A Rediscovered Letter by John Keats

A Rediscovered Letter by John Keats, Edited by Dearing Lewis

A John Keats Letter Rediscovered

by Dearing Lewis

[electronic text prepared by Maureen Dowd]

A "lost" letter mentioned by H. E. Rollins [1] reappeared in July 1995, when the director of the Avoca Museums and Historical Society in Altavista, Virginia, opened a box that had previously been stored in my aunt Juliet Fauntleroy's bedroom at the family home, "Avoca," and found an envelope with the notation in my aunt's handwriting: "Letter from John Keats." Inside was one large sheet of paper 15 7/8 " x 9 7/8 " folded once, written on both sides of three pages and folded again to form the envelope, 4 5/16 " x 3 3/8 ".

The letter itself contains the earliest dated copy of the poem later titled "Lines on the Mermaid Tavern." Its continuing popularity is foreshadowed by Keats's comment in the letter that it "has pleased Reynolds and Dilke beyond any thing I ever did." At the top of the page containing the poem is the word "(published)" in blue ink and not in my aunt's handwriting.

This letter was in the possession of Emma Keats (Mrs. Philip Speed), daughter of Keats's brother George, who had emigrated to America, and was shown by her in her Louisville, Kentucky home to Edward F. Madden, who quotes briefly from the letter in his 1877 article, "The Poet Keats."[2]

How did Juliet Fauntleroy come to have it, and why was it out of sight for so long? Because of my personal knowledge of some of the key people and circumstances mentioned below, I am able to suggest answers to these questions.

My aunt Juliet was never known to buy autographs or old letters. She was a major contributor to Traditional English and Scottish Ballads of Virginia, edited by Arthur Kyle Davis, Jr., and published by Harvard University Press. Alan Lomax consulted her regarding folk songs. She was an honored guest at the Whitetop Mountain Festival, for ballads and folk music in the early 1930s, along with Davis, the pianist and composer John Powell, the poet Percy MacKaye, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Juliet Fauntleroy had an Aunt Sally who lived in Louisville. Sarah Elizabeth Fauntleroy, daughter of Thomas Waring Fauntleroy of "Oakenham," Middlesex County, Virginia, had married Charles E. Sears, editor of the Louisville Courier, some years after the Civil War and lived in a large house on the outskirts of Louisville. Emma Keats Speed is described by Madden in his 1877 Keats article as a lady "of high standing in society" and "of more than ordinary intelligence . . . and good conversational ability." [3] It is not unlikely that these two women would have known each other.

In the years before auction houses were able to procure large sums for letters of dead poets, such a letter might have been given to an appreciative friend. Mrs. Speed had given a Keats letter to Frank M. Citing in 1869.[4] Would Sally Fauntleroy Sears also have been a likely recipient of a Keats letter? A Fauntleroy family tale, told now for generations, involves the speculation of servants at "Oakenham" about which of the poetry-quoting sisters was "the most high-larnt." In Louisville Aunt Sally's husband had a fine library, with many sets of books bound in tree calf and stamped in gold, many now at the University of Virginia. Mrs. Speed might well have given this letter to Sally Fauntleroy Sears, who would have been highly appreciative.

If this letter was given to Sally Fauntleroy Sears, how did it come to her niece, Juliet Fauntleroy? It might, of course, have been mailed at any time. The envelope in which the letter was found had the address typed to "Miss Juliet Fauntleron" [sic], Altavista High School, where she taught Latin and other subjects. It was postmarked New York, N. Y. 5, Feb. 9, 1924. The return address was torn off. It may have been an ad. Why was the left third of the envelope torn off? The answer, I feel sure, is that both parts were destined for the wastebasket; but then when Aunt Juliet had to enclose the Keats letter in something other than what it had come to her in, she grabbed the larger part of this torn business envelope out of the wastebasket, put the Keats letter inside, and labeled it "Letter from John Keats." In the years before recycling she recycled everything possible.

My great-aunt Sally died in September 1922. She had no children. My mother, Mary Browning Fauntleroy Lewis, and her first-cousin Fauntleroy Wight went to Louisville, divided personal belongings among their aunt's ten nieces and nephews, and held an auction sale. It is not unlikely that my mother came across the Keats letter and mailed it to her sister Juliet as the family member most likely to appreciate it. More than a year later my aunt--pleased, I am sure, to have the "Lines on the Mermaid Tavern" but hesitant as to what to do about the letter--transferred it, I believe, to the envelope retrieved from the wastebasket.

So far as I know, Aunt Juliet never mentioned this Keats letter to anyone. Why? It was apparently put away at "Avoca" and forgotten for thirty years and then shoved aside with a box of papers of no apparent value after my aunt's death, 11 October 1955. It lay unnoticed for forty more years, until after the establishment of the Avoca Museums and Historical Society.

Juliet Fauntleroy, though an enthusiastic teacher, was essentially very shy and modest. The Keats letter contains six lines by Keats's acquaintance Horace Smith, which Madden declared "very clever" [5] but which are puerile and mildly scatological. I suspect that my Aunt Juliet's nature and her careful Victorian upbringing would have left her embarrassed by these lines. So she did nothing about the letter. After all, it contained nothing really new; the "Lines on the Mermaid Tavern" had been published in 1820.

Actually, besides containing "Lines on the Mermaid Tavern," this letter is significant because it shows that Keats worried not only about present finances and the sales of Endymion, to be published three months later, in April 1818, but consequently about the necessity of finding some other way of supplementing his income.

