In London and Louvain: Bookish Materiality and Social Equality

Emily Rohrbach
The University of Manchester

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

About a decade ago, as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Hamilton College in upstate New York, I—along with Romanticist colleague Emily Sun—solicited (and then co-translated) an essay on John Keats from the French philosopher Jacques Rancière. My position, “Visiting,” was something of a euphemism; I was visiting from nowhere in particular, no other institution. I had completed my Ph.D. at Boston University and held a one-year (twice renewed) position at a small liberal arts college. In other words, when we decided to write a letter to Jacques Rancière, asking if he would consider composing an essay about the politics of the sensible in John Keats’s poetry for a special issue of Studies in Romanticism, I was hailing from basically the bottom of the academic hierarchy. Rancière, on the other hand, is—and was then—a big deal, so we couldn’t just drop him an email (his is not listed on the internet), and we knew no one who knew how to contact him directly. Resourceful types, we typed up a letter, explaining why we thought he was exactly the right person to write about Keats and politics—the topic that we would be revisiting in the special issue—and posted it in the snail mail, addressed in the first instance to the publishing house of his most recent books, Éditions Seuil, based in Paris.

Two weeks later, we received an email from him saying yes, he would like to accept the invitation; that Keats had been his favourite poet when he was a university student; and that as long as he could find a thread, he would send us an essay in due time. Also, he would be writing in French.[1] I like to think that the content of our letter—how we presented the project and his potential role in it, based on our knowledge of his work and of Keats’s—is what persuaded the world-renowned philosopher to entrust his writing to two junior scholars sending him an unsolicited missive from a remote part of New York. What his response attested to, I think, was something like an assumption of intellectual equality, which my official position in the profession might not have encouraged. The assumption of intellectual equality as the starting point for an encounter is an idea that joins Keats’s portrayal of the world as a “vale of Soul-making” with Rancière’s interest in the pedagogical experiment of Joseph Jacotot, explored in his book Le Maître ignorant.[2]


I begin with Keats. The poet’s well-known meditation on the world as a vale of Soul-making—in a letter of spring 1819 addressed to George and Georgiana Keats—is prompted by his reading of Enlightenment histories by Voltaire and William Robertson. Keats recounts for his relatives living in the United States the shortcomings of these progressive Enlightenment historiographies, the ideas of which cannot account for the world as he encounters it. “I have been reading lately two very different books Robertson’s America and Voltaire’s Siecle De Louis xiv,” Keats writes: “It is like walking arm in arm between Pizarro and the great-little Monarch” (LJK 2: 100). However different from one another these narratives are, both tell histories of the modern period that are committed to a notion of linear or stadial cultural progress. That notion of progress, however, is undone in Keats’s view by the “fresh annoyances” that accompany technological and cultural “improvements” at every turn and make Robertson’s program for achieving happiness untenable:

In how lementabl [sic] a case do we see the great body of the people in both instances [Robertson and Voltaire]: in the first,[3] [. . . .] If [Man] improves by degrees his bodily accommodations and comforts—at each stage, at each accent there are waiting for him a fresh set of annoyances—he is mortal and there is still a heaven with its Stars abov[e] his head. The most interesting question that can come before us is, How far by the persevering endeavors of a seldom appearing Socrates mankind may be made happy—I can imagine such happiness carried to an extreme—but what must it end in?—Death [. . .] in truth I do not at all believe in this sort of perfectibility—the nature of the world will not admit of it— [. . . .] Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making.” (LJK 2: 101–102)

Keats’s meditation on cultural progress contradicts Robertson’s and Voltaire’s commitment to valorizing modern history and culture when he posits the almost random (“seldom appearing”) historical appearance of a Socrates. By the measure of Keats’s pulse, the historical dimensions of the present age make the prevailing historiographical thinking appear inadequate. The most overt critique centers on Robertson—with key words “happiness” and “perfectibility”—for underlying Robertson’s historiography was the assumption of happiness as the endpoint, as a perfectible, achievable goal. Robertson’s model and its aims—a unified social and cultural progress toward civilized happiness—clearly struck Keats as ill-suited to the world as he found it: “In truth I do not at all believe in this sort of perfectibility—the nature of the world will not admit of it,” he announces. Stadial progress toward civilization, even if it were viable, would not reduce overall human discomfort or unhappiness, which only comes in new forms: “at each stage,” “a fresh set of annoyances.”

