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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *