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


The object of the present volume is to supply the want, which many readers must have felt, of a separate and convenient edition of the letters of Keats to his family and friends. He is one of those poets whose genius makes itself felt in prose-writing almost as decisively as in verse, and at their best these letters are among the most beautiful in our language. Portions of them lent an especial charm to a book charming at any rate — the biography of the poet first published more than forty years ago by Lord Houghton. But the correspondence as given by Lord Houghton is neither accurate nor complete. He had in few cases the originals before him, but made use of copies, some of them quite fragmentary, especially those supplied him from America; and moreover, working while many of the poet’s friends were still alive, he thought it right to exercise a degree of editorial freedom for which there would now be neither occasion nor excuse. While I was engaged in preparing the life of Keats for Mr. Morley’s series some years since, the following materials for an improved edition of his letters came into my hands:—

(1) The copies made by Richard Woodhouse, a few years after Keats’s death, of the poet’s correspondence with his principal friends, viz. the publishers, Messrs. Taylor and Hessey; the transcriber, Woodhouse himself, who was a young barrister of literary tastes in the confidence of those gentlemen; John Hamilton Reynolds, solicitor, poet, humourist, and critic (born 1796, died 1852); Jane and Mariane Reynolds, sisters of the last-named, the former afterwards Mrs. Tom Hood; James Rice, the bosom friend of Reynolds, and like him a young solicitor; Benjamin Bailey, undergraduate of Magdalen Hall, Oxford, afterwards Archdeacon of Colombo (1794?-1852), and one or two more.

(2) The imperfect copies of the poet’s letters to his brother and sister-in-law in America, which were made by the sister-in-law’s second husband, Mr. Jeffrey of Louisville, and sent by him to Lord Houghton, who published them with further omissions and alterations of his own.

(3) Somewhat later, after the publication of my book, the autograph originals of some of these same letters to America were put into my hands, including almost the entire text of Nos. lxiii. lxxiii. lxxx. and xcii. in the present edition. The three last are the long and famous journal-letters written in the autumn of 1818 and spring of 1819, and between them occupy nearly a quarter of the whole volume. I have shown elsewhere1 how much of their value and interest was sacrificed by Mr. Jeffrey’s omissions.

Besides these manuscript sources, I have drawn largely on Mr. Buxton Forman’s elaborate edition of Keats’s works in four volumes (1883),2 and to a much less extent on the edition published by the poet’s American grand nephew, Mr. Speed (1884)3. Even thus, the correspondence is still probably not quite complete. In some of the voluminous journal-letters there may still be gaps, where a sheet of the autograph has gone astray; and since the following pages have been in print, I have heard of the existence in private collections of one or two letters which I have not been able to include. But it is not a case in which absolute completeness is of much importance.

In matters of the date and sequence of the letters, I have taken pains to be more exact than previous editors, especially in tracing the daily progress and different halting-places of the poet on his Scotch tour (which it takes some knowledge of the ground to do), and in dating the successive parts, written at intervals sometimes during two or three months, of the long journal-letters to America. On these particulars Keats himself is very vague, and his manuscript sometimes runs on without a break at points where the sense shows that he has dropped and taken it up again after a pause of days or weeks.4 Again, I have in all cases given in full the verse and other quotations contained in the correspondence, where other editors have only indicated them by their first lines. It is indeed from these that the letters derive a great part of their character. Writing to his nearest relatives or most intimate friends, he is always quoting for their pleasure poems of his own now classical, then warm from his brain, sent forth uncertain whether to live or die, or snatches of doggrel nonsense as the humour of the moment takes him. The former, familiar as we may be with them, gain a new interest and freshness from the context: the latter are nothing apart from it, and to print them gravely, as has been done, among the Poetical Works, is to punish the levities of genius too hard.

As to the text, I have followed the autograph wherever it was possible, and in other cases the manuscript or printed version which I judged nearest the autograph; with this exception, that I have not thought it worth while to preserve mere slips of the pen or tricks of spelling. The curious in such matters will find them religiously reproduced by Mr. Buxton Forman wherever he has had the opportunity. The poet’s punctuation, on the other hand, and his use of capitals, which is odd and full of character, I have preserved. As is well known, his handwriting is as a rule clear and beautiful, quite free from unsteadiness or sign of fatigue; and as mere specimens for the collector, few autographs can compare with these close-written quarto (or sometimes extra folio) sheets, in which the young poet has poured out to those he loved his whole self indiscriminately, generosity and fretfulness, ardour and despondency, boyish petulance side by side with manful good sense, the tattle of suburban parlours with the speculations of a spirit unsurpassed for native poetic gift and insight.

