The KLP Pedagogy Series Presents: Keats, Travel, and Aesthetics

[Today’s post is the first installment of the KLP Pedagogy Series, in which we feature student work, work about pedagogy, and other Keats-related things that intersect with some of the vibrant teaching happening in and around romanticism today. Our first author in the series, Victoria Rego, is an undergraduate student studying English and Creative Writing at the College of Charleston, where she also works as a writing lab consultant and has completed grant funded research on the intersection of Victorian Literature and Popular Tourism. Her short fiction has been featured in Bully, from KY Story, with more of her fiction forthcoming.

Read more about this series on our Pedagogy page, and contact us with pedagogy related ideas as you have them!]

Victoria Rego
College of Charleston

Re: Keats’s 17/18 April 1817 letter to J. H. Reynolds

Keats was twenty-one when he wrote a letter to J.H. Reynolds in the spring of 1817. It was the seventeenth of April and he was settling into his lodgings, newly arrived from London to the Isle of Wight, in hopes of making progress on his first grand-scale poem: Endymion. This poetic pilgrimage was, in part, an escape from the bleakness of London, that “jumbled heap of murky buildings,” as Keats refers to it in “O Solitude,” written only a few months earlier (line 1). True poetic inspiration, Keats believed, would require a different sort of setting. Rosemary Hill writes that William Gilpin’s idea of the picturesque was one catalyst that sent Keats to the Isle of Wight: “no matter how he might grumble about the Picturesque … Keats was following the routes prescribed” in Gilpin’s works (122). Gilpin’s essays on the Picturesque, published mostly in the latter half of the 18th century, distinguished between an everyday notion of beauty, and beauty that “please[s] from some quality, capable of being illustrated by painting” (3). Picturesque beauty stands, in many significant ways, in opposition to the philosopher Edmund Burke’s Beautiful, which was smooth, neat, and clearly composed. The Picturesque, in Gilpin’s view, was defined by roughness, crooked edges, and a look of untidiness. While Palladian architecture is undoubtedly beautiful, Gilpin argues, “should we give it picturesque beauty, we must use the mallet instead of the chisel: we must beat one half of it, deface the other, and throw the mutilated members around in heaps” (7). The Picturesque, originally affiliated with landscape paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, and JMW Turner, soon spread to many facets of English culture, such as landscape gardening. David Lowenthal and Hugh C. Prince, in “English Landscape Tastes” wrote that “landscapes are formed by landscape tastes. People in any country see their terrain through preferred and accustomed spectacles, and tend to make it over as they see it” (186). While landscapes can seem like something objective—it’s easy to assume that geography and the physical things that make up the natural landscape just are what they are, irrespective of human intention—what the Romantics knew best was that the human imagination is capable of reshaping any and everything. For this reason, popular writers of the time began to infuse picturesque sentiments into their poems and narratives. These writers soon found that this movement, inspired by the imagination, was readily transferable to linguistic mediums: “the picturesque tends always towards narrative, while the Beautiful and the Sublime depend on stasis” (Hill 124). The conflict between motion and stasis, imagination and reality, sublimity and narrative, is a central one to Keats’ poetry, one that relies on the aesthetic impulse, always, for its realization.

I was twenty-one when I made my first trip abroad to study at the University of Nottingham in the English midlands. For me, travel was a thing of novels: a place of escape in the imagination, not an actualization. Up to that point, much like Keats, I had never left my home country—had never even traveled to the West Coast—and had spent the vast majority of my days in the same tristate area. After my arrival in the Manchester airport, I took a public bus to Nottingham. It took over three sleep-deprived hours to arrive at the place that would become my home for the next five months. Amid bouts of exhausted delirium, I was in awe.

A view of the Midlands scenery. Photo by the author.

The midlands seemed to me a post card: the grass so green it seemed impossible, the effortless hills divided by low-lying stone walls that had compartmentalized the land for centuries and were here and there falling into a crumpled heap, weather-beaten sheep huddled in loose clusters, the sky a smoky blue that seeped into everything. It was both something I felt I knew intimately, but had never seen before—“Was it a vision, or a waking Dream? Do I wake or sleep?”

