Review of Letters of John Keats 1814-1821. Ed. Ryder E. Rollins.

[“The Keats Letters.” Review article on Letters of John Keats 1814-1821. Ed. Ryder E. Rollins. Queen's Quarterly 57 (1960): 471-5.]


John Keats’s letters hold a specially privileged position in the writing of the early nineteenth century.  Once discovered, they continue to be rediscoverable; one can never take them for granted; they never cease to delight, amaze, reprove.  Even within the area of autobiographical literature they are difficult to match unless it be with the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth.  For many years, the Keats letters have provided the essential discursive counterpart and interpretative guide to Keats’s poetry.  At times and in some respects the letters are more perfectly realized even than the poems themselves.  Yet it is not as critical materials, biographical documents, or elucidatory keys that the letters have assumed importance, even though from a scholarly point of view they are indispensable for all those reasons.  The letters speak for themselves in an accent of truth, of passion, of delight, or weariness, of despair that is the common master language of the heart.  It is difficult to imagine that anybody has ever read these letters sensitively without suffering what Frost once called an immortal wound.  For they sharply discipline any tendency towards sentimental condescension to Keats’s youth; they turn aside in the reader, as with a beak of brass, any incipient indulgence in the pathetic fallacy.  At times gay, at times domestic, sometimes bawdy, with a puzzled clarity unraveling the mysteries, or dreamily unthreading the gossamer of glorious indolence from which a poem is growing; these letters have the impetuous spring of life, the pebble-like solidity and hardness of unblinking honesty.  For when a piece of writing is not self-expression but assumes the status and substance of an entity in its own right, it bears like a patina the impervious polish of its own identity.  The power of Keats’s letters to astonish and to humble is not narrow: whether he be telling his brother how, in discussion with Dilke, “several things dove-tailed in my mind” to produce in a flash the notion of Negative Capability; or whether sketching out in firm unhesitating lines his view of the world as “The vale of Soul-making” with suffering as a shaping necessity in it; or quietly dilating upon the great and unobtrusive nature of poetry, or saying how “A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no Identity”; or telling how there is nothing to be certain of but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination; or writing to Fanny Brawne to say “You do not feel as I do – you do not know what it is to love – one day you may – your time is not come”; or crying in the humiliating desolation of his mortal illness – “The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond everything horrible – the sense of darkness coming over me – I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing . . . Is there another Life? . . . There must be; we cannot be created for this sort of suffering.”  “I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a Stoat or a fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass”, he writes, casually as an illustrative analogy; and the words become parabolic, with the plain magic upon them of another statement of his – “if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel”.

What kind of man was this that could write in prose with such incisive wisdom, spontaneous energy, untainted intellectual imagination, dying before he was twenty-six years old?  The answer is not easy: even John Middleton Murry for all his desire and devotion could not refrain from drawing Keats as a natural-born but slightly uncultivated Bloomsbury intellectual.  But the need to attempt an answer has left an indelible mark on the editions of Keats’s letters.  “They do not know me even my most intimate acquaintance–” Keats remarked when he was twenty-three; “Some think me middling, others silly, others foolish – every one thinks he sees my weak side against my will; when in truth it is with my will – I am content to be thought all this because I have in my own breast so great a resource.”  No portrait of Keats will ever be final; every scrap of evidence is probably of value, everything that brings each reader near to both the transcendent life and the quotidian genius of John Keats is precious.

Since Milne’s collection of 1867, 244 Keats letters have been recovered and in succession edited into the canon, the giant’s share of the collecting and editing done by Harry Buxton Forman and his son Maurice.  The Forman editions have allowed us to travel much in the golden realm of Keats’s wild perverse misspellings, his impetuous punctuation, the frantic verbal inventions, the unabashed (for who told him posterity would read so attentively?) elisions, clumsy puns, private allusions, quotations that tax the ingenuity and patience of editors.  The Keats letters, as edited by Maurice Buxton Forman, unobtrusively preserving the extreme peculiarities of the originals, have come to assume a distinctive physical flavour of their own.  But it has long been known that, despite the care Forman had taken and although there were not likely to be any impressive additions to the canon, all was not definitely well among the commas, capitals, and footnotes of the received text; and some conjectural dates were adrift.  “So much information has turned up in recent years about the dating and arrangement of Keats’s letters as to make a new edition almost imperative,” Professor Rollins says at the beginning of his Preface.  Ten years ago he had issued two volumes of secondary and parallel materials under the title of The Keats Circle; and an article of 1953 gave preliminary information about the correct dating of the letters.  Now – unhappily after Professor Rollins’s death – come the fruits of what was presumably a lifetime of textual, biographical, critical checking of minutiae.

The new edition consists of two volumes, each in physical dimensions somewhat larger than the one Forman volume issued in 1952.  Perhaps then the canon has been greatly enlarged, or the matrix in which the letters are to be read has been much enriched?  When we compare it with the Forman edition we find that very little has been added.  All the familiar features of Forman’s edition are here; the chronological table of events in Keats’s life, the biographical memoirs of the correspondents, the list of missing letters, the account of peculiar spellings, the carefully compiled index.  All are revised, refined, enlarged; there is correction, consolidation, compounding of critical and explanatory material within small space; and the chronological table is probably the most exact biographical record we now have of Keats’s life.  The secondary letters printed (in smaller type) by Forman are here too; but others have been added to provide the only considerable increase in material.  There are some forty secondary letters here not printed by Forman.  The last ninety pages of Vol. II are taken up (except for five short Keats Letters) with a series of letters describing Keats’s illness, decline, and death.  Certainly this heightens the dramatic force of the end of the book once Keats’s pen has stopped writing; for there is a terrible ritual tread to the incoherent, atrociously vivid letters that Severn wrote out of the last days in Italy.

