Clay F. Johnson

Writer | Poet | Pianist | sometime Alpinist | hopeless Romanticist

John Keats's Letter to Fanny Brawne, 1 July 1819

I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.
—John Keats, 1 July 1819


What is it like to live for lengthy periods of time in relative obscurity?  It is to exist unnoticed, unfamiliar, unmotivated, unaccomplished, unloved, and unremembered.  Perhaps it is like a love letter written, but never sent, banished to some forgotten drawer amidst tax documents and other prosaic legal notices that one feels compelled to save for the rest of one’s life for fear of sword & cross from the faceless agents of petulant governmental bureaucracies.  A miserable existence for something brought into this world from the intoxicating ecstasy of love & poetry. Yes, give me but three summer days in the throes of such poetic love-sickness and I shall die happy and without regret.

Such a drawer-forgotten existence may have befallen Beethoven’s poignant & mysterious Immortal Beloved letter, found seemingly unsent in a drawer after his death, and especially true with my not-at-all-poetic Italian letter of 2011, written to a girl whom I adored deliriously at university while in a 400-level Italian course on Dante’s Inferno that was, appropriately & thankfully, never sent—shredded & burned in 2015 after finding it while looking for tax return documents.  However, such an unsent obscurity was just not the fate for the love letters of John Keats.

Keats did indeed send his love letters to his beloved Fanny Brawne, and he sent them often. However, for a number of years after his death, Keats’s letters did exist a bit in obscurity—perhaps drawer-forgotten, but perhaps reread by Fanny from time to time—until 1878 when H.B. Forman privately published a small volume for auction titled Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne. According to Hyder Edward Rollins whose edition of Keats’s letters I own, Forman would publish another collection in 1883 which contained 196 letters (not all letters of love, of course). With an interest for Keats’s private correspondence insatiable, more letters started coming forward and more were being discovered until, sixty-four years later in 1947, Forman’s own son Maurice would publish yet another collection which would contain 245 letters in total.

I often wonder how Keats would feel (or perhaps did feel if his spirit was able to look down upon the affairs of the world where his corporeal body once roamed) if he knew such private letters were published for public consumption—and in such a way! Perhaps he would have been horrified, but perhaps not. I, for one, would be horrified if my so-called love letters written in my early twenties were made public; even my best moments of intensest passion could not make up for my most ridiculous & vile. However, Keats’s poetic ecstasies on both love & love-sickness were not fated to remain unknown, unremembered, or unloved. And they certainly were not meant to exist in obscurity for eternity.

Besides, to-day, after his long comparative obscuration, he hangs high in the heaven of our literature for all the world to see; he’s a part of the light by which we walk.

Thus, as it happens, on this day two hundred years ago, 1 July 1819, Keats would write his very first love letter to Fanny Brawne while staying at Eglantine Cottage in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight.  The cottage still stands today and is now appropriately called Keats Cottage.  He stayed there from 29 June until the first or second week of August when he and his good friend Charles Brown moved to the cathedral city of Winchester.  Although the “damps of the sea” may have been a bit much for Keats at times and just as “weakening as a city smoke” (not to mention the maddening irritations from droves of tourists), there must have been something inspiring in the air in Shanklin that July for, not only would he work prodigiously on Otho the Great, Lamia, and Hyperion (this reworking would become The Fall of Hyperion), but he would go on to write three other love letters to Fanny that month. These letters, in my biased opinion, contain some of the most beautiful passages of love-sick ecstasy ever written—yes, perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but Keats’s letters are dripping with poetry and inspire me more than any I have ever read.

I will not write out the entire letter like I did for the Camelion Poet letter of 27 October 1818, but rather I will write out the passages I find particularly beautiful & haunting. Those brilliant passages are:

My dearest Lady,

I am glad I had not an opportunity of sending off a Letter which I wrote for you on Tuesday night—‘twas too much like one out of Rousseau’s Heloise. I am more reasonable this morning. The morning is the only proper time for me to write to a beautiful Girl whom I love so much: for at night, when the lonely day has closed, and the lonely, silent, unmusical Chamber is waiting to receive me as into a Sepulchre, then believe me my passion gets entirely the sway, then I would not have you see those Rapsodies which I once thought it impossible I should ever give way to, and which I have often laughed at in another, for fear you should think me either too unhappy or perhaps a little mad…

I am now at a very pleasant Cottage window, looking onto a beautiful hilly country, with a glimpse of the sea; the morning is very fine. I do not know how elastic my spirit might be, what pleasure I might have in living here and breathing and wandering as free as a stag about this beautiful Coast if the remembrance of you did not weigh so upon me. I have never known any unalloy’d Happiness for many days together: the death or sickness of some one has always spoilt my hours—and now when none such troubles oppress me, it is you must confess very hard that another sort of pain should haunt me…

Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom. Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately and do all you can to console me in it—make it rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me—write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.

Were finer words expressing Love’s all-consuming ecstasies ever written or equaled?  Perhaps they were, just seven days later on 8 July 1819 when Keats would write his second love letter to Fanny Brawne.  Just like this one, and other letters later this year, I shall write a bit about it in a week’s time on its bicentennial anniversary.

Lastly, if you are unfamiliar with Keats’s letters and yet find some of the passages above familiar, then perhaps you may have seen Jane Campion’s brilliant 2009 film Bright Star. It is a film I watch every year, beginning in April and usually ending in early June when I begin my “Haunted Summer” inspirations. It is beautiful and incredibly moving. The scenes that include some of the passages above are particularly charming and will stay with you long after watching.

© 2019 Clay F. Johnson