Indolence and Disinterestedness

Beth Lau
California State University, Long Beach

Re: Keats’s 14 February–3 May 1819 letter to George and Georgiana Keats

Keats’s long journal letter to his brother and sister-in-law, begun on 14 February and ending 3 May 1819, is surely one of the most valuable we have, as it covers the period of his most fertile creativity, when he wrote “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and most of the odes. The 19 March 1819 entry marks a crucial turning point in Keats’s development that spring. Before this date, the journal letter is filled with reports of various disappointments, anxieties and frustrations: the poor sales of Endymion and harsh reviews of his work, causing him to wonder if he should abandon poetry and pursue a medical career; the fact that he hasn’t had a letter from George and doesn’t know how he is doing; and writer’s block. He reports being at a standstill with Hyperion and confesses, “to tell the truth I have not been in great cue for writing lately” (Letters2: 62; see also 2: 58, 65, 70). Although Keats doesn’t mention it, perhaps to avoid upsetting George, he must also have been grieving his brother Tom, who died in December 1818. The 19 March letter, however, brims with playful humor, sensuousness, and profound speculation on some of the issues that concerned Keats most deeply and that figure in many of his other memorable letters and poems. What can account for the release of energy and expression we witness in Keats’s writing on this date?

One explanation involves the physical and emotional state Keats is in when he composes the letter. The previous entry, from 17 March 1819, describes a visit “to Davenports’ w[h]ere I dined—and had a nap. I cannot bare a day anhilated in that manner,” Keats declares, and he goes on to insist that “there is a great difference between an easy and an uneasy indolence” (Letters 2: 77). The 19 March section begins in a state of “easy indolence” and demonstrates the pleasures and rewards of that condition. Keats reports that he has a black eye from playing cricket the day before and that he slept “till nearly eleven” in the morning. It is likely that Charles Brown, whom Keats says “{app}lied a lee{ch to} the eyelid” after his sports injury, also administered some opium to ease the pain (see Bate 465; Motion 361). If so, the drug probably contributed to the poet’s lengthy slumber as well as the mood he is in as he writes the letter, which he describes as “a sort of temper indolent and supremely careless.” His long sleep has subdued his “Passions” and “weakened the animal fibre all over me to a delightful sensation about three degrees on this side of faintness. . . . This is the only happiness,” he concludes, “and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind” (2: 78-79). His mind and emotions do not remain in abeyance, however, as the letter launches into a heart-felt, deeply engaged exploration of suffering, sympathy, the life force, and the nature of poetry, among other topics.

The catalyst is a note he receives from William Haslam reporting that his father is expected to die shortly. Keats’s empathic nature cannot remain indifferent to this news of his friend’s imminent loss, and it serves as evidence for him that human life can never be free for long of pain and struggle. “Even so,” he admits, “we have leisure to reason on the misfortunes of our friends; our own touch us too nearly for words. Very few men have ever arrived at a complete disinterestedness of Mind: very few have been influenced by a pure desire of the benefit of others” (2: 79). “Disinterestedness” is a concept Keats began celebrating in the fall of 1817, during and shortly after his visit with Benjamin Bailey in Oxford (see Letters 1: 160, 205). The term probably derived from William Hazlitt’s Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805) (introduced to Keats by Bailey), which sought to refute philosophers such as Hobbes who claim that people are naturally selfish and to prove instead that empathy and concern for others are inherent in human nature (see Bate 201-2, 216, 255-59, 586).

In the 19 March portion of his journal letter, Keats considers the question of whether selflessness is natural or an aberration in human nature. For the most part, he perceives a common drive in all living organisms to fulfill their basic needs. “The greater part of Men make their way with the same instinctiveness, the same unwandering eye from their purposes, the same animal eagerness as the Hawk” (2: 79). Human beings, like other animals, seek mates, shelter, food, and leisure. Nonetheless, Keats then invokes Wordsworth’s assertion (in “The Old Cumberland Beggar” 153) that “‘we have all one human heart’—there is an ellectric fire in human nature tending to purify—so that among these human creature[s] there is continually some birth of new heroism” (2: 80). Alan Richardson notes that “ellectric fire” probably refers to the theory of “electrical neural transmission” proposed by John Hunter, which Keats learned from Astley Cooper in his studies at Guy’s Hospital. According to Hunter, impulses are transmitted to and from the brain via an “electric fluid” that courses through the nerves (Richardson 122, 124). This allusion to human anatomy, in combination with the passage from Wordsworth, implies that acts of benevolence are as natural and innate as more selfish impulses.

But Keats continues to consider the mixed evidence for and against disinterestedness as an inherent human trait. If it is to some degree implanted in all people, significant acts of selflessness are rare, so that “we must wonder at [them]: as we should at finding a pearl in rubbish.” He can think of only two people who were “comp[l]etely disinterested,” Socrates and Jesus. Keats can reach no firm conclusions: “I am however young writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness—without knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion” (Letters 2: 80).

These reflections on self-centered and selfless impulses lead Keats to consider another opposition: between the goals and types of mental activity that distinguish poetry and philosophy. He characterizes his own thought process as “instinctive,” parallel to “the alertness of a Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer,” animated by graceful “energies” even if “erroneous,” and he concludes, “This is the very thing in which consists poetry; and if so it is not so fine a thing as philosophy—For the same reason that an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth” (2: 80-81). Keats quotes lines from Milton’s Comus celebrating “divine Philosophy” and claims he is now in “a state of mind to relish them properly,” as he did not in the past. “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced—Even a Proverb is no proverb to you till your Life has illustrated it,” he insists, echoing a statement from his 3 May 1818 letter to Reynolds that “axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses” (1: 279; see also 2: 18).

The fact that Keats cites Milton’s Comus to support his assertion that philosophy is superior to poetry actually undermines that claim, since Comus itself is a poem. In other respects, the 19 March 1819 letter tends to emphasize connections and interrelations rather than distinctions between what Keats had previously called “Sensations” and “Thoughts” or a “sense of the luxurious” as opposed to a “love for Philosophy” (Letters 1: 185, 271), for it suggests that the “languor[ous]” state he is in when he begins the letter, in which “the body overpower[s] the Mind,” is actually conducive to the mental journey that ensues (Letters 2: 78, 79).

