To one he loved in secret, and apart.
And now the brawlers of the auction mart
Bargain and bid for each poor blotted note,
Ay! for each separate pulse of passion quote
The merchant's price. I think they love not art
Who break the crystal of a poet's heart
That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.
Is it not said that many years ago,
In a far Eastern town, some soldiers ran
With torches through the midnight, and began
To wrangle for mean raiment, and to throw
Dice for the garments of a wretched man,
Not knowing the God's wonder, or His woe?
The love letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne were passed on to her children. Fifty years after his death in 1821 they were published and put up for auction by the owner to raise income. Though his reputation was not so high as now but still respectable, many admirers of Keats were upset about this. The letters are intensely personal and many thought they showed Keats in a bad light.
When Keats's love letters to Fanny were published (after being sold at auction by her son Herbert Lindon), most of his admirers were shocked. The letters were highly emotional, at times manipulative and deliberately cruel; for the Victorians, they cast a cruel light upon a beloved poet. Now, however, they are justly regarded as among the most beautiful letters ever written. Sir Charles Dilke, the grandson of Keats's good friend Charles Dilke purchased the 39 remaining love letters (some had been destroyed by Fanny), and intended to keep them hidden. However, he was not allowed to purchase exclusive ownership - only the actual physical letters themselves. Dilke agreed to this because he was allowed to prevent publication, which he desired above all else. He believed that publication would be cruel and senseless since an artist such as Keats did not deserve to have his most intimate thoughts shared with the public. But two years after the purchase, in 1874, Herbert demanded the letters back. He was now convinced he could make more money at an open auction. Dilke had no written agreement or contract regarding his purchase, and was forced to surrender the letters.
John Keats and Fanny Brawne
In February 1878 the collection, entitled Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne, was published. Debates ensued for over a year across both England and America as thousands of copies were purchased making Herbert Lindon a very wealthy man. Sotheby's auctioned the 37 of letters (Dilke kept two) in March 1885 sold for a sum total of 543 pounds. Keats was not yet at the apogee of his poetic reputation, but he was still a revered and beloved figure and most of the furor that greeted publication of the letters and the auction itself was directed at Fanny. Many people felt she should have destroyed the letters long ago out of respect for Keats and herself.
The letters portrayed Keats as jealous and grasping, and Fanny as a heartless, thoughtless flirt. The spirit of emotional abandon in which Keats wrote most of the letters caused even his admirers to read them in disgust. They were unable to view them as what they were - love letters, and no person is sensible or rational in the grip of all-consuming passion. The emotion and melodrama did highlight unflattering aspects of Keats and Fanny's personalities, but it must be remembered they were written in the throes of first love, and colored with all its attendant confusion and drama. Also, many were written when Keats was ill, struggling to come to terms with physical death and the knowledge that his poetic career would never reach fruition.
All of this public outcry took place during the Victorian era and it later came to light that Fanny was indeed in love with Keats but prevented from returning his affections to a certain degree because of her mothers disapproval who did not wish for her pretty, flirtatious daughter to become involved with a poor poet.
Composing this sonnet in 1895, "On the Sale by Auction" of John Keats' love letters to Fanny Brawne, Wilde compared the "brawlers of the auction mart" to the Roman soldiers who tossed dice for the garments of Jesus. The lines that start with 'I think they love not art/ who break the crystal of a poet's heart, that small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat' are appropriate for the feelings surrounding the tastelessness of the auction attended by Oscar Wilde himself who purchased one of the letters in spite of his implied dislike of the proceedings.
Auctions are odd activities anyway. Sotheby's invented them in 1744 when a bookseller named Samuel Baker wanted to improve his standard of living. Since then they have grown into strangely weird hybrids of culture and capitalism. Roger Rosenblatt quips in Time Magazine:
'On July 25, 1819, Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne: "My sweet girl ...I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the world." Going once? Going twice?'