It seems that Keats felt a similar sentiment while on his journeys across the Isle of Wight. In his letter to Reynolds, Keats writes of a walk he took the previous day to Shanklin:

Shanklin is a most beautiful place—sloping wood and meadow ground reaches around the Chine, which is a cleft between the Cliffs of the depth of nearly 300 feet at least. This cleft is filled with trees & bushes in the narrow part; and as it widens becomes bare, if it were not for primroses on one side, which spread to the very verge of the Sea, and some fishermen’s huts on the other, perched midway in the Ballustrades of beautiful green hedges along their steps down the sands. (130)

Keats’s depiction of the Picturesque starts with nature: the “Chine” filled with trees and bushes” lined with primroses. His depiction ends with the modest human footprint: the fishermen’s huts and “beautiful green hedges.” Rosemary Hill writes that while nature in its pure state may be Sublime, “it could not be Picturesque: the Picturesque [is] a contingent state, secondary to the Sublime and the Beautiful” (124). While the Sublime is revealed in natural scenes which are unable to be fully conceptualized, thereby shoving mankind’s mortality back in the viewer’s face, the Picturesque opens up as something warm, inviting, and rich, exactly because of human presence. The Picturesque delights in human history and the stamp of human activity, although limited. Picturesque scenes, while primarily arising in the bucolic setting, no matter how “their creators strive to conceal their handiwork,” are always “inherently artificial” (Lowenthal 195). The Picturesque setting was just as contrived—whether through actual handiwork, or through the imagination of the spectator—as any landscape painting or pastoral poem.

On one of my weekend journeys in Spring, I visited Dartmoor, a place with a rich literary history. Among the desolate, mist-covered moors, it is simple to see why those from Devon might see themselves as a particularly superstitious people; their landscape has more than enough spaces which seem well fit for ghostly inhabitants. My guide took me to Buckfastleigh Church, a catalyst for Devonshire superstitions for decades.

Buckfastleigh Church. Photo by the author.

The church has been rebuilt and burnt down multiple times over the centuries, with the latest disaster completely destroying the church’s roof. On my visit, I wasn’t the only one there to admire the ruin: I saw locals wandering amidst the grave stones, gazing up at the church tower which seemed to me solid and formidable against the skeleton of the nave. I watched a magpie balance himself on an empty window tucked into a disembodied wall standing at the end of the grounds and separating the church from the thick forest around it. The walls were engulfed in a miasma of vines and lichens. The irregular heads of moss marbled tombstones poked out of weed infested grass. The place was eerie, but it had a beauty. Could this be called Picturesque? My guide told me that the place was popular for photoshoots, for weddings, special occasions, and films.

In his letter to Reynolds, Keats praises the beauty of Carisbrooke Castle. He writes: “I have not seen many specimens of Ruins—I don’t think however I shall ever see one to surpass Carisbrooke Castle” (131). Lowenthal and Prince note that “the ruin was a landscape feature especially favored by lovers of the picturesque” (196). The ruin unites the Picturesque with the Antiquarian, another sentiment favored by the English Romantics. When Gilpin wrote of ruins, he argued that they were, although not necessarily more beautiful than complete specimens of architectural master work, favored subjects by painters. The rough surfaces of ruins diffused light in a way that was easier to replicate in paint. While this could be part of the Picturesque fascination with ruins, even Gilpin knew it was far from the whole story. The Picturesque love of ruins can be understood in light of the movement’s philosophy as a whole. The Picturesque “proposed a reciprocal relationship between material reality and subjective experience;” between the physical world and the imagination of the perceiver. (Hill 121) The ruin is a physical manifestation of this reciprocal relationship—an object built by a past peoples, no longer serving its original purpose (whether secular, religious, or political) and having been at least partially taken over by the natural landscape. In his letter, Keats praises the beauty of the ruinous castle:

The trench is o’ergrown with the smoothest turf, and the walls with ivy—the keep within side is one Bower of ivy—a colony of Jackdaws have been there many years—I dare say I have seen many a descendant of some old cawer who peeped through the Bars at Charles the first, when he was there in Confinement. (131)

Keats admires the melding of the natural world with the world of human activity; he delights in seeing the Jackdaws overtaking the castle, and the ivy claiming its walls. Hill argues that the Picturesque relies on a “greeting of the spirit’ in which self and spectacle meet” (Hill 125). It is in the ruin that the human self and the natural spectacle meet and find aesthetic harmony.