The first page is devoted to the book and financial matters. The second relates the incident of Horace Smith's six vulgar lines on a dinner companion. The third page contains the untitled "Lines on the Mermaid Tavern." The published version shows eight minor changes in punctuation, one in spelling, seven in capitalization and two corrections in grammar: in line 18 "Said" for "Says" and "you" for "ye." Two words are changed: "Fairer" in line 4 becomes "Choicer," and "Richer" in line 8, "Sweeter." Before publication Keats cut out the last three lines and repeated his first stanza.

Juliet Fauntleroy's heirs, concurring with her nephew and executor of her estate, Charles Lynch Fauntleroy, gave this Keats letter to the Avoca Museums and Historical Society. The letter has since been sold through Christie's of New York for $70,000.

I wish to thank the present owner, Mr. Stephan Loewentheil, of Baltimore, for his kind permission to publish the letter, a transcript of which follows.

[the letter is addressed to:]

Messrs Keats
Post Office


7 o'Clock JA 30 1818 NT


My dear Brothers,

         You shall have the Papers. [6] I lent the last to Dilke and he has not returned it--or rather I have been in Town two days gelding [7] the first Book [of Endymion] which is I think going to the Press today. It will not be in Quarto, nor shall I have my head therein.[8] Taylor on looking attentively through it has changed his Mind. I have got five pounds but these I owe him Brown and have been delaying these two or three days to give it him, I must owe him still. Perhaps this will do till Haslam sends you some. 10£ to Mrs Bentley 10£ to Crip[p]s and the 5£ to Brown nearly swallowed up the Balance Mr A[9] gave me. I understand about Mr Fry and will speak to Mr A about it. I am convinced now that my Poem will not sell. Hope, they say, so I will wait about three Months before I make my determination--either to get some employment at Home or abroad or to retire to a very cheap way of living in the Country. Haydon will take my Likeness all the same--but I think he will keep it--however we can get it engraved.

Horace Twiss dined the other day with Horace Smith--now Horace Twiss has an affectation of repeating extempore verses--which however he writes at home. After dinner Horace T. was to recite some verses, and before he did he went aside to pretend to make on the spot verses composed before hand. While H. T. was out of the Room H. S. wrote the following and handed it about, when H. Twiss had done his spouting.

'What precious extempore verses are Twiss's
Which he makes ere he waters, and vows as he pisses,
'Twould puzzle the Sages of greece to unriddle
Which flows out the fastest his verse or his piddle,
And 'twould pose them as much to know whether or not
His Piss or his Poems go quickest to Pot![10]
I wrote the following which has pleased Reynolds and Dilke beyond any thing I ever did. I was thinking of Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher and the rest who used to meet at the Mermaid in days of yore and to finish did this.
Souls of Poets dead and gone
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field, or mossy cavern
Fairer than the Mermaid Tavern?
    Have ye tippled drink more fine
Than mine host's canary wine;
Or are fruits of Paradise
Richer than those dainty pies
Of venison. Oh! generous food!
Dress'd as though bold Robin Hood
Would, with his Maid Marian,
Sup and bouze from Horn and Can.
    I have heard that on a day
Mine Host's sign board flew away,
Nobody knew whither till
An Astrologer's old Quill
To a Sheepskin gave the story:
Says he saw ye in your glory
Underneath a new old sign
Sipping beverage divine,
And pledging with contented smack
The Mermaid in the Zodiac!
      Souls of Poets dead and gone
      Are the Winds a sweeter home,
      Richer is uncellar'd Cavern
      Than the merr[y] mermaid Tavern?[11]

[written vertically in the right margin:]

      May the 5£ do and this please you--trust to the Spring
and farewell my dear Tom and Geo[rg]e

 Your affectionate Brother
   John ----


1. The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), I, 225n. This is not the letter referred to in "A Lost Keats Letter: Genuine or Spurious?" by J. C. Maxwell in Notes and Queries, 8 (December 1961), 474, in which Keats is supposed to have told of Charles Lamb falling downstairs and quoting "Iser, rolling rapidly." News of the find by Barbara Jastrebsky and the sale of the letter in May 1996 has now been reported by Betty Gilliam in "Letter from famous poet found at Avoca," Altavista Journal, I (1 May 1996), 9, and "John Keats' letter brings $70,000," Altavista Journal, I (22 May 1996), 6. return

2. Edward F. Madden, "The Poet Keats," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 55 (1877), 357-61. return

3. Madden, 357. return

4. The Letters of John Keats, ed. Maurice Buxton Forman, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935), p. 441. return

5. Madden, 361. return

6. See The Letters of John Keats, ed. Rollins, I, 191, 196, 206, regarding papers containing Keats's reviews of plays. return

7. Influenced by his love of Chaucer and Spenser and by the Spenserians, Keats was fond of archaic and obsolete words and usages. Geld here may mean, as defined by the OED, simply "to cut out portions of a book," or "to mutilate a book . . . by excising certain portions, especially objectionable or obscene passages." Both meanings are obsolete. Keats did make changes in Endymion, as he did for the publication of "The Eve of St. Agnes," when he was induced to cut out certain passages his friends thought too explicit. return

8. Keats writes his publisher, John Taylor, 23 January 1818, that the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon has suggested an engraving of a chalk portrait to be done by him (Letters, ed. Rollins, I, 208). return

9. Richard Abbey, guardian of the Keats siblings and trustee of their inheritance. return

10. A garbled version of these lines, attributed by Dalton Barham to James Smith instead of Horace Smith, is given by William G. Lane in "Keats and 'the Smith and Theodore Hook Squad,'" MLN, 70 (1955), 22-24. return

11. The last line is cramped at the bottom of the page, and a break in the paper occurs before "mermaid." return

About this Resource


Published @ RC

November 1998