Letter #51: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 February 1818

A remarkable treat for you today: one of the KLP’s favorite letters of 1818, maybe even top 10 all-time! It’s another letter to Reynolds, following up on one just a few days ago. And as with that one, today Keats shares some poems with his fellow poet friend. But before the poems we encounter Keats’s response to two sonnets Reynolds had sent to him. The metaphor he uses to describe reading them leads into one of the more hilariously weird moments in the correspondence, which we extract for your enjoyment here:

I thank you for your dish of Filberts–Would I could get a basket of them by way of desert every day for the sum of two pence. Would we were a sort of etherial Pigs, & turn’d loose to feed upon spiritual Mast & Acorns–which would be merely being a squirrel & feed upon filberts for what is a squirrel but an airy pig, or a filbert but a sort of archangelical acorn.

As Keats often does so well, he pivots from this charming bit of whimsy to serious contemplation about the significance of poetry. (Perhaps we should just say the silly and the whimsical are often very serious for Keats.) This line of thinking takes Keats to Wordsworth and the problems of “poetry that has a palpable design upon us.” It’s a remarkable moment in which Keats forcefully articulates his notion of how poetry should work and what it should do. And it continues his distancing of himself from Wordsworth, from Hunt, and from other modern writers (Keats takes a jab at Byron a bit later in the letter).

Our response to today’s letter comes from Seth Abramson, who situates Keats’s thinking on the role of poetry by looking forward to how similar debates have played out, especially in the American context, over the last two hundred years. It’s an essay you won’t want to miss. Abramson gives a tour de force reading of the letter while also raising the crucial question of how poetry and poets can and should operate in the world of 2018. He claims that Keats arrives in this letter at something like the realization that “We must learn poetry to exceed it.” The KLP is pleased to play even one small part in that educational process by putting Keats and his work in conversation with writers and thinkers like Abramson, alongside the rest of us still trying to make sense of the world two hundred years on.

For the text of the letter, head over to the 1895 Harry Buxton Forman edition, or check out the images of the Richard Woodhouse transcripts below.

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 3 Feb 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 3 Feb 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 3 Feb 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

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