The Rites of the Reader as Practiced by John Keats

Jeff Rients
Illinois State University

Re: Keats’s 19 February 1818 letter to Reynolds

Maurice Sendak, author of the children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are, once related an anecdote in which he replied to a fan letter from a little boy by sending the lad a sketch of a Wild Thing inscribed “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Jim’s mother wrote back to Sendak, reporting that her son loved the sketch so much that he ate it. I feel a similar toothsome urge every time I re-read the letter of 19 February 1818 from Keats to Reynolds. Part of me wants to tear that full page of distilled Prose right out of of the book and gobble it up. I yearn to take those words and consume them, digest them, integrate them into my body, make them a part of who I am on an atomic level.

Of all Keats’ letters discussing the theory and practice of poetry, this one is–dare I say it–the most relatable to those of us who do not make our way in the world as its unacknowledged legislators.  Let the poets wrangle with the mysteries of Negative Capability or the challenge to act as the most unpoetical thing in existence. For we who receive poetry (take it into our hearts, our minds, perhaps even our stomachs) more often than we pen it, what Keats provides us with is a theory of reading. And what’s more, it is a theory that is liberating, joyous, and yet also challenging.

Although I had undoubtedly encountered Keats at some point in my K-12 education, I first became conscious of him as a Big Deal in Romantic Poetry in the second of my two Brit Lit survey courses as an undergrad. This was the kind of environment where you spent a heady semester blazing through a weighty Norton Anthology. By the end so much material had been crammed into my throbbing brain that I could barely remember the works and writers that I liked. Following the final exam, I was left with only a vague impression that Keats was one of the poets that I had liked.

Thank goodness that I would encounter Keats again and again in seminars on romanticism and poetry in general. In these slightly less frenetic venues the opportunity arose to slow down and enjoy Keats, to luxuriate, at least a bit, over his lush and vibrant verses.  Keats “delicious, diligent Indolence” of focusing for a day on a single page of “full Poesy or distilled Prose” is a call to inaction, a challenge to take the time necessary to digest what we read. In an era where seemingly all texts ever written lurk behind the floodgates of a single click, waiting to inundate us with information overload, Keats’ idea isn’t simply liberating, it’s downright radical. Do we dare–two centuries of ever-accelerating life later–to doze on the sofa or nap on the clover with just one page of poetry or prose as our only companion? Can we turn off the TV, silence the phone, put down our work, and unplug from the world long enough just to be and to read? The modern push back against our multitasking, ever-online, ever-busy, ever-tired existence can be found in such places as the Slow Food movement and its progeny, such as Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s controversial work The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. But Keats got there first, looking for ways to lift a little time from our shoulders.

Keats, of course, doesn’t advise simply when to read poetry, but also how. Here I could continue my luddite approach in the previous paragraph and insists that Keats’ phrase “a certain Page” demands that we only use paper and ink to investigate fully poesy and distilled prose. Such an impulse may be nothing more than projecting my own tendency towards distracted reading, my knee jerk urge to visit Google or Wikipedia to track down a word or concept or to just check my tumblr feed at any given moment. I can’t help but see a warning against these behaviors encoded in the line “man should be content with as few points to tip with the fine Webb of his Soul and weave a tapestry empyrean.” The state of being Keats aspires to, both diligent and indolent, is more akin to the “relaxed attention” of certain schools of meditation, a posture of mindful awareness and ease, open like a flower, passive and receptive. Or, to put it in the modern parlance, Keats wants us to close all the tabs and face the world with just one browser window open, both literally and metaphorically.

Another important aspect of the theory of reading Keats espouses is the “sparing touch of noble Books” that logically follows from treating with only a single page at a time. At a page a day, there’s no room in a human lifetime to get through the list of canonical works in the back of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon and hardly even time to read one work of each of the twenty-six authors he discusses at length. Both the work and the author were great bugaboos of my youth, haunting scolds who (in my mind, at least) constantly chastised me for not spending every waking moment reading all the works of the greats. Keats invites us not to reject these works, but to dip into them in search of “any one grand and spiritual passage.” As a result, the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World series that sits on the bookshelf nearest my easy chair feels less like an unclimbable Everest and more like the source of cool waters, a mere mouthful of which restoreth my soul.

