ABSTRACT

During a lengthy trip away from his friends and family in the spring of 1817, Keats wrote to his friend John Reynolds a letter that was characteristically warm and lyrical, evocative and arresting, but plangent, too, with longing:

The Wind is in a sulky fit, and I feel that it would be no bad thing to be the favourite of some Fairy, who would give one the power of seeing how our Friends got on, at a Distance—I should like, of all Loves, a sketch of you and Tom and George in ink <Full> which Haydon will do if you tell him how I want them—From want of regular rest, I have been rather narvus—and the passage in Lear—‘Do you not hear the Sea?’—has haunted me intensely. 1

In the letter, Keats misses his friends and he imagines being able to watch them ‘at a Distance’, a curiously envisioned vantage point from which one might ‘see’ from afar. His recourse to the ‘passage in Lear’ is strikingly apposite not only insofar as its setting matches the occasion of his travelling closely by the sea (which in turn provokes the subsequent sonnet ‘On the Sea’), nor simply that the stormy play suits a ‘narvus’ mood, but most particularly because Keats cites Edgar’s words to Gloucester at a moment in the play when Edgar, during the farce at Dover Beach, is also permitted the capacity to see from afar. Disguised as ‘Poor Tom’, he watches over his unwitting father and thus contrives to be simultaneously near to and far from him. Gloucester, in turn, blinded and believing his estranged son exiled, relies helplessly, with tragicomic irony, on the collapsed distances between them and on the close proximities required by touch and sound in the absence of sight. The tragicomic mode of the scene suits Keats for this letter where his own whimsical fairies and the half-jesting ‘narvus’ vainly disguise a bleak mood on a windy day. The paradoxically mixed measure of the tragicomic recalls the near-but-blind, far-but-seeing scenario that Keats describes. More powerfully, though, his letter tacitly invokes the profound intimacy of Edgar’s unseen presence to Gloucester 31at Dover Beach. With the favour of a benign ‘fairy’, Keats imagines the possibility of an extraordinary idea of communion, independent of relative proximity, which may be effected from a distance and sensed by means of an almost supernatural or extra-sensory mode of perception. When he concedes to Reynolds that in place of fairies, a ‘sketch of you and Tom and George in ink <Full>’ might serve the same purpose, he recognises the possibility of an aesthetic representation capable of evoking, in similarly magical fashion, the presence of absent friends.