Letter #57: To John Taylor, 27 February 1818

Today’s letter to Taylor is a significant one, particularly for the “Axioms” in poetry which Keats shares with his publisher. It might not be the “FINEST LETTER of Keats Extant,” as “some enthusiast” (so deemed by Hyder Edward Rollins) wrote on the top of the manuscript. But it’s pretty dang good. What are these axioms, you say? Well hold on a sec. We’re getting there.

First it’s worth asking why Keats feels compelled to offer up these axioms in the first place. Of course, we don’t have Taylor’s letter to which Keats was responding. But Keats writes these sentences before getting to those axioms:

It is a sorry thing for me that any one should have to overcome Prejudices in reading my Verses–that affects me more than any hypercriticism on any particular Passage. In Endymion I have most likely but moved into the Go-cart from the leading strings. In Poetry I have a few Axioms, and you will see how far I am from their Centre.

In short, it seems Taylor attempted to politely dampen Keats’s expectations for the poem’s success by noting that it might not be exactly to the public’s taste. One thinks here of the rhetorical gymnastics performed by Wordsworth and Coleridge in the “Advertisement” to Lyrical Ballads, in which they 1) deny that critics know anything about poetry, 2) note that their poems are really just experiments (so NBD if they don’t work), 3) that readers might not even think they are poems at all, so don’t call them poems you jerks!–and 4) that readers should just erase their “pre-established codes of decision” and think only of whether these experimental not-poems give them pleasure or no. One imagines Taylor writing something like, “Keats, loving Endymion, my man. But, you know, it’s got some moments that people will probably find a bit, um, challenging? Because they just don’t get your genius like I do! Anyway, yeah–some turkeys who don’t know what’s what will probably feel a bit prejudiced against your poems because they are stuck in their old fuddy-duddy ways.” (Ok, Taylor probably didn’t write exactly like that.)

What Keats’s response shows is that he continues to be eager to move beyond Endymion. As he writes toward the end of this letter, he is ready to “get Endymion printed that I may forget it and proceed.” In his metaphors of the “go-Cart” and the “leading strings,” we see another indication of his judgment of the poem as a trial of invention that is merely a stepping-stone to something else. The “go-Cart” is what we would now call a baby walker; “leading strings” were devices used to help children learn to walk (essentially by having an adult hold strings attached to the infant). So, yes, Keats is but a child learning to “not trip up my Heels” in the realm of poetic walking. We’ll see a similar formulation in his Preface to Endymion, where he situates the poem as in between the imagination of a boy and of a man: “thence proceeds mawkishness.” Well we daresay that even in Endymion Keats was well beyond the baby-walker stage of managing poetic feet. Teenager overly excited about poetry and desire?? Yeah, that sounds about right. (Still, we maintain Francis Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review assessment of Endymion: “It is, in truth, at least as full of genius as of absurdity.”)

To the axioms, then. Here they are:

1st I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity–it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance–2nd Its touches of Beauty should never be half way therby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural natural too him–shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight–but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it–and this leads me on to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.

One thought on the poetry coming naturally as the leaves to the tree bit. I’ve–and here I’m breaking from the traditional KLP editoral we–Brian Rejack, here, hiya–long pushed back against this notion thinking that Keats is just being ideological. Of course Keats knows that poetry involve labor, study, time, revision, etc. But I had a realization while discussing this letter with my students today (beneath some trees that haven’t just yet begun budding, incidentally). Just because Keats claims that poetry should come as “naturally as the Leaves to a tree,” it doesn’t mean he intends that poetry must be instantaneous. Leaves actually take a good long while to fully come to the tree. And they require labor, patience, and devotion (albeit the devotion of sun to tree, water to soil, soil to root, etc.). So perhaps Keats merely intends that poetry requires careful cultivation by placing the poetic impulse in an environment in which poetry can thrive. That could still certainly mean intense labor and practice, working and reworking.

