Why We Need Keats

The KLP Editors

RE: Keats’s 8 or 11 Nov 1816 Letter to Charles Cowden Clarke

Sometimes plans go awry. Sometimes, as happened to Keats and Clarke with Benjamin Haydon in November 1816, your pal bails on you and goes to see Timon of Athens at Drury Lane instead of hanging out, sharing a bottle of claret (or two), talking, laughing, and punning into the wee small hours of the morning. Sometimes, as happened to the KLP in November 2016, you plan to debut a new feature on your website, one rooted in boisterousness, fun, and joy–and then, well, everything changes. All of a sudden the autumnal color orange seems less appealing, as a large self worshipper wins an election and really harshes your mellow fruitfulness. Then, instead of feeling jubliant, you just feel like shit.

The KLP does not intervene directly in the realm of politics. We’re not making any sort of statement about the relative merits of particular policies, or about individual voting decisions. But it would be disingenuous of the editorial board if we did not admit our disgust at the racism, bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, toxic masculinity, anti-Semitism, white nationalism–had we but world enough and time, this list of hate would probably never end–expressed over the last year plus by the Orange Menace, also known as the man recently elected to the Presidency of the United States of America. So consider our disgust admitted.

If we weren’t so disgusted–we have no gust at all, let alone gusto–today the KLP would be launching, as we had planned to do, a special, semi-regular feature of the site, called “This Week in Keats.” The model for TWK is simple: KLP co-editors Brian Rejack and Mike Theune (and sometimes special guests) get together, share a bottle of claret (or two), and while so doing, they chat about what Keats and his buddies were up to 200 years ago. Oh, and we record the conversation, edit it for public consumption, and then share the video on the web. In short, TWK is meant to embody the spirit of conviviality which animated the circle formed around Keats (and really, around Leigh Hunt, but we’re the Keats Letters Project, so yeah–Keats) two centuries ago. The series is a more light-hearted and less scholarly way of corresponding with the record left to us by Keats, but we nonetheless maintain its value, particularly for its championing of what Greg Kucich calls, in an earlier KLP response, “the joy of warm-hearted, supportive sociality.” As Kucich points out, those values are “Central to [Huntian] republican poetics and politics.” The KLP feels that we would benefit from pursuing those values now as well. Today, though, we just couldn’t find that joy. Not yet.

Here is Leigh Hunt, in his manifesto laying out some of these very ideals, from the preface to his 1818 volume, Foliage:

It is high time for […] all of us, to look after health and sociality; and to believe, that although we cannot alter the world with an ipse dixit, we need not become desponding, or mistake a disappointed egotism for humility. We should consider ourselves as what we really are,–creatures made to enjoy more than to know, to know infinitely nevertheless in proportion as we enjoy kindly, and finally, to put our own shoulders to the wheel and get out of the mud upon the green sward again.

Consider this post, then, our first thrust at the wheel of despondency, which we humbly hope might lead us out of this mud–mud from a muddy spring, no doubt–sometime soon. The KLP takes seriously the notion that enjoyment, and kindly enjoyment at that, is key to the movement from the muddiness of ignorance into the greenery of awareness. And so we must work and fight for our enjoyment of life, of love, and of one another. And for our right to party, of course. We will unveil “This Week in Keats” at a later date, and it will be full of joy, ideally a joy emerging from kindness and urging us to know.

But to our title–why do we need Keats? As much as it pains the editors of the Keats Letters Project to admit, we may not really need Keats. If it weren’t Keats, it’d be someone else (why not Mary Wollstonecraft, Helen Maria Williams, Mary and/or Percy Shelley, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, John Clare?). What we do need is what we build around Keats. We need the network of affectionate, empathetic, curious friends and colleagues who enjoy Keats’s letters with us, and who spin an airy citadel between the varied points of the intellectual twigs and leaves comprising the ongoing cultural record. We need clovers who open their hearts and minds to the fair guerdons on offer by the bees. We need those willing to devote themselves wholly to another, to a sparrow or some other being, and then take part in its existence. We need communication, correspondence–to commune, to co-respond. Keats doesn’t have to be the center around which we circulate our kindly enjoyment and its attendant knowledge.

Keats, however, does offer a good model for how to approach one’s relationship to the world and to one another. That said, he’s no savior for us and all our ills. Keats has his issues too. He’s sometimes cruel, sometimes impatient, irritable, unforgiving. But maybe we do need Keats, precisely because he gives us ways to acknowledge these faults and failures. Maybe we need Keats because he was the erstwhile misogynist who nevertheless pursues the feminine idyll around the vase that he knows he does not know, while also knowing that he must keep contemplating until it can tease him out of thought. Maybe we need Keats because he is the Cockney poet of accessibility wrought not through Wollstonecraftian reason but through wondrous awe at the pure serene of respeaking Homer and the wild surmise it incites. Maybe we need Keats because he gives us leave to think of social change not as Shelley’s beloved, windy spirit of necessity, but the product of hard labor and frequent missteps, not achieved through masculine epic (which he tries twice, only to finally give up), but through the odes of paradoxical praise and productive uncertainty. And maybe Keats can teach us something distinctive about a temporality that imagines the past continually recirculating, not as the Phantom of the revolution, but as a re-lived experience, dying into life with fierce convulse.

Whether we need Keats or not, we know that his letters o’erbrim with goodness. So why not start there, get right down to the job. Let’s put our shoulders–Ginsbergian queer, trans, cis, and whatever else–to the wheel. Let’s strive continually for the goodness that is never given but always earned. Plans go awry, but we come back the next day, write a new letter, sing a new song, spin a new web.

Yr sincere friends and Coscribblers,
Anne, Brian, Emily, Ian, Kate, and Mike

Letter #8: To Charles Cowden Clarke, 8 or 11 November 1816

The esteemed editor of Keats’s letters, Hyder Edward Rollins, offers an estimate of this letter’s date based on the mention of Timon of Athens (or, as Keats has it, “Timon ye Misantrophos”), which was performed at Drury Lane several times in early November 1816. Eliminating a few other options based on information we have about Keats’s activities during this period, Rollins settles on the two remaining possibilities, 8 or 11 November 1816.

As in the 1 November 1816 letter to Severn, here we see Keats again in the heady rush of “urban time,” as Matthew Sangster described it in his response to that letter. The difference here is that Keats’s new friend Benjamin Haydon is the one in a hurry. Haydon apparently had to break an engagement to visit with Keats and Clarke in order to attend a performance of the aforementioned Timon of Athens. Keats dashes off this letter to let Clarke know that the plans are off and that Keats will “rest your hermit.”

Keats also shows off one of his typical modes of humor: the mock-formal, or as he’ll describe it in a much later letter, writing “hoity-toityishly.” Of course, Keats’s letters are well-known for their seriousness of thought, but they ought to be just as highly regarded for their levity. He regularly adopts the language of legal documents or other formal modes, and he appears to get a kick out of hamming it up by so doing. Good on you, Keats.

Since we don’t know the date for certain, we’ll take Rollins’s guesses as our guides for this letter. For your enjoyment on this election day in the US, we hope that Keats’s brief note will provide a moment of respite from the ennui, anxiety, terror, despair, or whatever other feelings (maybe even some good ones!) brought on by today’s events.

And be on the lookout for a response to the letter this Friday, November 11–the KLP figures why not cover both dates!

John Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.2.1). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

John Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.2.1). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

John Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.2.1). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

John Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.2.1). Houghton Library, Harvard University.