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Monday, July 16, 2012

The Word "Entrammeled"

Every summer throws me headlong into a Keats mood. I'm not sure why that is, but I enjoy it very much. Over the last week I’ve been reading the letters he wrote to Fanny Brawne, with whom, judging by these letters, he was very much in love. Being the impractical poet that he was, he gave up the potentially lucrative practice of medicine in which he was trained so that he could devote himself full time to writing. Maybe he would have lived a little longer if he’d stayed in medicine… he died when he was 25, you know? Anyway, there are any number of delightful lines in these letters, though I can certainly see some people among my acquaintance rolling their eyes at how gushy he gets. I find that I don’t mind so much! But poor Fanny. Besides having been cursed with such an unfortunate name (and yes, I know it was quite popular in her day and age, but it isn’t anymore), I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for her to have someone so head over heels in love with her, and then to have him be utterly unable to support a family, marry her, or, more importantly, stay alive. But all of this aside, here’s part of one of his earlier letters to her:

Postmark: Newport, July 3, 1819
                                                                                                  Shanklin, Isle of Wight, Thursday My dearest Lady — I am glad I had not an opportunity of sending off a Letter which I wrote for you on Tuesday night—'twas too much like one out of Rousseau's Heloise. I am more reasonable this morning. The morning is the only proper time for me to write to a beautiful Girl whom I love so much: for at night, when the lonely day has closed, and the lonely, silent, unmusical Chamber is waiting to receive me as into a Sepulchre, then believe me my passion gets entirely the sway, then I would not have you see those Rhapsodies which I once thought it impossible I should ever give way to, and which I have often laughed at in another, for fear you should [think me] either too unhappy or perhaps a little mad… Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom. Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately, and do all you can to console me in it—make it rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me—write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv'd but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain… Do write immediately. There is no Post from this Place, so you must address Post Office, Newport, Isle of Wight. I know before night I shall curse myself for having sent you so cold a Letter; yet it is better to do it as much in my senses as possible. Be as kind as the distance will permit to your

Present my Compliments to your mother, my love to Margaret and best remembrances to your Brother—if you please so.

“So cold” a letter? Wow. I wonder what the letters he wrote at night looked like. Now, the reason I chose to share this particular letter with you is because of the word “entrammelled” (that’s his spelling, not mine; as Andrew Jackson has it, it’s a damn small mind that can only think of one way to spell a word). This is a word which I have always found delightful and entrancing, one which conjures up associations with Andrew Marvell’s The Fair Singer, JW Waterhouse’s depiction of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and yes, Rapunzel.  

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci"
I always want to call this movie Entrammeled.

 The Fair Singer is about a woman who is not only enchanting because of her physical appearance, but also because of the beauty of her voice, a voice which envelops the speaker of the poem in such a way that he is hopeless to resist. An excerpt for you:
I could have fled from one but singly fair,
My disentangled soul itself might save,
Breaking the curled trammels of her hair.
But how should I avoid to be her slave,
Whose subtle art invisibly can wreath
My fetters of the very air I breathe? source
The speaker is all tangled up in her, not only in “the curled trammels of her hair” but also the invisible, ethereal bonds of her voice. Being tangled up in hair makes Rapunzel come to mind for obvious reasons. From there, moving to Waterhouse’s depiction of Keats’ poem is easy enough. If ever a knight were entrammeled in hair, Waterhouse's knight surely is.

So, lots of good associations (fairy tales, beautiful women, handsome knights), but I suppose that, ultimately, the reason that I like this word so well is that it  seems to convey a sense of the captive being caught up in something that he loves or at least in some way desires. Even in Keats' poem, while La Belle Dame is a dangerous beauty, he is distraught to wake from his dream and find her gone; part of him wanted to remain enthralled by her. And surely the cruelty that Keats speaks of in his question to Fanny Brawne ("Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom") is a "cruelty" in which he delights. It is a freedom he is glad to surrender. I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again: we humans are meant to give ourselves to something. We're made to lay ourselves down for something, be it a cause or a person, that is more worth fighting for and in some way dying for than our own comforts. Maybe "entrammeled" doesn't dig quite so deep and heady as that, but it's in the same direction: being completely undone, being at peace with the surrender of freedom, being captivated, surrounded, enveloped and overcome by something lovely and strong, graceful and worthwhile, something far superior to ourselves.


  1. Wow! Those old dead poets sure knew how to write. Ellie, you are dead on about the word, “entrammelled” and its implications for, as you put it so well, life on earth as an opportunity to, “…lay ourselves down for something…that is more worth fighting for and in some way dying for than our own comforts.” Well said!

    I especially liked Keats’ criteria for the letter he wanted back from Fanny, “…make it rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me – write the softest words…I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair.” Yipes! Imagine someone writing that to his girl friend today? I can only imagine her response: “Hey, dude. I mean like you need to chill.”

  2. Thank you for your response! If you want to read more of his letters, a number of them are online, and there is a book of them, too (Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne, Penguin Books, introduction by Jane Campion). Though I must warn you, it has a horrific cover. I'm considering taking my copy to a book binder and giving it the necessary treatment.

    Well, hopefully in modern day a man with such a passion (both for his lady-friend and for words) would only fall in love with a girl who, if she didn't love him in return, could at least more eloquently rebuff his advances :)

  3. Two things, "so my lips can touch where yours have"? Ok, your mom is rolling her eyes at you.

    The thing about needing other words to express what is so deeply felt reminds me of that great scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen says to Annie that "I love you" just isn't strong enough, no, he "lurfs" her.

    Ok, well , more than two-- I love The Fair Singer. I think it is so funny that he says if it had only been one way in which you were beautiful I'd have been able to withstand it, but throw in that voice and I am a goner!

    About La Belle Dame, don't you think the problem is that he is "entrammeled" still? Thus that "entrammelment" can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on to whom or what you allow yourself to be entrammeled? Scott Dupree says she is the poetic muse, and that because he tried to entrammel her, to seize her and control her, that she vanished. And there he is left with her other castoffs. What an immage.

  4. I love this word! Wait, is it a word? Google doesn't have it. Oh, is that the point? Well I think Andrew Jackson would be right in this case. Thanks, Ellen, for sharing your edifying thoughts.