KEATS, JOHN (1795-1821, poet)
Lot 138
KEATS, JOHN (1795-1821, poet)
Sold for £96,000 (US$ 163,084) inc. premium
Lot Details
KEATS, JOHN (1795-1821, poet)
REMARKABLE AUTOGRAPH LETTER [AND POSSIBLY A 'HIDDEN POEM'] SIGNED ('J. K.'), to FANNY BRAWNE ('My dearest Fanny'), with the poignant note 'You had better not come to day', 2 pages, octavo, integral address leaf with autograph address 'Miss Brawne', red wax seal, no place or date, [but on the other side of the dividing wall of the semi-detached house rented by Charles Brown next door to her at Wentworth Place, Hampstead, February or early March 1820; Rollins says the date of 1 March is assigned merely for convenience]

Footnotes

  • 'My dearest Fanny,

    The power or your benediction is of not so weak a nature as to pass from the ring in four and twenty hours - it is like a sacred Chalice once consecrated and ever consecrate. I shall Kiss your name and mine where your Lips have been - Lips! why should a poor prisoner as I am talk about such things. Thank God, though I hold them the dearest pleasures in the universe, I have a consolation independent of them in the certainty of your affection. I could write a song in the style of Tom Moores Pathetic about Memory if that would be any relief to me. No. It would not. I will be as obstinate as a Robin, I will not sing in a cage. Health is my expected heaven and you are the Houri - this word I believe is both singular and plural - if only plural, never mind - you are a thousand of them

    Ever yours affectionately
    my dearest.
    J.K.'

    THIS IS BELIEVED TO BE THE ONLY LETTER OF KEATS TO FANNY BRAWNE IN PRIVATE HANDS. It is one of the celebrated love letters (some of the most famous ever written), thirty-nine in total, [and four (?now five) poems] written by the dying Keats to his fiancée Fanny Brawne.

    Any manuscript material by Keats is of the greatest rarity, in terms of being available to collectors. In the last forty years, at least, only two other letters, one to Thomas and George Keats (3 pages), the other to Thomas Monkhouse (1 page, 12mo), an autograph fair copy of Keats's poem 'To Hope', a fragment of 'I stood tiptoe on a hill...' and two lines from 'Isabella or the Pot of Basil' have been sold at auction.

    'Because of Keats's stature as a poet, things connected with him take on a timeless quality; and this includes his love letters. We begin to think of them as though this correspondence had been going on throughout most of his active career. But actually there are only two groups of letters: the ten that he wrote from July 1819 until he returned to Hampstead in late October; and those that begin the following February. The first were written while, with almost everything against him, he was trying to make one last effort, an effort crossed by so many shadows of apprehension that it was demanding yet more courage, and taking a larger toll of his resources, than any he had yet made. Still another consideration is appropriate to the poignant letters from February until August 1820, when he could no longer bring himself to write directly to her. These were written after everything for which he had most hoped had begun rapidly to dissolve' (Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats, 1963, pp. 442-443). None of her letters to him survive; Keats asked that they should be placed in his grave (Gittings, John Keats, p. 418).

    Keats is considered one of the greatest exponents of the letters as an art form. T.S. Eliot described his letters as 'certainly the most notable and most important ever written by any English poet.' Their 'unique interest lies in the complete openness and sincerity with which they reflect every phase of his manifold moods and speculations, all his flaws of training with all his gifts of genius. They... abound in passages of admirable beauty and insight, side by side with others of headlong nonsense and high spirits'.

    On 3 February 1820, Keats had suffered his fatal haemorrhage ('I know the colour of that blood; - it is arterial blood; - I cannot be deceived in that colour; - that drop of blood is my death-warrant; - I must die'), and from that date he had been confined in Charles Brown's house in Wentworth Place, Hampstead, of which Fanny Brawne and her mother had rented the other half from Charles Dilke. His doctors advised him to neither see her nor write poetry, and from just after the attack until mid March he wrote her a total of twenty-two letters. The day he wrote the present letter must have been a bad one for him to have added on the address leaf 'You had better not come to day.' He was to die in Rome just under a year later, on 23 February 1821.

    It is said that when she learned of Keats's death, Fanny Brawne pored over his letters in her room. She wrote to Fanny Keats that she 'had not got over it [his death] and never shall' and she continued to wear mourning for several years (Gittings). She never took off the ring Keats had given her. Having married Louis Lindo [Lindon] in 1833, she lived largely abroad for the rest of her life and was buried in Brompton Cemetery in December 1865.

