Indolence and Disinterestedness

Beth Lau
California State University, Long Beach

Re: Keats’s 14 February–3 May 1819 letter to George and Georgiana Keats

Keats’s long journal letter to his brother and sister-in-law, begun on 14 February and ending 3 May 1819, is surely one of the most valuable we have, as it covers the period of his most fertile creativity, when he wrote “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and most of the odes. The 19 March 1819 entry marks a crucial turning point in Keats’s development that spring. Before this date, the journal letter is filled with reports of various disappointments, anxieties and frustrations: the poor sales of Endymion and harsh reviews of his work, causing him to wonder if he should abandon poetry and pursue a medical career; the fact that he hasn’t had a letter from George and doesn’t know how he is doing; and writer’s block. He reports being at a standstill with Hyperion and confesses, “to tell the truth I have not been in great cue for writing lately” (Letters2: 62; see also 2: 58, 65, 70). Although Keats doesn’t mention it, perhaps to avoid upsetting George, he must also have been grieving his brother Tom, who died in December 1818. The 19 March letter, however, brims with playful humor, sensuousness, and profound speculation on some of the issues that concerned Keats most deeply and that figure in many of his other memorable letters and poems. What can account for the release of energy and expression we witness in Keats’s writing on this date?

One explanation involves the physical and emotional state Keats is in when he composes the letter. The previous entry, from 17 March 1819, describes a visit “to Davenports’ w[h]ere I dined—and had a nap. I cannot bare a day anhilated in that manner,” Keats declares, and he goes on to insist that “there is a great difference between an easy and an uneasy indolence” (Letters 2: 77). The 19 March section begins in a state of “easy indolence” and demonstrates the pleasures and rewards of that condition. Keats reports that he has a black eye from playing cricket the day before and that he slept “till nearly eleven” in the morning. It is likely that Charles Brown, whom Keats says “{app}lied a lee{ch to} the eyelid” after his sports injury, also administered some opium to ease the pain (see Bate 465; Motion 361). If so, the drug probably contributed to the poet’s lengthy slumber as well as the mood he is in as he writes the letter, which he describes as “a sort of temper indolent and supremely careless.” His long sleep has subdued his “Passions” and “weakened the animal fibre all over me to a delightful sensation about three degrees on this side of faintness. . . . This is the only happiness,” he concludes, “and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind” (2: 78-79). His mind and emotions do not remain in abeyance, however, as the letter launches into a heart-felt, deeply engaged exploration of suffering, sympathy, the life force, and the nature of poetry, among other topics.

The catalyst is a note he receives from William Haslam reporting that his father is expected to die shortly. Keats’s empathic nature cannot remain indifferent to this news of his friend’s imminent loss, and it serves as evidence for him that human life can never be free for long of pain and struggle. “Even so,” he admits, “we have leisure to reason on the misfortunes of our friends; our own touch us too nearly for words. Very few men have ever arrived at a complete disinterestedness of Mind: very few have been influenced by a pure desire of the benefit of others” (2: 79). “Disinterestedness” is a concept Keats began celebrating in the fall of 1817, during and shortly after his visit with Benjamin Bailey in Oxford (see Letters 1: 160, 205). The term probably derived from William Hazlitt’s Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805) (introduced to Keats by Bailey), which sought to refute philosophers such as Hobbes who claim that people are naturally selfish and to prove instead that empathy and concern for others are inherent in human nature (see Bate 201-2, 216, 255-59, 586).

In the 19 March portion of his journal letter, Keats considers the question of whether selflessness is natural or an aberration in human nature. For the most part, he perceives a common drive in all living organisms to fulfill their basic needs. “The greater part of Men make their way with the same instinctiveness, the same unwandering eye from their purposes, the same animal eagerness as the Hawk” (2: 79). Human beings, like other animals, seek mates, shelter, food, and leisure. Nonetheless, Keats then invokes Wordsworth’s assertion (in “The Old Cumberland Beggar” 153) that “‘we have all one human heart’—there is an ellectric fire in human nature tending to purify—so that among these human creature[s] there is continually some birth of new heroism” (2: 80). Alan Richardson notes that “ellectric fire” probably refers to the theory of “electrical neural transmission” proposed by John Hunter, which Keats learned from Astley Cooper in his studies at Guy’s Hospital. According to Hunter, impulses are transmitted to and from the brain via an “electric fluid” that courses through the nerves (Richardson 122, 124). This allusion to human anatomy, in combination with the passage from Wordsworth, implies that acts of benevolence are as natural and innate as more selfish impulses.

