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John Keats was a brilliant letter-writer as well as poet. This manuscript combines both genres with engraved portraits of both writer and recipient by Keats’s friend Joseph Severn.
Keats was very close to his siblings, Tom, George and Fanny. Tom, to whom this letter is addressed, was suffering from tuberculosis, and would die in December 1818. Keats had been using his medical training to nurse him, but from June to August took a break for a walking tour in Scotland – a fashionable move for writers of the period; Wordsworth had made his in 1803.
The letter was written between 10 and 14 July, and includes the poem ‘Ah! ken ye what I met the day’, written in a mixture of genuine and pseudo-Scots dialect. The letter describes various stages of the trip; on the first day Keats composed the sonnet ‘To Ailsa Rock’, which he includes. The next year, Blackwood’s Magazine satirically but usefully summed up the sonnet as ‘Mr. John Keats standing on the sea-shore at Dunbar, without a neckcloth […] and cross-questioning the Crag of Ailsa’. The letter also describes a visit to the poet Robert Burns’s birthplace, where Keats also wrote a sonnet, but thought it too bad to send.
Though Keats was exhausted – he had climbed Ben Nevis and walked across the Isle of Mull – and feverish from a throat ulcerated by tonsillitis, he returned full of imagery and ambition for his poetry.
31 S [left margin]
Ah! Ken ye what I met the day
Out oure the Mountains
A coming down by craggis grey
An mossie fountains
A goud hair’d Marie yeve I pray
Ane minute’s guessing -
For that I met upon the way
Is past expressing.
As I stood where a rocky brig
A torrent crosses
I spied upon a misty rig
A troup o’ Horses -
And as they trotted down the glen
I sped to meet them
To see if I might know the Men
To stop and greet them.
First Willie on his sleek mare came
At canting gallop
His long hair rustled like a flame
On board a shallop -
Then came his brother Rab and then
Young Peggy’s Mither
And Peggy too - adown the glen
They went togither -
I saw her wrappit in her hood
Fra wind and raining -
There wa a blush upon her
Her cheek was flush wi’ timid blood
Twixt growth and waning -
She turn’d her dazed head full oft
For there her Brithers
Came riding with her Bridegroom soft
An mony ithers.
Yo[u]ng Tam came up an eyed me quick
With reddened cheek
Braw Tam was daffed like a chick
He coud na speak -
Ah Marie they are all’gane hame
Through blustring weather
An every heart is light on ^ full an flame
An light as feather
Ah! Marie they are all gone hame
Fra happy wedding,
Whilst I - Ah is it not a shame?
Sad tears am shedding.
- - - - -
- - -
Balantine July 10. [original damaged]
My dear Tom,
The reason for my writing these lines was that Brown
wanted to impose a Galloway song upon Dilke, but
it won’t do. The subject I got from meeting a wed-
ding just as we came down into this place -
Where I am affraid we shall be imprison[e]d awhile
by the weather - Yesterday we came 27 Miles from
Stranraer – enter[e]d Ayrshire a little beyond
Cairn, and had our path through a delightful
Country. I shall endeavour that you may follow
our steps in this walk - it would be uninteresting
in a Book of Travels - it can not be interest[ing]
but by my having gone through it. When we left
Cairn our Road lay half way up the sides of
a green mountainous shore, full of Clefts
of verdure and eternally varying – sometime[es]
up sometimes down, and over little Bridge[s]
going across green chasms of moss rock
and trees - winding about every where
After two or three Miles of this we turned
suddenly into a magnificent glen finely
wooded in Parts - seven Miles long
with a Mountain Stream winding down
the Midst - full of cottages in the most
happy situations - the sides of the Hills
cover[e]d with sheep - the effect of cattle lowing
I never had so finely - At the end we
had a gradual ascent and got among
the top of the Mountains whence In a
little time I descried in the Sea Ailsa
Rock 940 feet hight - it was 15 Miles
distant and seemed close upon us -
The effect of aisla [sic] with the peculiar
perspective of the Sea in connection
with the ground we stood on, and the
misty rain then falling gave me a
complete Idea of a deluge - Ailsa struck
me very suddenly - really I was a little
alarmed - Thus far had I written before
we set out this morning - Now we are
at Girvan 13 Miles north of Belantree. Our
Walk has been along a more grand shore
today than yesterday - Ailsa beside us all
the way - From the heights we could see
quite at home Cantire and the large
Mountains of Arran Annan one of the
Hebrides - We are in comfortable Quarte[r]s.
The Rain we feared held up bravely
and [it] has been fu’ fine this day
// [By] tomorrow we sh[all be] at Ayr - [original damaged]
John -- - -
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