Several other letters help to explain this connection between a relaxed body and productive thoughts. One is Keats’s 19 February 1818 letter to Reynolds that celebrates “delicious diligent Indolence” (1: 231). In that piece Keats describes how reading a passage of poetry or prose can initiate a “voyage of conception” that engages soul, body, and mind: a man, like a spider, should engage in reflections that “weave a tapestry empyrean—full of Symbols for his spiritual eye, of softness for his spiritual touch, of space for his wandering of distinctness for his Luxury” (1: 232). The key to initiating this fruitful mental and sensory experience is to be “passive and receptive,” more like a “flower than [a] Bee,” entertaining whatever thoughts occur and whatever information enters through the senses. This passage in turn recalls Keats’s ideal of negative capability, the condition in which a “man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Letters 1: 193).  As many scholars have noted, the ideal of negative capability is also exemplified in Keats’s definition of the “poetical Character” as a person who loses his own identity as he enters wholeheartedly into those of the beings he creates (Letters 1: 386-87). Finally, in a 24 September 1819 letter Keats criticizes his friend Dilke for being “a Man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his Mind about every thing. The only means of strengthening one’s intellect,” Keats insists, “is to make up ones mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. . . . Dilke will never come at a truth as long as he lives; because he is always trying at it” (Letters 2: 213). All of these passages praise a state of passivity, a letting go of one’s personal preoccupations, and an openness to all thoughts and impressions that for Keats is conducive to creativity, to morality, and to knowledge, the latter of which is more likely to involve partial insights than settled conclusions. This mental receptivity is typically aided by a contented body enjoying soothing sensations. “Diligent Indolence” is “delicious”; it feels good.

In the same way the 19 March 1819 section of Keats’s journal letter begins with Keats experiencing a luxurious, “languor[ous]” state of “delightful sensation” (2: 78). The fact that he had been playing cricket the day before, engaging in strenuous physical activity, as well as the opium he took, which probably induced a mild euphoria and broke down inhibitions, no doubt contributed to his bodily and mental ease. The personal losses and anxieties that had been troubling Keats for months were alleviated by this mood, in a way that perhaps made it easier for him to respond empathetically to the news of Haslam’s misfortune than if he had still been mired in his own concerns.

As Keats learned in his medical training, the senses, the emotions, and the mind are not distinct but are interrelated, all elements of the systems that animate and regulate the human organism. Besides the reference to “an ellectric fire in human nature” already mentioned, numerous other passages in the 19 March entry suggest an empirical, scientific outlook that links body and mind. Keats’s description of his indolent state as one in which “the animal fibre all over me” is “weakened” and the “fibres of [his] brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body” (Letters 2: 78) emphasizes that body and brain are composed of the same materials and influence one another (on the theory that the brain is made up of fibers, see Goellnicht 138-39; and on a similar topic, see Jeanne Britton’s recent KLP post on “irritability”). The declaration “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced” reflects a belief that ideas should not be accepted as mere mental constructs but should be acquired by direct observation and personal confirmation of the causes and effects that give rise to them (see Goellnicht 122-25; Richardson 117). Keats’s inclination in the letter to link human and nonhuman animals, to regard much of human activity, even thoughts, as instinctive drives that serve our survival needs, also reflects an awareness of the biological nature of all experience, bodily and mental.

Finally, at the end of the letter when Keats introduces his sonnet “Why did I laugh tonight?” he suggests the close association between feelings and thoughts. “[T]he first steps to” his sonnet, he says, “were throug[h] my human passions—they went away, and I wrote with my Mind—and perhaps I must confess a little bit of my heart” (Letters 2: 81). Keats’s account of his poem’s composition has parallels to recent findings of neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio.  According to Damasio, the processing of emotion involves three stages: the first, which he calls emotion, involves the unconscious triggering of survival-oriented physiological responses; the second stage, which he calls feelings, is when “emotions . . . have an impact on the mind, as they occur, in the here and now”; and the third stage, which can only occur in creatures that possess consciousness, is when we become aware of our feelings and can name and reflect on them, so that they “permeate the thought process” (56; see also 37 and chapters 2 and 9 passim). Keats, like Damasio, represents “passions” as the initial experience, of which he eventually becomes aware and can describe and evaluate with his “Mind”—though in the end he has trouble making a firm distinction and realizes that his “heart” is still infusing his thoughts.

Keats’s scientific background is not the only source of his ideas and outlook in this letter. Literature also plays a significant role, especially that of Wordsworth, Milton, and James Thomson, whose The Castle of Indolence (1748) Keats says he “long[s] after” (Letters 2: 78). Thomson’s Spenserian allegorical poem ostensibly exposes the drawbacks and dangers of idleness and advocates the virtue of work. In Canto 1, however, the pleasures of an indolent lifestyle are described so persuasively that the poem’s point of view may appear ambivalent; as James Sambrook notes, Thomson “introduces a moral haziness . . . that we do not find in Spenser” in his treatment of slothful and industrious behavior (Thomson 167).

In several respects, the poem offers a defense of the indolent state similar to Keats’s celebration of “easy” and “delicious, diligent Indolence.” The Wizard who presides over the Castle argues that

from the Source of tender Indolence,

With milky Blood the Heart is overflown,

Is sooth’d and sweeten’d by the social Sense

For Interest, Envy, Pride, and Strife are banish’d hence. (1.15.132-35)

The “indulgent Ease” described in this stanza (1.15.127) is conducive to virtue, to a relinquishing of focus on personal gain and a kindness toward other people similar to Keats’s disinterestedness. Indolence in Thomson’s poem also fosters a free flow of ideas and poetic composition. One of the most popular activities in the Castle is “indulg[ing] the Muse” (1.18.156), and the figure who represents Thomson is said to “[Pour] forth his unpremeditated Strain” as he rambles through the countryside (1.68.607). Stanzas 40-41 in Canto 1 describe the celestial music produced by “The Harp of Æolus,” that symbol of the poet as a responsive instrument for nature to play upon that became popular with Romantic poets such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and others (see Abrams). The concepts expressed in Thomson’s poem have parallels with Keats’s various statements claiming that a body and mind at ease and open to all thoughts and sensations is a state fruitful to creativity, to the pursuit of truths “proved upon the pulses,” and to a suspension of ego that inspires benevolence.

Among the poems written in the next few months, the one that may appear most indebted to the 19 March 1819 entry is the “Ode on Indolence,” which re-enacts the scenario Keats describes in the letter when he says that “Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness of countenance as they pass by me: they seem rather like three figures on a greek vase” (Letters 2: 79). In the “Ode on Indolence,” the speaker similarly has a vision of “three figures,” identified as Love, Ambition, and “my demon Poesy,” who pass by him “like figures on a marble urn” and entice him to follow them (1, 5, 30). The speaker resists their appeal, however, and is content to remain enveloped in “The blissful cloud of summer-indolence,” in which “Pain had no sting, and pleasure’s wreath no flower” (16, 18), a passage that recalls the statement in Keats’s letter that “pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable frown” (Letters 2: 78-79). In one important respect, however, the experience recounted in the ode is quite different from that of 19 March 1819. Instead of remaining in a state in which feelings and thoughts are suppressed, in the letter Keats allows his mind to become “a thoroughfare for all thoughts” and for the emotions that trigger them. For all that he appears at ease, the speaker in “Ode on Indolence” may actually be inhibited by defense mechanisms. Grant Scott believes the figures of Poetry, Ambition, and Love are associated for Keats with women and femininity and that the speaker of “Indolence” rejects them and thus aborts the mental journey on which they would have led him from a deep-seated fear of emasculation (96-118).

