To Mrs. James Wylie
Inverness, 6th August 1818
My dear Madam,
It was a great regret to me that I should leave all my friends, just at the moment when I might have helped to soften away the time for them. I wanted not to leave my Brother Tom, but more especially, believe me, I should like to have remained near you, were it but for an atom of consolation after parting with so dear a daughter. My brother George has ever been more than a brother to me; he has been my greatest friend, and I can never forget the sacrifice you have made for his happiness. As I walk along the Mountains here I am full of these things, and lay in wait, as it were, for the pleasure of seeing you immediately on my return to town. I wish, above all things, to say a word of Comfort to you, but I know not how. It is impossible to prove that black is white; it is impossible to make out that sorrow is joy or joy is sorrow.
Tom tells me that you called on Mr. Haslam, with a newspaper giving an account of a Gentleman in a Fur cap falling over a precipice in Kirkcudbrightshire. If it was me, I did it in a dream, or in some magic interval between the first and second cup of tea; which is nothing extraordinary when we hear that Mahomet, in getting out of Bed, upset a jug of water, and, whilst it was falling, took a fortnight’s trip, as it seemed, to heaven; yet was back in time to save one drop of water being spilt. As for Fur caps, I do not remember one beside my own, except at Carlisle: this was a very good Fur cap I met in High Street, and I dare say was the unfortunate one. I daresay that the fates, seeing but two Fur caps in the north, thought it too extraordinary, and so threw the dies which of them should be drowned. The lot fell upon Jones: I daresay his name was Jones. All I hope is that the gaunt Ladies said not a word about hanging; if they did I shall one day regret that I was not half-drowned in Kirkcudbright. Stop! let me see! — being half-drowned by falling from a precipice, is a very romantic affair: why should I not take it to myself? Keep my secret and I will. How glorious to be introduced in a drawing-room to a Lady who reads Novels, with ‘Mr. So-and-so — Miss So-and-so; Miss So-and-so, this is Mr. So-and-so, who fell off a precipice and was half-drowned.’ Now I refer to you, whether I should lose so fine an opportunity of making my fortune. No romance lady could resist me — none. Being run under a Waggon — sidelamed at a playhouse, Apoplectic through Brandy — and a thousand other tolerably decent things for badness, would be nothing, but being tumbled over a precipice into the sea — oh! it would make my fortune — especially if you could contrive to hint, from this bulletin’s authority, that I was not upset on my own account, but that I dashed into the waves after Jessy of Dumblane, and pulled her out by the hair. But that, alas! she was dead, or she would have made me happy with her hand — however in this you may use your own discretion. But I must leave joking, and seriously aver, that I have been very romantic indeed among these Mountains and Lakes. I have got wet through day after day — eaten oat cake, and drank Whisky — walked up to my knees in Bog — got a sore throat — gone to see Icolmkill and Staffa; met with wholesome food just here and there as it happened — went up Ben Nevis, and — N.B., came down again. Sometimes when I am rather tired I lean rather languishingly on a rock, and long for some famous Beauty to get down from her Palfrey in passing, approach me, with — her saddle-bags, and give me — a dozen or two capital roastbeef Sandwiches.
When I come into a large town, you know there is no putting one’s Knapsack into one’s fob, so the people stare. We have been taken for Spectacle-vendors, Razor-sellers, Jewelers, traveling linen-drapers, Spies, Excisemen, and many things I have no idea of. When I asked for letters at Port Patrick the man asked what regiment? I have had a peep also at little Ireland. Tell Henry I have not camped quite on the bare Earth yet, but nearly as bad, in walking through Mull, for the Shepherds’ huts you can scarcely breathe in, for the Smoke, which they seem to endeavour to preserve for smoking on a large scale. Besides riding about 400, we have walked above 600 Miles, and may therefore reckon ourselves as set out.
I assure you, my dear Madam, that one of the greatest pleasures I shall have on my return, will be seeing you, and that I shall ever be
Yours with the greatest respect and sincerity,
When we go to Keats’s letters, we very often go in search of brilliant fragments: Men of Genius, the egotistical sublime, the camelion poet, the mansion of Many Apartments, the vale of Soul-making, Negative Capability, or (the best of them all) T wang dillo dee. These are the kinds of fragments for which one might hunt with the help of, for example, “Where Did Keats Say That?,” a section in The Cambridge Companion to Keats which offers, as the section’s subtitle promises, “Sources for some famous phrases and comments.” Of course, there is little wrong with this: Keats’s letters are—as Keats says of Shakespeare’s sonnets—full of fine things, and it is important to know where to find them.
However, this approach—which views the letters as having an easily extractable content—overlooks a vital characteristic of Keats’s correspondence: that Keats’s epistolary writing often is more accurately characterized as action rather than statement, and that action is, primarily, the turn.
