciously

This Cathedral of the sea —

I have been the Pontiff-priest,

Where the Waters never rest,

Where a fledgy sea-bird choir

Soars for ever — holy fire

I have hid from Mortal Man.

Proteus is my Sacristan.

But the stupid eye of Mortal

Hath pass’d beyond the Rocky portal.

So for ever will I leave

Such a taint and soon unweave

All the magic of the place —

’Tis now free to stupid face —

To cutters and to fashion boats,

To cravats and to Petticoats.

The great Sea shall war it down,

For its fame shall not be blown

At every farthing quadrille dance.”79

So saying with a Spirit’s glance

He dived ——

I am sorry I am so indolent as to write such stuff as this. It can’t be helped. The western coast of Scotland is a most strange place — it is composed of rocks, Mountains, mountainous and rocky Islands intersected by lochs — you can go but a short distance anywhere from salt water in the highlands.

I have a slight sore throat and think it best to stay a day or two at Oban — then we shall proceed to Fort William and Inverness, where I am anxious to be on account of a Letter from you. Brown in his Letters puts down every little circumstance. I should like to do the same, but I confess myself too indolent, and besides next winter everything will come up in prime order as we verge on such and such things.

Have you heard in any way of George? I should think by this time he must have landed. I in my carelessness never thought of knowing where a letter would find him on the other side — I think Baltimore, but I am afraid of directing it to the wrong place. I shall begin some chequer work for him directly, and it will be ripe for the post by the time I hear from you next after this. I assure you I often long for a seat and a Cup o’ tea at Well Walk, especially now that mountains, castles, and Lakes are becoming common to me. Yet I would rather summer it out, for on the whole I am happier than when I have time to be glum — perhaps it may cure me. Immediately on my return I shall begin studying hard, with a peep at the theatre now and then — and depend upon it I shall be very luxurious. With respect to Women I think I shall be able to conquer my passions hereafter better than I have yet done. You will help me to talk of George next winter, and we will go now and then to see Fanny. Let me hear a good account of your health and comfort, telling me truly how you do alone. Remember me to all including Mr. and Mrs. Bentley.

Your most affectionate Brother


77 No place so named appears on any map: but at the foot of the Cruach-Doire-nan-Cuílean, off the road, is a house named Derrynaculan, and a few miles farther on, at the head of Loch Seridain, an ancient fortified site or Dun, with an inn on the road near by.

78 For Loch na Keal.

79 The six lines from “place” to “dance” were judiciously omitted by Keats in copying these verses later.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56