We’ll have more about these axioms with a response to come later this week (or the next). But for now, some final things to say about the manuscript of this letter. Like many of the letters sent to Taylor, this one remained in his possession for a long time, and after his death remained in the family. In the 1840s he made his materials available to Richard Monckton Milnes for use in Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848; 2nd edition, 1867). The next significant editor of the letters was Harry Buxton Forman, who made a name for himself in 1878 by publishing, to great controversy, the letters Keats sent to Fanny Brawne. In 1883 Forman published a complete edition of Keats’s poetry and prose. In that edition, the letters to Taylor are typically (if not all–apologies for not checking all of them yet) based on Milnes’s text. Milnes was much more likely to excise sensitive passages than was Forman. One can witness this fact in the 1895 single-volume edition of the letters (the KLP’s favorite 19th-century edition of the letters). It appears that at some point between 1883 and 1895, Forman got his hands on the manuscripts in possession of Taylor’s family. And when he found in those manuscripts some of the naughty bits that Milnes left out, Forman obliged by printing them for all to see and enjoy.

Take, for instance, the 10 June 1817 letter to Taylor and Hessey (dated 10 July by Milnes and Forman). In Milnes (1848, 1867) and in Forman (1883, 1889), the first sentence is removed (“I must endeavor to lose my Maidenhead with respect to money Matters as soon as possible–and I will to–so here goes”–by the way, read David Sigler’s response to the letter, which is fantastic). In Forman’s 1895 edition, the first sentence appears! Conclusion: for his earlier editions Forman used Milnes’s text, and for the 1895 edition he must have had access to the letter. Now, this letter remains in the Taylor family and is sold in 1903 to Amy Lowell (through Bernard Quaritch). So that means Forman had access to the letter, and that the access was granted by the Taylor family, as opposed to some other owner of the letter. Some of the letters once owned by Taylor were sold prior to 1903, including the 23 Jan 1818 letter. That one was sold in New York in 1897, and since Forman’s 1895 version of the text is based not on the manuscript, but again on Milnes’s text, that letter must have left the Taylor family’s possession before Forman got access to those materials.

Ok, we’re in the weeds. But hang on. Back to today’s letter. Forman’s 1895 edition was clearly based on the manuscript, whereas his 1883 and 1889 editions were based on Milnes’s texts. But today’s letter was not sold at the Taylor family auction in 1903! (CAVEAT–WE’RE NOT ENTIRELY SURE YET THAT THIS FACT IS CORRECT. PRETTY SURE, THOUGH.) It was sold in 1912 by the firm of J. Pearson & Co. The buyer was J. Pierpont Morgan. What happened to this letter between 1895(ish) and 1903? We don’t yet know. But presumably it passed out of the Taylor family and into private hands who eventually led it back into the market in 1912. Those hands may well have been those of John Pearson or his partner Charles Edward Shepheard, both of whom actively sought out valuable letters and manuscripts. In any case, thanks to the catalogue for their sale in 1912, we have a facsimile of the MS to present to you. Sadly, it includes just two of the letter’s three pages. Still, better than nothing.

Now if you’re still here and want to read the entire letter, you know now that the text in Forman’s 1895 edition was based on the manuscript, so you can trust that one. And images below are from the 1912 catalogue for J. Pearson & Co. Stay tuned for more details on the letter’s provenance as it comes in!

Facsimile of page 1 of Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor. From the 1912 catalogue of items for sale by J. Pearson & Co.

The listing for Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor, from the 1912 catalogue for J. Pearson & Co.

The listing for Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor (featuring text of the letter), from the 1912 catalogue for J. Pearson & Co.

Facsimile of page 3 of Keats’s 27 Feb 1818 letter to John Taylor. From the 1912 catalogue of items for sale by J. Pearson & Co.

Letter #56: To George and Tom Keats, 21 February 1818

Today’s letter finds Keats getting encouragement from the “Thrushes and Blackbirds,” which “have been singing [him] into an idea it was spring.” Well, if you’re in the eastern part of the US today, you might be having a similar thought, given that it’s over 70 degrees throughout much of the Northeast and New England. And yes, it’s February 21st. The birds may have encouraged Keats to have spring in his mind, but the weather that day in 1818 certainly didn’t help the cause. Here’s what the Literary Gazette reported in the 28 February issue.

That drop from “30” to “6” would make you think it was not much of a spring-hearkening day, right? Well, that’s actually a printing error. For those of you with an interest in historical weather data from London in 1818, here’s a great resource for you: The Annals of Philosophy, published monthly, now available on Hathitrust, and with Luke Howard’s meteorological journal included at the end of each issue (about two months behind–so the data for February are in the April issue). You may know Luke Howard for devising the cloud classification still in use today. Go to paragraph 13 in this essay and you can learn a bit about him, and about how much Geothe loved him for coming up with the whole cloud thing. (Sorry for the shameless plug–the essay is by the KLP’s Brian Rejack, that dastardly braggart.) Anyway, here’s what Howard recorded for Feb 1818.

