|Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton
Over the course of his lifetime, John Keats wrote an immense amount of letters to his family, close friends, and to his love, Fanny Brawne. Though most known for his literary works, Keats’ letters can be seen as a documentation of his life in the five years preceding his death, with the earliest dated at October 13, 1816. Over 250 of these letters survive today, with the longest installment extending to over fifty pages.
The people to whom Keats wrote his letters can be broken down into three categories: family, close friends, and Fanny Brawne. While he wrote over 250 letters, some noteworthy names are listed below. A more comprehensive list of letters can be found here.
- George and Georgiana Keats
- Fanny Keats
- George and Thomas Keats
- Benjamin Bailey
- Percy Bysshe Shelley
- John Hamilton Reynolds
- Benjamin Robert Haydon
- Charles Brown
|A letter to Thomas, Keats’ brother
The letters cover a variety of topics, including friendship, national identity, and women. Because Keats did not write them as a collection, their subject mattertends to differ. Along with this diversity of topics, they served multiple purposes as well. Keats’ wrote essays, prefaces to some of his works, and defenses of his writing through the format of his letters. They manage to capture Keats’ personality, outline his poetic development, and begin the conversation of aesthetics in poetry. In doing this, Keats made several of his ideas famous. These include the truth of imagination, negative capability, the burden of mystery, and soul-making.
The Truth of Imagination
“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination–What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth–whether it existed before or not–for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.”
– John Keats, in a letter to Benjamin Bailey dated November 22, 1817
In many of his letters, Keats insists that true knowledge is not to be found in abstract analysis, but instead through one’s heart and imagination. This aligns with the ideas of the literary movement of Romanticism, which placed emphasis on the importance of the imagination. Keats expresses in his letters that works of imagination considered beautiful, such as art or literature, are just as much “truth” as something deemed undeniable.
“…at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously–I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
– John Keats, in a letter to George and Thomas Keats dated December 21, 1817
In several letters, Keats writes about the idea of negative capability, which he defines as a person’s ability to live with the doubts and uncertainties of life. Keats believes the quest for certainty to be doomed for failure, and thus finds it “irritable.” Instead, he believes people should be comfortable with the amount of information they can gain, and accept everything else as unknowable. This once again is characteristic of the Romantic period, which focused more on imagination than on empirical facts and reason.
The Burden of Mystery
“…the heavy and the weary weight/Of all this unintelligible world.”
– William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey,” the inspiration for the term “the burden of mystery”
Keats makes several references in his letters to the mysteries of life. However, a particular mystery he finds himself most puzzled by is that he believes beauty to overcome all thoughts, but that poets lacking thought will never be great. However, a negatively capable person does not experience this mystery as a burden, because they are able to simply accept it; it is the pursuit of certainty that causes this mystery to become a burden.
“Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, It is the Minds Bible, it is the Minds experience, it is the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity.”
– John Keats, in a letter to George and Georgiana Keats dated February 14, 1819
Keats deals with the problems of evil and suffering through beauty. Though evil exists, by seeing all events, even those overwhelmingly negative, as beautiful, one can lesson the weight of theinevitable. He suggests that souls must be made, and that pain is imperative to this cause. Though occasionally thought of as being identical to the idea of negative capability, the idea of soul-making is, in reality, a reaffirmation of it.
“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, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, about Keats’ letters
Keats’ letters are commonly seen as some of the most important letters written during the Romantic period. Though his peers were writing essays, Keats focused on his poetry. However, his letters served to explain much of what he would put into an essay had he written one. Furthermore, the wisdom displayed in his letters is beyond that of his age. As described by Lionel Trilling in his preface to Keats’ letters, the letters convey the contradictions in Keats’ mind, especially “the wisdom of maturity arising from the preoccupations of youth” (5). Furthermore, Keats’ was one of the first writers to have his letters considered part of the literary canon. Not only do they reveal a great deal about Keats, but also about the world during his time.
Hilton, William. John Keats. Digital image. National Portrait Gallery. National Portrait Gallery, 2014. Web. 18 May 2014
Hirst, Wolf Z. John Keats. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981. Print.
Keats, John. Keats’s signature. Digital image. Keats-Shelley House. Keats Shelley House, 2010. Web. 18 May 2014
Keats, John. Letter from Keats to his brother Tom. Digital Image. On Sri Chinmoy’s Sunlit Path. Priyardashan, 2014. Web. 18 May 2014
Keats, John. Letters of John Keats to His Family and Friends. Ed. Sidney Colvin. Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, 28 Mar. 2011. Web. 17 May 2014
Trilling, Lionel. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Selected Letters of John Keats. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1951. 3-54. Print.
Whale, John. John Keats. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.
Page Contributor: Tricia Pennington