    At some unspecified date Sir Charles Dilke, the grandson of Keats's friend Charles Dilke who had rented his house at Wentworth Place to the Brawnes, bought physical possession of the letters to prevent their publication, but not the copyright, from Herbert Lindon, Fanny Brawne's son, but in 1874 Herbert Lindon demanded the letters back. In 1878 Harry Buxton Forman published Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne to general condemnation, Sir Charles Dilke stating that 'their publication...is the greatest impeachment of a woman's sense of womanly delicacy to be found in the history of literature.' Such opposition continued down to and included W.H. Auden. Fanny herself, however, had written to Charles Brown in 1829 that 'if his life is to be published no part ought to be kept back.'

    On 2 March 1885, thirty-five of Keats's love letters to Fanny Brawne were sold at auction in London by her son Herbert Lindon for £543 17s. and were bought by Sir Charles Dilke. Oscar Wilde composed a poem on the sale:

    These are the letters which Endymion wrote
    To one he loved in secret, and apart.
    And now the brawlers of the auction mart
    Bargain and bid for each poor blotted note,
    Ay! for each separate pulse of passion quote
    The merchant's price. I think they love not art
    Who break the crystal of a poet's heart
    That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.

    Is it not said that many years ago,
    In a far Eastern town, some soldiers ran
    With torches through the midnight, and began
    To wrangle for mean raiment, and to throw
    Dice for the garments of a wretched man,
    Not knowing the God's wonder, or His woe?

    The present letter, presumably among the thirty-five sold in 1885, came into the possession of Oliver R. Barrett and by 1958 it was in the possession of Roger Barrett, Chicago. The London dealer Sam Fogg bought the residue of the Barrett Collection.

    See Hyder E. Rollins, The Letters of John Keats, 2 volumes, 1958 and The Keats Circle, 2 volumes, 1948; Keats Selected Letters and Poems, selected by Robert Gittings, 1996; The Letters of John Keats, edited by H. Buxton Forman, 2 volumes, 1931; Aileen Ward, John Keats, 1963.

    As a footnote, not a claim, it is not without interest that the heightened language and Keats's innate metrical sense perhaps allows this letter to be re-cast as verse in a near-strict blank form, not inappropriate to the Regency era in which the letter was penned, the first version below; or in a looser more modern departure from blank verse, the second version below. In 'Christabel' Coleridge anticipated Hopkins's 'sprung rhythm' (Ted Hughes, 'Myths, Metres, Rhythms', Winter Pollen, 1994, pp. 310-372) so perhaps we can reserve for a genius like Keats's that it could transcend restraints of its time.

    It is for literary scholars to legislate on such possibilities; for the present purposes the following renditions are done only to emphasise how poetical Keats's language is in this letter.

    My dearest Fanny,

    The power of your benediction is
    Not of so weak a nature as to pass
    From the ring of four and twenty hours – it is
    Like a sacred Chalice once consecrated
    And ever consecrate. I shall Kiss your name
    And mine where Lips have been – Lips!
    Why should a Poor prisoner as I am talk
    About Such things? Thank God! though I hold them
    The dearest pleasures in the universe,
    I have a consolation independent of them
    In the certainty of your affection.
    I could write a song in the style of Tom Moores
    Pathetic about Memory, if that
    Would be any relief to me. No.
    It would not. I will be as obstinate
    As a Robin. I will not sing in a cage.
    Health is my expected heaven and you
    Are the Houri – this word is I believe
    Both singular and plural – if only plural,
    Never mind – you are a thousand of them.

    Ever yours affectionately
    my dearest.
    J.K.


    My dearest Fanny,

    The power of your benediction is not of so weak a nature
    as to pass from the ring of four and twenty hours -
    it is like a sacred Chalice once consecrated and ever consecrate.
    I shall Kiss your name and mine where Lips have been -
    Lips! why should a poor prisoner as I am talk about such things.
    Thank God, though I hold them the dearest pleasures in the universe,
    I have a consolation independent of them in the certainty of your affection.
    I could write a song in the style of Tom Moores Pathetic about Memory
    if that would be any relief to me. No. It would not. I will be as obstinate
    as a Robin. I will not sing in a cage. Health is my expected heaven
    and you are the Houri - this word is I believe both singular and plural -
    if only plural, never mind - you are a thousand of them.

    Ever yours affectionately
    my dearest.
    J.K.'


    It is noteworthy also that Joseph Severn, who was with Keats when he died, 'held that many of Keats's letters contained quite as fine poetry as any of his actual poems' (William Graham, Last Links with Byron, Shelley and Keats, 1898, p.115). Robert Gittings wrote of another letter to her: 'His words were those of a Poet, only just prose' (Robert Gittings, John Keats, 1968, p. 386). The ring that Keats refers to was 'a seal ring, of agate or cornelian' with 'their joint names...engraved upon it.' Buxton Forman identifies Moore's Pathetic about Memory as his poem beginning 'There's not a look, a word of thine / My soul hath e'er forgot...'
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