The editor of familiar correspondence has at all times a difficult task before him in the choice what to give and what to withhold. In the case of Keats the difficulty is greater than in most, from the ferment of opposing elements and impulses in his nature, and from the extreme unreserve with which he lays himself open alike in his weakness and his strength. The other great letter-writers in English are men to some degree on their guard: men, if not of the world, at least of some worldly training and experience, and of characters in some degree formed and set. The phase of unlimited youthful expansiveness, of enthusiastic or fretful outcry, they have either escaped or left behind, and never give themselves away completely. Gray is of course an extreme case in point. With a masterly breadth of mind he unites an even finicking degree of academic fastidiousness and personal reserve, and his correspondence charms, not by impulse or openness, but by urbanity and irony, by ripeness of judgment and knowledge, by his playful kindliness towards the few intimates he has, and the sober wistfulness with which he looks out, from his Pisgah-height of universal culture, over regions of imaginative delight into which it was not given to him nor his contemporaries to enter fully. To take others differing most widely both as men and poets: Cowper, whether affectionately “chatting and chirping” to his cousin Lady Hesketh, or confiding his spiritual terrors to the Rev. John Newton, that unwise monitor who would not let them sleep — Cowper is a letter-writer the most unaffected and sincere, but has nevertheless the degree of reticence natural to his breeding, as well as a touch of staidness and formality proper to his age. Byron offers an extreme contrast; unrestrained he is, but far indeed from being unaffected; the greatest attitudinist in literature as in life, and the most brilliant of all letter-writers after his fashion, with his wit, his wilfulness, his flash, his extraordinary unscrupulousness and resource, his vulgar pride of caste, his everlasting restlessness and egotism, his occasional true irradiations of the divine fire. Shelley, again — but he, as has been justly said, must have his singing robes about him to be quite truly Shelley, and in his correspondence is little more than any other amiable and enthusiastic gentleman and scholar on his travels. To the case of Keats, at any rate, none of these other distinguished letter-writers affords any close parallel. That admirable genius was from the social point of view an unformed lad in the flush and rawness of youth. His passion for beauty, his instinctive insight into the vital sources of imaginative delight in nature, in romance, and in antiquity, went along with perceptions painfully acute in matters of daily life, and nerves high-strung in the extreme. He was moreover almost incapable of artifice or disguise. Writing to his brothers and sister or to friends as dear, he is secret with them on one thing only, and that is his unlucky love-passion after he became a prey to it: for the rest he is open as the day, and keeps back nothing of what crosses his mind, nothing that vexes or jars on him or tries his patience. His character, as thus laid bare, contains elements of rare nobility and attraction — modesty, humour, sweetness, courage, impulsive disinterestedness, strong and tender family affection, the gift of righteous indignation, the gift of sober and strict self-knowledge. But it is only a character in the making. A strain of hereditary disease, lurking in his constitution from the first, was developed by over-exertion and aggravated by mischance, so that he never lived to be himself; and from about his twenty-fourth birthday his utterances are those of one struggling in vain against a hopeless distemper both of body and mind.

If a selection could be made from those parts only of Keats’s correspondence which show him at his best, we should have an anthology full of intuitions of beauty, even of wisdom, and breathing the very spirit of generous youth; one unrivalled for zest, whim, fancy, and amiability, and written in an English which by its peculiar alert and varied movement sometimes recalls, perhaps more closely than that of any other writer (for the young Cockney has Shakspeare in his blood), the prose passages of Hamlet and Much Ado about Nothing. Had the correspondence never been printed before, were it there to be dealt with for the first time, this method of selection would no doubt be the tempting one to apply to it. But such a treatment is now hardly possible, and in any case would hardly be quite fair; since the object, or at all events the effect, of publishing a man’s correspondence is not merely to give literary pleasure — it is to make the man himself known; and the revelation, though it need not be wholly without reserve, is bound to be just and proportionate as far as it goes. Even as an artist, in the work which he himself published to the world, Keats was not one of those of whom it could be said, “his worst he kept, his best he gave.” Rather he gave promiscuously, in the just confidence that among the failures and half-successes of his inexperienced youth would be found enough of the best to establish his place among the poets after his death. Considering all things, the nature of the man, the difficulty of separating the exquisite from the common, the healthful from the diseased, in his mind and work, considering also the use that has already been made of the materials, I have decided in this edition to give the correspondence almost unpruned; omitting a few passages of mere crudity, hardly more than two pages in all, but not attempting to suppress those which betray the weak places in the writer’s nature, his flaws of taste and training, his movements of waywardness, irritability, and morbid suspicion. Only the biographer without tact, the critic without balance, will insist on these. A truer as well as more charitable judgment will recognise that what was best in Keats was also what was most real, and will be fortified by remembering that to those who knew him his faults were almost unapparent, and that no man was ever held by his friends in more devoted or more unanimous affection while he lived and afterwards.

