My favorite among Keats’ letters – written on this date, Aug. 28, in 1819 – begins conventionally, proceeds dully and concludes gloriously. The poet is in Winchester. He writes to his youngest sibling, Fanny, who turned sixteen two months earlier. Like many of us, he opens with an apology for “suffering so long a space to elapse between the dates of my letters.” A dutiful travelogue follows: “There is a fine Cathedrall (sic) which to me is always a sourse (sic) of amusement.” He tells Fanny of the tragedy he has written -- Otho the Great, never performed until 1950, and by all accounts unreadable and unwatchable – and modulates into the oldest of letter-fodder, the weather (“no chill’d red noses—no shivering”), which moves him to rhapsody:
“I adore fine Weather as the greatest blessing I can have. Give me Books, fruit, French wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors, played by somebody I do not know—not pay the price of one’s time for a jig—but a little chance music: and I can pass a summer very quietly without caring much about Fat Louis, fat Regent or the Duke of Wellington.”
Perhaps big brother hopes to allay little sister’s worries about his failing health, or he has sketched an earthly paradise for the sake of his own morale. Regardless, the passage reminds me why I rank Keats’ prose above his poetry, and why it gives me the rare prose pleasure I experience with Browne, Gibbon and Hazlitt – crescendos of exaltation. Keats here is no sylph-like spirit. He is a loving brother, a comedian and an emotionally tough customer. An even grander passage follows:
“I should like now to promenade round your Gardens—apple tasting—pear-tasting—plum-judging—apricot nibbling—peach-scrunching—Nectarine-sucking and Melon carving. I have also a great feeling for antiquated cherries full of sugar cracks—and a white currant tree kept for company. I admire lolling on a lawn by a water lilied pond to eat white currants and see gold-fish: and go to the Fair in the Evening if I’m good --There is not hope for that—one is sure to get into some mess before evening.”
Keats was dead eighteen months later. In 1826, Fanny married Valentin Maria Llanos y Gutierrez, who is said to have met John Keats three days before his death in Rome. The couple moved to France in 1833, and then to Spain, and Fanny never again saw England. She died in 1889 at the age of eighty-six.