The ode that most resembles Keats’s 19 March reflections, I argue, is “Ode to a Nightingale,” which begins with the speaker in a drowsy, drugged-like state, whereupon an external impression (bird song in the ode, corresponding to Haslam’s note in the letter) sets off a meditation revolving around central questions about human suffering and mortality as well as the nature and value of poetry and the imagination. In the ode, as in the letter, the speaker’s mind freely entertains all thoughts, even those that are unwelcome and that challenge his initial assumptions (such as that the nightingale inhabits a timeless realm divorced from pain and loss that is preferable to his human condition). As in the letter too, the speaker in the Nightingale ode reaches no settled conclusions by the end of the poem (“Do I wake or sleep?”), but one can say that he has advanced in self-awareness, just as the one virtue or accomplishment Keats claims for himself in the letter is that he “strive[s]—to know [him]self” (Letters 2: 81). 

In this section of Keats’s journal letter, as in “Ode to a Nightingale” and other of his most memorable poems, we witness negative capability in action, the condition of passive receptivity to emotions, sensations, and thoughts that Keats describes and celebrates under various names, including in this letter “languor” or, as he corrects himself in self-deprecating fashion, “Laziness” (2: 78). Despite his playful mockery of his “temper indolent and supremely careless,” the letter goes on to demonstrate the value of that condition, as Keats engages in serious and searching reflections enabled by his bodily and mental ease. Following this letter, Keats’s unproductive period was at an end. He returned to Hyperion until he made the firm decision to abandon it (see Bate 466-67; Motion 360-61); then came “La Belle Dames sans Merci,” the odes, and in the course of the summer and fall the other remarkable poems of his annus mirabilis. “Delicious, diligent Indolence” indeed.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. “The Correspondent Breeze: A Romantic Metaphor.” 1957. English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by M. H. Abrams, 2nd ed., Oxford UP, 1975, pp. 37-54.

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Harvard UP, 1964.

Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Harvest-Harcourt, 1999.

Goellnicht, Donald C. The Poet-Physician: Keats and Medical Science. U of Pittsburgh P, 1984.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Edited by Hyder E. Rollins, 2nd ed., 2 vols., Harvard UP, 1965.

—. The Poems of John Keats. Edited by Jack Stillinger, Harvard UP, 1978.

Motion, Andrew. Keats. U of Chicago P, 1997.

Richardson, Alan. British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind. Cambridge UP, 2001.

Scott, Grant F. The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts. UP of New England, 1994.

Thomson, James. Liberty, The Castle of Indolence, and Other Poems. Edited with Introduction and Commentary by James Sambrook, Clarendon P, 1986.

Keats’s “picture of somebody reading”: Remembering Literary History in Pictures

Grace Rexroth
University of Colorado, Boulder

RE: Keats’s 13 March 1819 letter to Fanny Keats

On its surface, Keats’s 13 March 1819 letter to Fanny appears somewhat simple, awash in brotherly solicitude and small pieces of personal news. Keats begins by mentioning that he has been writing to George—not short letters but something long that he adds to “day after day” (though he has not yet found a reliable way to send it). The middle portion of the letter is comprised of Keats’s description of goods and wares to be had at the Leicester Square market, and he asks Fanny if there is anything that he can acquire for her: “any particular Book; or Pencils, or drawing paper—anything but live stock” (II: 45). Eventually the letter concludes with some remarks about the changing spring weather and the health of his companions. Yet, couched between these solicitous inquiries about Fanny’s needs and the dutifully related bits of news, Keats gives us an odd sketch of himself as “the picture of somebody reading,” a tableau that raises interesting questions about the relationship between books and pictures, or the act of reading and pictorial depictions of people reading (II:46). 

Keats’s reverie about a “picture of somebody reading” begins with some thoughts about nature and his own childhood. After telling Fanny that he would be willing to purchase “anything but live stock” at the market for her, he notes:

Though I will not now be very severe on it, remembering how fond I used to be of Goldfinches, Tomtits, Minnows, Mice, Ticklebacks, Dace, Cock salmons and all the whole tribe of the Bushes and the Brooks: but verily they are better in the Trees and the water—though I must confess even now a partiality for a handsome Globe of gold-fish—then I would have it hold 10 pails of water and be fed continually fresh through a cool pipe with another pipe to let through the floor—well ventilated they would preserve all their beautiful silver and Crimson. Then I would put it before a handsome painted window and shade it all round with myrtles and Japonicas. I should like the window to open onto the Lake of Geneva—and there I’d sit and read all day like the picture of somebody reading. (II:46)

In this passage, Keats’s penchant for goldfish leads him into a very specific and detailed reverie about what would make an ideal scene in which to read. However, when he likens this scene to a “picture of somebody reading,” he is evoking more than just an imaginary experience. What Keats is gesturing to in this depiction of a “picture” is a genre of portrait painting – formal portraits of men and women reading books – which had become fairly common throughout the eighteenth century. For examples of such pictures, we might look to Joshua Reynolds’ paintings, including “The Reading Boy” (1777) which depicts a young boy reading by a window.

Painting of a young boy reading a book.
Joshua Reynolds, “The Reading Boy” (1777), Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Or we might consider his 1771 portrait of Theophila Palmer reading Clarissa.

Painting of Theophila Palmer reading Richardson's Clarissa.
Joshua Reynolds, “Portrait of Theophila Palmer” (1771). Image via Sotheby’s.

Finally, there is also Reynolds’ influential 1775 portrait of Samuel Johnson earnestly reading a book which he holds near his face.

Painting of Samuel Johnson reading a book.
Joshua Reynolds, “Portrait of Samuel Johnson” (1775). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Other examples of reading portraits abound, recorded in guides to portrait galleries and museums.[1] Given that such portraits of reading were fairly common (almost as ubiquitous as, say, the Instagram bathroom selfie), I would like to suggest that when Keats imagines himself as “the picture of somebody reading,” he is, in some ways, imagining how he might organize a formal portrait of himself that represents him both as a reading subject and, possibly, an author. For, there is much to suggest that the cultural memory of literary works (and their authors) were often linked to real or imagined pictures—especially in terms of artificial memory practices that encouraged associative mental habits.

