‘This is the thing- for I have been rubbing up my invention; trying several sleights–I first polish’d a cold, felt it in my fingers tried it on the table, but could not pocket it: I tried Chilblains, Rheumatism, Gout, tight Boots, nothing of that sort would do, so this is, as I was going to say, the thing.’
‘[….] the two uppermost thoughts in a Man’s mind are the two poles of his World he revolves on them and every thing is southward or northward to him through their means. We take but three steps from feathers to iron. Now my dear fellow I must once for all tell you I have not one Idea of the truth of any of my speculations–I shall never be a Reasoner because I care not to be in the right, when retired from bickering and in a proper philosophical temper. So you must not stare if in any future letter I endeavour to prove that Apollo as he had cat gut strings to his Lyre used a cats’ paw as a Pecten–and further from said Pecten’s reiterated and continual teasing came the term Hen peck’d.’
Benjamin Bailey (1791-1853) was a student at Oxford when he and Keats became friends. The friendship ended when Bailey, after passionately courting Marianne Reynolds, married Hamilton Gleig instead. The marriage may have been determined by his career; Gleig was the daughter of the bishop of Brechin and Bailey was a country parson. Keats’s last letter to Bailey was an achingly polite congratulations on his wedding.
This letter includes several noteworthy passages, as well as the original draft of The Human Seasons.
My dear Bailey,
When a poor devil is drowning, it is said he comes thrice to the surface, ere he makes his final sink–if however, even at the third rise, he can manage to catch hold of a piece of weed or rock, he stands a fair chance, as I hope I do now, of being saved. I have sunk twice in our Correspondence, have risen twice and been too idle, or something worse, to extricate myself. I have sunk the third time and just now risen again at this two of the Clock P.M. and saved myself from utter perdition–by beginning this, all drench’d as I am and fresh from the Water–and I would rather endure the present inconvenience of a Wet Jacket than you should keep a laced one in store for me. Why did I not stop at Oxford in my Way?–How can you ask such a Question? Why did I not promise to do so? Did I not in a Letter to you make a promise to do so?, Then how can you be so unreasonable as to ask me why I did not? This is the thing- for I have been rubbing up my invention; trying several sleights–I first polish’d a cold, felt it in my fingers tried it on the table, but could not pocket it: I tried Chilblains, Rheumatism, Gout, tight Boots, nothing of that sort would do, so this is, as I was going to say, the thing.–I had a Letter from Tom saying how much better he had got, and thinking he had better stop–I went down to prevent his coming up. Will not this do? Turn it which way you like-it is selvaged all round. I have used it these three last days to keep out the abominable Devonshire Weather–by the by you may say what you will of devonshire: the thuth is, it is a splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod County–the hills are very beautiful, when you get a sight of ’em–the Primroses are out, but then you are in–the Cliffs are of a fine deep Colour, but then the Clouds are continually vieing with them. The Women like your London People in a sort of negative way –because the native men are the poorest creatures in England–because Government never have thought it worth while to send a recruiting party among them. When I think of Wordsworth’s Sonnet ‘Vanguard of Liberty! ye Men of Kent!’ the degenerated race about me are Pulvis Ipecac. Simplex–a strong dose. Were I a Corsair I’d make a descent on the South Coast of Devon, if I did not run the chance of having Cowardice imputed to me: as for the Men they’d run away into the methodist meeting houses, and the Women would be glad of it. Had England been a large devonshire we should not have won the Battle of Waterloo. There are knotted oaks–there are lusty rivulets there are Meadows such as are not–there are vallies of femminine Climate but there are no thews and Sinews–Moor’s Almanack is here a curiosity–Arms Neck and Shoulders may at least be seen there, and the Ladies read it as some out of the way romance. Such a quelling Power have these thoughts over me that I fancy the very Air of a deteriorating quality–I fancy the flowers, all precocious, have an Acrasian spell about them–I feel able to beat off the