Wherever the Unknown is Sown with Stars: Keats and the Creative Imagination

Kacie Wills (UC Riverside) and Erica Hayes (North Carolina State University)

Re: Keats’s 8 October 1818 letter to James Augustus Hessey

These snow animal tracks are silent. I must follow them like fragments tethered to a new scene. If every thought is a prison, then let me practice abstraction, the art of walking through a maze. If I turn left, then I must sooner turn right. To arrive by the dissoluteness of all the senses is to see. I will dream into the present tense.

For the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze. If I had trembled, I would not have known each new age requires a new confession. If I had trembled, I would not have known what it means to leap, where every new relation is a new word. To burn until the poet becomes the thief of fire.

To reign in hell or serve in heaven. The dilemma of the damned is the canvas of the seer. The seer ignites the offspring of contraries; fancy provokes the flames of possibility. That which is creative must create itself. Silence birthed in heat must feed the dead and the broken beneath. The spark. The accidental flame. Say, “It is in me, and shall out.” Words put into a pan and simmering. For all form is an effect of character.

Wherever the unknown is sown with stars, forms of twilight speak. Wherever the pastoral music wafts through transparent boundaries, the poet renews the green shore. Walking in the midst, the poet consumes the poison of sensation, the presence of chance, the secrets sleeping in nature.

To speak in tongues is to transcribe the typeface of the unknown, all forms of gravity. If I fall through a cloud, I will exist without comparison. I will clamber in the spaces between, among the quicksands and the rocks. I will glow, not from praise, but from my own oblivion. For I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest. For failure is merely the practice of persistence.

Authors’ Note:

In addition to Keats’s letter to Hessey, we have drawn lines and ideas from Emerson’s essay, “The Poet,” Rimbaud’s letters to George Izambard (13 May, 1871) and Paul Demeny (15 May, 1871), and Charles Simic’s essay, “Negative Capability and Its Children.”  We wanted to bring these statements of aesthetic value into conversation, in order to examine these leaps of creativity Keats describes within the poetic process. As scholars with backgrounds in writing poetry, we were interested in considering how Keats’s ideas about creativity, failure, and negative capability have been adapted over time and could inform our own poetic process and collaboration. Over two months, we took turns writing sections of the poem, then engaged in a more immediate process of writing and editing the lines together in the prose poem format we both favor. We learned that collaboration requires trust and malleability. In form, content, and process we took our own creative leaps, engaging with these texts in order to gain insight into our poetic practices and their influences.


Kacie Wills holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Riverside, an M.A. in English from California State University, Long Beach, and a B.F.A. in Creative Writing from Chapman University. Her dissertation and current scholarship examine the productions of popular culture surrounding eighteenth-century Pacific exploration and the effects of these material and literary objects on the Romantic imagination. Her Master’s thesis examined the relationship of eating and drinking to the formation of the negatively capable imagination in Keats’s letters and poems. In addition to revisiting their creative roots, Kacie and Erica are currently collaborating on a digital project that studies the collections of Joseph Banks’s sister, Sarah Sophia Banks.

Erica Hayes holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from California State University, Long Beach, an M.L.S and M.I.S from Indiana University, Bloomington, and a B.A. in English Literature from Chapman University. She is an academic librarian and Copyright & Digital Scholarship Fellow at the North Carolina State University Libraries, where she helps faculty and students with their digital research projects. She is currently the project manager on the “Visualizing Digital Scholarship in Libraries and Learning Spaces” Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant. Her research interests include 18th-19th century British Literature, contemporary poetry and poetics, digital humanities and scholarly communication.


Works Cited:

Emerson, Ralph. “The Poet.” The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by Brooks Atkinson, Modern Library, 2000, pp. 287-306.

Rimbaud, Jean Nicholas Arthur. Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters. Bilingual ed., Edited by Seth Whidden, Translated by Wallace Fowlie, U of Chicago P, 2005.

Simic, Charles. “Negative Capability and Its Children.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. Edited by Dana Gioa, David Mason, Meg Schoerke, and D.C. Stone, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2004, pp. 342-348.

Letter #94: To James Augustus Hessey, 8 October 1818

If you’re familiar with the story of Keats and his early reception, you’re no doubt aware of those dastardly reviewers over at Blackwood’s and the Quarterly Review (and elsewhere) who didn’t take too kindly to his poetry. Well, the worst of the worst hit right around this time (mid- to late-1818). And Keats certainly knew about the scuttlebutt, in part because his publishers kept him apprised of the latest developments. Today’s letter to Hessey (of the publishing firm, Taylor and Hessey–publishers of Endymion and Keats’s 1820 volume) is in response to Hessey sending a clipping from the Morning Chronicle on 3 October, which included a letter from “J. S.” defending Keats in the wake of the nasty review by John Wilson Croker in the Quarterly (dated April 1818, but the issue didn’t actually appear until September). J. S. was probably John Scott, later the editor of the London Magazine (published by Taylor and Hessey), in which Scott continued his war of words against Tory periodicals like Blackwood’s and the Quarterly. That war of words turned to one of bullets when Scott died from wounds suffered in a duel with John Gibson Lockhart (a writer for Blackwood’s) in early 1821. The reviewing game was a dangerous one!

Keats, though, seemed to have taken a less violent approach. We see in today’s letter how he uses the opportunity of the negative reviews to ponder the nature of his own creative process. Yes, there’s certainly a bit of bluster in his declarations that he cares not about such things. But as much as he must have felt the sting of disapproval, it does seem that Keats used those feelings to fuel his future work. And as we’ll see in a few weeks, Keats continued to refine his ideas about creativity–one of his most notable statements about the nature of poetry, poetic process, and the identity of the poet appears in his letter to Richard Woodhouse at the end of October 1818.

For today’s letter, we have a collaborative creative response from Kacie Wills and Erica Hayes. They used Keats’s letter, along with a few other texts which consider the nature of creativity, to construct a prose-poem enactment of their own processing of, as they write, “how Keats’s ideas about creativity, failure, and negative capability have been adapted over time.” We hope you enjoy!

The text of today’s letter can be read via Forman’s 1895 edition. And images below come courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library, which owns the only source for this letter: a transcript by Richard Woodhouse.

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 8 October 1818 letter to James Augustus Hessey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 8 October 1818 letter to James Augustus Hessey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.