But Keats continues to consider the mixed evidence for and against disinterestedness as an inherent human trait. If it is to some degree implanted in all people, significant acts of selflessness are rare, so that “we must wonder at [them]: as we should at finding a pearl in rubbish.” He can think of only two people who were “comp[l]etely disinterested,” Socrates and Jesus. Keats can reach no firm conclusions: “I am however young writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness—without knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion” (Letters 2: 80).

These reflections on self-centered and selfless impulses lead Keats to consider another opposition: between the goals and types of mental activity that distinguish poetry and philosophy. He characterizes his own thought process as “instinctive,” parallel to “the alertness of a Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer,” animated by graceful “energies” even if “erroneous,” and he concludes, “This is the very thing in which consists poetry; and if so it is not so fine a thing as philosophy—For the same reason that an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth” (2: 80-81). Keats quotes lines from Milton’s Comus celebrating “divine Philosophy” and claims he is now in “a state of mind to relish them properly,” as he did not in the past. “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced—Even a Proverb is no proverb to you till your Life has illustrated it,” he insists, echoing a statement from his 3 May 1818 letter to Reynolds that “axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses” (1: 279; see also 2: 18).

The fact that Keats cites Milton’s Comus to support his assertion that philosophy is superior to poetry actually undermines that claim, since Comus itself is a poem. In other respects, the 19 March 1819 letter tends to emphasize connections and interrelations rather than distinctions between what Keats had previously called “Sensations” and “Thoughts” or a “sense of the luxurious” as opposed to a “love for Philosophy” (Letters 1: 185, 271), for it suggests that the “languor[ous]” state he is in when he begins the letter, in which “the body overpower[s] the Mind,” is actually conducive to the mental journey that ensues (Letters 2: 78, 79).

Several other letters help to explain this connection between a relaxed body and productive thoughts. One is Keats’s 19 February 1818 letter to Reynolds that celebrates “delicious diligent Indolence” (1: 231). In that piece Keats describes how reading a passage of poetry or prose can initiate a “voyage of conception” that engages soul, body, and mind: a man, like a spider, should engage in reflections that “weave a tapestry empyrean—full of Symbols for his spiritual eye, of softness for his spiritual touch, of space for his wandering of distinctness for his Luxury” (1: 232). The key to initiating this fruitful mental and sensory experience is to be “passive and receptive,” more like a “flower than [a] Bee,” entertaining whatever thoughts occur and whatever information enters through the senses. This passage in turn recalls Keats’s ideal of negative capability, the condition in which a “man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Letters 1: 193).  As many scholars have noted, the ideal of negative capability is also exemplified in Keats’s definition of the “poetical Character” as a person who loses his own identity as he enters wholeheartedly into those of the beings he creates (Letters 1: 386-87). Finally, in a 24 September 1819 letter Keats criticizes his friend Dilke for being “a Man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his Mind about every thing. The only means of strengthening one’s intellect,” Keats insists, “is to make up ones mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. . . . Dilke will never come at a truth as long as he lives; because he is always trying at it” (Letters 2: 213). All of these passages praise a state of passivity, a letting go of one’s personal preoccupations, and an openness to all thoughts and impressions that for Keats is conducive to creativity, to morality, and to knowledge, the latter of which is more likely to involve partial insights than settled conclusions. This mental receptivity is typically aided by a contented body enjoying soothing sensations. “Diligent Indolence” is “delicious”; it feels good.

In the same way the 19 March 1819 section of Keats’s journal letter begins with Keats experiencing a luxurious, “languor[ous]” state of “delightful sensation” (2: 78). The fact that he had been playing cricket the day before, engaging in strenuous physical activity, as well as the opium he took, which probably induced a mild euphoria and broke down inhibitions, no doubt contributed to his bodily and mental ease. The personal losses and anxieties that had been troubling Keats for months were alleviated by this mood, in a way that perhaps made it easier for him to respond empathetically to the news of Haslam’s misfortune than if he had still been mired in his own concerns.