He had 45 degrees for a high on 21 February, recording his measurements in Tottenham. So the Literary Gazette must have just forgotten the “4” before that “6.” (Their measurements were from Edmonton, so let’s not rush to slag off anyone’s instruments–the temp could have been different in the two places, even if just a mile apart or so.) All of this comports with what Keats has to say about the weather: “The Weather, although boisterous to day has been very much milder.” Howard notes of 21 February, “Much wind, a.m. with clouds driving high and close,” so there’s your boisterousness. And the 34 degree morning was a few degrees warmer than the last two days, so we’ll give Keats the “much milder.” Incidentally, the weather in London today was pretty similar to this day 200 years ago. High of 44, low of 33, bit of wind. So obviously the climate is ok. Problem solved!

Now that we’ve given you far more background on Keats’s weather than you could have ever wished for, what else was he up to? He tells George and Tom that the immediate occasion for writing was a letter from one “Miss Wylie” intended for George, and which Keats enclosed in his letter. This is the first mention in the letters of Georgiana Wylie, who, experienced Keats devotees will already know, becomes Georgiana Keats. She and George actually wed not that far from the time of this letter exchange. They marry in June 1818, and then leave for America just weeks later. After that point Keats would never see Georgiana again, and he would see George again just for one month in January 1820 when George returned briefly to settle his financial affairs. And Poor Tom would not live to see either of them again.

But at this point, George is still just a bachelor receiving a note from his lady friend (or special lady, if you prefer). We say it all the time here at the KLP, but we so often encounter moments like this one when it’s revealed just how quickly and regularly the big, life-changing events in the story of the Keats family happen.

Keats touches on some other topics of interest: his visit to the British Gallery and some of the paintings he saw, the poor health of his friend Reynolds, his attendance at more of Hazlitt’s lectures, Shelley’s recent poem (Laon and Cythna, published Dec 1817; revised and republished because of controversy as The Revolt of Islam in Jan 1818) and its likely absence at the “Teignmouth Libraries,” and the egotism of Wordsworth. On this last topic Keats writes, “I am sorry Wordsworth has left a bad impression wherever he visited in Town–by his egotism, Vanity and bigotry–yet he is a great Poet if not a Philosopher.” This opinion of Wordsworth will continue to solidify as the year goes by, particularly in the summer when Keats attempts to visit Wordsworth at Rydal Mount and misses him because the elder poet is out campaigning for the Tory politician William Lowther, Earl of Lonsdale (Keats, doing his best Trump impression, writes, “Sad–sad–sad”).

Oh and the thrushes make a return! It’s rather lovely to have this moment of Keats melding the birdsong into the moment of his writing: “The Thrushes are singing now–af it [presumably “as if”] they would speak to the Winds because their big brother Jack, the spring was’nt far off.” Some confusion arises here regarding what species of birds Keats is actually referring to. Remember that first he mentions “Thrushes and Blackbirds.” So is this “big brother Jack” one of the blackbirds? Perhaps Keats has confused the common blackbird with the Jackdaw, which is indeed a black-colored bird (but actually part of the crow family). What seems more likely is that Keats has in mind this nursery rhyme: “Two little blackbirds sitting on a hill / One named Jack and one named Jill” (or similar variations thereof). We are no experts in the history of nursery rhymes, but given this one’s existence in books from the middle of the nineteenth century, it seems plausible that it would have been in circulation in 1818. The other hint here is the “big brother.” The Common Blackbird (like other old world blackbirds) is actually a kind of thrush, from the genus TurdusTurdus merula, the Common Blackbird, is bigger (~25 cm) than Turdus philomelos, the Song Thrush (~23 cm), which is probably what Keats had in mind with “thrush.” He could also have meant Turdus viscivorus, the Mistle Thrush, another common bird in the UK. Confusing things further, in 1818 the Song Thrush was still classified as Turdus musicus, which then later gets wrongly associated as a former name for Turdus iliacus (the Redwing). It did not acquire the Greek-mythology-inspired name philomelos until 1831 (and we won’t quibble about Philomela turning into a nightingale or a thrush or some other singing bird). So anyway–we don’t really know for sure what kind of birdsong Keats was hearing, but we know what he heard was getting him in the mood for spring. Now here are some pictures of birds and some recordings of their song for you to enjoy!

