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).
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.