There is one thing, however, which I have not chosen to do, and that is to include in this collection the poet’s love-letters to Fanny Brawne. As it is, the intimate nature of the correspondence must sometimes give the reader a sense of eavesdropping, of being admitted into petty private matters with which he has no concern. If this is to some extent inevitable, it is by no means inevitable that the public should be farther asked to look over the shoulder of the sick and presently dying youth while he declares the impatience and torment of his passion to the object, careless and unresponsive as she seems to have been, who inspired it. These letters too have been printed. As a matter of feeling I cannot put myself in the place of the reader who desires to possess them; while as a matter of literature they are in a different key from the rest — not lacking passages of beauty, but constrained and painful in the main, and quite without the genial ease and play of mind which make the letters to his family and friends so attractive. Therefore in this, which I hope may become the standard edition of his correspondence, they shall find no place.

As to the persons, other than those already mentioned, to whom the letters here given are addressed:— Shelley of course needs no words; nor should any be needed for the painter Haydon (1786-1846), or the poet and critic Leigh Hunt (1784-1859). Theirs were the chief inspiring influences which determined the young medical student, about his twentieth year, at the time when this correspondence opens, to give up his intended profession for poetry. Both were men of remarkable gifts and strong intellectual enthusiasm, hampered in either case by foibles of character which their young friend and follower, who has left so far more illustrious a name, was only too quick to detect. Charles Cowden Clarke (1787-1877), the son of Keats’s schoolmaster at Enfield, had exercised a still earlier influence on the lad’s opening mind, and was himself afterwards long and justly distinguished as a Shakspearean student and lecturer and essayist on English literature. Charles Wentworth Dilke (1789-1864), having begun life in the Civil Service, early abandoned that calling for letters, and lived to be one of the most influential of English critics and journalists; he is chiefly known from his connection with the Athenæum, and through the memoir published by his grandson. Charles Brown, afterwards styling himself Charles Armitage Brown (1786-1842), who became known to Keats through Dilke in the summer of 1817, and was his most intimate companion during the two years June 1818 to June 1820, had begun life as a merchant in St. Petersburg, and failing, came home, and took, he also, to literature, chiefly as a contributor to the various periodicals edited by Leigh Hunt. He lived mostly in Italy from 1822 to 1834, then for six years at Plymouth, and in 1841 emigrated to New Zealand, where he died the following year. Joseph Severn (1793-1879) was the son of a musician, himself beginning to practise as a painter when Keats knew him. His devoted tendance of the poet during the last sad months in Italy was the determining event of Severn’s career, earning him the permanent regard and gratitude of all lovers of genius. He established himself for good in Rome, where he continued to practise his art, and was for many years English consul, and one of the most familiar figures in the society of the city.

Lastly, of the poet’s own relations, George Keats (1799-1842) after his brother’s death continued to live at Louisville in America, where he made and lost a fortune in business before he died. His widow (born Georgiana Augusta Wylie), so often and affectionately addressed in these letters, by and by took a second husband, a Mr. Jeffrey, already mentioned as the correspondent of Lord Houghton. Frances Mary Keats (1803-1889), always called Fanny in the delightful series of letters which her brother addressed to her as a young girl,5 in course of time married a Spanish gentleman, Señor Llanos, and lived in Madrid to a great old age. Several other members of the poet’s circle enjoyed unusual length of days — Mr. William Dilke, for instance, dying a few years ago at ninety, and Mr. Gleig, long Chaplain-General of the Forces, at ninety-two. But with the death of his sister a year and a half ago, passed away probably the last survivor of those who could bear in memory the voice and features of Adonais.

S. C.

May 1891.

1 Macmillan’s Magazine, August 1888.

2 For the letters already printed by Lord Houghton, Mr. Forman as a rule simply copied the text of that editor. The letters to Fanny Brawne and Fanny Keats, on the other hand, he printed with great accuracy from the autographs, and had autographs also before him in revising those to Dilke, Haydon, and several besides. The correspondence with Fanny Keats he kindly gave me leave to use for the present volume, receiving from me in return the right to use my MS. materials for a revised issue of his own work. In that issue, which appeared at the end of 1889, the new matter is, however, printed separately, in the form of scraps and addenda detached from their context; and the present edition (the appearance of which has been delayed for two years by accidental circumstances) is the only one in which the true text of the American and miscellaneous letters is given consecutively and in proper order.

3 The letters in which I have relied wholly or in part on Mr. Speed’s text are Nos. xxv. lxxx. (only for a few passages missing in the autograph) cxvi. and cxxxi.

4 Where the dates in my text are printed without brackets, they are those given by Keats himself; the dates within brackets have been supplied either from the postmarks (as was done by Woodhouse in all his transcripts) or by inference from the text.

5 The autographs of these letters, all except three, are now in the British Museum.


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