As we saw two days ago, Keats had canceled on a dinner engagement with Haydon on 20 December, but the two got together for the day of 21 December. It appears that Haydon the next day had sent a message to Keats apologizing for his “going out of the room” before they sat down to their meal. Keats writes back explaining that he was not offended at all. In other words, typical stuff for Keats’s correspondence! Particularly with Haydon, who was rather sensitive and quick to worry about having offended his friends (and quick to be offended by them himself), we often find letters like these which aim to smooth over any potential hurt feelings. It’s safe to say Haydon would have empathized with the members of Flight of the Conchords.
But we do digress. Another topic of importance comes towards the end of the letter. Keats offers to help Haydon financially, but also asks that Haydon first apply for assistance from “the rich lovers of art.” As we’ve seen in other letters by Keats, and as probably all of us know from experience, money issues can certainly lead to some hurt feelings! Over the next two years, of course, financial woes become more and more pressing for Keats. At this point, though, he seems to have been pretty sanguine about his prospects.
Another significant moment, which our contributor for today has much more to say about, is Keats’s mention of “all the vices of a Poet,” especially that of “irritability.” As Jeanne Britton writes in her piece, irritability signifies in several interrelated ways for Keats. Read the whole post to find out more!
Text of the letter to Haydon can be read via Forman’s 1901 edition here. Images below come courtesy of Houghton Library at Harvard University.
Keats’s letter to Benjamin Haydon of 22 December 1818 treads through the anxieties and hardship of artistic production that the aspiring poet and struggling painter shared. Dissatisfied with Hyperion, which he had cast aside for the time being, Keats opens his letter with disdain for the literary marketplace: he scorns its mercantile operation but admits to seeking “love and effect.” “I never expect to get any thing by my Books,” he declares, “and moreover I wish to avoid publishing.” His desire to write is not, it would seem, a desire for fame: “I should like to compose things honourable to Man—but not fingerable over by Men.” But earlier in this same paragraph, his admission—“I feel in myself all the vices of a Poet, irritability, love of effect and admiration”—might seem to contradict this disdain.[i]
reference to “irritability” might also be understood to echo the famous letter
of the previous December in which he defines “Negative Capability” as the ability to remain in “uncertainties,
Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”[ii] Precisely what Keats
means by this term in either context is difficult to say. My sense, though, is
that he is drawing in these two letters on an intertwining of irritability’s
literary and medical significance, a feature that defines much of his finest
poetry. While this
intertwining of the literary and medical offers a different gloss on the term,
it would not be wrong to take “irritability” to mean bad temper; indeed, Keats’s
encounters with William Wordsworth, one of the age’s most prominent specimens
of “the genus irritabile”—that is, poets—certainly provide him with an
example of prickly crotchetiness.[iii]
As 1818 drew to a close, Benjamin Haydon was still
at work on the huge, ambitious Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. This painting took him six years
to complete, and its outmoded style of historicism was his relentless “great
object was to include great writers of modern times in this historical,
religious subject; Newton, Voltaire, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, William
Wordsworth, and Keats himself also appear. It was this painting that, in a
half-finished state, brought Keats and Wordsworth together for what Haydon
himself termed the “immortal dinner” of the previous December.
Haydon had made Keats’s life-mask in Dec 1816 as a
study for this painting. He also measured Wordsworth’s height for the same
purpose, noting in his diary that his “very fine, heroic proportion” of nearly
5’10”—indeed tall for the time—apparently made the poet of egotistical
sublimity so pleased that, as Haydon also records, “He made me write it down.”[v] Keats,
who was just over five feet tall, experienced the brunt of Wordsworth’s ego, if
not his irritability, on meeting him earlier in December of 1817 and, at
Haydon’s request, reciting the “Hymn to Pan” from Endymion. Wordsworth’s response—“a Very pretty piece of Paganism”—was,
according to Haydon, “unfeeling,” “ill-bred,” and “nonsense.” He believed Keats
felt its sting, intended or not, “deeply.”[vi]
Perhaps, if we want to be charitable to Wordsworth,
he was simply grumpy. And perhaps Keats is, too, when he proclaims in this letter
of December 1818 that he feels “all
the vices of a Poet, irritability, love of effect and admiration.” But in addition to peevishness,
irritability carried two other meanings in these years: it had been associated
with the character of the poet since classical antiquity (hence the
aforementioned term, genus irritabile),
and it was posited as the origin of muscular mobility in eighteenth-century
medicine. Keats invokes irritability’s literary sense in other letters, and the
wide currency of “irritability” as a physiological concept in the work of his
teachers at Guy’s Hospital informs his complaints about his health—his “nervous
irritability” and “irritable state of health.”[vii] He calls on the
term’s literary significance with the reference to “the ‘genus irritabile’” of poets that ushers in his definition of the
chameleon poet and, indeed, its distinction from the Wordsworthian “egotistical
In medical discourse, “irritability”
names a property of the muscles that determines contraction. Swiss anatomist
and physiologist Albrecht von Haller defined irritability as the tendency of muscles
to contract when stimulated. Sensibility, the property of the nerves,
communicated the muscular response to stimuli to the brain. After Haller’s
mid-eighteenth-century attempt to prove the existence of irritability, nearly
every medical treatise referred to this concept and its more prominent
counterpart, sensibility, in some fashion. Many readers of Haller attributed
more significance to irritability than Haller did himself: even the English
translator of his Dissertation on the Sensible and Irritable Parts of Animals claims that “irritability is the
long-sought vital principle, the key to nature itself” in a contradiction of
Haller’s explicit warning that this principle should not be taken as the principle
of life.[ix] In Haller’s system,
irritability is an involuntary, physiological force that determines mobility,
and sensibility is associated with feeling and expressive of the soul.
