Life in Letters

The Letters of Fanny Brawne to Fanny Keats edited by Fred Edgcumbe(Oxford University Press, $3.00) are of personal rather than of literary value. In the thirty-one letters which Keats’s beloved wrote to his young sister Fanny nothing is learned of the poet that was not previously known but for the one fact that he held a high opinion of Charles Lamb as a writer of essays. The story of his voyage to Italy in search of health and of his anguished months in Rome has been told again and again, first by Joseph Severn, the companion of his last days, and later by Colvin, Amy Lowell, and other students and biographers of Keats. Nothing new of material interest is established by the present letters; nothing is advanced that in any way alters our estimate of the poet. Yet the letters are important because they are at last a vindication of Fanny Brawne against the century-old maligning begun by a group ot Keats partisans and continued through the years by biographers too ready to accept tradition. Amy Lowell, who had access to Fanny Brawne’s letters while writing her life of John Keats, was enabled by her research to paint the young girl sympathetically. Even Miss Lowell, however, was not wholly unprejudiced.
Among manuscripts relative to Keats in the Morgan Library, there is an unpublished letter by John Hamilton Reynolds, a friend of the poet’s, to Mr. Taylor, his publisher. It is dated the 21st of September, 1820, a week after Keats had sailed for Italy and death. ‘Absence from the poor idle thing of womankind to whom he has so unaccountably attached himself, will not be an ill thing,’he writes, referring to Fanny Brawne. She knew of his dislike for her. She also knew that the Misses Reynolds, his sisters, were equally inimical for the simple reason that Keats had chosen her rather than one of them. It is a relief to learn more than a hundred years later that Fanny was not unaware of their malice and that she could warn Keats’s sister against them. ‘My dear Fanny,’ she wrote in November 1821, ‘if you live to the age of Methuselem and I die tomorrow never be intimate with the Reynolds. . . . Every day I live I find out more of their malice against me.’ She must have been grievously hurt.
On the whole the letters reveal an intelligent, sensible, forthright girl of ordinary attainments but with a more than ordinary sense ot justice. Although she never liked George, Keat’s s brother, she could defend him against the doubts of his sister and even strove to justify what Keats’s biographers have never forgiven — his taking Keats’s money for an unsound investment when the poet was in direst need. The most gratifying thing of all, however, is to learn that Fanny Brawne had a just estimate of the man who loved her. ‘Is it to be borne that he, formed for every thing good, and, I think I dare say it, for every thing great, is to give up his hopes of life and happiness?’ It is no ‘idle thing of woman kind’ who here all unwittingly writes her defense for posterity.
In 1833 when the Quarterly Review noticed the poems of Hartley Coleridge, it quoted the old saying that the oakling withers beneath the shadow of the oak. Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a few months more to live; Hartley Coleridge, his firstborn and favorite, had just given proof that he, too, had something of genius. The Letters of Hartley Coleridge, edited by Grace Evelyn Griggs and Earl Leslie Griggs (Oxford University Press, $5.00), reveal the oakling as still in the shadow of the oak, a shadow from which he was never to escape. Hartley himself recognized this. ‘My dear Father’s greatness is not only too large for my comprehension,’ he wrote three years after Coleridge’s death, ’but in some parts too high for my apprehension — not that I cannot understand him, but I cannot realize many of his ideas.’ He was never to realize them. Able poet and critic though he was in his own right, his limited talents were nearer to those of his uncle Robert Southey than to his father.
The letters begin appropriately with ‘Poetry on an Ass’ which Hartley wrote at the age of ten and which his fond parent improved in metre and moral. One smiles on remembering an earlier poem ‘To a Young Ass written by an ardent Pantisocrat of twenty-two. Alas, there were to be more points of resemblance between father and son, as revealed in the letters of 1820 when Hartley, in disgrace at Oriel, was to repeat Coleridge’s flight from Jesus College. The facts of Hartley’s loss of his fellowship have been known these many years. What has not been known, and what the letters here make clear, is Hartley’s honorable behavior throughout a scandal that was to affect the rest of his life by depriving him of the only security that would have stabilized his restive genius. The appendix includes fragments of letters which Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote to the college authorities in his son’s defense.
Of the ninety-six letters in the volume the majority are addressed to his brother Derwent and to his mother.
The half dozen to his father, especially those of 1820, reveal him respectful, affectionate, contrite and— again a reminiscence of the elder Coleridge — full of promises of betterment. From 1820 onward the writing assumes a maturity that was lacking before. Here and there a sudden glimpse of imagery or a turn of phrase evokes the greater Coleridge. Hartley is most charming, however, when he is himself, writing to young Derwent and later to his mother with her understandable preoccupation over his socks and trousers, his handkerchiefs and neckcloths. Here, in her son’s letters, better even than in her own, one sees how Sara Fricker could have become Dorothy Wordsworth’s Mrs. C.
The editors have done a needful work in linking the letters with biographical paragraphs. One might wish that for the uninitiated they had appended explanatory notes on the fascinating pet names that abounded in the Southey circle — Snouderumpater, for example, and Namput, and the irresistible Snifterbreeehes. Finally, this reviewer expresses a humble prayer that the editors devote themselves to the future publication of those letters which they have not included in the present volume.