For all of Keats’s ruminations on the landscape, one aspect seems to unabashedly steal his attention. When he gets to the waterfront, the poet seems to lose his words: “but the sea, Jack, the sea” (131). Although sometimes depicted in picturesque landscape paintings, the sea rests largely within the Burkeian Sublime. The attempt to capture the Sublime in language is a defining feature of Keats’ works, such as the Elgin Marbles Sonnets, his Hyperion poems, and Endymion. Throughout his short writing career, Keats struggled to find a balance between the impulse to capture the Sublime and a recognition of the impossibility of the task. However, rather than give up his mission to capture that which defies language, Keats struggles on, as in the sonnet, “On the Sea” that concludes his letter to Reynolds:

It keeps eternal Whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns; till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
often ’tis in such gentle temper found
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell,
When last the winds of Heaven were unbound.
Oh ye who have your eye-balls vex’d and tir’d,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea
Oh ye whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody—
Sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth, and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quir’d— (132)

In the sonnet, Keats prescribes the ocean as a soothe for those who are “vex’d and tir’d,” writing that a look at the sea will help one’s soul to “start,” will possibly reawaken the spectator. In his Guide to the Lakes, Wordsworth argues for a new category of aesthetic achievement, the “Tranquil Sublime.” Wordsworth believed that the Tranquil Sublime could be seen in the English Lake District. He argued that the Sublime had become synonymous with “enormity,” and so sought to recategorize aesthetic distinctions in a way more suiting to aesthetic merit. For Wordsworth, neither the Sublime nor the Picturesque were satisfying aesthetic tendencies; the Tranquil Sublime was his way of mediating between these two, collapsing the soothing elements of the Picturesque with the awe-inspiring grandeur of the Sublime. Keats was as skeptical as Wordsworth towards the Picturesque movement, and as Rosemary Hill notes, was vocal about his dislike of Picturesque tourism (122). However, regardless of Keats’ disdain for the Popular Picturesque movement, it is this same inclination to seek out picturesque locations that goes on to fuel some of his poetry. But his treatment of the Sublime element, the ocean, complicates the Picturesque. While the Picturesque is an aesthetic that revels in the traces of human agency in a beautiful scene, Keats’ treatment of the ocean in his sonnet is something contrary to this. In the sonnet, Keats writes that a person feeling the pressures of the world should “sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth, and brood / Until ye start” (line 13 132). Keats isn’t suggesting that one can either tame the ocean, or leave one’s mark on it; rather, he suggests that aesthetic pleasure comes from the contemplation of the object in its natural state. As in his Elgin Marbles sonnets, there is an underlying anxiety that something so beautiful can only reduce one to passivity. This possibility seems, at times, to haunt Keats. However, this letter and its sonnet reveal a reconciliation between the fear and awe inspired by the sublime and his tranquil appreciation of the Picturesque. Here, at least temporarily, Keats seems to find a kind of aesthetic equilibrium.

Endymion, the epic poem he starts on the Isle of Wight, begins: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” In his private correspondence, one can see clearly the joy he takes in beauty, whether it be Sublime, Picturesque, or somewhere in between. Perhaps this is something that made Keats, so scorned by the critics of his time, charming to many readers; his affection for the Beautiful seems at first so simple and genuine. However, it would be wrong to say his aesthetic impulse is simple. Keats is able to straddle these different aesthetic tendencies, recognizing their merit and pointing to their inadequacies, but eternally believing in the transformative powers of beauty in all its forms.


***This response was written for a class taught by Kathleen Beres Rogers at the College of Charleston. Below, she reflects on how the essay emerged from that context.***

One of the joys of my teaching career has been reading John Keats’s letters with my undergraduate students at the College of Charleston; often, our students work two jobs, struggle with young adult angst, and want their writing to “mean something”: in other words, Keats is a natural fit.

In the fall, I taught my usual Keats course with an emphasis on sympathy and the sublime; although I did give them some ideas for paper topics, I read their responses to our readings and suggested research based on their own areas of interest. In order to promote interest in Keats’s letters, I showed them some essays on the KLP page and suggested they attempt something similar. Tori, a philosophy minor with interests in creative writing, aesthetics and literary tourism, gravitated toward this particular letter and submitted this essay as her final paper for the course. It is undergraduate work, but that’s what (to me) makes it a compelling response to a young man attempting to find his own place in the world.


Works Cited

Cox, Jeffrey N., editor. Keats’s Poetry and Prose. W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.

Gilpin. William. Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty; On Picturesque Travel; and on Sketching Landscape. Cadell and W. Davies, 1808.

Hill, Rosemary. “Keats, Antiquarianism, and the Picturesque.” Essays in Criticism, vol. 64, no. 2, 2014, pp. 119-137.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats: 1814-1821. Edited by Hyder Edward Rollins, Harvard University Press, 1958, pp. 130-132.

Lowenthal, David and Hugh C. Prince. “English Landscape Tastes.” Geographical Review , vol. 55, no. 2, 1965, pp. 186-222.

Ottum, Lisa. “Discriminating Vision: Rereading Place in Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes.Prose Studies, vol. 34, no. 3, 2012, pp. 167-184.


Bridging the Distance

Rosie Whitcombe
Birmingham City University

Re: Keats’s 17/18 April 1817 letter to J. H. Reynolds

Following the death of his brother Tom and the new, transatlantic distance between himself and his brother George, letter writing becomes an increasingly anxious task for Keats. Fearful of the effects of long term or permanent separation, Keats experiments with the letter to ‘overcome this distance’ (Barnard 129) between himself and his recipients; yet even his earlier, more playful letters underpin a similar vexation with distance and an impatience with the letter as a form of communication. Keats’s letter to J. H. Reynolds of 17 and and 18 April 1817, is a fast-paced and forceful piece of writing which moves from bright, intense description to dark brooding. Keats toes the line between descriptive exploration and resentful longing, revealing the conflict of letter writing as both an essential means of communication and a delayed conversation in which the recipient is dependent on a cycle of constant reciprocation. Writing from his room in Carisbrooke, on the Isle of Wight, Keats begins by decorating his letter with cosy artifice: “I have unpacked my books, put them in a snug corner – pinned up Haydon – Mary Queen of Scotts, and Milton with his daughters in a row.” With Shakespeare’s head hanging “over my Books,” Keats opens his letter with an inviting warmth, settling himself, and his literary idols, into his lodgings. Keats’s good humour is soothing, his tone both charming in its attention to detail and fluid in movement from one topic to the next. Swiftly, he changes the scene of the letter, carefully describing the countryside “filled with trees & bushes in the narrow part; and as it widens becomes bare, if it were not for primroses on one side, which spread to the very verge of the sea, and some fisherman’s huts on the other”(I: 130). Keats directs the mind’s eye like a periscope, moving from the trees, emerging on to a wider plain decorated with flowers and fisherman’s huts; his insistence on fine detail provides clear visual communication for his recipient. For Keats, it is paramount to “convey the physical traces of touch on the paper” and communicate himself and his environment through the “beautifully captured … physical scrutiny” of the letter (Thomson 168). Not only does he want to communicate information to his recipient, but through his careful and artful attention to detail, he seeks to preserve a physical representation of himself, and his experiences, in his correspondence.