Finally and perhaps most importantly is the urging by Keats to read with a multiplicity of strategies: take up that one page and “wander with it, and muse upon it, and reflect from it, and bring home to it, and prophesy upon it, and dream upon it.” What a glorious array of possibilities!  Reading for Keats is anarchic, individual, even idiosyncratic, with no one correct strategy for finding meaning with text. Keats’s methodology of reading is an openness to all effective methodologies of reading, in much the same way that Jeet Kune Do practitioners profess to eschew the rigidities of more formalized martial arts styles in favor of a more fluid approach to hand-to-hand combat. Allow the mind to wander, invoke your muse, reflect deeply, inquire to what the text says to you in particular and to the universe at large (at least, that’s how I read bringing home and prophesying), whatever way into the text you can find is good.

One easy method that I sometimes forget in my haste is to read the poem or passage aloud.  Another is to copy the text into my notebook. Neither of these options appears among Keats’ reading techniques, but I see no reason to assume that he meant for his list to be exhaustive. Thus the poetry of erasure (as found in Ronald Johnson’s exquisite Radi Os or Tom Phillips’ stunning A Humament) or the cut-ups of William S. Burroughs, or the exercises in Ron Padgett’s Creative Reading are all legitimate ways into a text, as are a thousand other ways of reading that remain undiscovered.

Nor are we meant to pick one technique, but rather Keats challenges us to employ as many methods as befits a day of diligent indolence with that single page. The result is a multi-dimensional reading, a triangulation of sorts like Keats’ various individual minds “leav[ing] each other in contrary directions” but “greet[ing] each other at the Journeys end,” each reading whispering its results to another. The act of reading becomes a layered space of play, a joyous series of “events,” to use Johanna Drucker’s term for the strange dance between the reader and the read. Every text becomes what Espen J. Aarseth calls an ergodic text, writing that requires extra procedural effort to parse (oh, but what an exuberant effort!), or an “image,” to use the term employed by Lynda Barry for art and memories that are alive in the imagination. Under this regime of reading as a flurry of motion, text is no longer merely interactive, it becomes the interaction, leaping to new life with each new reading.

This is the gift of Keats’s letter to Reynolds, a declaration of the infinite possibilities of any small sliver of literature, a call to action to a deeper, more vibrant engagement with small texts, an invitation to discover infinity in a bit of pulp and few drops of ink. We need only to take the time to necessary to allow reading to be experimental and experiential, to look at each page the way Joyce writes Ulysses and how he demands we read Finnegans Wake. Or perhaps we would do better to look for exemplars of Keats’s method among the work of various latter day mystics, such as the multivalent symbolism in Aleister Crowley’s Liber 777, the quantum psychology of Robert Anton Wilson, or the “fragmentary glimpses of eternity” that Terence McKenna mentions on “Re:Evolution,” his spoken word collaboration with the Scottish electronic band, the Shamen.

Maybe not every reading of “a certain Page of full Poesy or distilled Prose” should lead us to day-long reveries, applying a dozen methods of encountering the text, but Keats invites us to join him in the “two-and thirty Pallaces” whenever we are able.


Jeff Rients is a doctoral candidate in the English Studies program at Illinois State University, where his research focuses on typographical and paratextual elements in the construction of authorship in 19th century British literature. In addition to his research and teaching duties, he has also served as the English 101 Coordinator of ISU’s Writing Program (training and mentoring new graduate instructors), and he continues this work leading the Future Professor’s Development Circle at Illinois State’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology. His most recent publications include “Encountering the Kelmscott Coleridge,” a digital edition of the 1896 Poems Chosen out of the Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Not Just Skills: Writing, Research, and Character” for the Grassroots Writing Research Journal, and the Dungeons & Dragons adventure Broodmother Skyfortress.

Letter #54: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 19 February 1818

Two letters to get to today, so we’ll spare you much of a long intro here. All you need to know (in addition to beauty being truth, truth beauty–duh) is that today’s letter to Reynolds is amazing. It’s easily his most lovely meditation on reading. Ok, there are other candidates. But this one definitely makes it into the top three or so. If you’ve never indulged in a bit of Keats’s “delicious diligent Indolence,” then go read this letter right now and do with it what he says you should do with “a certain Page of full Poesy or distilled Prose.”

Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition provides us once again with today’s text. Read it and start weaving a tapestry empyrean of your own. Then check out Jeff Rients’ (Illinois State University) response to the letter, which revels diligently and deliciously in Keats’s luxurious model of reading.

Woodhouse transcript included below. The original MS (one of the only letters to Reynolds to survive in manuscript) is at Princeton. Once we get a digitized copy, we’ll share.

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 19 Feb 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 19 Feb 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 19 Feb 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.