“All the Vices of a Poet”: Keats to Haydon, 22 December 1818

Jeanne Britton
University of South Carolina

RE: Keats’s 22 December letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon

Keats’s letter to Benjamin Haydon of 22 December 1818 treads through the anxieties and hardship of artistic production that the aspiring poet and struggling painter shared. Dissatisfied with Hyperion, which he had cast aside for the time being, Keats opens his letter with disdain for the literary marketplace: he scorns its mercantile operation but admits to seeking “love and effect.” “I never expect to get any thing by my Books,” he declares, “and moreover I wish to avoid publishing.” His desire to write is not, it would seem, a desire for fame: “I should like to compose things honourable to Man—but not fingerable over by Men.” But earlier in this same paragraph, his admission—“I feel in myself all the vices of a Poet, irritability, love of effect and admiration”—might seem to contradict this disdain.[i]

His reference to “irritability” might also be understood to echo the famous letter of the previous December in which he defines “Negative Capability” as the ability to remain in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”[ii] Precisely what Keats means by this term in either context is difficult to say. My sense, though, is that he is drawing in these two letters on an intertwining of irritability’s literary and medical significance, a feature that defines much of his finest poetry. While this intertwining of the literary and medical offers a different gloss on the term, it would not be wrong to take “irritability” to mean bad temper; indeed, Keats’s encounters with William Wordsworth, one of the age’s most prominent specimens of “the genus irritabile”—that is, poets—certainly provide him with an example of prickly crotchetiness.[iii]

Benjamin Robert Haydon, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (1820)
Haydon, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (detail). Wordsworth is bowing his head; Keats’s profile appears directly above Wordsworth’s.

As 1818 drew to a close, Benjamin Haydon was still at work on the huge, ambitious Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. This painting took him six years to complete, and its outmoded style of historicism was his relentless “great object.”[iv] Another object was to include great writers of modern times in this historical, religious subject; Newton, Voltaire, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, William Wordsworth, and Keats himself also appear. It was this painting that, in a half-finished state, brought Keats and Wordsworth together for what Haydon himself termed the “immortal dinner” of the previous December.

Haydon’s life-mask of Keats. Keats-Shelley House, Rome.

Haydon had made Keats’s life-mask in Dec 1816 as a study for this painting. He also measured Wordsworth’s height for the same purpose, noting in his diary that his “very fine, heroic proportion” of nearly 5’10”—indeed tall for the time—apparently made the poet of egotistical sublimity so pleased that, as Haydon also records, “He made me write it down.”[v] Keats, who was just over five feet tall, experienced the brunt of Wordsworth’s ego, if not his irritability, on meeting him earlier in December of 1817 and, at Haydon’s request, reciting the “Hymn to Pan” from Endymion. Wordsworth’s response—“a Very pretty piece of Paganism”—was, according to Haydon, “unfeeling,” “ill-bred,” and “nonsense.” He believed Keats felt its sting, intended or not, “deeply.”[vi]

Perhaps, if we want to be charitable to Wordsworth, he was simply grumpy. And perhaps Keats is, too, when he proclaims in this letter of December 1818 that he feels “all the vices of a Poet, irritability, love of effect and admiration.” But in addition to peevishness, irritability carried two other meanings in these years: it had been associated with the character of the poet since classical antiquity (hence the aforementioned term, genus irritabile), and it was posited as the origin of muscular mobility in eighteenth-century medicine. Keats invokes irritability’s literary sense in other letters, and the wide currency of “irritability” as a physiological concept in the work of his teachers at Guy’s Hospital informs his complaints about his health—his “nervous irritability” and “irritable state of health.”[vii] He calls on the term’s literary significance with the reference to “the ‘genus irritabile’” of poets that ushers in his definition of the chameleon poet and, indeed, its distinction from the Wordsworthian “egotistical sublime.”[viii]

In medical discourse, “irritability” names a property of the muscles that determines contraction. Swiss anatomist and physiologist Albrecht von Haller defined irritability as the tendency of muscles to contract when stimulated. Sensibility, the property of the nerves, communicated the muscular response to stimuli to the brain. After Haller’s mid-eighteenth-century attempt to prove the existence of irritability, nearly every medical treatise referred to this concept and its more prominent counterpart, sensibility, in some fashion. Many readers of Haller attributed more significance to irritability than Haller did himself: even the English translator of his Dissertation on the Sensible and Irritable Parts of Animals claims that “irritability is the long-sought vital principle, the key to nature itself” in a contradiction of Haller’s explicit warning that this principle should not be taken as the principle of life.[ix] In Haller’s system, irritability is an involuntary, physiological force that determines mobility, and sensibility is associated with feeling and expressive of the soul. According to Haller, an irritable body part “becomes shorter upon being touched,” and a sensible body part that is touched communicates with the soul.[x] The reception of his terminology in later medicine blurred these distinctions, and sensibility came to be associated with the vital principle.