Fluid and fast, this letter slips from a woodland scene to a commentary about “the sea, Jack, the sea” (I: 131). Keats “attempt[s] to bridge physical separation” (Thomson 165) and overcome the tenseness he associates with distance by speaking not only for himself, but for Reynolds: “why are you at Carisbrooke? say you– Because… from here I can see your continent – from a little hill close by, the whole North Angle of the Isle of Wight, with the water between us” (I: 131). By dictating Reynold’s side of this extended conversation, Keats can cut out the distance between them and direct the course of his letter to reflect his feelings of separateness. Remaining in Carisbrooke, Keats can maintain a physical connection with home; he can see England, can look towards his recipients, but is nonetheless aware of the vast straight of water which divides them. His wistful ruminations on the sea, which has “haunted me intensely” (I: 132) during this trip, are compounded both with awe and fear, predicated on the longing and loss fostered by distance. Not only the sea, but the weather echoes his resentment towards separation: “The Wind is in a sulky fit, and I feel that it would be no bad thing to be the favourite of some Fairy, who would give one the power of seeing how our Friends got on, at a Distance” (I: 132). Keats exaggerates natural elements to convey his preoccupation with distance, personifying the wind to reflect his own agitation. He cultivates a fantastical reality in which a fairy might extend his communicative powers from the written word to a visual representation of his recipients, broaching the boundaries of the letter and closing the distance between himself and home. Keats inscribes a magical discourse in the letter which helps to romance the distance he faces as he looks out over the sea. He admits he would “like, of all Loves, a sketch of you and Tom and George” (I: 132) to be sent to him, underpinning his need for visual connection; the letter alone does not satisfy Keats’s desire to communicate intimately with his recipients. He moves closely and quickly through a succession of artfully devised scenes, from the cosy room to the haunting sea, illustrating both his imaginative breadth and his acute sense of distance.

Keats closes the first half of his letter with the poem ‘On the Sea.’ This sonnet presents the changeable nature of the sea, one moment in “gentle temper,” the next in a “mighty swell” (I: 132). After identifying its inherently opposing and contradictory characteristics, Keats implores his reader to “Feast … upon the wideness of the Sea,” and “Sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth and brood” (I: 132). This sonnet does not seek to resolve the conflicting elements of the sea, rather encouraging its reader to embrace and indulge in its chaos. This reflects the unresolved conflict of the letter and Keats’s inability to bridge the distance between himself and his recipients. “On the Sea” concludes with a figure sitting brooding, feasting transfixed on something which potentially holds no answers and cannot be reconciled or controlled. This serious, thoughtful tone replaces the cheer found in the first half of the letter and provides direction for the second half: while Keats cannot control the chaos of the sea, his dogmatic approach to the rest of the letter is an attempt to resolve the conflict of distance by controlling the boundaries of communication. Keats is instructive, not descriptive: his imperative rhetoric demands Reynolds “ask them what they can say for themselves – ask Mrs Dilke wherefore she does so distress me – Let me know how Jane has her health… Tell George and Tom to write” (I: 133). From an inviting trail of varied and provoking imagery, this letter evolves into a solid list of requests. Keats’s desires are no longer presented under the guise of fairies and floral imagery, but explicitly announced: he must “receive a Letter from you and another from my Brothers” (I: 133) on a specific date, his direction reflecting his growing agitation with the fragility and uncertainties of long distance communication.

In the following paragraph, Keats’s curtness softens as he makes a sudden admission: “I find that I cannot exist without poetry – without eternal poetry – half the day will not do – the whole of it – … I had become all in a Tremble from not having written anything of late – the Sonnet [‘On the Sea’] over leaf did me some good. I slept better last night for it – this Morning, however, I am nearly as bad again” (I: 133). Once more, Keats entirely alters the focus of the letter, his abrupt instruction mellowing into tense insecurity. His syntax is jarring, broken in more places as he broods on his relationship to poetry. Not only is it impossible to live without poetry, but his very existence depends upon it; poetry is not something he does, but something he is. It is a life force, a marker of health, and a means of healing the self: Keats can sleep better for writing, and becomes nervous for neglecting his work. Yet poetry’s restorative powers only provide a temporary cure; for Keats, poetry is a constant necessity, without which he experiences intolerable changes to his physical and mental health. His anxiety cresting, this admission is a far reach from the jovial, inviting tone which began the letter, cementing Keats’s nervousness about distance and poetry side by side.

