Indolence and Disinterestedness

Beth Lau
California State University, Long Beach

Re: Keats’s 14 February–3 May 1819 letter to George and Georgiana Keats

Keats’s long journal letter to his brother and sister-in-law, begun on 14 February and ending 3 May 1819, is surely one of the most valuable we have, as it covers the period of his most fertile creativity, when he wrote “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and most of the odes. The 19 March 1819 entry marks a crucial turning point in Keats’s development that spring. Before this date, the journal letter is filled with reports of various disappointments, anxieties and frustrations: the poor sales of Endymion and harsh reviews of his work, causing him to wonder if he should abandon poetry and pursue a medical career; the fact that he hasn’t had a letter from George and doesn’t know how he is doing; and writer’s block. He reports being at a standstill with Hyperion and confesses, “to tell the truth I have not been in great cue for writing lately” (Letters2: 62; see also 2: 58, 65, 70). Although Keats doesn’t mention it, perhaps to avoid upsetting George, he must also have been grieving his brother Tom, who died in December 1818. The 19 March letter, however, brims with playful humor, sensuousness, and profound speculation on some of the issues that concerned Keats most deeply and that figure in many of his other memorable letters and poems. What can account for the release of energy and expression we witness in Keats’s writing on this date?

One explanation involves the physical and emotional state Keats is in when he composes the letter. The previous entry, from 17 March 1819, describes a visit “to Davenports’ w[h]ere I dined—and had a nap. I cannot bare a day anhilated in that manner,” Keats declares, and he goes on to insist that “there is a great difference between an easy and an uneasy indolence” (Letters 2: 77). The 19 March section begins in a state of “easy indolence” and demonstrates the pleasures and rewards of that condition. Keats reports that he has a black eye from playing cricket the day before and that he slept “till nearly eleven” in the morning. It is likely that Charles Brown, whom Keats says “{app}lied a lee{ch to} the eyelid” after his sports injury, also administered some opium to ease the pain (see Bate 465; Motion 361). If so, the drug probably contributed to the poet’s lengthy slumber as well as the mood he is in as he writes the letter, which he describes as “a sort of temper indolent and supremely careless.” His long sleep has subdued his “Passions” and “weakened the animal fibre all over me to a delightful sensation about three degrees on this side of faintness. . . . This is the only happiness,” he concludes, “and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind” (2: 78-79). His mind and emotions do not remain in abeyance, however, as the letter launches into a heart-felt, deeply engaged exploration of suffering, sympathy, the life force, and the nature of poetry, among other topics.

The catalyst is a note he receives from William Haslam reporting that his father is expected to die shortly. Keats’s empathic nature cannot remain indifferent to this news of his friend’s imminent loss, and it serves as evidence for him that human life can never be free for long of pain and struggle. “Even so,” he admits, “we have leisure to reason on the misfortunes of our friends; our own touch us too nearly for words. Very few men have ever arrived at a complete disinterestedness of Mind: very few have been influenced by a pure desire of the benefit of others” (2: 79). “Disinterestedness” is a concept Keats began celebrating in the fall of 1817, during and shortly after his visit with Benjamin Bailey in Oxford (see Letters 1: 160, 205). The term probably derived from William Hazlitt’s Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805) (introduced to Keats by Bailey), which sought to refute philosophers such as Hobbes who claim that people are naturally selfish and to prove instead that empathy and concern for others are inherent in human nature (see Bate 201-2, 216, 255-59, 586).