Here, though, I should pause and explain what the term “artificial memory” means and why I think it might be useful for thinking about why Keats would describe himself as a “picture of someone reading.” Broadly construed, “artificial memory” or “the art of memory” is usually distinguished from “natural memory” to mean “memory strengthened or confirmed by training”—this, at least, is the definition Frances Yates uses in her examination of medieval memory practices (Yates 5). Indeed, because of Yates’ work on medieval memory arts, our cultural narratives of memory practices tend to suggest they were not relevant past the early-modern period; we rarely think about how they might have changed and persisted through time, or how they might relate to the Romantic era. Yet the terms “artificial memory” or “memoria technica” were seemingly everywhere in Romantic culture. Books on the topic flourished, perhaps most famously those by Richard Grey and Gregor von Feinaigle who advertised their systems to men of reading who found it difficult to “retain what they read with any certainty or exactness” (Grey 2).

Romantic artificial memory treatises often prescribed different kinds of memory practices, but one of the most common was the habit of associating ideas with a mental image. In his Dissertations Moral and Critical: On Memory and the Imagination (1783), James Beattie suggested that the brain has a natural capacity to connect ideas to familiar images. He writes: “If we have at any time considered two or more things as connected, that very circumstance will establish a connection between them, so that the remembrance, or the view of the one, will make us think of the other” (Beattie 28). Beattie then suggests that the brain organizes contiguous thoughts pictorially and that this natural function can be consciously harnessed through “artificial memory” to help us remember ideas we would like to associate together. At the same time, lecturers such as Gregor Von Feinaigle were writing and revising “new” artificial memory systems throughout the Regency period, and most involved the practice of attaching memories and thoughts to imagined “pictures.” Feinaigle’s system specified the importance of pictorial images to memory—specifically the act of linking a thought or idea to a symbolic portrait. Summarizing Feinaigle’s system in 1844, Johann Joachim Eschenburg claimed that “if one would remember by aid of [Feinaigle’s] system, the date e.g. of the kings of England, he would create in his mind a picture in connection with each of them, and throw these pictures in the imagination into squares in the exact order of the regal succession” (Eschenburg 68). In Feinaigle’s account, pictorial images stimulate the brain to produce contiguous thoughts—they seem to both contain and stimulate memory processes.

With such practices in mind, I would like to suggest that the way Keats constructs a picture of himself reading might operate like a kind of artificial memory with important symbolic meaning. To return to Keats’s letter, his description of the scene in which he would like to be imagined reading begins with the image of a bowl of goldfish, large enough to “hold 10 pails of water and be fed continually fresh through a cool pipe with another pipe to let through the floor” (263). Keats’s concern for a “well ventilated” goldfish bowl hints a several things. First, it points to his period’s fascination with goldfish and the real struggle of how to maintain the health of fish in captivity. In 1811, for example, the Prince Regent accidentally turned his goldfish into a grotesque spectacle because of his ignorance (or careless neglect) of the animals’ need for ventilated water. On June 19, 1811, the Prince Regent threw a decadent party at Carlton House where he set up a table that measured two hundred feet in length and that was meant to accommodate a living stream of goldfish. In her popular history of Regency England, Our Tempestuous Day, Carolly Erickson describes the scene:

Flowing down the middle of the table, meandering between the heavy serving dishes was an artificial stream, complete with sand, moss, rocks, and aquatic plants and spanned by miniature bridges. Live gold and silver fish—roach, dace and gudgeons—swam among the rocks, ‘exhibiting the brightness of their scales, reflecting the light of five hundred flambeaux, to the infinite delight of the guests’… until the fish began to die, no doubt of oxygen starvation, and took away everybody’s appetite. (Erickson 51)

The Prince Regent’s intent to create a spectacle of live fish was destroyed by his inability to accommodate the animals’ basic needs. By contrast, Keats imagines himself in a scene where his partiality for a globe of goldfish can be sustained through a mechanism that promotes water ventilation through pipes. Such an object—if we imagine it as a crucial part of Keats’s organized self-portrait—gestures to the way his urban or “cockney” heritage and his experience as a surgeon’s apprentice both influence his love of nature. It is, I think, telling that Keats’s idealized fantasy of reading does not take place outdoors, but in a room where nature and scientific innovation meet to create an artificial experience of nature indoors—an experience where fish are sustained in a glass bowl surrounded by imported plants (myrtle and Japonica), while Lake Geneva looms out a window. Even though it may be a cockney fantasy of nature, the portrait is nonetheless a fitting one of Keats because it showcases the different aspects of the world that he inhabited: a world marked by scientific innovation and study, a love of the picturesque, and a desire to inhabit both an urban and rural landscape simultaneously.[2] Such is Keats’s vision of himself, and it’s worth noting that many of Keats’s later readers also wanted to retain some form of this vision. One of the most influential posthumous portraits of Keats is Joseph Severn’s “Portrait of John Keats,” which depicts the poet in a strikingly similar pose to what Keats describes in this letter: reading in a plush, carpeted room next to a large open window that leads to a garden path (though, notably, without a mechanized goldfish bowl).

Painting of Keats, sitting cross-legged in a chair, reading a book.
Joseph Severn, “Portrait of John Keats” (1823), National Portrait Gallery, London, UK. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Given that this painting was designed after Keats’s death, it also operates like a kind of artificial memory, a constructed image of what we wish to associate with and remember about Keats. And as it’s become one of the most emblematic images of Keats, this particular artificial construction, this “picture of somebody reading,” has clearly had lasting appeal.

Contributor Bio:

Grace Rexroth is a PhD candidate and CHA Reynolds Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder. As a CHA fellow at CU, Grace has paired archival research in the UK with research at CU’s Institute of Cognitive Science. Emerging from this work, her dissertation project examines how eighteenth-century artificial memory systems and theories of cognition influenced print culture and literary philosophy in Romantic and Victorian-era British literature, and how such connections might help us better understand our own relationship to print now. Grace also teaches introductory courses in women’s literature and British masterpiece fiction, writes for the NASSRgrad blog, and co-organizes her department’s eighteenth and nineteenth-century reading group and lecture series. Her work appears in English Language Notes. In her spare time, she can be found kayaking on McIntosh Lake near Boulder. You can follow Grace on Twitter: @GraceRexrothCU

Works Cited:

Beattie, James. Dissertations Moral and Critical: On Memory and Imagination, Edinburgh: Strahan, Cadell, and Creech, 1783.

Erickson, Carolly. Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England. New York: Harper, 1986.

Eschenburg, Johann Joachim. Classical Antiquities. Fourth Ed. Philadelphia: E.C. &J. Biddle, 1852

Feinaigle, Gregor von. The New Art of Memory. London: Printed for Sherwood, Neely and Jones, 1813.

Grey, Richard. Memoria Technica: or, a New Method of Artificial Memory, London: printed for Charles King, 1730.

Rollins, Hyder Edward. The Letters of John Keats, Harvard: Harvard UP, 1958.

Yates, Frances. Art of Memory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.


[1] See, for example, C.M. Westmacott, British Galleries of Painting and Sculpture, comprising a General and Historical and Critical Catalogue, London: Sherwood, Jones and co., 1824. See also A Catalogue of Paintings, Sculptures, Models, Drawings, Engravings, &c. London: William Griffin, 1761.

