"I sat down to read King Lear yesterday, and felt the greatness of the thing up to the writing of a Sonnet preparatory thereto," writes John Keats to his Oxford friend, Benjamin Bailey. There we have a tribute from genius to genius indeed, and a key to the character of the young Keats who, dead these 180 years, is still with us as vividly and warmly as when he moved among his circle of friends and was their lode-star and their hope -- a hope which to them may seem never to have been fulfilled. Yet here we are at the beginning of the 21st century, prepared to recognize him as still able to lead us in thought where we have not as yet trod, though we have come forward a good way since his time. In spite of his brief life and briefer flowering, packed into those few bright and tragic years was the wisdom and experience of lifetimes; and the essence of that is perhaps most easily come at in his letters.
All students of Keats agree that his letters are among our greatest literary treasures. As Lionel Trilling says in the Introduction to his collection of the letters:
even among the great artists Keats is perhaps the only one whose letters are of such kind as to have an interest which is virtually equal to that of their writer's canon of created work. -- The Selected Letters of John Keats, 1951, p. 3
They are a floodlight on the life of the poet, and illuminate the background of his poetry; therefore they are inseparable from both. But you do not have to be "literary" to enjoy them. You have only to be human -- with a trust in something more than human -- for these letters bring the reader within the glow of Keats's own mind and heart. His poetry takes us into the imperishable realm of the Beauty he loved; but the letters are Keats himself.
They keep pace with his swiftly-moving life; they picture what he is doing or feeling at the moment; in them small incidents become adventures; they are gossipy in the best sense of the word, abounding in original comment on people and things innumerable. And the play of language can only be described as Shakespearean in its richness and spontaneity. Keats wanders with ease and freedom in the forest of words, and we follow along delightedly.
"I will be as punctual as the Bee to the Clover," he writes to Cowden Clarke in accepting an invitation. To John Hamilton Reynolds he writes: "You must soon bring all your present troubles to a close, and so must I, but we must, like the Fox, prepare for a fresh swarm of flies." And on arriving in the Isle of Wight for the first go at his Endymion:
at this moment I am about to become settled, for I have unpacked my books, put them into a snug corner -- pinned up Haydon -- Mary Queen [of] Scotts, and Milton with his daughters in a row. In the passage I found a head of Shakespeare which I had not before seen. . . . Well -- this head I have hung over my Books, just above the three in a row, having first discarded a french Ambassador -- now this alone is a good morning's work.
Money troubles, he says to Haydon, "are not like Envy and detraction stimulants to further exertion . . . but rather like a nettle leaf or two in your bed."
There is plenty of fun and fooling in the letters, and there are times when Keats breaks into rhyme, either with some unforgettable doggerel, or to copy in a new poem that he has just completed. There is something new happening in almost every line, and the torrent of thought comes so fast that the pen can scarcely keep up with it -- in this case commas are of no moment. All of which gives the reader a breathless feeling of being pulled along at great speed -- rather odd for those leisurely days (1816-21). But this is perhaps one reason why Keats seems rather to belong to our own fast-moving age. He certainly was ahead of his own.
Keats was a member of Leigh Hunt's brilliant circle, where he met Shelley and Wordsworth, Lamb and Hazlitt, as well as Haydon, the painter: his comments on these celebrities and others have been fairly borne out by the verdict of time. Hunt and Haydon he largely outgrew, also his early worship of Wordsworth and of Byron. His coolness to Shelley, which has been attributed to the rather mean motive of a sense of the difference in their social status, we should note he explains in a letter to Bailey as due to his need of having his "own unfetterd Scope" -- there is real occultism in that; and modern thinkers will understand it and find it sufficient.
The brilliant sallies of wit in his letters are, however, hardly more than sunny sparkles on the surface of the deep-flowing stream of his life. There is present from the first that thread of ultimate intent that was his destiny. As early as 1816 he had written to Haydon: "I begin to fix my eye upon one horizon." And to show the extent of the interior pressure that was on him he writes to Reynolds in 1817:
I find that I cannot exist without poetry -- without eternal poetry -- half the day will not do -- the whole of it -- I began with a little, but habit has made me a Leviathan -- I had become all in a Tremble from not having written anything of late -- the Sonnet over leaf* did me some good. I slept the better last night for it -- this Morning, however, I am nearly as bad again.
*On the Sea. The one beginning: "It keeps eternal Whisperings around/Desolate shores . . ."
It had been his reading of Spenser while still at school that had awakened Keats's genius: Shakespeare he read and pondered constantly, and he wrote to Haydon:
I remember your saying that you had notions of a good Genius presiding over you. I have of late had the same thought -- for things which [I] do half at Random are afterwards confirmed by my judgment in a dozen features of Propriety. Is it too daring to Fancy Shakespeare this Presidor?
When he speaks in this same letter of the artist's "readiness to Measure time by what is done" -- i.e., accomplished, Keats is already reflecting his prophetic sense of his time being short in this life -- he died at 25. There is too his Sonnet, "When I have fears that I may cease to be," and the letter to Bailey where he says: "I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness -- I look not for it if it be not in the present hour -- nothing startles me beyond the Moment." Dr. Trilling remarks: "He was one of that class of geniuses who early learn to trust themselves in an essential way."