In the 19 March portion of his journal letter, Keats considers the question of whether selflessness is natural or an aberration in human nature. For the most part, he perceives a common drive in all living organisms to fulfill their basic needs. “The greater part of Men make their way with the same instinctiveness, the same unwandering eye from their purposes, the same animal eagerness as the Hawk” (2: 79). Human beings, like other animals, seek mates, shelter, food, and leisure. Nonetheless, Keats then invokes Wordsworth’s assertion (in “The Old Cumberland Beggar” 153) that “‘we have all one human heart’—there is an ellectric fire in human nature tending to purify—so that among these human creature[s] there is continually some birth of new heroism” (2: 80). Alan Richardson notes that “ellectric fire” probably refers to the theory of “electrical neural transmission” proposed by John Hunter, which Keats learned from Astley Cooper in his studies at Guy’s Hospital. According to Hunter, impulses are transmitted to and from the brain via an “electric fluid” that courses through the nerves (Richardson 122, 124). This allusion to human anatomy, in combination with the passage from Wordsworth, implies that acts of benevolence are as natural and innate as more selfish impulses.

But Keats continues to consider the mixed evidence for and against disinterestedness as an inherent human trait. If it is to some degree implanted in all people, significant acts of selflessness are rare, so that “we must wonder at [them]: as we should at finding a pearl in rubbish.” He can think of only two people who were “comp[l]etely disinterested,” Socrates and Jesus. Keats can reach no firm conclusions: “I am however young writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness—without knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion” (Letters 2: 80).

These reflections on self-centered and selfless impulses lead Keats to consider another opposition: between the goals and types of mental activity that distinguish poetry and philosophy. He characterizes his own thought process as “instinctive,” parallel to “the alertness of a Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer,” animated by graceful “energies” even if “erroneous,” and he concludes, “This is the very thing in which consists poetry; and if so it is not so fine a thing as philosophy—For the same reason that an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth” (2: 80-81). Keats quotes lines from Milton’s Comus celebrating “divine Philosophy” and claims he is now in “a state of mind to relish them properly,” as he did not in the past. “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced—Even a Proverb is no proverb to you till your Life has illustrated it,” he insists, echoing a statement from his 3 May 1818 letter to Reynolds that “axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses” (1: 279; see also 2: 18).

The fact that Keats cites Milton’s Comus to support his assertion that philosophy is superior to poetry actually undermines that claim, since Comus itself is a poem. In other respects, the 19 March 1819 letter tends to emphasize connections and interrelations rather than distinctions between what Keats had previously called “Sensations” and “Thoughts” or a “sense of the luxurious” as opposed to a “love for Philosophy” (Letters 1: 185, 271), for it suggests that the “languor[ous]” state he is in when he begins the letter, in which “the body overpower[s] the Mind,” is actually conducive to the mental journey that ensues (Letters 2: 78, 79).

Several other letters help to explain this connection between a relaxed body and productive thoughts. One is Keats’s 19 February 1818 letter to Reynolds that celebrates “delicious diligent Indolence” (1: 231). In that piece Keats describes how reading a passage of poetry or prose can initiate a “voyage of conception” that engages soul, body, and mind: a man, like a spider, should engage in reflections that “weave a tapestry empyrean—full of Symbols for his spiritual eye, of softness for his spiritual touch, of space for his wandering of distinctness for his Luxury” (1: 232). The key to initiating this fruitful mental and sensory experience is to be “passive and receptive,” more like a “flower than [a] Bee,” entertaining whatever thoughts occur and whatever information enters through the senses. This passage in turn recalls Keats’s ideal of negative capability, the condition in which a “man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Letters 1: 193).  As many scholars have noted, the ideal of negative capability is also exemplified in Keats’s definition of the “poetical Character” as a person who loses his own identity as he enters wholeheartedly into those of the beings he creates (Letters 1: 386-87). Finally, in a 24 September 1819 letter Keats criticizes his friend Dilke for being “a Man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his Mind about every thing. The only means of strengthening one’s intellect,” Keats insists, “is to make up ones mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. . . . Dilke will never come at a truth as long as he lives; because he is always trying at it” (Letters 2: 213). All of these passages praise a state of passivity, a letting go of one’s personal preoccupations, and an openness to all thoughts and impressions that for Keats is conducive to creativity, to morality, and to knowledge, the latter of which is more likely to involve partial insights than settled conclusions. This mental receptivity is typically aided by a contented body enjoying soothing sensations. “Diligent Indolence” is “delicious”; it feels good.

