On Sunday 5th September 1819 Keats wrote a challenging letter to his publisher John Taylor to thank him for £30 (which Richard Woodhouse had donated) and which had been sent via James Hessey:
“My dear Taylor,
“This morning I received yours of the 2nd and with it a letter from Hessey enclosing a Bank post Bill of £30, an ample sum I assure you— more I had no thought of.—”
[So far, so good. But then came the strange hectoring:]
“You should not have delayed so long in Fleet Street—leading an inactive life as you did was breathing poison: you will find the country air do more for you than you expect. But it must be proper country air. You must choose a spot. What sort of a place is Retford? You should have a dry, gravelly, barren, elevated country, open to the currents of air, and such a place is generally furnished with the finest springs. The neighbourhood of a rich inclosed fulsome manured arable Land, especially in a valley and almost as bad on a flat, would be almost as bad as the smoke of Fleet Street.—Such a place as this was Shanklin, only open to the south-east and surrounded by hills in every other direction. From this south-east came the damps of the sea; which, having no egress, the air would for days together take on an unhealthy idiosyncrasy altogether enervating and weakening as a city smoke—I felt it very much. Since I have been here at Winchester I have been improving in health—it is not so confined—and there is on one side of the City a dry chalky down, where the air is worth Sixpence a pint. So if you do not get better at Retford, do not impute it to your own weakness before you have well considered the Nature of the air and soil—especially as Autumn is encroaching—for the Autumn fog over a rich land is like the steam from cabbage water…
And if this sort of atmosphere is a mitigation to the energies of a strong man, how much more must it injure a weak one unoccupied, unexercised. For what is the cause of so many men maintaining a good state in Cities, but occupation? An idle man, a man who is not sensitively alive to self-interest in a city cannot continue long in good health. This is easily explained. If you were to walk leisurely through an unwholesome path in the fens, with a little horror of them, you would be sure to have your ague. But let Macbeth cross the same path, with the dagger in the air leading him on, and he would never have an ague or any thing like it. You should give these things a serious consideration. Notts, I believe, is a flat county. You should be on the slope of one of the dry barren hills in Somersetshire. I am convinced there is as harmful Air to be breathed in the country as in town.
“I am greatly obliged to you for your letter. Perhaps, if you had had strength and spirits enough, you would have felt offended by my offering a note of hand, or rather expressed it. However, I am sure you will give me credit for not in anywise mistrusting you; or imagining that you would take advantage of any power I might give you over me. No— it proceeded from my serious resolve not to be a gratuitous borrower, from a great desire to be correct in money matters, to have in my desk the Chronicles of them to refer to, and know my wordly non-estate: besides in case of my death such documents would be but just, if merely as memorials of the friendly turns I had done to me.
“Had I known of your illness I should not have written in such fiery phrase as in my first letter. I hope that shortly you will be able to bear six times as much.
Brown likes the tragedy very much: but he is not a fit judge of it, as I have only acted as midwife to his plot; and of course he will be fond of his child. I do not think I can make you any extracts without spoiling the effect of the whole when you come to read it—I hope you will not consider my labour misspent.
Since I finished it, I have finished Lamia, and am now occupied in revising St. Agnes’s Eve, and studying Italian. Ariosto I find as diffuse, in parts, as Spenser—I understand completely the difference between them. I will cross the letter with some lines from Lamia. Brown’s kindest remembrances to you—and I am ever your most sincere friend, John Keats.