University of New Hampshire
RE: Keats’s 3 February 1818 letter to Reynolds
In the nineteenth century, literary America contended with a number of entrenched dilemmas that lasted the century, among them the question of how to canonize American literature and how to dynamically educate younger writers aspiring to one day enter the canon. Both these stateside quandaries—so central to the evolution of American letters—were forecast by John Keats in a letter dated February 3, 1818.
In the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, the “poetry anthology wars” saw American poets striving to extricate themselves from their British inheritance and forge an identity uniquely theirs. For starters, this meant weening American secondary schools and universities off the anthologies of British literature they’d been teaching for years, replacing these with anthologies of American authors often long on names and short (some prominent scholars felt) on literary merit. When the “Fireside Poets” came up with an ingenious solution for nineteenth-century anthologists’ quality-control problem—they became anthologists themselves, anthologizing primarily their own poetry and that of their friends—at least two generations of late-nineteenth century poetry textbooks were born.
The Fireside Poets (Emerson, Longfellow, Bryant, Whittier, Lowell, and Holmes) were so called because their poetry explored largely “domestic” themes. At the time, “domestic” connoted not so much the affairs of a homestead as the inchoate contours of the self, whether at home or otherwise. Thus aspiring poets attending university in the last three decades of the nineteenth century found themselves reading, re-reading, analyzing, and extemporaneously speaking on literary art whose obvious focus was the improvement of the spirit. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that, by the 1880s, certain university figures, indeed not just blocs of students but their professors, too, had begun to rebel.
Harvard professor Barrett Wendell (1855-1921) should be regarded as the father (or perhaps grandfather) of two disciplines: composition studies and creative writing. In the 1880s, his advanced composition courses bucked the then-extant American literary canon by allowing students to write “imaginatively” and to spend as much time in class discussing one another’s work as the work of long-lionized American savants. In fact, Wendell’s classroom—which in short order, once he’d instituted these rebellious pedagogies, became among the most popular on campus—featured writing praxes that look very much like the creative writing workshops of today. One key difference, however, was that unlike the workshops of the present century, Wendell’s urged students to become “citizens of the world” by making their work responsive to major themes in American civics and by writing of places and people that had not habitually been the subject of American authors’ ruminations. Wendell’s was an extroverted ideology that overturned prescriptions for writing, canonization, and civic duty alike.
In writing his friend, English poet and critic John Hamilton Reynolds, on February 3, 1818, Keats chose to muse on how poets might, like “ethereal Pigs,” venture forth into the world seeking “spiritual Mast and Acorns” rather than subsisting on nostalgia (or yearning) for a domesticated heart. He urged Reynolds to cut the words “tender and true” from a recent poem, noting in such a saccharine sentiment a dangerous rapprochement with the Baroque: “[W]here there are a throng of delightful Images ready drawn,” he warns Reynolds, “simplicity is the only thing.” A contemporary poet peering over Keats’ shoulder might well wonder, on what basis did Keats distinguish between “spiritual Mast” and the “tender and true”? Might not the “airy pigs” Keats urges poets to be profitably locate tenderness and truth outside their self-contained spheres of interest? I think yes—as I think Keats is on about process, here, rather than destination. The hard-won tenderness and truth we find in our civil (or not-so-civil) discourse is categorically not the same tenderness and truth we might already be able to divine, but perhaps too easily, in our still-untested selves.
In making his argument, Keats affixed himself to an easy target: Wordsworth. Keats admires his peer’s “imaginative” and “domestic” passages, but not the egotistical philosophies a fixation on the domestic—or one’s unaided imagination—might invoke. The danger Keats apprehended in 1818 is still with us today; how much of contemporary literary debate begs the question of whether and when it’s acceptable for a poet to turn personal “speculations” into something one “broods and peacocks over”? In an American political moment when the ordinarily political act of poetry-writing feels ever more contingent and ever more tangential to real-time political outcomes, ought poets not be afraid they will, as Keats warned, “make a false coinage” of their esoteric speculations and thereby “deceive themselves” into a sad facsimile of relevance? And is there not an equal danger that our speculations on the vagaries of the human spirit will quickly turn to moralizing, in the form of poems that “have a palpable design upon us, and, if we do not agree, seem to put their hands into their pockets”? My own sense is that in 2018, as in 1818, the Scylla and Charybdis of the poet is a poem too enamored of its own inward gaze and then, across a broad strait, another poem that gazes creepily at its readers, smirking condescendingly. How to write something rooted in want but not tethered to self-interest? How to arrest the reader completely, but without the odiously conspicuous manipulations we call “mere artifice”?
Keats again offers us, in reply, the poet as “airy pig”—a flying squirrel-like figure cast out from its tree on an adventure whose domestic origin-point is tacit and whose halts and advances are both “great and unobtrusive.” In common parlance, we’d say that Keats asks of poets that they be minimally self-conscious “content creators” whose subjects inherently interest readers rather than implicitly demanding, with haughty poetic artifice, that readers develop an interest in them. The poem Keats imagines is not one that seems to “startle or amaze the soul” with the fact of its “poemness” but the quality of its observation of social, political, and moral spheres we all jointly inhabit. Preferable is the “retired flower,” Keats advises Reynolds, to the one beside the highway crying out, “Admire me! Dote upon me!” The former lies not just where we live but where we do, finally, meet one another; the latter has designs on being stored away for a greedy and private consumption.
