Ohio State University
Re: Keats’s 17 March 1817 letter to J. H. Reynolds
“My Brothers are anxious that I shod go by myself into the country—they have always been extremely fond of me; and now that Haydon has pointed out how necessary it is that I shod be alone to improve myself, they give up the temporary pleasure of living with me continually for a great good which I hope will follow—” (Keats I: 125)
Anxiety. Fondness. Pleasure. Hope. In this short letter to Reynolds—one of the first after a long silence—Keats puzzles over the affective experience of others before finally circling around to his own anticipation. It’s a funny bit of indirection or harmless transference, maybe even a flash of the way in which uncertainty can breed obfuscation. Taking Haydon’s suggestion to heart, Keats screws his courage to the sticking place and prepares to set off on a solitary poetic errand into the wilderness. If lucky, Endymion will arise out of the ensuing peace and quiet. Only George and Tom, he suggests, would be left to experience this quest as sacrifice—to worry over the pleasures lost when sociable routines give way to solitude. It brings to mind an assertion that Haydon would make in his journal three weeks later: “Keats is the only man I ever met with who is conscious of a high call and is resolved to sacrifice his life or attain it” (Haydon 107). And yet here at this moment of renewed dedication, that consciousness seems to run up against a sense of all that might be demanded by its realization. Do all great spirits have to go into the country by themselves?
It is as if Keats has been sucked-in by what Duncan Wu counts as one of the Thirty Great Myths About the Romantics: “The Romantic poets were misunderstood, solitary geniuses.” Keats would encounter misunderstanding soon enough, but here I want to say a word about solitude. Eighteen months later, in a letter to George and Georgiana, he would make a rousing case for the inspiration that can only emerge out of isolation: “Notwithstand[ing] your Happiness and your recommendation I hope I shall never marry … my Happiness would not be so fine, as my Solitude is sublime … I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds. No sooner am I alone than shapes of epic greatness are stationed around me, and serve my Spirit the office which is equivalent to a King’s body guard—then ‘Tragedy with scepter’d pall, comes sweeping by’” (I: 403). However sublime the vision, there is a strange note of self-defense in all of this. I think of Simon and Garfunkel’s great lines: “I have my books / And my poetry to protect me / I am shielded in my armor.” But Keats’s ambition here easily outpaces his evasive maneuvers. To the imagination at the height of its power, solitary moments are effortlessly peopled by “shapes of epic greatness.” As the demands and domestic routines of the real world recede, the power that can create a thousand worlds comes into its own. And yet this version of Haydon’s “high call” was still a long way off. In March 1817, Keats wanted not a thousand worlds but simply four thousand lines. “So,” he writes, “I shall soon be out of Town” (I: 125).
It is not hard to see why Keats might have looked skeptically or anxiously at the thought of poetic solitude. Two weeks earlier, his first book Poems made its way into the world. Unlike Byron, Keats did not awake one morning and find himself famous, though the slim volume was championed by the circle of friends that had fostered its development. Nicholas Roe’s magisterial biography paints a vivid picture of this fostering sociability and its unmistakable centrality. His mock-up of the volume’s unprinted table of contents is striking in itself. For so many of these poems, catalyst and recipient are one and the same. The brothers who would give up a “temporary pleasure” for the sake of poetry could also inspire it: there are two poems “To My Brother George,” and one “To My Brothers.” Keats ended the sonnet to George with a pointed question (discussed at length in the most recent episode of This Week in Keats): “But what, without the social thought of thee, / Would be the wonders of the sky and sea?”
The lines of sociability and exchange stretched on and on in Keats’s debut volume: there were two poems for Georgiana, and two for Haydon. George Felton Mathew and Charles Cowden Clarke merited verse epistles. Other poems celebrated the reciprocity of exchange: “On Receiving a Curious Shell and a Copy of Verses from The Same Ladies” and “To a Friend Who Sent Me Some Roses.” Leigh Hunt’s release from prison prompted a sonnet, and his friendship resulted in a last-minute dedication. Roe’s description of its genesis is especially striking:
Keats read the proofs and then, one evening in late February, a last sheet came with a note saying that if he wished to have a dedication it must be sent forthwith. He stepped to a side table, and while brothers and friends chatted, wrote this dedication sonnet. (Roe 145)
Dashing off a sonnet while his brothers and friends talked on was impressive, but then so too was “On the Grasshopper and Cricket”—forward-looking lines that resulted from a fifteen-minute sonnet competition around Hunt’s Hampstead hearth.
In October 1818, Keats’s embrace of solitude and the sublime would come with the force of an imperative: “Th[i]nk of my Pleasure in Solitude, in comparison of my commerce with the world” (Keats I: 404). But here, in March 1817, his poetic identity was brilliantly tied-up in the conviviality of that commerce. Can you fault a chap for worrying that a solitary excursion might not be the best way forward? In any case, Haydon’s grand plan did not work out as expected. After a week on the Isle of Wight, Keats “set off pell mell for Margate.” His rationale: “I was too much in Solitude, and consequently was obliged to be in continual burning of thought as an only resource” (Keats I: 138-9).
Intimations of this fruitless “burning of thought” shape the marked ambivalence that closes-down Keats’s short letter. In a “pretty piece of Paganism,” he sides rather half-heartedly with the fox in Aesop’s fable:
In the letter, Keats puts it like this: “You must soon bring all your present troubles to a close, and so must I, but we must, like the Fox, prepare for a fresh swarm of flies.” It is almost as if Keats combines the wisdom of the fox with the impetuosity of the hedgehog. He knows that he might find in solitude “a fresh swarm of flies” who will make the torment of writing ten times worse than it would ever be in his sociable circle. But he runs the probable hazard anyway. Banish all the world? Against his better judgment, Keats follows Prince Harry’s lead: “I do; I will.”
Aesop’s Fables, With Instructive Morals and Reflections, Abstracted from all Party Considerations, Adapted to all Capacities; and design’d to promote Religion, Morality, and Universal Benevolence. York: T. Wilson and R. Spence, 1790.
Croxall, Samuel. Fables of Aesop and Others: Translated into English with Instructive Applications and a Cut Before Each Fable. London: A. Miller, W. Law, and R. Cater, 1792.
Haydon, Benjamin Robert. The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, ed. Willard Bissell Pope. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.
Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.
Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.