[2] For more information on the cultural construction of the “Cockney School” of poetry, see Jeff Cox, Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School, Cambridge: Cambridge UP 1998.


Letter #121: To Fanny Keats, 27 February 1819

Keats continues to uphold his efforts to write his sister on a biweekly basis, and although he worried that he’d lost track of time and been truant, turns out he was only off by two days (his last letter to her was on 11 February). Not too shabby. As in that previous letter, Keats empathizes with Fanny’s disappointment about her current living situation. Back on the 11th, Keats bemoaned that her guardian Richard Abbey removed Fanny from her school (The Ladies Boarding Academy run by Mary Ann and Susanna Tuckey at 12 Marsh Street in Walthamstow). Today Keats focuses on Mrs. Abbey.

It appears that Fanny had complained to her brother about Mrs. Abbey’s “unfeeling ignorant gabble.” We don’t know exactly to what that refers, but it seems at least possible that Mrs. Abbey may have been speaking ill of Fanny’s brothers. We know that Mr. Abbey tried to keep Fanny apart from the young men whom he deemed to be bad influences (a poet and an American adventurer, yikes!). Perhaps Mrs. Abbey had some negative “gabble” to say about the brothers as well. In any case, it seems Fanny indicated that Mrs. Abbey’s “crying” was constant. Keats advises that Fanny persevere: “Many people live opposite a Blaksmith’s till they cannot hear the hammer.”

Another topic of significance is one that we’ll hear more about over the course of this year. Keats notes that “I have been a little concerned at not hearing from George–I continue in daily expectation.” Turns out that the 19th-century transatlantic postal system could be a bit unreliable! Particularly in Keats’s letters to George and Georgiana, we find him frequently bemoaning the uncertainty of epistolary communication across the ocean. As a contrast to that span of distance and time, Keats closes today’s letter to Fanny with a more felicitous notion of letter writing: “Write me directly and let me know about them [the status of Fanny’s chilblains]–Your Letter shall be answered like an echo–“

Now we’ll let that echo reverberate and encourage you to read the letter to Fanny in Forman’s 1901 edition. Images below via HathiTrust.


Letter #120: To Benjamin Robert Haydon, 18 (?) February 1819

The date of today’s letter is a bit uncertain, but a few hints suggest that the 18th is about right. First, we hear from Keats again about his latest struggle with Richard Abbey over the question of seeing and corresponding with Fanny Keats on a regular basis. On 14 February Keats had explained the situation to George and Georgiana as such: “I have had a little business with Mr Abbey–From time to time he has behaved to me with a little Brusquerie–this hurt me a little especially wheen I knew him to be the only Man in England who dared to say a thing to me I did not approve of without its being resented or at least noticed–so I wrote him about it and have made an alteration in my favor–I expect from this to see more of Fanny–who has been quite shut out from me.” To Haydon Keats writes that he’d “had several interviews with my guardian–have written him a rather plain spoken Letter–which has had its effect.” Take that, Abbey!

Now, the topic of interest to Haydon was not Keats’s right to see Fanny, but rather Keats’s right to his money. The Keats family inheritance woes were well nigh Jarndycean, and we don’t have the time (or insight) to lay them out in all their complexities here. But in this particular instance, at least according to Keats, the question being pursued with Abbey was the fate of Tom’s portion of their inheritance. As he notes to Haydon, Keats was worried that those monies would remain under Abbey’s guardianship until Fanny came of age (in 1824). Unfortunately, back in December Keats had made a promise to loan Haydon money. As it became clearer in the next months that Keats’s financial prospects were not quite as favorable as he’d hoped, the tension with Haydon would increase.

Here today, though, we see Keats still feeling pretty good about his financial future. He’s confident, almost gloating, about his dealings with Abbey, and he concludes by remarking that he’ll either get money soon or be forced to “incontinently take to Corderoy Trowsers.” He expresses his optimism once again, concluding that “I am nearly confident ‘t is all a Bam.” For those of you not fluent in Regency slang, “Bam,” according to Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, meant more or less the same thing as “humbug.” Unfortunately for the Keats siblings, Abbey’s handling of their finances was not a bam after all. More of a bummer. As we’d say in the US, it’s all about the Benjamins (and not just Haydon). Or, according to Grose once again, it’s all about the Balsam.

From Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

Ok, enough lame jokes for now! Text of the letter to Haydon can be read via Forman’s 1901 edition (where he dates it to January 1819). The image of the manuscript below comes courtesy of Houghton Library at Harvard University.

Keats’s 18 (?) February 1819 letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.49). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #119: To Fanny Keats, 11 February 1819

We’ve remarked before about the radical changes the Keats siblings went through in the space of less than a year between the middle of 1818 and the beginning of 1819. As of June 1818, all four siblings remained (more or less) together in London and its surrounding environs. George departed for America at the end of that month. Tom continued to ail throughout the second half of 1818 until his death at the beginning of December. And while John was caring for Tom, Fanny’s guardian, Richard Abbey, was doing his best to keep her from seeing her two brothers who remained in England. Now here we are in early 1819, and communication across the ocean with George must have felt nearly as difficult as communication with Tom across an even greater void.

And what of the relationship between John and Fanny? As we might have expected from the consistently villainous Abbey, there remain obstacles to sustained contact between brother and sister. At the beginning of today’s letter, John expresses his frustration with Abbey by noting to Fanny, “What objection can the[r]e be to your receiving a Letter from me?” Yes, Abbey, what objection indeed?? We learn from Keats’s next journal letter to George and Georgiana (begun on 14 February 1819) a bit more about Abbey’s efforts to limit Fanny’s contact with her brother. He writes to George and Georgiana, “I have had a little business with Mr Abbey–From time to time he has behaved to me with a little Brusquerie–this hurt me a little especially wheen I knew him to be the only Man in England who dared to say a thing to me I did not approve of without its being resented or at least noticed–so I wrote him about it and have made an alteration in my favor–I expect from this to see more of Fanny–who has been quite shut out from me.”

We don’t know too much more about what Keats wrote to Abbey, or about what kind of agreement they reached about Fanny. But it is the case that Keats’s letters to Fanny continue fairly regularly throughout the first half of 1819, with a new letter about once a fortnight, as he promises to do in a letter to her sent at the end of February 1819. For the next few months, then, we’ll get to see lots of letters from brother to sister, including some really lovely ones. We feel confident in claiming that today’s letter counts as rather lovely!

