The Letters of John Keats
John Keats has over 240 surviving letters that were addressed to family and friends.These letters typify the predominant nineteenth-century means of communication containing everyday inquiries about health, social planning and arrangements, and general gossip. His poetry includes many passages of literary interest which are often seen in drafts of poems–some of these are written in verse. He discusses his personal relationship with poetry, his theories of Beauty and Truth, the Imagination, Negative Capability and Soul making. He displays a talent for literary criticism while discussing Milton, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare. The latter is his favorite writer, explaining the many quotations from his plays, as well as biblical and classical references in his letters. His surviving letters, written mainly over the last five years of his life (1816-1821), reveal his loving family connections, his joyful comradeship with his friends, and his passion for Fanny Brawne. Unfortunately, family deaths, ill-health, money problems and quarreling friends are also present. When we read Keats’ reactions to poetic criticism (which are quite objective compared to what Shelley would have us believe), we get an idea of the “ardours” of writing as well as some sharp comments on women (mother, sister and sweetheart excepted of course).
John Keats maintained correspondence with the recipients listed below.
For a chronological listing and archive of his letters, please click here.
For an example of an original manuscript of a letter, please click here.
Selected recipients include:
George and Thomas Keats
John Hamilton Reynolds
George and Georgiana Keats
Percy Bysshe Shelley
“His letters are what letters ought to be: the fine things come in unexpectedly, neither introduced nor shown out, but between trifle and trifle.”
T.S. Eliot (Modern Library)
The Importance of the Letters
Keats’ contemporaries wrote specific essays and prefaces in defense of poetry, but Keats did not. He is known for the luxurious and sensational quality of his poems. These works of “art for art’s sake” leave an impression of a young sensual poet who lacks depth. When his biography was published almost thirty years after his death, his letters revealed the depth to which he had thought about poetry and life. Norton claimed that Keats explored every seed of thought that he and his friends Cole and Hazlitt discussed, and these letters do indeed show that no examination of any subject was final. He was always pursuing new meaning. (p 940)
T. S. Eliot believed his judgment of poetry to be “genius” for a man so young. His ‘philosophic mind’ allowed him to shed his ego and “let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.” Walter Jackson Bate believed that this saved him from not having to reject any thought that cannot be “wrenched into a …systematic structure of one’s own making” (Modern Library). Lionel Trilling wrote that in Keats “we have the wisdom of maturity arising from the preoccupations of youth.” (p 5)Keats spent his short life discussing and pursuing the “burden of the mystery.’ ( Keats liked to use Wordsworth’s phrase)
On Being a Poet
“I have asked myself so often why I should be a Poet more than other Men, – seeing how great a thing it is, – how great things are to be gained by it – What a thing to be in the Mouth of Fame – that at last the Idea has grown so monstrously beyond my seeming Power of attainment that the other day I nearly consented with myself to drop into a Phaeton – yet ’tis a disgrace to fail even in a huge attempt, and at this moment I drive the thought from me.”
Poetry was clearly the dominant power and driving force behind Keats’ short life. He writes passionately to his friends about his ambitions, about poetry and death, and his dedication to literary achievement. At one point he writes, “I read and write about eight hours a day.” and expresses his dedication to perfection when he states, “…truth is I have been in such a state of Mind as to read over my Lines and hate them.” In his letters to his colleagues and his brother, his poetic outlook on life and nature is outstanding and shows that it is possible to achieve the most perfect representation of poetic existence. On June 25-27, 1818, John Keats writes to his brother: “I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavor of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, by the finest spirits, and put into ethereal existence for the relish of one’s fellows.” Keats is seemingly aware of his gift and strives to perfect his existing talents in order to achieve and exude what it truly is to be, in his mind, an enlightened poet.
Keats defines negative capability as, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” On a personal level, poetry is shaped by a writer’s personal interests and beliefs. Objectively, however, the poet is receptive to “uncertainties” of experience, like death, sickness or unknowing. Any contrariness is overcome by Beauty. (Norton p 942 footnote) He believed Shakespeare was a master of seeing the truth in all the honesty of its contradictions. In a letter to Richard Woodhouse in October, 1818, (Norton p 947) Keats claims that the poet is a “(camelion… is it supposed to be chameleon?),” relishing the dark side as well as the bright “because they both end in speculation.” He has “as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.” “A poet has to show some truth and pleasure and overcome any unpleasant aspect,” and just as a philosopher or scientist arrives at a conclusion, a poem must be a conclusive work, and Beauty is what enables him to arrive at a complete work of art.
“Truth is Beauty”
According to The Norton Anthology, this expression could also be known as “beauty is reality” or “beauty is real” which basically breaks down to the fact that beauty is all around us. “O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” Since the publication of “Ode to Grecian Urn,” in 1819, one of the most widely and deeply discussed lines has been, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ -that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” This statement becomes “true” for every person when beautiful moments occur. These instants of beauty are associated with life actions, and are consequently interpreted in an infinite amount of ways. The message Keats wishes to convey is that poetry may be the mode for the expression of beauty. In a letter to his brother and sister in 1819, he wrote, “The great beauty of Poetry is, that it makes every thing every place interesting.” A few years prior to “Grecian Urn,” Keats wrote a letter to Benjamin Bailey (1817) which documented the beginnings of the beauty/ truth theology, “What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth.” If beauty is true, it raises a good question. What is beauty? It is no definitive thing. We might be able to find examples of beauty, but beauty itself is merely a concept. This concept is truthful to each human, individually. This transcendent view of beauty is something that marked the Romantic period of British literature.
Keats believed that experience was the key to finding our souls, that our hearts and minds arrive at a divinity in this world. He did not believe that we struggle in this “vale of tears” and are taken to heaven by God. “What a little circumscribed and straightened notion,” he writes to his brother and sister-in-law in 1819. Our intelligences are “sparks of the divinity..atoms of perception” that know, see and are God. They ‘become’ souls “by the medium of a world like this.” The world is like a school of learning in which our heart through circumstances learns to have a soul. Man’s heart is tested by his experience and his altered nature is his soul. (Norton p 952)
Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats, Introduction by Edward Hirsch, The Modern Library, New York, 2001
“John Keats: Selected Letters.” [Online] Available http://englishhistory.net/keats/letters.html, May 10, 2008.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eight Edition, Vol. 2
Trilling, Lionel The Selected Letters of John Keats, Edited with an Introduction by Lionel Trilling, Farrar, Straus and Young, New York, 1951
“Picture of John Keats’ Signature.” Available: http://englishhistory.net/keats/letters.html
“John Keats.” Bio. A&E Television Network, 2014. Web. 14 May 2014.