Letter #94: To James Augustus Hessey, 8 October 1818

If you’re familiar with the story of Keats and his early reception, you’re no doubt aware of those dastardly reviewers over at Blackwood’s and the Quarterly Review (and elsewhere) who didn’t take too kindly to his poetry. Well, the worst of the worst hit right around this time (mid- to late-1818). And Keats certainly knew about the scuttlebutt, in part because his publishers kept him apprised of the latest developments. Today’s letter to Hessey (of the publishing firm, Taylor and Hessey–publishers of Endymion and Keats’s 1820 volume) is in response to Hessey sending a clipping from the Morning Chronicle on 3 October, which included a letter from “J. S.” defending Keats in the wake of the nasty review by John Wilson Croker in the Quarterly (dated April 1818, but the issue didn’t actually appear until September). J. S. was probably John Scott, later the editor of the London Magazine (published by Taylor and Hessey), in which Scott continued his war of words against Tory periodicals like Blackwood’s and the Quarterly. That war of words turned to one of bullets when Scott died from wounds suffered in a duel with John Gibson Lockhart (a writer for Blackwood’s) in early 1821. The reviewing game was a dangerous one!

Keats, though, seemed to have taken a less violent approach. We see in today’s letter how he uses the opportunity of the negative reviews to ponder the nature of his own creative process. Yes, there’s certainly a bit of bluster in his declarations that he cares not about such things. But as much as he must have felt the sting of disapproval, it does seem that Keats used those feelings to fuel his future work. And as we’ll see in a few weeks, Keats continued to refine his ideas about creativity–one of his most notable statements about the nature of poetry, poetic process, and the identity of the poet appears in his letter to Richard Woodhouse at the end of October 1818.

For today’s letter, we have a collaborative creative response from Kacie Wills and Erica Hayes. They used Keats’s letter, along with a few other texts which consider the nature of creativity, to construct a prose-poem enactment of their own processing of, as they write, “how Keats’s ideas about creativity, failure, and negative capability have been adapted over time.” We hope you enjoy!

The text of today’s letter can be read via Forman’s 1895 edition. And images below come courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library, which owns the only source for this letter: a transcript by Richard Woodhouse.

Page 1 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 8 October 1818 letter to James Augustus Hessey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Woodhouse’s transcript of Keats’s 8 October 1818 letter to James Augustus Hessey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

 

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