We Who Are Skittish

Sarah Sarai

Re: Keats’s 24 April 1818 letter to Taylor

You know how a person sometimes fails at squirming away discomfort? And so they drink a few beers, or binge on Netflix, or both? Or perform a multitude of other diversionary tasks – scrubbing odd corners of their abode and reorganizing their books, maybe by presenting-gender, geography, and first-name alpha? And all that is performed in order to numb-out. To not feel an anticipated sting of suspected failure or panic at the thought of confronting imperfection, regardless of the odds? The odds being, imperfection unlikely when making a book as John Keats, but whatever.

Because if a person feels pain and discomfort, even a simple sting, she or he or they are most likely not happy in that moment. And what does a person want, especially a person young as John Keats in 1818, but to be happy?

And so, in his letter of 24 April 1818, twenty-three-year-old John Keats thanks “dear Taylor” for the assist. Keats, as he writes, is among those “young men” who, “for some time have had an idea that such a thing as happiness is to be had, and therefore are extremely impatient under any unpleasant restraining.” An idea had anew by youth of all genders and preferences in every generation, of course. In the letter he describes second-guessing his decisions about Endymion. He reveals or at least plays with “revealing” an uneasiness with himself as a writer. “But I could not help it then…” What artist could “help” wanting another eye on the work?

Keats showed the manuscript of Endymion to worthy friend John Taylor who suggested this and that edit. And during that blessed moment when the manuscript was in a sort of conscionable limbo, Keats could catch his breath, which, after creating a classic epic poem of poetic romance and philosophy, he needed, said breath, to catch thereof. His gratitude for Taylor’s help is genuine and dear. His expression of same is playful; his description of one macrocosm of an emotion vivid.

In Endymion, as Ronald A. Sharp points out in his book, Keats, Skepticism, and the Religion of Beauty,

What Keats suggests . . . is that to fully actualize the soul, or potential identity with which each person is born one must not passively tolerate suffering but actively confront it as the Indian Maid does in Endymion:

Come then, Sorrow!
Sweetest Sorrow!
Like an own babe, I nurse thee on my breast! [4. 270-81]

Sharp further elucidates that suffering has value but requires no glorification:

This does not mean that one must seek suffering or that, like Rimbaud, one must search out the most intense and various experiences in order to savor even the gruesome and perverse for their full cargo of ‘life.’

Certainly, there are impulses within most religions to gruelingly treat the flesh in order to prove one’s worth as a devotee of whatever, whoever one has in mind. I think most any deity would be more than satisfied were we to feed and educate our children. At any rate, it’s not that Keats shies away from pain so much as he knows the universal instinct to do so. He has observed the emotional cycles in the laboratory of his being as “habitual sensation.” As one of my favorite American poets wrote, “Sorrow everywhere” (Jack Gilbert).

Another perspective–other than aha-ing Keats’ pain–another or perhaps the most obvious is that John Keats entrusted his work with a friend before chasing it into the world at large. Therefore, the very existence of Keats’s letters is verification that friendship and connection were more than part of Keats’s life. Friendships and navigating the spaces between us are basic to everyone’s life. Friendship was part of Keats’s poetry, part of his life and his poetry.

One summer many years ago I spent six weeks at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio with a dozen other high school teachers, courtesy of an NEH Fellowship. By night, we searched out most moist and leafy green grottos, elven-designed, for firefly watching. The only firefly I had seen since my family moved from New York to L.A. when I was eight was in The Golden Book of Elves and Fairies, illustrated by Garth Williams. In the seminar, we discussed writings on the theme “Literature and Friendship.” Professor Ronald A. Sharp (see above) led the seminar, the reading list of which included Books VIII and IX of The Ethics by Aristotle, whose insights into friendships and categorization of types of friends are astoundingly accurate and provoked, in me, many gotcha moments. The ancient philosopher was out of his league in some of his other volumes when it came to describing women’s anatomy, but friendship, which has no country, he got right. We read Shakespeare and other literature the titles which I can no longer remember–this was thirty years ago, and we read selections from Keats’s letters. Prior to that summer my thoughts of Keats’ interests were of beauty and imagination. Friendship added a new room for my little inner castle of thinking about Keats.