Keats finds the guiding notion of Christian redemption even more wanting than he does Enlightenment philosophical history. In place of both, therefore, Keats’s “vale of Soul-making” offers alternative aims. His vale is not a place to find happiness, but “A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!” (LJK 2: 102). Happiness is neither viable nor the most valuable aim. Keats’s process of feeling and suffering that rings changes on one’s subjectivity so as to make a soul displaces the telos of happiness. The world Keats proposes in an extended metaphor is a “school” for the “reading” of the human heart, and this schoolroom reading promises circuitous access to the (temporal) world that Robertson’s logic had missed. Subject-making, for Keats, is a process of becoming that requires a world in which to feel and suffer, and it is reading that provides access to that world.

The language of “identities,” which Keats uses in the letter to indicate the singularity or uniqueness of each soul that is made, should not lead us to think that he upheld any static notion of essential selfhood or that this notion of the soul is anything other than a process that makes sociality—the imagination of the social world and thus social engagement—possible. “That you may judge the more clearly,” Keats writes, “I will put it in the most homely form possible” (LJK, 2: 102). Here follows the crucial formulation:

I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read—I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School—and I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that school and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? (LJK, 2: 102)

The purpose of the world, in Keats’s model, is to enable one’s reading through the training of “the human heart” (as horn book) and, in turn, one’s alteration by that process so as to become a soul, where before there was only an “intelligence.” This notion of an identity or soul as made on earth—earned entirely in a figurative, temporal process of reading—marks Keats’s break not only from the conventional discourse of Christianity, which Keats called “vulgar superstition,” but also from the idea of one’s identity as originating in inherited rank or blood. The Keatsian subject is not reducible to the body or to a social identity, but is also not an entirely private subject, sealed off from social experience. For Keats does not make the horn book equivalent to one’s own heart (an object possessed); rather, it is equivalent to “the human heart,” the ambiguity of which enables the concept to pivot between one’s own heart (one’s unique circumstances and experiences of feeling and suffering) and a broader notion of “human” suffering in a “world of pains.” In the kind of “reading” Keats describes, the separation between “identities”—between one’s own heart and the hearts of others—dissolves in the capacious notion of “the human heart.”[4] Crucially, Keats imagines this reading as a more adequate means to understand man’s present circumstances than what the philosophies of Scottish Enlightenment historiography could provide. What appears ostensibly as a self-reflexive turn inward, in reading the heart, turns out to mark not a separation from the world, but a finer model for reading it.

Crucially for the comparison I am setting up between Keats and Rancière: no all-knowing schoolmaster appears in Keats’s model. In fact, there is no schoolmaster at all. The soul is figured as what in us learns to read, but also, significantly, as what remains always a child reader faced with a book and the world. In a world of flux that defies perfect mastery, one maintains a sense of wonder and is, as a capable reader, still able to be surprised. Unlike in progressive narrative histories that close off the potential for the unexpected, the future for Keats cannot be predicted through patterns or lessons of the past (“the nature of the world will not admit of it”) or be rationally controlled, but is subject to the unpredictable alterations of nature that come through reading the heart. For “what are proovings [sic] of [man’s] heart,” Keats asks, “but fortifiers or alterers of his nature? and what is his altered nature but his soul?” (LJK, 2: 103). The pluralized present participle, “proovings”—like the gerund “Soul-making”—underscores the notion of an always ongoing process, or a process without end. It calls for an openness to the worldly, unpredictable, eternally mysterious process of altering one’s “nature” that makes and unmakes and remakes a person—which is to say, a distinctive soul and a capable reader.[5] That openness to encountering the new or the unpredictable—an openness to something so different from previous experience that it revises one’s understanding of self and world—is the kind of subjectivity that Keats’s poetry, too, so often both describes and elicits.