In the same way the 19 March 1819 section of Keats’s journal letter begins with Keats experiencing a luxurious, “languor[ous]” state of “delightful sensation” (2: 78). The fact that he had been playing cricket the day before, engaging in strenuous physical activity, as well as the opium he took, which probably induced a mild euphoria and broke down inhibitions, no doubt contributed to his bodily and mental ease. The personal losses and anxieties that had been troubling Keats for months were alleviated by this mood, in a way that perhaps made it easier for him to respond empathetically to the news of Haslam’s misfortune than if he had still been mired in his own concerns.

As Keats learned in his medical training, the senses, the emotions, and the mind are not distinct but are interrelated, all elements of the systems that animate and regulate the human organism. Besides the reference to “an ellectric fire in human nature” already mentioned, numerous other passages in the 19 March entry suggest an empirical, scientific outlook that links body and mind. Keats’s description of his indolent state as one in which “the animal fibre all over me” is “weakened” and the “fibres of [his] brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body” (Letters 2: 78) emphasizes that body and brain are composed of the same materials and influence one another (on the theory that the brain is made up of fibers, see Goellnicht 138-39; and on a similar topic, see Jeanne Britton’s recent KLP post on “irritability”). The declaration “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced” reflects a belief that ideas should not be accepted as mere mental constructs but should be acquired by direct observation and personal confirmation of the causes and effects that give rise to them (see Goellnicht 122-25; Richardson 117). Keats’s inclination in the letter to link human and nonhuman animals, to regard much of human activity, even thoughts, as instinctive drives that serve our survival needs, also reflects an awareness of the biological nature of all experience, bodily and mental.

Finally, at the end of the letter when Keats introduces his sonnet “Why did I laugh tonight?” he suggests the close association between feelings and thoughts. “[T]he first steps to” his sonnet, he says, “were throug[h] my human passions—they went away, and I wrote with my Mind—and perhaps I must confess a little bit of my heart” (Letters 2: 81). Keats’s account of his poem’s composition has parallels to recent findings of neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio.  According to Damasio, the processing of emotion involves three stages: the first, which he calls emotion, involves the unconscious triggering of survival-oriented physiological responses; the second stage, which he calls feelings, is when “emotions . . . have an impact on the mind, as they occur, in the here and now”; and the third stage, which can only occur in creatures that possess consciousness, is when we become aware of our feelings and can name and reflect on them, so that they “permeate the thought process” (56; see also 37 and chapters 2 and 9 passim). Keats, like Damasio, represents “passions” as the initial experience, of which he eventually becomes aware and can describe and evaluate with his “Mind”—though in the end he has trouble making a firm distinction and realizes that his “heart” is still infusing his thoughts.

Keats’s scientific background is not the only source of his ideas and outlook in this letter. Literature also plays a significant role, especially that of Wordsworth, Milton, and James Thomson, whose The Castle of Indolence (1748) Keats says he “long[s] after” (Letters 2: 78). Thomson’s Spenserian allegorical poem ostensibly exposes the drawbacks and dangers of idleness and advocates the virtue of work. In Canto 1, however, the pleasures of an indolent lifestyle are described so persuasively that the poem’s point of view may appear ambivalent; as James Sambrook notes, Thomson “introduces a moral haziness . . . that we do not find in Spenser” in his treatment of slothful and industrious behavior (Thomson 167).

