Today the KLP offers quite the treat for your enjoyment: two letters from Keats and a new episode of This Week in Keats! But more important than the latest TWiK episode (which is VERY important, of course), is that these two letters contain some premium Keats. Especially in this first letter to Benjamin Bailey–which Keats wrote early on November 22, after having arrived at Dorking, about twenty miles south of the city–we find several of Keats’s most famous epistolary moments.
First it’s worth noting that Keats himself, at several different points in his letters, expresses admiration for the power of “fine Phrases” which, as he tells Bailey in August 1819, he “look[s] upon . . . like a lover.” As we’ll see in today’s second letter, to John Hamilton Reynolds, Keats is admiring some of Shakespeare’s lovely turns of phrase today. But he is also creating several of his own. In the space of just a few sentences to Bailey, Keats writes the following: “the holiness of the Heart’s affections,” “What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth,” “The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream–he awoke and found it truth,” and “O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” And that doesn’t even count other highlights like the distinction between “Men of Genius” and “Men of Power,” the notion of the afterlife consisting of the “redigestion of our most ethereal Musings on Earth,” and Keats’s striking reverie: “if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince and pick about the Gravel.”
One way to make sense of this letter–and it’s a way that Brian Rejack and Mike Theune discuss in the latest episode of This Week in Keats–is to read it as anticipating the negative capability letter, which arrives at the end of December this year. Clearly at this point in his poetic development, Keats is thinking through the imagination, the particular kinds of mental characteristics necessary for poetry, and the ramifications the imaginative, poetic character has on notions of identity. These issues (among others) will continue to occupy Keats’s attention in his letters from here on out. What’s remarkable about today’s letter is how rich it is even at this early moment. Sure, more impressive things are to come, but even now–at this moment when Keats is just finishing his first real poetic challenge (Endymion)–this letter demonstrates remarkable depth of thinking about poetry and why it matters.
For a reading edition of the text, we direct you to one of our usual 19th-century editions, the one-volume text edited by Harry Buxton Forman in 1895. We also have the MS from Harvard’s Houghton Library. Like the 8 October 1817 letter to Bailey, this one was given by Bailey to John Taylor after Keats’s death and remained in the Taylor family until it was sold at auction in 1903 (to Bernard Quaritch, who sold it to Amy Lowell, who bequeathed it to Harvard). One odd feature of the MS: since Keats wrote a bit too much (even crossing all of the first page and one line on the second), he enclosed the folded letter in a second sheet of paper, on which he wrote the address on one side, and the instructions to “Direct Burford Bridge / near dorking” on the other. It’s a carelessness toward the material dimensions of the page which belies the care that seems to have gone into his construction of memorable phrases. But then again, one of the great things about the letters is how they contain such amazing achievements which emerge out of the contingencies of lived moments.