As fond as I was of William Safire, I must admit I prefer the new, unpredictable “On Language” column in the NY Times. This week, Caleb Crain writes about how John Keats talks in the recent movie Bright Star (which I still haven’t seen) and how he might have talked in reality. While Crain appreciated the “playful, delicate, precise” dialogue of the movie, he thinks Keats may have talked quite differently, saying “Keats was self-conscious about his everyday speech”:
In August 1818, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine accused him of “Cockney rhymes,” pointing out that he matched thorns with fawns and higher with Thalia. In poems that he inserted in his letters, he rhymed shorter with water and parsons with fastens. The pattern suggests that he suffered from nonrhoticity — the tendency to drop “R” sounds from the ends of syllables and words. As well he should have, the scholar Lynda Mugglestone wrote in 1991, noting that nonrhoticity was part of “then-current educated usage.” In fact, Mugglestone observed, Blake had rhymed lawn with morn, and Tennyson was to rhyme thorns and yawns.
Mugglestone notwithstanding, some of the spelling mistakes in Keats’s letters look incriminating. He wrote “ax” for ask, “ave” for have and “milidi” for milady. It’s impossible to know, however, whether Keats had the lower-class accent that these spellings evoke or was merely pretending to have it in order to amuse his readers. He underlined to show he was kidding when he wrote to his friend Reynolds that “from want of regular rest, I have been rather narvus” and when he wrote to his sister that “I have been werry romantic indeed, among these Mountains and Lakes.” Even when he didn’t underline, he may have been axing his readers to understand that he was aving a joke all the sime. His ear for dialect seems to have been acute. From Scotland he reported to his brother Tom that whiskey was called whuskey, and when Reynolds went to Devonshire with his family, Keats wrote to him that “your sisters by this time must have got the Devonshire ees — short ees — you know ’em; they are the prettiest ees in the Language.” He was probably too gifted a linguist to have been saddled long with an accent that embarrassed him.
Of course, Crain is a journalist and critic, not a scholar; I’m wondering if anyone might have anything to add about this.