Keats begins by sympathizing with Fanny’s disappointment about Abbey having removed her from school. He encourages her to “keep up all that you know and to learn more by yourself however little.” He also reassures her that “The time will come when you will be more pleased with Life–look forward to that time and, though it may appear a trifle, be careful not to let the idle and retired Life you lead fix any awkward habit or behaviour on you.” This optimism combined with pragmatic and realistic aspirations strikes us as one of Keats’s primary modes of expressing fraternal care towards Fanny. “I feel myself the only Protector you have,” Keats writes in today’s letter. He may not have been able to solve all of Fanny’s problems, but Keats certainly did “live in hopes of being able to make [Fanny] happy.” If you want to read an excellent account of Keats’s relationship with his sister, we highly recommend you Betsy Tontiplaphol’s piece from last fall.

Images below come from Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 edition of Keats’s complete works, which you can access via this link.

Keats’s 11 February 1819 letter to Fanny Keats. From The Complete Works of John Keats, edited by Harry Buxton Forman. Volume 5. Gowers & Gray, 1901.

Keats’s 11 February 1819 letter to Fanny Keats. From The Complete Works of John Keats, edited by Harry Buxton Forman. Volume 5. Gowers & Gray, 1901.

Letter #118: To William Mayor, 4 February 1818

Today’s letter is one of the more recently discovered Keats manuscripts, having been first published in 1935. We’ve encountered its initial publisher before. Way back in the halcyon days of October 2016 we wrote about the fortuitous re-discovery of Keats’s 9 October 1816 letter to Charles Cowden Clarke. The same characters from that story–J. H. Birss and Louis Arthur Holman–return again with this letter to William Mayor. At this time we don’t have any information on how or where Birss came across the letter, but as with the 9 October 1816 letter, Birss went to Louis Arthur Holman to arrange its initial publication.

Holman you may also remember from the 25 March 1817 letter to Cowden Clarke, which Holman located in the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland in 1929. Those two letters to Clarke, along with a letter from November 1819 which we’ll return to later this year, Holman printed in his pamphlet Within the Compass of a Print Shop in 1932. Three years later, in October 1935, Holman issued a new number of the pamphlet which included today’s letter to Mayor. It also included Keats’s letter to the mother of Georgiana Wylie Keats from January 1819. All of this is to say, Holman has pride of place when it comes to the first publication of Keats letters during the first few decades of the twentieth century.

There isn’t too much we know about William Mayor, beyond his connection to Benjamin Robert Haydon. According to Maurice Buxton Forman, Mayor was a student of Haydon’s and later a collector of paintings. While it doesn’t seem that Keats was particularly close with Mayor (this is the only extant letter between them, and we don’t encounter any other mentions of Mayor in Keats’s correspondence), the note is a friendly one, and it includes an invitation for Mayor to come and stay with Keats and Brown at Wentworth Place. Also of note is that Keats sends his regards through Mayor to Charles Cowden Clarke. In the early days of Keats’s correspondence, Clarke was one of his most frequent addressees. The two seem to have grown apart a bit by this time in early 1819, but Keats wishes Mayor to express to Clarke, “the assurance of my constant idea of him–notwithstanding our long separation and my antipathy=indolentissimum to letter writing.” Well, we daresay that Keats did pretty good work on the letter writing thing as a whole, even if he felt like he neglected Clarke.

Images below show the letter as it was first published by Holman in 1935, and the manuscript courtesy of Houghton Library. Note that Holman got the date incorrect–the postmark is faint, but it does indeed read “CAMDEN TOWN / EV / 4 FE / 1819” (EV for evening, FE for February).

The letter as it was first published in Louis Arthur Holman’s Within the Compass of a Print Shop, October 1935. Image via Brian Rejack’s personal copy.
Page 1 of Keats’s 4 February 1819 letter to William Mayor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.48). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 2 of Keats’s 4 February 1819 letter to William Mayor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.48). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 3 of Keats’s 4 February 1819 letter to William Mayor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.48). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 4 of Keats’s 4 February 1819 letter to William Mayor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.48). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #117: To Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819 (with Charles Brown)

Today’s letter is a rollicking pun-fest featuring the collaborative comedy team of Keats and Charles Brown. Brown had been visiting with Dilke’s parents during the Christmas season, and Keats joined them in Chichester on the 18th or 19th of January. The day before writing this letter together, Brown and Keats walked from Chichester to Bedhampton, where they stayed with John Snook (who was connected to the Dilkes through his marriage to Letitia Dilke, sister of Charles). Brown and Keats relay news concerning the Dilkes’ relatives as well as the goings-on in Chichester and Bedhampton. We can particularly relate to Brown’s comment that “Mrs Dilke [i.e. Charles’ mother] is remarkably well for Mrs Dilke in winter.” Curse you, winter!

The playful spirit of the letter comes across right from the opening. Brown first addresses Charles as such: “This letter is Wife, and if you are a Gentleman, you will deliver it to her, without reading one word further.” It appears that Brown then made a dotted line across the page underneath this section and then began his letter to Maria Dilke. We say “it appears” because it seems likely that the additional text above that dotted line was added later, given that it is squeezed in above the line rather tightly. Keats wrote here “‘read thou Squire,” which was then followed by Brown writing “There is a depending on this.” What that all means is not entirely to us, but Keats’s phrase does appear in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Perhaps the wager was simply whether Dilke would read the letter or behave like a gentleman and deliver it direct to his wife, or perhaps it had something to do with Keats’s allusion? We don’t know. Moving on!

There’s a decent amount of punning, but things really get out of control on the letter’s third page, where Keats takes over and unleashes a string of playful sentences. The jokes continue as Brown returns claiming, “This is abominable! I did but go up stairs to put on a clean & starched hand-kerchief, & that over weening rogue read my letter & scrawled over one of my sheets.” Brown and Keats–just a couple of jokers!

We’ll leave you with just one more bit of wordplay, which Keats adds cross-wise on the letter’s first page: “N. B. I beg leaf to withdraw all my Puns–they are all wash, an base uns–” Zing!

To read the rest of the letter you can find it in The Keats Letters, Papers, and Other Relics Forming the Dilke Bequest in the Hampstead Public Library. Those materials are now in possession of the Keats House Museum in Hampstead. Facsimile images of the manuscript come from the book linked above.

Image of the first page of the manuscript of Brown and Keats's letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.
Page 1 of Brown and Keats’s letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.
Image of the second page of the manuscript of Brown and Keats's letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.
Page 2 of Brown and Keats’s letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.
Image of the third page of the manuscript of Brown and Keats's letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.
Page 3 of Brown and Keats’s letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.
Image of the fourth page of the manuscript of Brown and Keats's letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.
Page 4 of Brown and Keats’s letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.

Letter #113: To George and Georgiana Keats, 16 December 1818–4 January 1819

Today we encounter the second of Keats’s great “journal letters” to George and Georgiana in America. Readers will recall the first of these from back in October 1818. Between that letter and this one, Keats had not heard any further news from George and Georgiana, nor would he until several months into 1819. This was also the first letter Keats sent to America after Tom’s death, although it seems that, according to Keats’s opening, William Haslam had sent notice to George and Georgiana sometime between Tom’s death on 1 December and when Keats began the letter on the 16th.