In several respects, the poem offers a defense of the indolent state similar to Keats’s celebration of “easy” and “delicious, diligent Indolence.” The Wizard who presides over the Castle argues that

from the Source of tender Indolence,

With milky Blood the Heart is overflown,

Is sooth’d and sweeten’d by the social Sense

For Interest, Envy, Pride, and Strife are banish’d hence. (1.15.132-35)

The “indulgent Ease” described in this stanza (1.15.127) is conducive to virtue, to a relinquishing of focus on personal gain and a kindness toward other people similar to Keats’s disinterestedness. Indolence in Thomson’s poem also fosters a free flow of ideas and poetic composition. One of the most popular activities in the Castle is “indulg[ing] the Muse” (1.18.156), and the figure who represents Thomson is said to “[Pour] forth his unpremeditated Strain” as he rambles through the countryside (1.68.607). Stanzas 40-41 in Canto 1 describe the celestial music produced by “The Harp of Æolus,” that symbol of the poet as a responsive instrument for nature to play upon that became popular with Romantic poets such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and others (see Abrams). The concepts expressed in Thomson’s poem have parallels with Keats’s various statements claiming that a body and mind at ease and open to all thoughts and sensations is a state fruitful to creativity, to the pursuit of truths “proved upon the pulses,” and to a suspension of ego that inspires benevolence.

Among the poems written in the next few months, the one that may appear most indebted to the 19 March 1819 entry is the “Ode on Indolence,” which re-enacts the scenario Keats describes in the letter when he says that “Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness of countenance as they pass by me: they seem rather like three figures on a greek vase” (Letters 2: 79). In the “Ode on Indolence,” the speaker similarly has a vision of “three figures,” identified as Love, Ambition, and “my demon Poesy,” who pass by him “like figures on a marble urn” and entice him to follow them (1, 5, 30). The speaker resists their appeal, however, and is content to remain enveloped in “The blissful cloud of summer-indolence,” in which “Pain had no sting, and pleasure’s wreath no flower” (16, 18), a passage that recalls the statement in Keats’s letter that “pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable frown” (Letters 2: 78-79). In one important respect, however, the experience recounted in the ode is quite different from that of 19 March 1819. Instead of remaining in a state in which feelings and thoughts are suppressed, in the letter Keats allows his mind to become “a thoroughfare for all thoughts” and for the emotions that trigger them. For all that he appears at ease, the speaker in “Ode on Indolence” may actually be inhibited by defense mechanisms. Grant Scott believes the figures of Poetry, Ambition, and Love are associated for Keats with women and femininity and that the speaker of “Indolence” rejects them and thus aborts the mental journey on which they would have led him from a deep-seated fear of emasculation (96-118).

The ode that most resembles Keats’s 19 March reflections, I argue, is “Ode to a Nightingale,” which begins with the speaker in a drowsy, drugged-like state, whereupon an external impression (bird song in the ode, corresponding to Haslam’s note in the letter) sets off a meditation revolving around central questions about human suffering and mortality as well as the nature and value of poetry and the imagination. In the ode, as in the letter, the speaker’s mind freely entertains all thoughts, even those that are unwelcome and that challenge his initial assumptions (such as that the nightingale inhabits a timeless realm divorced from pain and loss that is preferable to his human condition). As in the letter too, the speaker in the Nightingale ode reaches no settled conclusions by the end of the poem (“Do I wake or sleep?”), but one can say that he has advanced in self-awareness, just as the one virtue or accomplishment Keats claims for himself in the letter is that he “strive[s]—to know [him]self” (Letters 2: 81). 

In this section of Keats’s journal letter, as in “Ode to a Nightingale” and other of his most memorable poems, we witness negative capability in action, the condition of passive receptivity to emotions, sensations, and thoughts that Keats describes and celebrates under various names, including in this letter “languor” or, as he corrects himself in self-deprecating fashion, “Laziness” (2: 78). Despite his playful mockery of his “temper indolent and supremely careless,” the letter goes on to demonstrate the value of that condition, as Keats engages in serious and searching reflections enabled by his bodily and mental ease. Following this letter, Keats’s unproductive period was at an end. He returned to Hyperion until he made the firm decision to abandon it (see Bate 466-67; Motion 360-61); then came “La Belle Dames sans Merci,” the odes, and in the course of the summer and fall the other remarkable poems of his annus mirabilis. “Delicious, diligent Indolence” indeed.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. “The Correspondent Breeze: A Romantic Metaphor.” 1957. English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by M. H. Abrams, 2nd ed., Oxford UP, 1975, pp. 37-54.