As Keats learned in his medical training, the senses, the emotions, and the mind are not distinct but are interrelated, all elements of the systems that animate and regulate the human organism. Besides the reference to “an ellectric fire in human nature” already mentioned, numerous other passages in the 19 March entry suggest an empirical, scientific outlook that links body and mind. Keats’s description of his indolent state as one in which “the animal fibre all over me” is “weakened” and the “fibres of [his] brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body” (Letters 2: 78) emphasizes that body and brain are composed of the same materials and influence one another (on the theory that the brain is made up of fibers, see Goellnicht 138-39; and on a similar topic, see Jeanne Britton’s recent KLP post on “irritability”). The declaration “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced” reflects a belief that ideas should not be accepted as mere mental constructs but should be acquired by direct observation and personal confirmation of the causes and effects that give rise to them (see Goellnicht 122-25; Richardson 117). Keats’s inclination in the letter to link human and nonhuman animals, to regard much of human activity, even thoughts, as instinctive drives that serve our survival needs, also reflects an awareness of the biological nature of all experience, bodily and mental.

Finally, at the end of the letter when Keats introduces his sonnet “Why did I laugh tonight?” he suggests the close association between feelings and thoughts. “[T]he first steps to” his sonnet, he says, “were throug[h] my human passions—they went away, and I wrote with my Mind—and perhaps I must confess a little bit of my heart” (Letters 2: 81). Keats’s account of his poem’s composition has parallels to recent findings of neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio.  According to Damasio, the processing of emotion involves three stages: the first, which he calls emotion, involves the unconscious triggering of survival-oriented physiological responses; the second stage, which he calls feelings, is when “emotions . . . have an impact on the mind, as they occur, in the here and now”; and the third stage, which can only occur in creatures that possess consciousness, is when we become aware of our feelings and can name and reflect on them, so that they “permeate the thought process” (56; see also 37 and chapters 2 and 9 passim). Keats, like Damasio, represents “passions” as the initial experience, of which he eventually becomes aware and can describe and evaluate with his “Mind”—though in the end he has trouble making a firm distinction and realizes that his “heart” is still infusing his thoughts.

Keats’s scientific background is not the only source of his ideas and outlook in this letter. Literature also plays a significant role, especially that of Wordsworth, Milton, and James Thomson, whose The Castle of Indolence (1748) Keats says he “long[s] after” (Letters 2: 78). Thomson’s Spenserian allegorical poem ostensibly exposes the drawbacks and dangers of idleness and advocates the virtue of work. In Canto 1, however, the pleasures of an indolent lifestyle are described so persuasively that the poem’s point of view may appear ambivalent; as James Sambrook notes, Thomson “introduces a moral haziness . . . that we do not find in Spenser” in his treatment of slothful and industrious behavior (Thomson 167).

In several respects, the poem offers a defense of the indolent state similar to Keats’s celebration of “easy” and “delicious, diligent Indolence.” The Wizard who presides over the Castle argues that

from the Source of tender Indolence,

With milky Blood the Heart is overflown,

Is sooth’d and sweeten’d by the social Sense

For Interest, Envy, Pride, and Strife are banish’d hence. (1.15.132-35)

The “indulgent Ease” described in this stanza (1.15.127) is conducive to virtue, to a relinquishing of focus on personal gain and a kindness toward other people similar to Keats’s disinterestedness. Indolence in Thomson’s poem also fosters a free flow of ideas and poetic composition. One of the most popular activities in the Castle is “indulg[ing] the Muse” (1.18.156), and the figure who represents Thomson is said to “[Pour] forth his unpremeditated Strain” as he rambles through the countryside (1.68.607). Stanzas 40-41 in Canto 1 describe the celestial music produced by “The Harp of Æolus,” that symbol of the poet as a responsive instrument for nature to play upon that became popular with Romantic poets such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and others (see Abrams). The concepts expressed in Thomson’s poem have parallels with Keats’s various statements claiming that a body and mind at ease and open to all thoughts and sensations is a state fruitful to creativity, to the pursuit of truths “proved upon the pulses,” and to a suspension of ego that inspires benevolence.