With a final slither of hope that he might bridge that distance between himself and home, Keats dreams of a future time when Reynolds will visit him, and “we will read our verses in a delightful place I have set my heart upon near the Castle.” However, Rollins’s footnote reveals “Reynolds did not make the visit” (I: 134). Keats has returned to the dreamy, detailed description of the letter’s opening, which curtails his anxiety with hope. Yet with hindsight the idyllic vision he set his “heart upon” is to remain a vision, the geographical distance between himself and Reynolds left unbridged. His “random, indeterminate motions of mind” (Wolfson 45) and the speed at which his descriptions transform over the course in this letter reveals the troubling nature of the distance between Keats and his life back home. As Robert Gittings observes, during this trip Keats “had hardly been able to bear the hundred miles distance between” (217) himself and his loved ones, and this anguish seeps into the foundations of the letter. Repeated requests for responses underline a thirst for communication as well as a need for physical, visual connection, and his anxieties about poetry and distance culminate in a final instruction to Reynolds which was never to be realised. This letter demonstrates the relationship between Keats’s imaginative force and his developing anxiety: using the letter as an outlet for both reveals Keats’s conflict towards writing. To write is both his life force, an intrinsic part of his identity; but it is also an unreliable, unsatisfying means of communication, and, ultimately, a reminder that he remains at a distance.


Works cited

Barnard, John, ‘Keats’s Letters: “Remembrancing and enchaining”’ in The Cambridge Companion to Keats, ed. by Susan J. Wolfson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Gittings, Robert, John Keats (London: Penguin, 2001).

The Letters of John Keats, ed. by Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Thomson, Heidi, ‘Keats’s Letters: ‘A Wilful and Dramatic Exercise of Our Minds Towards Each Other’’, The Keats-Shelley Review, vol. 25 (2011).

Wolfson, Susan J., ‘Keats the Letter-Writer: Epistolary Poetics’, Romanticism Past and Present, vol. 6 (1982).

Narvus States and Eternal Poetry

Allison Dushane
Angelo State University

Re: Keats’s April 17-18 letter to J. H. Reynolds

As Keats began to settle into his temporary home on the Isle of Wight to begin work on Endymion, he composed a letter to J.H. Reynolds over the course of two days. The anticipation that Jacob Risinger describes in Keats’s 17 March letter to Reynolds is magnified; at long last surrounded by the solitude he sought, Keats reports at the closing of the letter’s April 17 section: “I have been rather narvus” (I: 132).

Nicholas Roe points to the materialist dimensions of Keats’s neologism in his autobiography:

Keats’s word ‘narvus’ was a reminder of Astley Cooper’s lecture on ‘nerves’ at Guy’s, and also echoes a word heard long ago at Keates’s Livery Stables. A ‘narve’ was taut animal sinew used to tension a saddle-tree or to make bowstring—’the nerve of Phoebus’ golden bow.’  (Roe 163)

During his clinical residency at Guy’s hospital from 1815-1816, Keats engaged at length with Romantic-era discussions about the origins and nature of life, particularly the physician John Hunter’s claims that animal life was driven by a vital principle, a “superadded” feature to matter. In the lectures Keats attended at Guy’s, the nervous system was presented as a center that communicated the vital principle throughout the body.  Astley Cooper’s lectures linked the involuntary response of the nerves to stimulation, irritability, to the aesthetic and intellectual capacities of living beings. As Hermione de Almeida points out in Romantic Medicine and John Keats, “irritability was the measurable and latent mark of life in both muscular and nervous tissue; sympathy or the response of living creation to the stimulation of this irritability, likewise, was characteristic of muscles and nerves, senses and will” (99). She also cites Keats’s notes on these lectures: “Mr. C believes that the power of parts are supported neither by [the] Brain nor the M.S. [muscular system?] but by their particular Nerves. Sympathy. By this the Vital Principle is chiefly supported” (98-99).