According to Haller, an irritable body part “becomes shorter upon being
touched,” and a sensible body part that is touched communicates with the soul.[x] The reception of his
terminology in later medicine blurred these distinctions, and sensibility came
to be associated with the vital principle.
Critics have stressed Keats’s
proximity to prominent advances in early nineteenth-century science. Less
prominent, perhaps, but especially significant for their role in the medical
history of irritability, are reinterpretations of this concept carried out by
Keats’s own teachers and their sources. His teacher Astley Cooper refashioned
his mentor John Hunter’s concepts of physiological sympathy and irritability,
and the Scottish physician John Brown influentially adapted Haller’s distinct
categories of sensibility and irritability into his more capacious concept of
excitability. According to Brown, “The blood by its quantity distends the
muscular fibres of the vessels; that distention stimulates the excitability in
the fibres, and produces excitement, commonly called their irritability; thus
excited, the fibres contract.”[xi] Eighteenth-century
origins of the medical concept of irritability continued to have traction in
early nineteenth-century definitions of the term, appearing in the entry for “irritability”
in the 1810 and 1823 editions of the Encyclopaedia
Britannica. The version of irritability that circulated within and beyond
Guy’s Hospital draws on the blurring of Haller’s distinction between
sensibility and irritability and the later conceptualization of a generally
responsive principle in the human body.
If irritability identifies the tendency
for muscular contraction, then the “irritable reaching” that negative
capability overcomes suggests both contraction and extension; it would produce
either paradox or pain.[xii] The physicality of what
I take to be the instinctive, unreflective “reaching” that negative capability
overcomes urges us to identify Keats’s consideration of the embodied nature of
irritability and negative capability. Horace’s complaint about the fretful
tribe of scribbling lyricists seeking fame is echoed in the writings of
Coleridge and Byron.[xiii] The term’s long-standing
literary associations complement the immediate context of negative capability’s
definition in Keats’s 1817 letter—the assimilating character of Shakespeare as
opposed to the determined objectivity that Keats rather attributed, however
oddly, to Coleridge.Along these lines,
negative capability suggests that the ideal poetic character sheds the
historical stereotype of the fame-seeking scribbler.
In Keats’s references to irritability, the dovetailing of the literary and the medical approximates the complexity of the poet’s relationship to literary inheritance and sensory experience. Rather than lingering over the sting of Wordsworth’s dismissiveness, I prefer to think that this snub from one of his literary influences may have inspired the pugilistic young poet to continue reaching, so to speak, towards new poetic horizons. In the following year, of course, the great odes reconfigure the weight of literary influence and the strain of poetic aspiration—without irritable reaching—in their sublime manifestations of negative capability.
Contributor’s Note: Jeanne Britton is a Curator in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina. Portions of this essay are drawn from “‘Irritable Reaching’ and the Conditions of Romantic Mediation,” which appears in Keats’s Negative Capability: New Origins and Afterlives, ed. Brian Rejack and Michael Theune (Liverpool UP, 2019).
References [i]The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), vol. 1, p. 414.
vol. 1, p. 193. Letter to George and Tom
Keats, 21, 27 (?) December 1817.
[iii]Letters, vol. 1, p. 386. Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 Oct 1818.
[iv]Letters, vol 1, p. 416. Letter from Benjamin Haydon, 23 (?)
[v] Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard
University Press, 1963), p. 115.
[vii] The reference to irritability appears in the
scattered style of his lecture notes: “Sympathy. By this the Vital Principle is chiefly
supported. The function of breathing is
a sympathetic action—from irritation produced on the beginning of the Air Tube
affects the Abdominal Muscles and produces coughing.” Anatomical and Physiological Note Book. Printed from the Holograph in
the Keats Museum, Hampstead. Ed. Maurice Buxton Forman. (New York: Haskell
House Publishers Ltd., 1970), p. 56.
[viii]Letters, vol. 1, p. 386. Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 Oct 1818.
[ix] Anne Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology: Sensibility in the Literature and Medicine
of Eighteenth-Century France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). p. 27-8.
[x] Albrecht von Haller, Dissertation on the Sensible and Irritable
Parts of Animals, trans. Tissot (London: Nourse, 1755), p. 4.
[xi] John Brown, The Elements of Medicine; or, a Translation of the Elementa Medicinae
Brunonis with large notes, illustrations, and comments by the author of the
original work. Trans by the author. 2 vols. (London: Johnson, 1788), vol.
1, p. 111. For a fuller discussion of John Brown’s excitability as a
development upon Haller’s irritability, see de Almeida, pp. 66-73.
[xii] See Janis Caldwell, Literature and Medicine in
Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004),
[xiii] In the second chapter of Biographia
Literaria, Coleridge has a section, which may refer covertly to Byron, on the supposed irritability of men of genius.
Byron refers to the irritability of poets in Don Juan: ‘But he had genius, —when a turncoat has it / The ‘Vates
irritabilis’ takes care / That without notice few full moons shall pass it; /
Even good men like to make the public stare’ (Canto III, stanza 81).