For the purpose of reading this letter with Rancière, I’d like to highlight a few things in Keats’s extended metaphor for Soul-making as a child with a horn book learning to read at school. The idea of “Soul-making” “proovings” versus cultural improvement is key. For the idea of multiplied “proovings,” a process without end, displaces the linear progress, the goal-orientation, of cultural improvement. In other words, ideas of progress, embedded in Enlightenment historical thought, perpetuate (in Keats’s view) fantasies about the world that inhibit what he calls “Soul-making.” Letting go of the very idea of progress thus becomes a precondition for the process he describes. That letting go makes space for his modeling the world, instead, as a schoolroom—one where no schoolmaster can be found, just a child with his horn book, learning with it to read. This displacement of cultural improvement with its logic of historical progress, that is, leaves room for the poet’s more egalitarian social vision, devoid of the conventional pedagogical hierarchy. The horn book serves, of course, as a figure for the human heart, but it is crucial as such. This kind of book does not offer a specific interpretation of the world (it would typically be a tablet, consisting of the printed alphabet along with, sometimes, the Lord’s prayer). The book as object, and as figure for the human heart, nevertheless provides a technology for reading the world, for making sense and sensation of it (in language and feeling). What is emphasized, certainly in Keats’s portrayal, is not the book’s content or any ideas it might contain. In a world that is dynamic and changing, but envisioned in an image neither of improvement nor of progress toward some goal, Keats’s figure of the horn book serves, instead, as a continual resource and starting point: an enduring point of departure. His displacement of the logic of progress by a vision of social equality rests on this book not as explanation but as mediating technology between self and world.


Traveling from London to Louvain, the move from Keats to Rancière leaves behind a figurative scene of reading for a literal one. The links between these scenes, as we shall see, are the book as the thing in common and an upending of a conventional idea of progress, which elicits the possibility of equality. Rancière’s book tells the story of Joseph Jacotot, a lecturer in French literature who, at the time of the Bourbon restoration to power, was exiled to Belgium, where he taught French literature at the University of Louvain. (This was 1818, one year before Keats wrote his letter.) Jacotot knew no Flemish, but planned to proceed quietly, lecturing in French. His lectures turned out to be so popular, however, that all the students wanted to take them, including those who read and spoke only Flemish. By chance, a bilingual edition of Fénelon’s book Télémaque had just been published in Brussels. So Jacotot directed the students to it. What happened was, to him, astonishing. With the aid only of this bilingual book, very soon the students produced essays about the text in French—sophisticated analyses of it. As Rancière recounts, “Such was the revolution that this chance experiment unleashed in Jacotot’s mind” (2). “‘Were all men virtually capable of understanding what others had done and understood?’” Jacotot asked (2). The method of learning had not been provided; Jacotot had simply put the book in the students’ hands.

The implications, for Jacotot, were no less than a total upheaval of the prevailing pedagogical assumptions. Conventionally, “to teach was to transmit learning and form minds simultaneously, by leading those minds, according to an ordered progression, from the most simple to the most complex…. a student was thus elevated to as high a level as his social destination demanded…The essential act of the master was to explicate” (2-3). In the order of things, explication was assumed to precede the possibility of learning. In Jacotot’s day, Rancière tells us,

there were all kinds of men of goodwill who were preoccupied with instructing the people: rulers wanted to elevate the people above their brutal appetites, revolutionaries wanted to lead them to the consciousness of their rights; progressives wished to narrow, through instruction, the gap between the classes; industrialists dreamed of giving, through instruction, the most intelligent among the people the means of social promotion. . . .That sort of progress, for Jacotot, smelled of the bridle. (17)

That sort of progress (as pedagogy) is directed clearly toward some specific end point, not yet in reach. There is a present reality and a future, imagined one, and instructors aim to bring people from their present intellectual situation to a different one in the future; it is a process based on the idea of reducing inequalities, perhaps, but it is fundamentally limited. “The child who is explained to,” Ranciere notes, “will devote his intelligence to the work of grieving…to understanding that he doesn’t understand unless he is explained to…he will be a man of progress,” forever stultified by this very understanding (8).

What had happened with the Flemish students was different. Lost in Télémaque, all the effort, all the exploration, was focused on the situation facing them: “someone ha[d] addressed words to them that they want[ed] to recognize and respond to, not as students or as learned men, but as people; in the way you respond to someone speaking to you and not to someone examining you: under the sign of equality” (11). An urgency of the immediate situation called for doing without the progressive stages of explication, and this accidental occasion put Professor Jacotot in the presence of a fact: that his students learned French without the aid of explication. The pedagogical myth that this experiment had undone was the division of the world of intelligences into two. That division had involved the “enforced stultification” of those who are taught, who are made to think that they need the explicators when, in fact, it is the other way around. The explicators need the students to justify their existence. In Louvain, the chance experiment with Télémaque had eliminated that division.