As is typically the case with these journal letters, written over weeks and even months, this one ranges widely in terms of its topics. There is the discussion of Tom’s final illness and the ensuing grief, but also more hopeful and light topics such as Keats’s first impressions of Fanny Brawne and the receipt of a laudatory sonnet enclosed with a £25 note. There is also the inclusion of two poems which will end up in Keats’s 1820 volume: “Fancy” and “Bards of Passion and of Mirth.” So go ahead and read the whole letter. It’s well worth your time! Forman’s 1901 edition includes the text of the letter based on John Jeffrey’s transcript, which, in Jeffrey’s defense, is one of his more accurate and comprehensive ones. The entire manuscript can be viewed via Houghton Library at Harvard

And for your additional pleasure and delight, we have two posts in response to this journal letter. First is “Improper Time” from Kamran Javadizadeh (Villanova), who focuses on the temporal oddities that occur when writing letters across the ocean in 1818-19. And then we have a set of paired responses by Kathleen Béres Rogers (College of Charleston) and Brittany Pladek (Marquette), both of whom focus on Keats’s reflections on illness and death in their piece “Sensation and Immortality.” Enjoy!

Sensation and Immortality

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a joint one by Kathleen Béres Rogers and Brittany Pladek, who collaborated on their responses to, via Keats’s 16 Dec 1818–4 Jan 1819 letter, related issues around illness, death, and dying. We indicate below the authorship of each section.

Kathleen Béres Rogers
College of Charleston

Memories. Sensations. We think of pictures in our minds, but pictures fade, they change, they can be altered. When I remember the two weeks I watched my father dying, I remember the sterile hospital room, the nurse who sat by his side, his bloated body and his ashen face. I remember his eyes, open but not seeing. But more than these things, I remember the smell of that hospital room, the sounds of the machines keeping him alive, the (non)taste of hospital food. I remember crying a great deal or, conversely, not being able to feel anything at all.

But there are also positive memories: I remember talking with him, singing to him, feeling like he was listening. Holding his hand, feeling that he knew I was there. I remember telling him that it was all right to go … and then he did.

In Keats’s December 16, 1818–January 4, 1819 letter to George and Georgiana, a long letter detailing his thoughts about grief, sensation, and memory, Keats has been through a somewhat similar process. “The last days of Tom,” he writes, “were of a distressing nature” (II: 4). For the person observing the dying process, the sensations can often be unnerving. John Ferriar, the physician to the Manchester Infirmary, writes about it in a 1798 essay on “On the Treatment of the Dying,” detailing the “tossing of the arms … the rattling noise in respiration, and difficulty of swallowing” (III: 203). The “death rattle” remains with survivors as a persistent, often traumatic memory, and Keats would have experienced this multiple times as a surgical student and dresser at Guy’s Hospital. In Consumption and Literature: the Making of the Romantic Disease, Clark Lawlor expands on this, adding the “fetid smell” often present in a patient dying of tuberculosis” (5). He continues to write that the consumptive death “can be extremely unpleasant, with patients becoming more and more short of breath, increasingly unable to control their coughing and expectoration, unable to gain a moment’s peace” (5). The indescribable smell of phlegm, the sound of constant coughing and spitting, and, finally, the rattle of death, are sensory memories that must have stayed with Keats until the end of his short life.

Yet Keats had already developed an ideological system—again, as a surgical student, he had to—for coping with death, and the literature of his day allowed for a different “reading” of consumption.  Specifically, the consumptive was often compared to a flower (Shelley repeats this move in “Adonais”), as in Coleridge’s “On Observing a Blossom.” Here, Coleridge apostrophizes the “flower that must perish” and asks whether he should “liken thee / To some sweet girl of too too rapid growth / Nipped by consumption mid untimely charms?” The notion of the consumptive as clearly effeminate (the “sweet girl” and the flower) intersects with and complicates the cultural and medical notion of these patients as poets, thinkers, members of, as Keats would say, the “Dreamer tribe.” In observing dying patients, Ferriar writes that he “[has] always been impressed with an idea, that the approach of actual death, produces a sensation similar to that of falling asleep” (195). Later, he quotes Spenser, who compares death to “sleep after toil” (Complaints). If death is like a sleep, then Keats must have wondered about dreams, which featured prominently in most of his poetry, and served, through the senses, as routes to memories—one can think here of Moneta, whose name means memory, in The Fall of Hyperion, and the fact that the Poet encounters her in a dream. Perhaps Keats thought of death as a sort of sleep, a pathway to a sensory universe that might more perfectly mirror reality. “Do I wake,” he asked, “or sleep?” (80).

Coleridge writes in “A Day Dream” that in a dream, “My eyes make pictures when they are shut” (313). This notion of “seeing” without physically seeing recurs throughout this letter in the form of blindness. Writing to George and Georgiana in the wilds of Kentucky, Keats had to rely on these mental pictures, as well as on other sensory memories. “We shall be,” he writes, “as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room” II: 5). In Keats’s letter, blindness serves as a metaphor for physical, but not spiritual distance: the latter distance can be filled by memories and, of course, by sensation. The notion of blindness connects Tom’s death with George’s distance, but it is this very lack of physical sight that allows for sensory (and extra-sensory) memories to let the “viewless wings of poesy” do their work (33).

It is, in fact, words that allow for the poet (or, here, the letter-writer) to develop what Keats, in “To Homer,” calls “a triple sight in blindness keen” (12). Words seem to allow for the senses of sight, smell, and touch to assume equal importance. It is therefore no accident that Keats, in this letter, writes about arctic exploration and, more specifically, about “snow-blindness”:  “[The explorers’] eyes were so fatigued with the eternal dazzle and whiteness that they lay down on their backs upon deck to relieve their sight on the blue sky” (II: 5–6). The purely visual input of the snow becomes overwhelming, and the sense of sight must be mediated, “relieved.” Analyzing this same passage, Larrissy envisions the snow blindness as “an image of a malign excess, an overburdened parody of sublimity, which might well destroy artistic accomplishment” (167). The intensity and power of the visual sublime detract from the other senses, destroying the possibility both for poetry and, for Keats, artistic immortality.