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Harvard UP, 1964.

Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Harvest-Harcourt, 1999.

Goellnicht, Donald C. The Poet-Physician: Keats and Medical Science. U of Pittsburgh P, 1984.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Edited by Hyder E. Rollins, 2nd ed., 2 vols., Harvard UP, 1965.

—. The Poems of John Keats. Edited by Jack Stillinger, Harvard UP, 1978.

Motion, Andrew. Keats. U of Chicago P, 1997.

Richardson, Alan. British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind. Cambridge UP, 2001.

Scott, Grant F. The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts. UP of New England, 1994.

Thomson, James. Liberty, The Castle of Indolence, and Other Poems. Edited with Introduction and Commentary by James Sambrook, Clarendon P, 1986.

Keats’s “picture of somebody reading”: Remembering Literary History in Pictures

Grace Rexroth
University of Colorado, Boulder

RE: Keats’s 13 March 1819 letter to Fanny Keats

On its surface, Keats’s 13 March 1819 letter to Fanny appears somewhat simple, awash in brotherly solicitude and small pieces of personal news. Keats begins by mentioning that he has been writing to George—not short letters but something long that he adds to “day after day” (though he has not yet found a reliable way to send it). The middle portion of the letter is comprised of Keats’s description of goods and wares to be had at the Leicester Square market, and he asks Fanny if there is anything that he can acquire for her: “any particular Book; or Pencils, or drawing paper—anything but live stock” (II: 45). Eventually the letter concludes with some remarks about the changing spring weather and the health of his companions. Yet, couched between these solicitous inquiries about Fanny’s needs and the dutifully related bits of news, Keats gives us an odd sketch of himself as “the picture of somebody reading,” a tableau that raises interesting questions about the relationship between books and pictures, or the act of reading and pictorial depictions of people reading (II:46). 

Keats’s reverie about a “picture of somebody reading” begins with some thoughts about nature and his own childhood. After telling Fanny that he would be willing to purchase “anything but live stock” at the market for her, he notes:

Though I will not now be very severe on it, remembering how fond I used to be of Goldfinches, Tomtits, Minnows, Mice, Ticklebacks, Dace, Cock salmons and all the whole tribe of the Bushes and the Brooks: but verily they are better in the Trees and the water—though I must confess even now a partiality for a handsome Globe of gold-fish—then I would have it hold 10 pails of water and be fed continually fresh through a cool pipe with another pipe to let through the floor—well ventilated they would preserve all their beautiful silver and Crimson. Then I would put it before a handsome painted window and shade it all round with myrtles and Japonicas. I should like the window to open onto the Lake of Geneva—and there I’d sit and read all day like the picture of somebody reading. (II:46)

In this passage, Keats’s penchant for goldfish leads him into a very specific and detailed reverie about what would make an ideal scene in which to read. However, when he likens this scene to a “picture of somebody reading,” he is evoking more than just an imaginary experience. What Keats is gesturing to in this depiction of a “picture” is a genre of portrait painting – formal portraits of men and women reading books – which had become fairly common throughout the eighteenth century. For examples of such pictures, we might look to Joshua Reynolds’ paintings, including “The Reading Boy” (1777) which depicts a young boy reading by a window.

Painting of a young boy reading a book.
Joshua Reynolds, “The Reading Boy” (1777), Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Or we might consider his 1771 portrait of Theophila Palmer reading Clarissa.

Painting of Theophila Palmer reading Richardson's Clarissa.
Joshua Reynolds, “Portrait of Theophila Palmer” (1771). Image via Sotheby’s.

Finally, there is also Reynolds’ influential 1775 portrait of Samuel Johnson earnestly reading a book which he holds near his face.