In the April 24, 1818 letter, Keats offers his friend a gentlemanly apology (“I think I did wrong to leave to you all the Endymion…”). It’s a statement signifying high politesse as there is no injured party, but the statement is not a meaningless gesture. John Taylor is a friend to whom Keats can admit his path to self-actualization (definitely my phrase, not his). “The road lies through application, study and thought.” And magical fireflies, quixotic to the imagination.

Sarah Sarai is the author of Geographies of Soul and Taffeta (Indolent Books) and The Future Is Happy (BlazeVOX). Her poems are in many journals and anthologies, including Boston Review, Threepenny Review, Say It Loud: Poems About James Brown, and Like a Fat Gold Watch: Meditations on Sylvia Plath and Living. She also writes short stories and has an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College.


Works Cited

Ronald A. Sharp. Keats, Skepticism, and the Religion of Beauty. Athens: Georgia. The University of Georgia Press. 1979.

Jane Werner, author. Garth Williams, illustrator. The Giant Golden Book of Elves and Fairies. NY: NY. Golden Books. 1951.

Letter #67: To John Taylor, 24 April 1818

Editor’s Note: As part of the KLP’s ongoing pedagogy initiatives, one of the KLP co-founders, Brian Rejack, has been working with some of the students in his undergraduate romanticism course this semester to have students research individual letters and write introductory posts for the letters. Today’s post is the third of such posts scheduled to appear over the next few weeks. You can read previous ones here and here and here.

Daniel De La Cruz and Denzel Mitchem (Illinois State University)

Keats, in classic fashion, writes out another contemplative letter as he reflects on his newest book finally appearing in print. After having received an advanced copy of Endymion, Keats corresponds with his publisher John Taylor about some minor errata he’s identified in reading over the book. He also expresses his struggle to feel ready for his summer journey to the north, not because he lacks desire, but because he has an insatiable appetite for knowledge and he worries he may not yet be ready to truly benefit from the experience.

The letter begins with Keats apologizing to Taylor for leaving him “all the trouble of Endymion.” One can understand why a publisher might want his author around while putting the final touches on the book. Keats excuses his behavior (i.e. leaving London for Teignmouth) by suggesting that at a young age people are so eager to get happiness that they feel entitled to it,  and treat any “unpleasant restraining” as something to avoid at all costs. Keats now seems to think it is better to greet this difficulties and troubles “as an habitual sensation, a pannier which is to weigh upon them through life.” It would appear that Keats had been “impatient” about the task of correcting his poem for publication, but now he decides to add some edits even though the task has been completed!

Following his thoughts gives a glimpse into how Keats could apply a perfectionist’s care to the publication of his work when he didn’t feel too impatient to do so. Note the precise way he explains what he calls “identical” and “related” speeches in the poem: “If we divide the speeches into identical and related: and to the former put merely one inverted comma at the beginning and another at the end; and to the latter inverted commas before every line, the book will be better understood at the first glance”. While it is slightly confusing to follow, it shows that Keats does take his time and purposely looks through his work to improve upon it, and these seemingly minor edits can nonetheless serve a large purpose in Keats’s delivery. As he mentions, he does carry the reader’s interpretation of his work in mind: “the book will be better understood at the first glance.”

In the following paragraph, Keats explains in vivid detail the fact that he wishes to travel over the summer, but that he worries about his lack of experience before undertaking the trip. He wants to gain knowledge not only for his own sake, but also to help him serve the world better. In the letter Keats writes, “I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good for the world […] there is but one way for me–the road lies though application study and thought.” As much as Keats appreciates “delicious diligent indolence,” we also see his ability to approach a task with determination and an aim to help more than just himself. We thus see a Keats optimistic about the immediate future, and in overall good spirits thanks to his book’s appearance, his brother’s improving health, and his intentions to pursue “a love for Philosophy.”

The MS for today’s letter is at the Morgan Library (no images for us to provide at the moment). You can read text of the letter from Forman’s 1895 edition here. Images below come from Richard Woodhouse’s transcript (courtesy of Harvard). Coming up soon, a response to the letter from Sarah Sarai!

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 24 April 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 24 April 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.