Prior to remarking on his “narvus” state, Keats writes about the features of his location in Carisbrooke, remarking on ecologies that surround him: “As for Primroses–the Island ought to be called Primrose Island: that is, if the nation of Cowslips agree thereto, of which there are diverse Clans just beginning to lift up their heads and if an how the Rain holds whereby that is Birds eyes abate⎯” (I: 131). In these letters, traces of Keats’s botanical expertise are visible alongside the evidence of his recent medical training.  He returns to the letter to Reynolds on April 18 and begins with a request:

Will you have the goodness to do this? Borrow a Botanical Dictionary⎯turn to the words Laurel and Prunus show the explanations to your sisters and Mrs Dilk and without more ado let them send me the Cups Basket and Books they trifled and put off and off while I was in Town⎯ask them what they can say for themselves⎯…. (I: 133).

Donald Goellnicht unpacks this passage in The Poet-Physician: Keats and Medical Science:  “Keats’s mock argumentative joke is based on dictionary descriptions of the flowers of these trees as having no cups, which puts them in the same situation as himself” (94).  Keats’s extensive knowledge of the natural world is so intrinsic to his mode of expressing himself that it surfaces in references ranging from the idiosyncratic description of his physical and mental state to botanical puns.   The central natural figure of these letters, however, is the sea.  Keats arrives at his destination full of “narvus” energy, an excess of built up irritability.  He expends it by composing a sonnet that he includes with the letter:

On  the  Sea.

It keeps eternal Whisperings around
__Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
__Gluts twice ten thousand caverns; till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often ’tis in such gentle temper found
__That scarcely will the very smallest shell
__Be moved for days from whence it sometime fell
When last the winds of Heaven were unbound.
O ye who have your eyeballs vext and tir’d
__Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea
O ye whose Ears are dinned with uproar rude
__Or fed too much with cloying melody⎯
Sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth and brood
__Until ye start as if the Sea Nymphs quired!  (I: 132).

In addition to the vital forces of his chosen environment, Keats draws inspiration for his immersion in poetic composition with virtual literary company. When he first arrives in his lodging, reports that he first “unpacked [his] books, put them into a snug corner,” and put up various pictures that brought with him, including Benjamin Haydon’s rendition of “Milton with his daughters in a row.” and, of course “a head of Shakespeare,” which he hangs just above his books.  In anticipation of Shakespeare’s upcoming birthday, Keats asks Reynolds, “write or say a Word or two on some Passage in Shakespeare that may have come rather new to you ” (78).  The first selections that he cites, from The Tempest, which he claims “never struck me so forcibly as at present,” might be read as an expression of the excess of nervous energy that Keats has built up in anticipation of his ambitious poetic project:

Shall, for that vast of Night that they may work,
All exercise on thee⎯”
In the dark backward and abysm of time

He later cites these lines from Spenser’s Faerie Queene that reflect similarly on the restlessness of the creative faculties:

“The noble Heart that harbours vertuous thought,
And is with Child of glorious great intent,
Can never rest, until it forth have brought
Th’ eternal Brood of Glory excellent⎯”

The urge to create is bound up in Keats’s conception of the intrinsic relationship between his physical body and the rest of the material universe. Between the quotations from Shakespeare and Spenser, he glosses that relationship as such:

I find that I cannot exist without poetry⎯without eternal poetry⎯half the day will not do⎯the whole of it⎯I began with a little, but habit has made me a Leviathan⎯I had become all in a Tremble from not having written any thing of late⎯the Sonnet over leaf did me some good. (I: 133)

To write poetry, for Keats, is as much a biological drive as it is a professional ambition; it is an insatiable desire to absorb the strange vitalities of the landscape and the sea and to communicate their energies in aesthetic form. Through the process of writing Endymion, he will “watch the abysm-birth of elements,” in an extended meditation on the sympathies shared between the human mind and nonhuman nature over the vast expanse of time (Book III, line 28).


