RE: Keats’s 27 October 1818 letter to Richard Woodhouse
The end of this October marks the bicentenary of Keats’s iconic letter on the ‘poetical Character’. The letter of 27 October 1818, now one of the key sources of Keats’s poetic philosophy, emerged two hundred years ago from a period of distress and despair. Two months before the letter was written, Keats was sent home from Scotland to Tom’s failing condition. By ‘Sunday Evening Oct. 4. 1818’, Keats was deeply troubled by Tom’s predicament, circling the words ‘poor Tom’ along his reading of King Lear. Adding to the stress of nursing his dying brother are the hostile reviews of Blackwood’s and the Quarterly Review. Croker’s criticism of Endymion in the Quarterly upset Keats severely. Charles Cowden Clarke recalled, in his letter of 27 July 1821 to the Morning Chronicle, the sleepless night in early October 1818, when Keats ‘lain awake through the whole night talking with sensitive-bitterness of the unfair treatment he had experienced’.
The letter of 27 October 1818 was written as a reply to Richard Woodhouse’s rising concern for Keats’s declining poetic morale. Woodhouse’s concern rekindles Keats’s confidence in his poetic project and encourages a discussion on poetry and literary judgments, eliciting one of Keats’s most significant and precious letters on poetic practice and literary ideals. Woodhouse, having ‘met with that malicious, but weak & silly article on Endymion in the last Quarterly Review’, writes to Keats on 21 October:
I may have misconceived you,—but I understood you to say, you thought there was now nothing original to be written in poetry; that its riches were already exhausted, & all its beauties forestalled—& That you should, consequently, write no more: but continue increasing your knowledge, merely for your own gratification without any attempt to make use of your Stores.
Woodhouse expresses his anxiety as he recalls his ‘late conversation’ with Keats about the Blackwood’s criticism over dinner at Hessey’s on 14 September. As both a friend and advisor, Woodhouse fortifies Keats’s poetic ability and persuades him to continue his creative endeavours in his letter:
the true born Son of Genius, who creates for himself the world in which his own fancy ranges who culls from it fair forms of truth beauty & purity & apparels them in hues chosen by himself, should hold a different language—he need never fear that the treasury he draws on can be exhausted, nor despair of being always able to make an original selection.
Woodhouse’s argument reflects his admiration for Keats’s ‘original genius’ and ‘brilliancy’. Shortly after sending his letter to Keats, Woodhouse, in his letter dated 23 October to his cousin, Mary Frogley, asserts that Keats’s ‘poetical merits’ have ‘not appeared since Shakespeare and Milton’. Despite admitting the ‘great faults’ in Keats’s poetry, Woodhouse nonetheless ranks the poet ‘on a level with the best of the last or of the present generation; and after his death will take his place at their head’.
In his response to Woodhouse, Keats reflects on the limitations and powers of Wordsworth by distinguishing ‘the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime’ from his own ideal of ‘the poetical Character’. He celebrates the ‘camelion Poet’, a person who does not have an identity because its character ‘is not itself–it has no self–it is everything and nothing–It has no character–it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated–It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen’. Keats’s definition of the poetical character oscillates between claims and counter-thoughts. His character is developed from contradictions and paradoxes, from the simultaneous experiences of being itself and not itself. Keats’s reply corrects Woodhouse’s idea that poets should construct their own poetic world. He affirms instead that poets, even without fully abandoning the self, should have ‘no identity’ and ‘no nature’. Borrowing the notion of ‘gusto’ from Hazlitt’s 1816 essay, Keats speaks to Hazlitt’s account of Wordsworth’s self-absorption and his ‘intense intellectual egoism’. Keats confirms that great poets have gusto because their works are not impeded by their own created sense of identity or character, concluding that the ‘Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence’.
Keats’s poetical empathy and sympathetic imagination illuminated in the letter have extended his earlier reference to the ‘negative capability’ around 21-27 December, 1817 (a period that coincides with Keats’s first meeting with Wordsworth). The idea of ‘negative capability’ first occurred to Keats in a conversation with Charles Brown and Charles Wentworth Dilke while walking back from the Drury Lane Christmas pantomime. The theory was mentioned later in a letter to his brothers George and Tom, defining it as the condition ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. The imaginative potential of the negative qualities Keats ascribes to his poetical character in the 1818 letter – the importance of not being itself, of not having a self, and of not bearing a character – resonates with the poet’s former idea of the ‘passive capacity’ and adaptability. Keats locates and creates his greater character through the evasion of identity and consciousness. The complex question of self that the poet imposes sustains conflicts and diversity in life, as he relishes both ‘the dark side of things’ and ‘the bright one’. Keats’s celebration of feeling the unfelt confirms his recognition and awareness of an alternate aspect to human experiences.
On receiving Keats’s response, Woodhouse summarises and outlines his analysis of Keats’s concept of the poetical character in his correspondence to John Taylor on the same day.
his soul has no distinctive characteristic – it cannot be itself made the subject of poetry that is another person’s soul, cannot be thrown into the poet’s, for there is no identity (separatedness, distinctiveness) or personal impulse to be acted upon.
Woodhouse’s letter, with reference to Endymion, also points out the distinction Keats has drawn between himself and the Wordsworth school as well as other poets. The letter closes with his acclamation of Keats’s ‘full universality’ and a call for our belief in the truth of the poet’s ideas and feelings. Restoring Keats’s faith and confidence in himself, Woodhouse’s timely support in the bitter autumn of 1818 leads the poet to the creation of four new lyrics, and eventually, the odes of spring 1819. Woodhouse further shows his great admiration for Keats’s 1817 Poems and Endymion by taking up the responsibility to arrange the copyright transfers of the Poems, Endymion, and Lamia. More importantly, Woodhouse has devoted much time and effort to collecting and transcribing manuscripts of Keats’s poems and correspondences with his closest acquaintances. Their relationship is maintained after Keats’s death as Woodhouse carried on to preserve and edit any written records of the poet that he could possibly obtain. Alongside the transcripts of Keats’s unpublished works and variant copies of published materials, Woodhouse has provided critical annotations and interpretations, as well as included the poet’s biographical notes and facts in his collection of ‘Keatsiana’. The publication of the remarkable collection of ‘Keatsiana’, therefore, crystalises the significance of Woodhouse’s unfailing support and respect to the development and progression of Keats’s poetic career and reputation since the autumn of 1818.
Yimon Lo is a PhD candidate in English Studies at Durham University, where she works under the supervision of Professor Michael O’Neill and Professor Mark Sandy. She works on the late-eighteenth to nineteenth century British literature, with a focus on the poetry and prose of William Wordsworth. Her doctoral thesis examines Wordsworth’s soundscape and auditory imagination through the disciplinary lens of musical aesthetics. Her research offers an extended study of Wordsworth’s sense of musicality in relation to the poet’s key philosophical and literary ideas on lyricism and poetic harmony.