Sunday, September 10, 2017

`When Things May Have Strangely Altered'

The John Keats I want to celebrate is neither the poet nor the seraphic consumptive but the big brother. Keats was loyal and family-minded. Among the most touching of his letters are those addressed to his only sister, Fanny Keats. On this date, Sept. 10, in 1817, during a visit to Oxford, Keats wrote to Fanny, who was fourteen years old and enrolled at the Ladies Boarding Academy in Walthamstow, now part of London. He begins:

“Let us begin a regular question and answer--a little pro and con; letting it interfere as a pleasant method of my coming at your favorite little wants and enjoyments that I may meet them in a way befitting a brother.”

In his solicitousness we might hear guilt, which is understandable. Keats was the eldest of four children. In 1804, their father died of a fractured skull after falling from a horse. In 1810, their mother died of tuberculosis, the disease that would kill John’s brother Tom in 1818 and the poet himself in 1821. To bring them closer together, Keats inquires about Fanny’s taste in books:

“We have been so little together since you have been able to reflect on things that I know not whether you prefer the History of King Pepin to Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress--or Cinderella and her glass slipper to Moor’s Almanack. However in a few Letters I hope I shall be able to come at that and adapt my scribblings to your Pleasure. You must tell me about all you read if it be only six Pages in a Week--and this transmitted to me every now and then will procu[r]e you full sheets of Writing from me pretty frequently--This I feel as a necessity: for we ought to become intimately acquainted, in order that I may not only, as you grow up love you as my only Sister, but confide in you as my dearest friend.”

Keats exercises the graciousness of the best letter writers, who avoid prattling on about their own concerns and accommodate the recipient. He is working on Endymion, and goes on to give her a description of the poem that makes it sound like a fairy tale. He calls it both a “Poem” and a “story.” He describes Oxford, “the finest City in the world--it is full of old Gothic buildings—Spires—towers—Quadrangles--Cloisters Groves &c. and is surrounded with more clear streams than ever I saw together.” This too sounds like an enchanted fairyland. Tom and George Keats are in France, and John passes along their best wishes to Fanny. As a writer and big brother, Keats strives to keep her entertained. His letter is no dry recitation of facts. He wants to charm and reassure:

“They have seen Cathedrals, Manuscripts, Fountains, Pictures, Tragedy, Comedy,--with other things you may by chance meet with in this Country such as Washerwomen, Lamplighters, Turnpikemen, Fish Kettles, Dancing Masters, Kettle drums, Sentry Boxes, Rocking Horses &c. and, now they have taken them over a set of boxing gloves.”

Keats is a patriot and asserts his preference for England over France, and for Italian over French. He urges her to write him frequent letters, and to make them “a diary of your little Life.” He promises to reciprocate, and “we shall each of us have a good Bundle--which, hereafter, when things may have strangely altered and god knows what happened, we may read over together and look with pleasure on times past - that now are to come.”

They would see each other one last time, briefly, in November 1819. The poet was dead fifteen months later. Fanny died in 1889 at the age of eighty-six. She outlived her big brother by sixty-five years. 

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