It always comes as a surprise to be reminded that George Keats, the poet’s younger brother, lived the last twenty-three years of his life in Louisville, Ky., operated a sawmill there, worked in property development and even served on city council. It’s like being reminded that Robert Frost, the Ur-New Englander, was born in San Francisco. George married Georgiana Wylie in May 1818 and the couple arrived in the U.S. in August. The poet was fond of his sister-in-law, and George and Georgiana were the recipients of his longest and most ebullient letters, often written over the course of several days. This week in 1820, a year before his death at age twenty-five, Keats addressed a ten-page letter to Georgiana, dated Jan. 13, 15, 17 and 28. George had returned to England in December 1819 after the death of his brother, Tom Keats. The couple had been staying in John James Audubon’s home in Henderson, Ky. Keats’ tone, as in this excerpt from Jan. 15, is gossipy and buoyant. George is still in England:
“This is a beautiful day. I hope you will not quarrel with it if I call it an American one. The sun comes upon the snow and makes a prettier candy than we have on twelfth-night cakes. George is busy this morning in making copies of my verses. He is making one now of an `Ode to the Nightingale,’ which is like reading an account of the Black Hole at Calcutta on an iceberg.”
That is Keats the comedian. Here, two paragraphs later in the same letter, is Keats the moralist, echoing Swift:
“The more I know of men the more I know how to value entire liberality in any of them. Thank God, there are a great many who will sacrifice their worldly interest for a friend. I wish there were more who would sacrifice their passions. The worst of men are those whose self-interests are their passion; the next, those whose passions are their self-interest. Upon the whole I dislike mankind. Whatever people on the other side of the question may advance, they cannot deny that they are always surprised at hearing of a good action, and never of a bad one.”
On the cusp of his final, “posthumous” year, Keats shows he has done a lot of growing up, of necessity. Two days later, Keats enacts a comic tour-de-force that doubles as a taxonomy of human types. He writes to Georgiana of his friends James Rice Jr., John Hamilton Reynolds and Thomas Richards:
“I know three witty people all distinct in their excellence — Rice, Reynolds, and Richards. Rice is the wisest, Reynolds the playfullest, Richards the out-o’-the-wayest. The first makes you laugh and think, the second makes you laugh and not think, the third puzzles your head. I admire the first, I enjoy the second, I stare at the third. The first is Claret, the second Ginger beer, the third Crême de Byrapymdrag. The first is inspired by Minerva, the second by Mercury, the third by Harlequin Epigram, Esq. The first is neat in his dress, the second slovenly, the third uncomfortable. The first speaks adagio, the second allegretto, the third both together. The first is Swiftean, the second Tom-Crib-ean [a reference to Thomas Moore’s Tom Crib’s Memorial to Congress, 1819], the third Shandean. And yet these three Eans are not three Eans but one Ean.”
Keats was many things, and certainly not what we were taught.