Whether or not it is proper for an edition of letters to become something more like a compendium of biographical documents is a matter for the editor, not a reviewer, to decide; and the edition of any group of letters involves special decisions.  Professor Rollins, in increasing the quantity of secondary letters and placing greater optical emphasis upon them than Forman did, follows an intention shown less in the titlepage than in the heading to the table of contents: “Letters and papers 1814-1821” – that is, Letters and Papers by, and referring to, John Keats.  It is under such a scheme that Professor Rollins’s statement about his additions to the canon can be absolved from a charge of disingenuousness.  For the “seven letters or other documents signed or written by Keats that appear in no English edition” consist of one new but early and not very important letter to Severn, two verse epistles that earlier editors have not thought of including in a collective edition, two legal documents (one of only forty words), a note pinned to a publisher’s door without provocative intent, and an order for four copies of the Lamia volume.  Again, the “new texts of seven other letters by him” are new transcripts from autographs not previously accessible; and the fresh transcripts of the Woodhouse and Jeffrey copies of Keats letters give an exact text of the secondary authority.  A few letters have been redated, in two or three cases across a considerable period of time; a few letters have been rearranged textually.  But for the most part there is very little new or different to arrest the eye: an occasional corrected word, a capital altered, an abbreviation adjusted, a mark of punctuation put in or taken out; and the footnotes, usually embodying what is worth preserving of the Forman notes, have much new information yet march with a primmer and perhaps rather less copious tread than in the Forman editions.  Everything that can be corrected has been corrected, without fuss, without much discussion; it is unlikely that any cross-reference has been missed, or that any item of Keats research has been neglected.  The dry impartial breeze that stirs so persistently the leaves of PMLA blows here with the steadiness of the tradewind: it chills the birdsong, one might complain, and delight is dead.  No more may error, prejudice or perversity mar the annotation of Keats.  The Keats letters can never regress from this exactitude; and only the discovery of some more Keats manuscripts could disturb this completeness.

What does one expect of a good edition?  A flawlessly accurate text; deft discussion of the problematical or disputed points of reading; elucidation of any obscurities in the text that might interfere with fluent and just reading.  Nothing less than all the ascertainable facts is acceptable; nothing less than the highest degree of accuracy can be seriously considered.  Yet something else is needed too if an edition is to be “great” and become fertile – as Grierson’s Donne has, Professor Rollins’s personality certainly never obtrudes in this edition; but his withdrawal is not the kind that leaves his subject luminous.  To collect and minutely transcribe every last syllable of Keats’s letters, every note or signature of a copyist on a manuscript, every last blurry trace of a postmark as evidence of accurate dating: that would seem to be an act of piety or devotion.  Yet, compared with Humphry House’s informative but cantankerous editing of G. M. Hopkins, or even the bleak astringent affection that Ernest de Selincourt extended to Wordsworth, Professor Rollins’s edition seems to lack the gesture of celebration and the small miracle of inventive grace.  If there is any longer such a thing as an ordinary reader, this edition was not prepared for him; this seems to have been conceived entirely as an edition for scholars as though by some feat of transfiguration Keats’s letters had at last passed over from the dusty imprecision of life into the apocalyptic clarity of the Academy and need never more move in the world of ordinary mortals.

Professor Rollins says very little about his intentions or reasons; and footnotes are not always clear fingerposts to the heart’s affections.  Whatever suspicions one may have about Professor Rollins having prepared this edition primarily for scholars, the Harvard University Press has done nothing to dispel the impression.  The Keats letters have become for many people an enchiridion – a book that can be held in the hand, or read in a chair or a bath or a bus, or even (as Shelley did some of his reading) in an ill-manned and sinking boat.  In this respect the Forman editions produced by the Oxford Press were admirable: set in Baskerville, a highly complex diplomatic text was so presented as to conceal the problems of presentation; the pages had even something of the look of the letters – informal, intimate, plumply packed but legible.  A single octavo volume of lxx + 564 pages contained almost as much copy as the two volumes of the Rollins edition.  If the critical edition of Wordsworth’s Prelude can be managed in a single agreeable volume of 725 pages, it is difficult to see why the Rollins edition should not have gone into one volume: for the same Baskerville types are used, in the same size, and to a wider measure; though leaded and more coarsely spaced.  Good editing is curiously similar to good typographic design: neither must intrude or expatiate; both must hint, be deft, avoid sleeve-plucking.  Professor Rollins’s editing has all the virtues; it must be the physical design of the volumes that makes them feel like a monument.

One is impressed as before by the minuteness, ingenuity, care, detail, and conciseness of Professor Rollins’s scholarship.  For his industry as hunter, transcriber, and annotator, one will have to continue to be grateful even though one is likely to be annoyed by the inconvenience of the two-volume arrangement and vexed by the chill and joyless commentary.  The beautiful crisp maps drawn by S. H. Bryant on the end papers are very useful but unfortunately will in many copies be defaced by librarians.  Since Rollins’s edition is evidently here to stay, it is to be hoped that some time or other it will be remade to a design more appropriate to the extent and nature of the text, so that it may be more handy to read and use; and so that Keats, who was never a scholar’s man anyway, may return to his own.