The Common Blackbird, enjoying a snack.

The Mistle Thrush. Probably not what Keats meant.

The Redwing. Almost definitely not what Keats meant. But still pretty.

And finally, Turdus philomelos, formerly known as Turdus musicus. Probably what Keats was hearing. You can call him Song Thrush. Or just thrush, or throstle, or mavis. They really have lots of names.

To hear some samples of their songs, head over to Royal Society for the Protection of Birds: Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Redwing, Song Thrush.

Oh, and if you’d like to read the letter, you can read a slightly truncated version of it in Forman’s 1895 edition (based on Milnes, from Jeffrey’s transcript). Or read the whole thing in Keats’s hand below. Interestingly, this manuscript was acquired by Arthur Houghton in 1951, and presented to Harvard some years later. The KLP does not know any more about its provenance, but we’re intrigued by a letter that was not in the possession of one of the typical Keats stewards until so late in the 20th century. We shall find out more when we have time.

Page 1 of Keats’s 21 February 1818 letter to George and Tom. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.22). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 21 February 1818 letter to George and Tom. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.22). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 21 February 1818 letter to George and Tom. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.22). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 21 February 1818 letter to George and Tom. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.22). Houghton Library, Harvard University.


A Denial of Sociability from Keats; or, Poor Horace Smith!

Anne McCarthy
Penn State University

Re: Keats’s 19 February 1818 letter to Horace Smith

Wit and sense,

Virtue and human knowledge; all that might
Make this dull world a business of delight,
Are all combined in Horace Smith.

–Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Letter to Maria Gisborne”

Horace Smith was a stockbroker by profession and a poet by inclination. He immersed himself in the life of literary London in the early decades of the nineteenth century, spending his days in the counting-house and evenings at the theatre. With his brother James, he published the breakout success, Rejected Addresses, in 1812—a volume of poetic parodies in the style of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and many other leading poets of the day. Leigh Hunt found him “delicious” and remarked that “His figure was good and manly, inclining to robust; and his countenance extremely frank and cordial, sweet without weakness” (Reiman xxii, xxiii). By most accounts, he seems to have been a lot of fun to be around, willing to share his good financial fortune with his friends, and, especially after he retired from business in 1821 to devote himself to literary pursuits, a prolific writer of poems, novels, plays, and memoirs. He was a longtime contributor to the New Monthly Magazine, where his “A Greybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance” ran to thirteen installments in 1847-48. In a delightful, if somewhat morbid, turn of events, his final story—a highly-underrated three-part novella about a man who is buried alive called the Posthumous Memoir of Myself—appeared just after his death in 1849.

His best friend among the Romantic poets was Shelley who, in addition to praising him in the “Letter to Maria Gisborne,” characterized Smith as “the only truly generous person I ever knew, who had money to be generous with” (qtd. in Reiman xxii). By all accounts, Smith managed Shelley’s finances with skill and delicacy; for his part, Shelley always made sure that Smith was on the list to receive his new work. And it was Smith, incidentally, whose conversation helped provoke the contest that led to the writing of “Ozymandias.” You can read Smith’s poem here (image below).

In short, it would seem like everyone who was anyone enjoyed the company of Horace Smith. Except, perhaps, for John Keats.

“Dislike” is probably too strong a word. Still, in this letter we see Keats involved in a diplomatic refusal of Smith’s hospitality, pleading that familiar combination of too much work and too little time. Perhaps “Nehemiah Muggs,” for all its “Wit and imaginative fun,” was not entirely to his taste. The work still to be done on Endymion did loom, even though—as Rollins’ footnote tells us—it would be several more weeks before Keats made it to Devonshire.

When Smith met Keats and Shelley at Leigh Hunt’s house in 1816, his first impression of Keats was that “to an observant eye his looks and his attenuated frame already foreshadowed the consumption that had marked him for its prey. His manner was shy, and embarrassed, as of one unused to society, and he spoke little” ([Smith] 239). Smith’s biographer, Arthur Beavan, also records the following anecdote:

[H]is eldest daughter remembers that, when she was a child, she was solemnly led into the garden by her father one lovely afternoon in July to take a peep at a fragile-looking and rather ill-dressed gentleman sitting “immanteled in ambrosial dark” beneath a wide-spreading ilex. “Do you see that man?” said her father; “that’s a poet.” It was poor Keats, then fast nearing his end, whom Smith had enticed from Wentworth Place, Hampstead, to dine and spend a long day with him. (134)

Beavan goes on to describe this less-than-immortal dinner: it was “served earlier than usual to lengthen the exquisite evening, and everything that could be thought of to tempt the poet’s feeble appetite was there,” along with “a dozen bottles of Keats’s favorite beverage”—claret, one can only assume, to be consumed outdoors on this pleasant evening (135). Smith seems to have tried his best, that is, but there’s a sense that “poor Keats” might be struggling with this hospitality.