Painting of Samuel Johnson reading a book.
Joshua Reynolds, “Portrait of Samuel Johnson” (1775). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Other examples of reading portraits abound, recorded in guides to portrait galleries and museums.[1] Given that such portraits of reading were fairly common (almost as ubiquitous as, say, the Instagram bathroom selfie), I would like to suggest that when Keats imagines himself as “the picture of somebody reading,” he is, in some ways, imagining how he might organize a formal portrait of himself that represents him both as a reading subject and, possibly, an author. For, there is much to suggest that the cultural memory of literary works (and their authors) were often linked to real or imagined pictures—especially in terms of artificial memory practices that encouraged associative mental habits.

Here, though, I should pause and explain what the term “artificial memory” means and why I think it might be useful for thinking about why Keats would describe himself as a “picture of someone reading.” Broadly construed, “artificial memory” or “the art of memory” is usually distinguished from “natural memory” to mean “memory strengthened or confirmed by training”—this, at least, is the definition Frances Yates uses in her examination of medieval memory practices (Yates 5). Indeed, because of Yates’ work on medieval memory arts, our cultural narratives of memory practices tend to suggest they were not relevant past the early-modern period; we rarely think about how they might have changed and persisted through time, or how they might relate to the Romantic era. Yet the terms “artificial memory” or “memoria technica” were seemingly everywhere in Romantic culture. Books on the topic flourished, perhaps most famously those by Richard Grey and Gregor von Feinaigle who advertised their systems to men of reading who found it difficult to “retain what they read with any certainty or exactness” (Grey 2).

Romantic artificial memory treatises often prescribed different kinds of memory practices, but one of the most common was the habit of associating ideas with a mental image. In his Dissertations Moral and Critical: On Memory and the Imagination (1783), James Beattie suggested that the brain has a natural capacity to connect ideas to familiar images. He writes: “If we have at any time considered two or more things as connected, that very circumstance will establish a connection between them, so that the remembrance, or the view of the one, will make us think of the other” (Beattie 28). Beattie then suggests that the brain organizes contiguous thoughts pictorially and that this natural function can be consciously harnessed through “artificial memory” to help us remember ideas we would like to associate together. At the same time, lecturers such as Gregor Von Feinaigle were writing and revising “new” artificial memory systems throughout the Regency period, and most involved the practice of attaching memories and thoughts to imagined “pictures.” Feinaigle’s system specified the importance of pictorial images to memory—specifically the act of linking a thought or idea to a symbolic portrait. Summarizing Feinaigle’s system in 1844, Johann Joachim Eschenburg claimed that “if one would remember by aid of [Feinaigle’s] system, the date e.g. of the kings of England, he would create in his mind a picture in connection with each of them, and throw these pictures in the imagination into squares in the exact order of the regal succession” (Eschenburg 68). In Feinaigle’s account, pictorial images stimulate the brain to produce contiguous thoughts—they seem to both contain and stimulate memory processes.

With such practices in mind, I would like to suggest that the way Keats constructs a picture of himself reading might operate like a kind of artificial memory with important symbolic meaning. To return to Keats’s letter, his description of the scene in which he would like to be imagined reading begins with the image of a bowl of goldfish, large enough to “hold 10 pails of water and be fed continually fresh through a cool pipe with another pipe to let through the floor” (263). Keats’s concern for a “well ventilated” goldfish bowl hints a several things. First, it points to his period’s fascination with goldfish and the real struggle of how to maintain the health of fish in captivity. In 1811, for example, the Prince Regent accidentally turned his goldfish into a grotesque spectacle because of his ignorance (or careless neglect) of the animals’ need for ventilated water. On June 19, 1811, the Prince Regent threw a decadent party at Carlton House where he set up a table that measured two hundred feet in length and that was meant to accommodate a living stream of goldfish. In her popular history of Regency England, Our Tempestuous Day, Carolly Erickson describes the scene:

Flowing down the middle of the table, meandering between the heavy serving dishes was an artificial stream, complete with sand, moss, rocks, and aquatic plants and spanned by miniature bridges. Live gold and silver fish—roach, dace and gudgeons—swam among the rocks, ‘exhibiting the brightness of their scales, reflecting the light of five hundred flambeaux, to the infinite delight of the guests’… until the fish began to die, no doubt of oxygen starvation, and took away everybody’s appetite. (Erickson 51)