devonshire waves like soap froth. I think it well for the honor of Britain that Julius Cæsar did not first land in this County. A Devonshirer standing on his native hills is not a distinct object–he does not show against the light–a wolf or two would dispossess him. I like I love England. I like its strong Men. Give me a long brown plain for my Morning so I may meet with some of Edmond Ironside’s des[c]endants. Give me a barren mould so I may meet with some Shadowing of Alfred in the Shape of a Gipsey, a Huntsman or a Shepherd. Scenery is fine–but human nature is finer. The Sward is richer for the tread of a real, nervous, english foot–the eagles nest is finer for the Mountaineer has look’d into it–Are these facts or prejudices? Whatever they are, for them I shall never be able to relish entirely any devonshire scenery–Homer is very fine, Achilles is fine, Diomed is fine, Shakspeare is fine, Hamlet is fine, Lear is fine, but dwindled englishmen are not fine–Where too the Women are so passable, and have such english names, such as Ophelia, Cordelia &c–that they should have such Paramours or rather Imparamours. As for them I cannot, in thought help wishing as did the cruel Emperour, that they had but one head and I might cut it off to deliver them from any horrible Courtesy they may do their undeserving Countrymen.–I wonder I meet with no born Monsters–O Devonshire, last night I thought the Moon had dwindled in heaven. I have never had your Sermon from Wordsworth but Mrs Dilke lent it me. You know my ideas about Religion. I do not think myself more in the right than other people, and that nothing in this world is proveable. I wish I could enter into all your feelings on the subject merely for one short 10 Minutes and give you a Page or two to your liking. I am sometimes so very sceptical as to think Poetry itself a mere Jack a lanthen to amuse whoever may chance to be struck with its brilliance. As Tradesmen say every thing is worth what it will fetch, so probably every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer–being in itself a nothing–Ethereal thing[s] may at least be thus real, divided under three heads–Things real–things semireal –and no things. Things real–such as existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakspeare. Things semireal such as Love, the Clouds &c which require a greeting of the Spirit to make them wholly exist–and Nothings which are made Great and dignified by an ardent pursuit –which by the by stamps the burgundy mark on the bottles of our Minds, insomuch as they are able to “consec[r]ate whate’er they look upon”. I have written a Sonnet here of a somewhat collateral nature–so don’t imagine it an a propos des bottes.
Four Seasons fill the Measure of the year;
Four Seasons are there in the mind of Man.
He hath his lusty spring when fancy clear
Takes in all beauty with an easy span:
He hath his Summer, when luxuriously
He chews the honied cud of fair spring thoughts,
Till, in his Soul dissolv’d they come to be
Part of himself. He hath his Autumn ports
And Havens of repose, when his tired wings
Are folded up, and he content to look
On Mists in idleness: to let fair things
Pass by unheeded as a threshhold brook.
He hath his Winter too of pale Misfeature,
Or else he would forget his mortal nature.
Aye this may be carried–but what am I talking of-it is an old maxim of mine and of course must be well known that every point of thought is the centre of an intellectual world–the two uppermost thoughts in a Man’s mind are the two poles of his World he revolves on them and every thing is southward or northward to him through their means. We take but three steps from feathers to iron. Now my dear fellow I must once for all tell you I have not one Idea of the truth of any of my speculations–I shall never be a Reasoner because I care not to be in the right, when retired from bickering and in a proper philosophical temper. So you must not stare if in any future letter I endeavour to prove that Apollo as he had cat gut strings to his Lyre used a cats’ paw as a Pecten–and further from said Pecten’s reiterated and continual teasing came the term Hen peck’d. My Brother Tom desires to be remember’d to you–he has just this moment had a spitting of blood poor fellow. Remember me to Greig and Whitehe[a]d–
Your affectionate friend
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "John Keats Letter To Benjamin Bailey, 13 March 1818" https://englishhistory.net/keats/letters/letter-to-benjamin-bailey-13-march-1818/, February 24, 2015