Works Cited

De Almeida, Hermione. Romantic Medicine and John Keats. Oxford University Press, 1991.

Goellnicht, Donald. The Poet Physician: Keats and Medical Science. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1984).

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats 1814-1821. 2 vols. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1958.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. Yale University Press, 2012.


Letter #17: To J. H. Reynolds, 17/18 April 1817

Since we last encountered Keats writing to his brothers from Southampton on 15 April, he’s continued on his journey and acquired lodgings at Carisbrooke. Wikipedia will tell you that this village on the Isle of Wight is “best known as the site of Carisbrooke Castle,” but the KLP editors respectfully disagree–it should be remembered for hosting Keats for 10 days 200 years ago! We may be biased. In any case, Keats should at least be mentioned on the Wikipedia page for Carisbrooke! Sad. In Wikipedia’s defense, though, it is a pretty castle.

The gatehouse at Carisbrooke Castle.

Keats claims that he could see the castle from his window, which has led some to speculate on where exactly Keats might have been lodging. Hyder Edward Rollins notes the history of some argument between a Mr. W. H. Wadham, Louis Arthur Holman, and Maurice Buxton Forman; the former two suggest Canterbury House (pictured below via Google’s all-seeing eye) or another building on Castle Road; Forman disagrees with them both; Rollins offers no opinion. Should the KLP settle the matter one day, we shall share the results of our inquiry. For now, here is where Keats might have stayed:


As Keats settled in, at the above building or elsewhere, he wrote a letter to his pal Reynolds in two sittings across two days. It is simply lovely. The proposal that the island ought to be named “Primrose Island,” but only if the “nation of Cowslips agree there to”–pure Keatsian gold! And we encounter in the second section of this two-day letter what could arguably be called the most famous phrase from the letters we’ve read thus far: “I find that I cannot exist without poetry.” We daresay there are some devoted Friends of Keats out there who have that phrase tattooed on their bodies. And, no, to the best of our knowledge, no KLP editors have Keats’s words tattooed on them, but now that we think of it, that really is something we ought to rectify.

Now, as today’s letter spans two days, the KLP has responses for you for today and tomorrow. First up is Allison Dushane (Angelo State University), who wonderfully captures Keats’s narvus state as he arrives in Carisbrooke and gets to the work of writing Endymion. She demonstrates how Keats in this letter poses his relationship to poetry as a bodily one–his narvus-ness is not just about unease, but a more general state of responsiveness to the world around him, including the poetry (and poets) all around him (Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton in this letter).

Tomorrow we’ll feature a response from Rosie Whitcombe (Birmingham City University). She focuses on a topic that Keats contemplates throughout his correspondence, and particularly in later letters when he’s sending packets across the ocean to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana: the limitations of epistolarity. These letters from spring 1817 are the first ones we have of Keats writing at a greater distance than within the bounds of London. As such, he finds himself tasked with how his letters can attempt to bridge that distance, even while reminding that the distance exists. Whitcombe’s response both illuminates these dynamics in this letter to Reynolds and gestures toward later letters in which similar dynamics will become even more pronounced.

And because we have a break in letters until May 10, the KLP will generously share a THIRD response to today’s letter during the interval. That final response (exact date TBA) is a special treat, as it is the first response written by an undergraduate student: Victoria Rego, a student at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. The KLP has several pedagogy-related initiatives in the works, and more broadly we aim to support and promote work by students on the site itself. Rego’s response will be the first entry toward that end. Look for it in late April or early May.

As mentioned back in March with the first letter to Reynolds, the vast majority (18 out of 21) of Keats’s letters to Reynolds come to us via transcripts from Richard Woodhouse. All are available via the Harvard Keats Collection, which we kindly (and with permission) reproduce for you here (click the images for the full size images). And for a readable printed edition, we suggest the same edition mentioned with the previous letter, Harry Buxton Forman’s 1883 volume.