The Prince Regent’s intent to create a spectacle of live fish was destroyed by his inability to accommodate the animals’ basic needs. By contrast, Keats imagines himself in a scene where his partiality for a globe of goldfish can be sustained through a mechanism that promotes water ventilation through pipes. Such an object—if we imagine it as a crucial part of Keats’s organized self-portrait—gestures to the way his urban or “cockney” heritage and his experience as a surgeon’s apprentice both influence his love of nature. It is, I think, telling that Keats’s idealized fantasy of reading does not take place outdoors, but in a room where nature and scientific innovation meet to create an artificial experience of nature indoors—an experience where fish are sustained in a glass bowl surrounded by imported plants (myrtle and Japonica), while Lake Geneva looms out a window. Even though it may be a cockney fantasy of nature, the portrait is nonetheless a fitting one of Keats because it showcases the different aspects of the world that he inhabited: a world marked by scientific innovation and study, a love of the picturesque, and a desire to inhabit both an urban and rural landscape simultaneously.[2] Such is Keats’s vision of himself, and it’s worth noting that many of Keats’s later readers also wanted to retain some form of this vision. One of the most influential posthumous portraits of Keats is Joseph Severn’s “Portrait of John Keats,” which depicts the poet in a strikingly similar pose to what Keats describes in this letter: reading in a plush, carpeted room next to a large open window that leads to a garden path (though, notably, without a mechanized goldfish bowl).

Painting of Keats, sitting cross-legged in a chair, reading a book.
Joseph Severn, “Portrait of John Keats” (1823), National Portrait Gallery, London, UK. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Given that this painting was designed after Keats’s death, it also operates like a kind of artificial memory, a constructed image of what we wish to associate with and remember about Keats. And as it’s become one of the most emblematic images of Keats, this particular artificial construction, this “picture of somebody reading,” has clearly had lasting appeal.

Contributor Bio:

Grace Rexroth is a PhD candidate and CHA Reynolds Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder. As a CHA fellow at CU, Grace has paired archival research in the UK with research at CU’s Institute of Cognitive Science. Emerging from this work, her dissertation project examines how eighteenth-century artificial memory systems and theories of cognition influenced print culture and literary philosophy in Romantic and Victorian-era British literature, and how such connections might help us better understand our own relationship to print now. Grace also teaches introductory courses in women’s literature and British masterpiece fiction, writes for the NASSRgrad blog, and co-organizes her department’s eighteenth and nineteenth-century reading group and lecture series. Her work appears in English Language Notes. In her spare time, she can be found kayaking on McIntosh Lake near Boulder. You can follow Grace on Twitter: @GraceRexrothCU

Works Cited:

Beattie, James. Dissertations Moral and Critical: On Memory and Imagination, Edinburgh: Strahan, Cadell, and Creech, 1783.

Erickson, Carolly. Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England. New York: Harper, 1986.

Eschenburg, Johann Joachim. Classical Antiquities. Fourth Ed. Philadelphia: E.C. &J. Biddle, 1852

Feinaigle, Gregor von. The New Art of Memory. London: Printed for Sherwood, Neely and Jones, 1813.

Grey, Richard. Memoria Technica: or, a New Method of Artificial Memory, London: printed for Charles King, 1730.

Rollins, Hyder Edward. The Letters of John Keats, Harvard: Harvard UP, 1958.

Yates, Frances. Art of Memory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

[1] See, for example, C.M. Westmacott, British Galleries of Painting and Sculpture, comprising a General and Historical and Critical Catalogue, London: Sherwood, Jones and co., 1824. See also A Catalogue of Paintings, Sculptures, Models, Drawings, Engravings, &c. London: William Griffin, 1761.

[2] For more information on the cultural construction of the “Cockney School” of poetry, see Jeff Cox, Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School, Cambridge: Cambridge UP 1998.