Re: Keats’s 21 Nov 1816 letter to Haydon
What a pleasure it is, in the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, to consider the letters of John Keats, literally my favorite human being. It is particularly fitting that I have been invited to consider this letter of November 21st, 1816, in which Keats enclosed the sonnet “Great Spirits…” with its closing:
—hear ye not the hum Of mighty workings? – – – – – – – Listen awhile ye Nations and be dumb!
Our nation has certainly obeyed Keats’s command. There. Thank you for indulging me as I work through some Keatsian punnishness.
The “Great Spirits” Keats meant, of course, were not politicians but the poets and artists he was beginning to count himself, tentatively, among. In this response, I want to focus mostly on two qualities in Keats, ambition and bitterness, that created the precise atmospheric conditions for the great odes, the way that certain climactic characteristics, mists and mellow fruitfulness, conspire to fill all fruit with ripeness to the core. The quality on display in this letter and in the sonnet enclosed with it is the first, ambition. But it is more than ambition, really. It is Keats’s great desire to be loved, which, in being matched almost precisely by his desire to love, is neither selfish nor shallow. Not to get all Freudian on it, but Keats lost his father when he was a boy, and I think you can chart his relationships with older male figures from his teacher, Charles Cowden Clarke, through his admiration for men like Leigh Hunt and Haydon, to the poets he admired, from the living Wordsworth to those apotheosized spirits, Shakespeare and Spenser and Milton, whom he seemed to literally look up to. It was vitally important to Keats that he receive love from those whom he loved. He may have praised disinterestedness, but he was absolutely interested in hearing his praise (many of his early poems are praise poems) being echoed from those whom he was praising.
And thus it is here. Having written a poem praising Wordsworth, amongst other “Great Spirits,” he is made breathless with the thought of receiving praise back. One might use the metaphor of shouting into some Lake District cavern and being startled at a response that seems to come both from within and from without oneself. The irony is that it would be tuberculosis that would literally take Keats’s breath away. But that is where the bitterness comes in, and first Keats had to exhaust the possibilities of praise.
An important physical detail of this particular letter is the fact that Keats separates his note to Haydon entirely from the poem he wishes Haydon to send on to Wordsworth. Thus Keats will come before Wordsworth in the guise of his sonnet, without those trappings that we, as avid Keatsians, cannot help but clothe him in: the letters and biographies and of course the late, great poems.
If I were Wordsworth, I would have had as equivocal a response to this sonnet as he does. Just look at the language in which he “praises” the poem. It would have been better if he’d said, “This is trash.” Instead Wordsworth fawns over the sonnet in a sarcastic way, as if afraid that by engaging with it seriously he might sully himself somehow. The sonnet shows “good promise,” but is not in itself good. The sonnet is “assuredly vigorously conceived,” but not assuredly vigorously written. The sonnet is “well expressed” and “agreeably concluded,” but is not expressed well (the simple reversal of these two words would have given a very different meaning, I believe), and Wordsworth seems almost to be implying that the fact that it concludes at all is all that is agreeable about it. What Wordsworth is praising, if anything, is Keats’s desire to be a poet. It reminds us of the comment he will make about another of Keats’s poems, that it is “a pretty piece of paganism.” I think it’s important to recognize that the Wordsworth whom Keats is sending this poem to is no longer the Wordsworth whom Keats admires, and admires so much that the thought of him reading one of his sonnets takes his breath away. By now, Wordsworth has left that little cottage that made him the poet of “the Cloud, the Cataract, the Lake,” and moved to a very comfortable situation at Rydal Mount. There are certain poets who seem to have had the great good fortune of being practically carried to Parnassus. In addition to Wordsworth on Rydal Mount, where he entertained Emerson (and ignored Keats and Brown), there is the example of Robert Frost holding forth on the porch at Breadloaf, or Marianne Moore sitting under one of her flamboyant hats, watching the Dodgers play, or, to use a contemporary example, Billy Collins. These poets seem to have been crafted perfectly for their time. As with the weather in “To Autumn,” everything seems to conspire to load and bless them.
But somehow, as much as they may deserve this apotheosis, I have never deeply loved these poets, preferring instead those whom, as Wordsworth put it, the world is too much with.
Keats’s trajectory from ambition to bitterness to death is shared by four more-recent artists about whom I’m preparing a study: Thomas James, Frank Stanford, Breece D’J Pancake, and Nick Drake (whose song “From the Morning” provides inspiration for this post’s title). One significant difference between Keats and these other artists–two poets, one fiction writer, and one musician–is that the other artists died by their own hand. (Though on his deathbed Keats begged to be allowed to end his life, we cannot consider him suicidal, necessarily, without considering the immense suffering he wished to put himself out of.) James, Stanford, Pancake and Drake all killed themselves around the age of 27. Like Keats, their apprenticeships in their respective arts were greatly accelerated not only by the fact that they were geniuses, but by ambition. Not the ambition we see today in the MFA world and in the world of literary fiction, the ambition to land a tenure-track job or a book deal, but a different kind of ambition: the ambition to, as Keats put it, be numbered amongst the “English poets,” or, more generally, the “Great Spirits.” I would argue that this desire goes beyond the desire for fame, even beyond the desire for immortality, which, some would argue, is perhaps an even more selfish desire than the desire to get a job or an advance. What I feel James, Stanford, Pancake, Drake and Keats desired was to vanish into art, and this is the ultimate selflessness. Pancake describes a character whose fear moves out in rings for a million years. Drake writes a song about how he felt once like green light on a hill. Stanford wrote a few hundred love poems to death, as if to invite death to take him off in some dusty Cadillac with Arkansas plates. James’s only published collection was called Letter to a Stranger, as if he is speaking to us from the kind of distance the mummy of one of his most famous poems speaks to us from.
But what this letter and sonnet show us is that, before Keats can make one of the oddest and most violent acts of self-eradication in history in his request that his friends not allow his name to be carved into the face of his tombstone, he had to work through the desire to be known, to be recognized as one of the “Great Spirits.” That Keats could never have written “To Autumn.” Only the Keats who felt such bitterness towards his critics, and who thought his name had been written in water, could.
The branch of the San Francisco Public Library in the Mission District is a beautiful building, built in that old-style, with the names of great scientists and composers and poets engraved around it. When I get off the 24th Street BART and prepare for the long climb up through the hills of San Francisco, it makes me smile to see Keats’s name up there. I always think to myself, “My God, Junkets, how wrong you were.”