In “Multiple Readers, Multiple Texts, Multiple Keats,” an essay in Romantic Complexity: Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, Jack Stillinger states that the “oscillation between seriousness and hilarity, which we find throughout the letters, is one of their chief attractions to readers.” This certainly is the case with what Stillinger argues, and I agree, is one of Keats’s greatest and funniest letters: his letter of August 6, 1818, to Mrs. James Wylie, the mother-in-law of Keats’s brother George.
George and his wife Georgiana have emigrated to the United States, leaving Mrs. Wylie bereft of their company, perhaps permanently—as Stillinger notes, “Emigration in those days was a serious disruption of family relationships—in most cases, the family members who stayed behind never again saw the ones who left.” Keats—who also was away, on a northern walking tour with his friend Charles Brown—writes a letter to Mrs. Wylie that begins in tones of utmost, even elegiac, seriousness about how he wishes that he could be a comfort to Mrs. Wylie in her loneliness. But, eventually, Keats acknowledges he cannot offer any legitimate assistance, and chooses instead to not attempt to argue Mrs. Wylie out of her sorrow, recognizing that it “is impossible to prove that black is white; it is impossible to make out that sorrow is joy or joy is sorrow.”
But then something amazing happens. As Stillinger notes, “It is at this point in the letter that, without any transition whatsoever, Keats launches into his account of the gentleman in the fur cap falling over a precipice in Kirkcudbrightshire.” Without any transition whatsoever is worth dwelling upon. There is nothing to point to here, no language that registers the massive shift taking place, no real content. Never will this vital maneuver be included in a list of the great things Keats said because here, at the key part of this letter, Keats does not say anything. Rather, he does something.
And what Keats does, of course, in the most sublime and hilarious way possible, is jump off a precipice. (Figuratively, of course, but still—) Immediately after stating that it is impossible “to prove that black is white” and “to make out that sorrow is joy or joy is sorrow,” Keats just decides to go for it. He will not prove or reinterpret anything. Instead, Keats leaps into the void, and simply does his damnedest to actually create joy—and he delivers a comedic tour de force.
Like any great comic routine, Keats’s is complex and multifaceted, a rich tapestry of structural maneuvers, of building set-ups and delivering punch lines, of subtle gambits and sudden blows. I love, for example, how Keats develops the “very romantic affair” that could be made from tumbling down a precipice into the sea. Women would be unable to resist him, especially if it was made clear—by Mrs. Wylie, whom Keats draws into his plot as his co-conspirator—that his falling was really a heroic chasing after “Jessy of Dumblane” (a reference to Robert Tannahill’s traditional song, “Jessie, The Flow’r o’ Dumblane”). Keats concludes his long, detailed story with a terrific act of comedic understatement, essentially: but, of course, Mrs. Wylie, even after I’ve told you the specific details that will work best, feel free to use your own discretion.
Keats then leaves off joking to shift into even more fast and furious joking. In the context of being “very romantic,” Keats in fact is just the opposite, deflating romanticism time and again. Here, when one climbs up a mountain—the site of theophanies, of encounters with God, or at least, in Wordsworth’s account, with “Imagination!”—one also comes down again. (I love the subtle typographical wit here, the way in which the “B…N” of “Ben Nevis” turn into “N.B.,” signifying both nota bene but also the return from the mountain.) Here, when one leans “rather languishingly on a rock”—that is, VERY romantically—one may be in position to attract—as Keats had hoped to do with his tale of his romantically unsuccessful derring-do—or at least have visions of, “some famous Beauty,” a gorgeous Godiva on her “Palfrey.” This Beauty, however, does not just pass by, but stops, and approaches with her breasts…I mean, “her saddle-bags”! And then she gives Keats a kiss…I mean, “a dozen or two capital roastbeef Sandwiches”! This vision is a hilarious letdown for very romantic Keats, and it is a fulfillment of all he—having recently eaten many “oat cakes”—actually wants. And that it is both at the same time is what makes it genius.
Keats famously says that the Grecian Urn “dost tease us out of thought,” but this also is exactly what Keats attempts to do with this letter: tease Mrs. Wylie out of her own loneliness. We do not know whether or not the letter actually worked, but it’s hard to imagine Keats not succeeding in his endeavor at least to some extent. It’s hard to imagine Mrs. Wylie not smiling or laughing at Keats’s lovely, friendly buffoonery; it’s hard to imagine Mrs. Wylie not being transported, if only for a moment, from what one could only imagine to have been her real sorrow, to feel inspired, warmed and brightened—enlivened—by Keats’s conviviality, to feel—as we continue to feel—his presence.
A co-editor of Voltage Poetry, Michael Theune also is the editor of Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns (Teachers & Writers, 2007) and the host of the Structure & Surprise blog. Theune’s poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including journals such as College English, Jacket, and Pleiades, and books such as Mentor and Muse: From Poets to Poets (Southern Illinois University, 2010) and The Monkey & the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics (University of Akron, 2011). He is an associate professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University.