John Keats (1795-1821), From a posthumous portrait by Joseph Severn
One of the greatest charms of the letters is the appealing candor with which Keats communicates to his friends in perfect trust the high inspiriting visions that he felt rising in his soul, always pointing to something higher, a present exertion to lead to a future good. He writes:
I mean to follow Solomon's directions of 'get Wisdom -- get understanding' . . . I find that I can have no enjoyment in the World but continual drinking of Knowledge -- I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good for the world . . .
Keats' aspects of character gleam and glance through the letters, showing how very human he was, how well-balanced in practical things; how unaloof from the considerable men he counted his friends, and with what a serious humility he gradually came to recognize the gift that was his and strove by systematic application to use it worthily. Looking into most books about Keats, however, we are struck by two things: first, how easy it is for the best of minds to fall into previously prepared grooves; and second, the responsibility that attaches to formulating a criticism in words -- too often it creates a dogma that dies hard. For this reason we would be well advised to allow ourselves to form our own true impression from our reading of Keats' letters.
Going back to originals whenever possible to form one's own impressions has its application to the Fanny Brawne letters, those letters that were never meant for any eyes but hers. Hardly have they ever been commented upon without the shade of Mrs. Grundy peering over the critic's shoulder. It remains for modern students to see the whole episode of Keats' tragic final days in its true light -- his reactions the most natural in the world. A strong soul of larger range than the ordinary, there was indeed an "epic greatness" about the tragic as well as the auspicious in his life -- but there is no doubt that it was demanded of that soul that it drink the cup of bitterness to the dregs in full consciousness, for only so comes a still greater wisdom.
Whether considering the life or the works of any one of the great, we are always unconsciously looking for "the things that matter." We want to know what there is of enduring worth. Now this need not be in a philosophy spoken in so many words; though it often is so, it is quite as often something suggested that conveys itself through the channels of intuitive perception, rather than of reason. This is true of Keats' poetry at its finest. We are lifted out into a world of impersonal Beauty (in his own sense of the highly spiritual), which is the natural home of the soul. Wisdom is native there, and we take of it whatever we can bring away. However, we look in vain for the didactic; it was the one thing which he abhorred. "We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us," he exclaims in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds.
But with Keats' letters it was somewhat different. In them, when the spirit took him, he poured forth his inmost ponderings on the underlying shape of life and what it was all for. These portions of the letters can be called Keats's self-intuited philosophy, and they form undoubtedly the most valuable portions. But I do not doubt, if we could have knowledge of most of the secret thoughts of human beings today, that we would find similar preoccupations in every thinking mind, but in varying degrees of perception.
Most famous of all these projected seeds of philosophy is Keats' "Vale of Soul-making" in contrast to the "vale of tears" idea:
Call the world if you Please "The vale of Soul-making." Then you will find out the use of the world . . . I say 'Soul-making' Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence -- There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions -- but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. . . . Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? . . . Seriously I think it probable that this System of Soul-making -- may have been the Parent of all the more palpable and personal Schemes of Redemption, among the Zoroastrians the Christians and the Hindoos.
Not only is this reminiscent of the teachings of Jacob Boehme and William Blake, but it is actually the fundamental teaching in the metaphysics of all the ancient religions. No doubt Keats had contacted these ideas in the course of his wide reading, but his intuition had recognized them as essential truth.
The question of the general good of the human race and its evolution along spiritual lines occupies Keats considerably, as in this famous passage:
Now it appears to me that almost any Man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel -- the points of leaves and twigs on which the spider begins her work are few, and she fills the air with a beautiful circuiting. Man should be content with as few points to tip with the fine Web of his Soul, and weave a tapestry empyrean full of symbols for his spiritual eye . . .
So he proceeds to show that if every man would reach out for the divine and "whisper results to his neighbour,"
every human might become great, and Humanity instead of being a wide heath of Furze and Briars with here and there a remote Oak or Pine, would become a grand democracy of Forest Trees!
It is certain that in his search for Beauty Keats often found Truth -- and again it is human life that occupies him, and human consciousness:
Well -- I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments . . . The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think -- We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of this thinking principle within us -- we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of, is that tremendous one of sharpening one's vision into the heart and nature of Man -- of convincing one's nerves that the world is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression -- whereby this Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken'd and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open -- but all dark -- all leading to dark passages -- We see not the ballance of good and evil. . . . We are now in that state -- we feel the "burden of the Mystery" . . .
There are other ideas that Keats develops, which the present generation is far better prepared to understand than was his own; they all lead to the freeing of the human mind from the bands of prejudice and dogma through a quite different and superior use of the faculties. One he calls Negative Capability:
that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason -- Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.
In this same direction lie Keats' much misunderstood ejaculation, "O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!" and his conception of what he calls "diligent Indolence," in the famous letter to Reynolds of February 19, 1818. He is listening to an early thrush, and hears it sing:
O fret not after knowledge -- I have none,
And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
O fret not after knowledge -- I have none,
And yet the Evening listens . . .
These "sudden gleams and intuitions" of Keats invite to contemplative study. They are hardly more than hints, but they are glorious hints -- and sufficient to start the soul on a voyage of discovery of its own. Out of the hurly-burly of modern life there is emerging a mind-set better able to appreciate some of the deeper aspects of philosophic thought independent of accepted dogma. Students today, once they realize the treasures that are in them, are not going to leave the letters of Keats coffined on library shelves. They will be brought out into the light and put to a creative use important to our civilization.
(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 2001; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)