It is too easy to call this letter a jeremiad against prettiness, or, more broadly, domesticity in the sense that term was understood in poetry in the nineteenth century. Rather, I think Keats encourages poets to compose work whose discoveries poet and reader arrive at simultaneously. There should, in the Keatsian poem idealized here, be less a cataloging (or worse, sanitizing and safeguarding) of one’s immediate spiritual environs than—well—a desire to be a citizen of the world, and to engage with topics of such civic moment they operate equally upon the close and distant, the author and audience, the poet and the farmer or banker. Wendell, for his part, would agree, and so would the students whose idiosyncratic imaginations he turned loose on the world rather than bending them ever more inward toward a rigid canon of moral prescriptions. Perhaps Wendell would likewise have agreed with Keats that there is no reason for poetry’s more studied artifices to “tease [us] with grandeur and merit when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive [in the world].” Keats even invokes Robin Hood and his merry band, perpetually wandering and filled with wonder, as a blueprint for the poet-citizen of his imagination. It puts one in mind of the several decades at the end of the nineteenth century in which the Fireside Poets studiously kept that great Robin Hood of American verse, Whitman, out of the canon.
I might be smitten with Keats’ vision were I not aware that, in 2018, we enjoy an unprecedented opportunity for those whose stories have heretofore been erased, told by oppressors, or left at the margins to make central what was once suppressed. It is no one’s place to say to the poet of color or the woman poet, to the transgender poet or the gay or lesbian poet, to the poet processing trauma in situ or the poet for the first time finding an unyielding voice of resistance and defiance, that their earnest and hard-won speculations on the mysteries of the self, so long discouraged or discounted, are self-indulgent. In fact, it is white men like Keats whose prescriptions would today seem to us self-indulgent, the product of a time when literacy was still largely for the white, male, and landed. At the time he wrote Reynolds, Keats’ complaint bespoke a generous rebelliousness within his social and professional class; today, the same words might well strike us as boorish and coercive.
Keats also wrote Reynolds during one of his nation’s brief respites from war, so it may have seemed natural to him to think, in 1818, that there was plenty of time for intermittently engaged citizen-adventurers to litter the literary landscape of his homeland. In 2018, sporadic political mischief, ensconced in the carefree life of a vagabond, just won’t do. That ethos is every bit the indulgence of Wordsworth lounging beneath a bough and dreaming of “Old Matthew.” To be merely an observant “citizen of the world,” as Wendell put it, or like the eternally wandering Esau, as Keats did in his letter to Reynolds, falls short of what America wants today: a defender of the lawful and good world a nation’s citizens (and, too, countless noncitizens) have built. Brave and persistent engagement is what America wants from its poets—but in saying so we must indulge the possibility, too, that America doesn’t ask that that engagement come in the form of a poem.
More than sixty years before Wendell challenged the American canon with his primordial creative writing workshops, Keats anticipated the dangers of a certain sort of complacency which, I’d argue, we find in the very fact of “canon” itself as well as the breed of “domesticity” that won itself canonization in the late nineteenth century. What he could not anticipate were the dangers poetry itself would face—both the art and its practitioners—two hundred years hence. But I nevertheless find in his February 3 letter some guidance for poetry and poets today, and perhaps where I least expected it: his likely tongue-in-cheek rendering of the poet as “airy pig” or flying “squirrel,” that is, one who leaves the safety and comfort of home on a purposeful rather than contented adventure. In 1818, the spiritual nourishment such a poet might seek was, well, whatever it was—without being a better historian than I am, I’m certain I can’t properly reconstruct it. But I do know that today, in these dark hours of American history, sufficient nourishment for the poet’s soul is not—or not necessarily—to be found in any poem, whatever its provenance or artifice or “unobtrusive grandeur.” Wendell taught his students to be citizens first and writers second, expecting, one imagines, that the trials of fully inhabiting the first role inexorably alter the potentialities of engaging the second. Just so, what Keats warned Reynolds of was putting poetry before the world—which in a contemporary context means putting poetry before the responsibilities of citizenship or (as applicable) one’s commitment to the rights of a “citizenry” broadly defined.
I wrote several years ago that poetry is in the midst of a Golden Age, and thereafter wrote a book of poetry by the same name. In neither case did I mean to say that this is a Golden Age of poems—history will decide that—but rather a Golden Age for those with the intuition, nerves, and bountiful ingenuity of poets, and a Golden Age for the communities that people of this sort have the power to create (and yes, too, for the initiatives their communities can support) should the polis and citizenship be placed ahead of any one person or his private “speculations.” I don’t at all believe poems to be the necessary byproduct of any of this; I do, however, see a dynamic pedagogy—a dynamic poetry-writing pedagogy—as the fount from which what poets must do off the page in today’s America can spring. We must learn poetry to exceed it, I think, and to me that’s the message Keats sent to Reynolds in 1818, and that Barrett Wendell sent his students at Harvard in 1888, and that America itself now sends to its poets, whoever they are or ever hope to be, in 2018.
Seth Abramson is a poet, professor, attorney, and political commentator. Read more about him here.