For Jacotot, the new method—not of explication but of emancipation—was “not a method for instructing the people; it was a benefit to be announced to the poor: they could do everything any man could. It sufficed only to announce it” (18). This method, therefore, entailed no orientation toward some future goal, no endpoint toward which one was to make progress. It established, rather, a new point of departure: that is, the assumption of intellectual equality as a point of departure. Whereas explication presumes progressive understanding, Jacotot’s was a method of emancipation from that logic; Jacotot’s method focused on the beginning. As Rancière remarks: “the circle of emancipation must be begun” (16). The parallels between Jacotot’s experiment and Keats’s “vale of Soul-making”—his child in a schoolroom with horn book in hand, no schoolmaster in sight—are surely apparent. I would highlight, however, that both scenes conjure a temporality of beginning that rules out conventional ideas of linear progress. “Jacotot’s experiment disrupted the temporality of conventional pedagogy,” says Rancière (2). The logic of the explicative system that had to be dismantled was, significantly, a temporal logic. Jacotot’s alternative was this: the pedagogical emphasis on progress toward an end had to be replaced with the assumption of intellectual equality as a point of departure, as a beginning without end.

What came of this method, of the revolution that this chance experiment unleashed in Jacotot’s mind? Because the process of what Jacotot called “universal teaching” (103) is a singular process of the individual learning something by herself, finding her own way, it cannot be a social method: “It cannot be propagated in and by social institutions” (105). A method based on equality and the refusal of explications can only be directed to individuals, never to societies (105). Less a pedagogy that could be somehow institutionalized than a way of being in the world and an announcement to be made, Jacotot’s universal teaching suggests a way of inhabiting time, in relation to others, without a progressive narrative. Rancière’s book concludes, rather poignantly, with the idea that, because of this incompatibility with institutionalization, universal teaching will never catch hold and become a dominant pedagogy. It will also never perish.

What Keats’s and Rancière’s texts share is a vision of the book as a thing in common that enables some kind of equality to emerge. They envision an equality at once intellectual and grounded in the peculiar material technology of books. This technology and the non-linear temporalities that books elicit (or at least accommodate) will not, by themselves, produce a society of equals, of course, but this comparison sheds light on the conditions for making such an equality imaginable and for inhabiting the world in a way that acknowledges an egalitarian possibility.

Emily Rohrbach is Lecturer in British Literature, 1750-1820 at the University of Manchester and the author of Modernity’s Mist: British Romanticism and the Poetics of Anticipation, published in the Lit Z series of Fordham University Press, 2016.

Works Cited
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Ed. Hyder E. Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1958.

Rancière, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Trans. Kristin Ross. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 1991.

—. “The Politics of the Spider.” Trans. Emily Rohrbach and Emily Sun. Studies in Romanticism 50.2 (Summer 2011): 239-250.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats and the Culture of Dissent. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1997.

[1] Rancière’s essay was published under the title “The Politics of the Spider” in the summer 2011, 50th anniversary issue of Studies in Romanticism; the volume is entitled “Reading Keats, Thinking Politics.”

[2] Rancière’s book was translated into English by Kristin Ross, and published as The Ignorant Schoolmaster; all quotations from it will be in English, corresponding to her translation.

[3] Keats never returns, in the letter, to the second “instance,” Voltaire.

[4] It is perhaps worth noting in relation to the metaphor of the school that Keats attended the Enfield School from 1803 until 1811. In John Keats and the Culture of Dissent, Nicholas Roe argued convincingly for the centrality of this experience to the formation of Keats’s radical political views. Keats’s time at Enfield was intellectually and socially rich, and this is where Keats developed voracious reading habits. Keats won books as prizes while at school, including Bonnycastle’s Introduction to Astronomy, but he read primarily books that he borrowed from the school’s library, as well as some additional books borrowed from Charles Cowden Clarke. Roe writes, “Like everything else at Enfield School, the library was remarkable” (46). If we take Keats’s metaphor of “reading” literally, that in school he was reading not only books he owned, but also those that would circulate through the hands of others supports the notion of reading (of suffering and feeling in the world) as a process that is at once one’s own (a private act) and social (an act that renders the reader permeable to a broader human experience of the temporal world).

[5] Although “reading” in the “vale of Soul-making” letter is clearly figurative, it is not incidental that Keats witnesses, and dramatically benefits from, a historical moment of rapidly expanding print culture and rising literacy rates that made literal reading accessible in an unprecedented way.

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.