Critics have stressed Keats’s proximity to prominent advances in early nineteenth-century science. Less prominent, perhaps, but especially significant for their role in the medical history of irritability, are reinterpretations of this concept carried out by Keats’s own teachers and their sources. His teacher Astley Cooper refashioned his mentor John Hunter’s concepts of physiological sympathy and irritability, and the Scottish physician John Brown influentially adapted Haller’s distinct categories of sensibility and irritability into his more capacious concept of excitability. According to Brown, “The blood by its quantity distends the muscular fibres of the vessels; that distention stimulates the excitability in the fibres, and produces excitement, commonly called their irritability; thus excited, the fibres contract.”[xi] Eighteenth-century origins of the medical concept of irritability continued to have traction in early nineteenth-century definitions of the term, appearing in the entry for “irritability” in the 1810 and 1823 editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The version of irritability that circulated within and beyond Guy’s Hospital draws on the blurring of Haller’s distinction between sensibility and irritability and the later conceptualization of a generally responsive principle in the human body.

If irritability identifies the tendency for muscular contraction, then the “irritable reaching” that negative capability overcomes suggests both contraction and extension; it would produce either paradox or pain.[xii] The physicality of what I take to be the instinctive, unreflective “reaching” that negative capability overcomes urges us to identify Keats’s consideration of the embodied nature of irritability and negative capability. Horace’s complaint about the fretful tribe of scribbling lyricists seeking fame is echoed in the writings of Coleridge and Byron.[xiii] The term’s long-standing literary associations complement the immediate context of negative capability’s definition in Keats’s 1817 letter—the assimilating character of Shakespeare as opposed to the determined objectivity that Keats rather attributed, however oddly, to Coleridge.Along these lines, negative capability suggests that the ideal poetic character sheds the historical stereotype of the fame-seeking scribbler. 

In Keats’s references to irritability, the dovetailing of the literary and the medical approximates the complexity of the poet’s relationship to literary inheritance and sensory experience. Rather than lingering over the sting of Wordsworth’s dismissiveness, I prefer to think that this snub from one of his literary influences may have inspired the pugilistic young poet to continue reaching, so to speak, towards new poetic horizons. In the following year, of course, the great odes reconfigure the weight of literary influence and the strain of poetic aspiration—without irritable reaching—in their sublime manifestations of negative capability.

Contributor’s Note:
Jeanne Britton is a Curator in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina. Portions of this essay are drawn from “‘Irritable Reaching’ and the Conditions of Romantic Mediation,” which appears in Keats’s Negative Capability: New Origins and Afterlives, ed. Brian Rejack and Michael Theune (Liverpool UP, 2019).

[i] The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), vol. 1, p. 414.

[ii] Letters, vol. 1, p.  193. Letter to George and Tom Keats, 21, 27 (?) December 1817.

[iii] Letters, vol. 1, p. 386. Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 Oct 1818.

[iv] Letters, vol 1, p. 416. Letter from Benjamin Haydon, 23 (?) Dec 1818.

[v] Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1963), p. 115.

[vi] Cited in Bate, pp. 265-66.

[vii] The reference to irritability appears in the scattered style of his lecture notes: “Sympathy.  By this the Vital Principle is chiefly supported.  The function of breathing is a sympathetic action—from irritation produced on the beginning of the Air Tube affects the Abdominal Muscles and produces coughing.” Anatomical and Physiological Note Book. Printed from the Holograph in the Keats Museum, Hampstead. Ed. Maurice Buxton Forman. (New York: Haskell House Publishers Ltd., 1970), p. 56.

[viii] Letters, vol. 1, p. 386. Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 Oct 1818.

[ix] Anne Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology: Sensibility in the Literature and Medicine of Eighteenth-Century France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). p. 27-8.

[x] Albrecht von Haller, Dissertation on the Sensible and Irritable Parts of Animals, trans. Tissot (London: Nourse, 1755), p. 4.

[xi] John Brown, The Elements of Medicine; or, a Translation of the Elementa Medicinae Brunonis with large notes, illustrations, and comments by the author of the original work. Trans by the author. 2 vols. (London: Johnson, 1788), vol. 1, p. 111. For a fuller discussion of John Brown’s excitability as a development upon Haller’s irritability, see de Almeida, pp. 66-73. 

[xii] See Janis Caldwell, Literature and Medicine in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 378.

[xiii] In the second chapter of Biographia Literaria, Coleridge has a section, which may refer covertly to Byron, on the supposed irritability of men of genius. Byron refers to the irritability of poets in Don Juan: ‘But he had genius, —when a turncoat has it / The ‘Vates irritabilis’ takes care / That without notice few full moons shall pass it; / Even good men like to make the public stare’ (Canto III, stanza 81). 

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