Brittany Pladek
Marquette University

With Tom’s death, the idea of immortality became more than just artistically important to Keats. After describing his brother’s “distressing” final days with an austerity that suggests how hard he found it to relate the harrowing details, he concludes, “I have scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature [or] other—neither had Tom” (II: 4). It’s a comforting thought, likely written for Keats himself as much as George and Georgiana. But it’s also an intellectual problem he had wrestled with for some time. As Noel Jackson has argued, Keats was keenly interested in the “sensation” of states we might not normally understand as felt, the afterlife included. Tom’s death made that interest agonizingly personal. Surely immortality meant you didn’t have to hurt anymore? John Ferriar’s essay on medical conduct at the deathbed had recorded the commonplace belief that to “put [a patient] to death” meant to “put the patient out of pain.” In the winter of 1818, Keats needed to believe this was true. Just after consoling George and Georgiana that Tom’s “last moments were not so painful,” and just before averring his faith in “immortality of some nature,” he remarks that the “commonest observations of the commonest people on death are as true as their proverbs” (II: 4–5).

Several sentences later, he tries to flesh out those observations. It’s a peculiar metaphysics, born of new grief and growing loneliness. “That will be one of the grandeurs of immortality,” he tells George and Georgiana, who he has not seen since June: “there will be no space and consequently the only commerce between spirits will be by their intelligence of each other.” The heart of this intelligence is spirits’ memory of one another’s earthly identities, which Keats imagines as the sum of their physical mannerisms:

…they [spirits] will completely understand each other… I will give an example… I do not feel at the present moment so far from you is that I rememb{er} your Ways and Manners and actions… I know the manner of you walking, standing, sauntering, sitting down, laug{ing,} punning, and evey action so truly that you seem near to me. (II: 5)

In this vision of immortality, spirits move about walking and talking and laughing, but it’s all memory, not real sensation. They “understand each other” not through the sensual ear, but an eternal “intelligence” of no tone. Since they do not move in “space,” they have no bodies; since they have no bodies, they feel no pain.

Here, Keats returns to ideas he had been developing since 1817, and which would culminate in the famous “vale of Soul-making” letter of May 1819 (also addressed to George and Georgiana). In that letter, Keats would outline a “system of Spirit-creation” that sees a soul’s identity as the result of the pains it endured on earth, where “the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!” (2.102). This “system” will darkly revise Keats’s 1817 hope that after death, “we shall enjoy ourselves… by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone… such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation” (II: 185). The difference between these views is sobering. In 1817, Keats saw immortality as an extension of earthly pleasures, a repetition of the “happiness” of all “who delight in sensation.” By May 1819, it will become a form of identity dependent on a lifetime of pain, a “heart” suffering thousands of times over. The winter of 1818 drastically altered Keats’s opinion on how immortality felt.

That Tom’s death would be the event that taught Keats how nothing was painless, not even pleasure and certainly not eternity, is so widely accepted that it’s sometimes difficult to remember the cruelty of the lesson. In 1818, Keats the grieving brother tries hard to reassure George and Georgiana—and himself—that Tom died “without a pang.” He plays the good doctor, “pour[ing] the sweet balm of consolation” onto “those unhappy persons, who fear to survive the loss of the objects of their love,” as Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis instructed medical students in his widely-read 1798 Essay on the Certainty of Medicine (114–7). So, too, Keats the metaphysician tries hard to imagine a comforting afterlife, where spirits retain their distinctively embodied “Ways and Manners” but escape the agony their living bodies suffered.

But he cannot forget Tom’s final days, which his reticent letter calls “distressing” but whose visceral details haunt his poetry: the youth who “grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies” (26); the Titans “pent in regions of laborious breath” (2.22); worst of all, Moneta’s ghastly face, consumed by the nightmare of an “immortal sickness that kills not” (1.228). During the summer of 1818, Keats had reread Dante’s Inferno, whose gruesome portraits of eternal pain he would, in 1819, try to rehabilitate into a fine and private heaven where “lovers need not tell / Their sorrows” (II: 91). But his efforts there feel forced, much like this letter’s lukewarm endorsement of an “immortality of some nature [or] other”—a no-place where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Both letters yearn to imagine an immortality without suffering. Neither quite manages it. By the winter of 1818, Tom’s death would confirm what Keats had already begun to suspect: that, as the sonnet “To Burns” he wrote earlier that summer admits, “pain is never done” (I: 308).

Contributors’ Notes
Kathleen Béres Rogers is an associate professor of English at the College of Charleston, and she works on Romantic medicine, proto-psychology, and disability. Her book, Creating Romantic Obsession: Scorpions in the Mind, is forthcoming from Palgrave.

Brittany Pladek is Assistant Professor of English at Marquette University. She writes on Romantic poetics and literature and medicine. Her book, The Poetics of Palliation: Romantic Literary Therapy, 1790-1850, is forthcoming from Liverpool University Press.”


Works Cited

Cabanis, Pierre Jean Georges. An Essay on the Certainty of Medicine, trans. R. La Roche. Philadelphia: Robert Desilver, 1823.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, “On Observing a Blossom on the First of February, 1796,” in The Complete Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. William Keach. Penguin Classics, 1997.

Ferriar, John, M.D. “On the Treatment of the Dying.” Medical Histories and Reflections. 3 vols. Manchester: G. Nicholson, 1798.

Jackson, Noel. Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Keats, John. Collected Poems, ed. Jack Stillinger. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Larrissy, Edward. The Blind and Blindness in Literature of the Romantic Period. Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Lawlor, Clark. Consumption and Literature:  The Making of the Romantic Disease. Palgrave Macmillan: 2007.




Letter #112: To Ann Griffin Wylie, 1 January (?) 1819

The first letter of 1819 may have actually been the last letter of 1818, but we’ll go with Hyder Edward Rollins’s guess at the date. Keats is writing to Mrs. Wylie, the mother of Georgiana Wylie Keats, who would have then been nearing her first anniversary of her marriage to George Keats. Since the letter was delivered by messenger, we have not postage marks to help us with the date. But Keats does mention a sore throat, which he had also mentioned to Fanny Keats on 30 December 1818. And we know that he will indeed send off his second journal letter to George and Georgiana on 4 January 1819, so the reference to the ship bound for Philadelphia fits in that time frame as well.

The first/last letter of 1819/1818 has another distinctive honor: it is one of the few letters to have been rediscovered in the past century. As regular KLPers may remember, we’ve encountered some relatively recently uncovered letters before. One of them was in fact first published by the same figure who is responsible for bringing today’s letter to light: Louis Arthur Holman. We last heard from him back on March 25, 2017, when we wrote about his first publishing of a letter to Charles Cowden Clarke written on that date in 1817. Today’s letter Holman came across in the holdings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and he published the letter in his pamphlet, Within the Compass of a Print Shop in October 1935. Below we reproduce the letter via image from Rollins’s edition, and from Holman’s original publication! KLP co-editor Brian Rejack was lucky enough to find a copy of Holman’s pamphlet for purchase on the interwebs a few weeks ago. Enjoy!

From Hyder Edward Rollins’s The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821 (Harvard UP, 1958). Screenshot via Google Books
The letter as it was first published in Louis Arthur Holman’s Within the Compass of a Print Shop, October 1935. Image via Brian Rejack’s personal copy.