Among the poems written in the next few months, the one that may appear most indebted to the 19 March 1819 entry is the “Ode on Indolence,” which re-enacts the scenario Keats describes in the letter when he says that “Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness of countenance as they pass by me: they seem rather like three figures on a greek vase” (Letters 2: 79). In the “Ode on Indolence,” the speaker similarly has a vision of “three figures,” identified as Love, Ambition, and “my demon Poesy,” who pass by him “like figures on a marble urn” and entice him to follow them (1, 5, 30). The speaker resists their appeal, however, and is content to remain enveloped in “The blissful cloud of summer-indolence,” in which “Pain had no sting, and pleasure’s wreath no flower” (16, 18), a passage that recalls the statement in Keats’s letter that “pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable frown” (Letters 2: 78-79). In one important respect, however, the experience recounted in the ode is quite different from that of 19 March 1819. Instead of remaining in a state in which feelings and thoughts are suppressed, in the letter Keats allows his mind to become “a thoroughfare for all thoughts” and for the emotions that trigger them. For all that he appears at ease, the speaker in “Ode on Indolence” may actually be inhibited by defense mechanisms. Grant Scott believes the figures of Poetry, Ambition, and Love are associated for Keats with women and femininity and that the speaker of “Indolence” rejects them and thus aborts the mental journey on which they would have led him from a deep-seated fear of emasculation (96-118).

The ode that most resembles Keats’s 19 March reflections, I argue, is “Ode to a Nightingale,” which begins with the speaker in a drowsy, drugged-like state, whereupon an external impression (bird song in the ode, corresponding to Haslam’s note in the letter) sets off a meditation revolving around central questions about human suffering and mortality as well as the nature and value of poetry and the imagination. In the ode, as in the letter, the speaker’s mind freely entertains all thoughts, even those that are unwelcome and that challenge his initial assumptions (such as that the nightingale inhabits a timeless realm divorced from pain and loss that is preferable to his human condition). As in the letter too, the speaker in the Nightingale ode reaches no settled conclusions by the end of the poem (“Do I wake or sleep?”), but one can say that he has advanced in self-awareness, just as the one virtue or accomplishment Keats claims for himself in the letter is that he “strive[s]—to know [him]self” (Letters 2: 81). 

In this section of Keats’s journal letter, as in “Ode to a Nightingale” and other of his most memorable poems, we witness negative capability in action, the condition of passive receptivity to emotions, sensations, and thoughts that Keats describes and celebrates under various names, including in this letter “languor” or, as he corrects himself in self-deprecating fashion, “Laziness” (2: 78). Despite his playful mockery of his “temper indolent and supremely careless,” the letter goes on to demonstrate the value of that condition, as Keats engages in serious and searching reflections enabled by his bodily and mental ease. Following this letter, Keats’s unproductive period was at an end. He returned to Hyperion until he made the firm decision to abandon it (see Bate 466-67; Motion 360-61); then came “La Belle Dames sans Merci,” the odes, and in the course of the summer and fall the other remarkable poems of his annus mirabilis. “Delicious, diligent Indolence” indeed.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. “The Correspondent Breeze: A Romantic Metaphor.” 1957. English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by M. H. Abrams, 2nd ed., Oxford UP, 1975, pp. 37-54.

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Harvard UP, 1964.

Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Harvest-Harcourt, 1999.

Goellnicht, Donald C. The Poet-Physician: Keats and Medical Science. U of Pittsburgh P, 1984.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Edited by Hyder E. Rollins, 2nd ed., 2 vols., Harvard UP, 1965.

—. The Poems of John Keats. Edited by Jack Stillinger, Harvard UP, 1978.

Motion, Andrew. Keats. U of Chicago P, 1997.

Richardson, Alan. British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind. Cambridge UP, 2001.

Scott, Grant F. The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts. UP of New England, 1994.

Thomson, James. Liberty, The Castle of Indolence, and Other Poems. Edited with Introduction and Commentary by James Sambrook, Clarendon P, 1986.

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