On “the Ripening of the Intellectual Powers”

Marc Palmieri
Mercy College

Re: Keats’s 23/24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats

I find this to be a most uplifting letter, one for a “writer for the stage,” (written by a poet) as it reflects on two activities I often look to in pitched battle with my own “addiction to passiveness.” First, Keats mentions a distaste for being “uninterested or unemployed,” states which happen to be two persistent companions to me in regards to “finding” a new play to write. One cannot be engaged in the making without first being struck by the idea that enthralls him – and the “change in intellect” that (hopefully) comes with it. In times of drought, and there are many, attending, reading, or teaching a Shakespeare play in my classes has often rescued me from these states – temporarily, of course, but sometimes long enough to ripen the intellectual powers to eventually grind out a new first draft.

In my experience, there is a great distance between two familiar states of a playwright – the first being life when there is no working draft, and life when there is. When in the latter, happier state, those colorful catastrophes Keats describes from his visit to the theatre’s bowels exist as longed-for agents of the play’s eventual realization, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. In life without a working draft under the arm, that kind of visit, for the playwright, can be a painful and lonely one. A little world of dreams and shadows where he had been a leading light, has no use for him now.

One might expect that reading the work of an immortal literary titan might just push a writer further into that passiveness he was seeking to escape. After all, what’s the point of me giving it a go now that THIS has been accomplished? Keats touched on this in his “Spenser! a jealous honourer of thine” where upon being asked to write a Spenserian poem, he declines out of flattening humility:

                …’tis impossible
For an inhabitant of wintry earth
To rise like Phoebus with a golden quell,
Fire-winged, and make a morning in his mirth.

But by sonnet’s end he’s up for it, at least once the weather improves:

Be with me in the summer days and I
Will for thine honour and his pleasure try.

Passiveness overcome.

It’s been three years since my last play premiered. I’ve tried, but can’t get past an opening scene. Now in my 48th winter, I’ve grown so much more accustomed to the idea of  my own death that I may not have chosen to sit down today with my copy of the great tragedy of old age for activating inspiration, but Mr. Keats has once again shown me how that Prince of Darkness can prove a gentleman.


Marc Palmieri is a fulltime core faculty member at Mercy College’s School of Liberal Arts in Dobbs Ferry, NY, where he teaches courses in Theatre, Film and Speech. He has taught dramatic writing since 2010 at The City College of New York’s MFA Creative Writing Program. Since 2006 he has taught Shakespeare, Modern & Post-Modern Drama, World Humanities and Dramatic and Creative Writing in CCNY’s undergraduate English Department. Publications include the plays: The Groundling, Levittown (NY Times Critic’s Pick), Carl the Second and Poor Fellas (all by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.). Marc has published fiction in Fiction Magazine, and portions of his plays in the anthologies 10 Minute Plays for Kids (Applause Books), The Best Stage Scenes (of 2002 and 2007 by Smith & Kraus Inc.), The Best Stage Monologues for Men (2002, 2007 and 2015 by Smith & Kraus, Inc.). He is also the author of the screenplays Telling You (Miramax, 1999), and The Thing (web series). www.marcpalmieri.com

Letter #46: To George and Tom Keats, 23/24 January 1818

And now for the fourth letter of 23 January 1818! Keats, after feeling “rather tired” and with “head rather swimming” from writing so many letters that day, finished on 24 January and sent it off to his brothers in Teignmouth. We hear again about the topic covered in the letters to Haydon and Taylor (the working plans for an engraving for Endymion, plans which never panned out). And we hear more about social tensions in their circle of friends. Keats notes that Leigh Hunt had read the first book of Endymion and “allows it not much merit as a whole.” Ever the astute observer of human behavior, Keats attributes Hunt’s huffiness to disappointment that Keats did not show proper deference to the elder poet and mentor. Keats did most of his writing away from London, and he did so in part to avoid the constant “dissect[ing] & anatomiz[ing]” that he knew Hunt would provide throughout the process. So now Hunt obliges after the fact. But Keats seems pretty unfazed: “But whose afraid Ay! Tom! demme if I am.”

More accounts of goings-on about town follow, including Keats showing up an hour late to one of Hazlitt’s lectures, whereupon he was met by everyone flowing out of the Surrey Institution. And then we shift to King Lear. This letter is perhaps most famous for its account of the sonnet “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” which Keats copies in the letter. He also wrote the sonnet (perhaps drafted?) in his facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. We certainly share Keats’s self-assessment of the poem: “So you see I am getting at it, with a sort of determination & strength.”

Keats’s sonnet, written on the page facing the beginning of King Lear in his copy of a First Folio facsimile.

When Keats returns to the letter the next day, his mind remains on the theatre. He recounts his visit to a “private theatrical” at an “oily place.” Keats managed to get behind the scenes thanks to his friend Charles Wells, and they witnessed “the oily scene shifters” and “a little painted Trollop” who says: “‘damned if she’d play a serious part again, as long as she lived.'” All in all, it sounds like a fun time! For a response to today’s letter we turn to Marc Palmieri, a playwright himself, among other things. He reflects from that perspective on what such a visit to “the theatre’s bowels” might have felt like for a playwright. We hope you enjoy it!

For the text of the letter, we point you to Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition. And we include the images of the John Jeffrey transcript (the only source for the letter) from Harvard’s Houghton Library.

Page 1 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 23/24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 2 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 23/24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 3 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 23/24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 4 of Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 23/24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).