Beavan blurs the issue a bit, for he follows this anecdote with Keats’s report of a dinner with the Smith brothers, where he confesses that “They only served to convince me how superior humour is to wit in respect to enjoyment. These men say things which make one start without making one feel; they all know fashionables; they all have a mannerism in their very eating and drinking, in their mere handling of a decanter” (qtd. in Beavan 135-6). Here, of course, we can begin to understand why Keats, in February 1818, might want to put off a visit to Knightsbridge as being less relaxing than his host intended. But Beavan implies that this is a commentary on that “lovely afternoon in July”—that after all that had been done for him, Keats remained unmoved. But eagle-eyed Keatsians (or those of us capable of using Google) will recognize that the description of dinner with the Smith brothers is part of the negative capability letter—and, thus, that it cannot refer either to a gathering in July or, for that matter, to a visit where Keats was “fast nearing his end.”

I don’t want to read too much into this particular disjunction, of course. At best, it draws attention to certain temperamental differences between Shelley and Keats, a reminder that Keats did not always feel himself at his best in certain kinds of company. Perhaps—and this is speculation on my part—Smith was too much Keats’s opposite, with a robustness, good nature, and general comfort in the world that threatened to overwhelm him. In the final throes of Endymion, he may not have had the energy for “wit” or “mannerism,” and he could trust that Smith would be disappointed, but not offended, by his refusal. Gratitude and hospitality can be tricky sometimes, and, at least on this day, Keats decides that sociability comes at too high a cost.


Works Cited

Beavan, Arthur H. James and Horace Smith: A Family Narrative based upon Hitherto Unpublished Private Diaries, Letters, and Other Documents. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1899.

Reiman, Donald H. “Introduction.” Rejected Addresses and Horace in London by Horace and James Smith. New York: Garland Publishing, 1977.

[Smith, Horace.] “A Greybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance, No. VIII.” The New Monthly Magazine and Humorist Vol. 81, no. 322 (October 1847): 227-40.

Letter #55: To Horace Smith, 19 February 1818

The second letter for today is to Horace Smith, about whom we’ve heard a bit before. Back at the end of January, he was making fun of another Horace (Twiss) with some bawdy lines Keats shared with Tom and George. Arden Hegele had a great reading of the letter and Keats’s ambiguous feelings about masculinity, the body, and sex. We also heard about Smith in the 14 February letter to George and Tom, in which Keats mentions Smith’s poem “Nehemiah Muggs” and shares some extracts from it. (See also the latest This Week on Keats for a shallow dive into early nineteenth-century attitudes toward Methodism, among other topics). And now we have a letter to Smith himself, with Keats mildly praising “Nehemiah Muggs” as having “a full leven of Wit and imaginative fun.” (Remember that back in the negative capability letter Keats’s disdain for wit and preference for humour was formulated after a dinner with Smith as host.)

But we’ll cut things short here and let you get to Anne McCarthy’s wonderful response, which situates Smith as a minor but nonetheless significant figure in 2nd-generation Romantic circles, even if Keats never warmed to him in the way he did with some other folks.

The letter can be read in Harry Buxton Forman’s updated 1901 edition of the complete works (we believe this edition was the letter’s first time in print). And it’s short, so here’s an image of the letter as well.

Keats’s 19 Feb 1818 letter to Horace Smith. From Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 collected edition of Keats’s writings.

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.

This Week in Keats, Episode 5: ‘When once a man delays a letter’

This Week in Keats
Brian Rejack (Illinois State University) and Michael Theune (Illinois Wesleyan University)

Re: Keats’s 14 Feb 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats

For the latest episode of This Week in Keats, Brian and Mike discuss the etiquette of writing a late reply (something no KLP editor would ever do!), Keats’s playful acknowledgement of his burgeoning fame (“in the west country”), cultural attitudes toward Methodism circa 1818, and an intriguing story about a Keats manuscript and Oscar Wilde.