Finding Reconciliations and the Value of Art in John Keats’s Epistle-Poems
After his death at the tender age of twenty-five, English poet John Keats left behind a legacy of hundreds of letters in addition to his published poems. These letters to family and friends feature a few common recipients, including his brothers Tom and George, his sister Fanny, his last love Fanny Brawne, and his good friend Reynolds, among others. One remarkable feature of these letters is the inclusion of poetry in them. This poetry is anything from completed pieces to merely fragmentary lines. Scholar Grant Scott writes, in his introduction to the Selected Poems of John Keats, “Perhaps what is most surprising and delightful about Keats’s letters, especially next to the polished, anthology-ready gems of his poetry, is their unpredictability…The proximity of the mundane and the profound leads to another salient feature of Keats’s letters: their seamless integration of everyday life with the life of the mind”. The towering twentieth-century poet T. S. Eliot said, of Keats’s letters, “[they] are what letters ought to be; the fine things come in unexpectedly, neither introduced nor shown out, but between trifle and trifle”.
The “seamless integration” recognized by Scott is a unique reconciliation which runs, through multiple levels, throughout all of Keats’s poetry, but especially the poetry found in his letters. The incorporation of poetry into Keats’s letters—which are written in prose—unconsciously brings together several layers of seemingly opposed forces. By inserting verse into his prose letters, Keats brings together first stillness and movement, and then individuality and otherness, and finally, the understanding of art as both a personal pursuit and a public presentation. Keats’s general purposes in including poems in his letters are practical: he provides himself with an opportunity to critique his own work, he shares his new and currently present ideas with his family and friends, and finds an expressive outlet which functions differently than prose. Therefore, rather than examining the roles these poems were intended to perform, it is now more interesting to at what roles these poems have come to play.
By looking at a work which utilizes a letter form within a poem—or, depending on perspective, a poetic form within a letter—the layered process of reconciling oppositions can be better understood. While all the answers to the questions of what roles embedded verses have come to play cannot be completely addressed by looking at one poem alone, the insights this one work lends will inevitably shed light on larger, connected answers regarding Keats’s letter-poetry in general.
One poem which meets the above criteria is found in a letter to Keats’s friend J. H. Reynolds, written on March 25 of 1818. Keats met Reynolds (1796-1852) in 1816 at the house of a mutual friend; the two fast became close; “of all the company that Keats met at Hampstead, Reynolds seems to have had the most genuine poetic talent, the keenest powers of criticism, and the greatest sympathy with the intellectual interests of his friend. Like Keats, he had been much influenced by Wordsworth…We are not surprised, therefore, to find that when Keats wishes to discuss the profounder problems of life and art his letters are generally addressed to Reynolds”. This poem in the March 25, 1818 letter is precisely concerned with such a large and abstract problem: “If substantiality be the criterion of value, what value can be assigned to mental perceptions?…This questioning receives a special poignancy in Keats’s verse epistle to Reynolds…what troubled him [Keats] most was the inability of the human will to regulate events, and events were unpredictable, cruel, and ineluctable…The idea is expressed through a series of images in the verse epistle to Reynolds, as a statement of the poet’s inner crisis the poem deserves a more searching critical attention than it has so far received”.
Scholar Chatterjee presents a series of paraphrased interpretations of other scholars who have analyzed this epistle-poem thus far. Amy Lowell “considers the poem ‘unconnected’ and thinks that Keats’s purpose was to make a picture solely to amuse his sick friend. (Reynolds was suffering from rheumatic fever.)” Albert Gerard, after analyzing the poem in great detail, believes that “a fundamental aesthetic problem underlies the epistle,” which has to do with accounting for “ ‘disagreeables’ in the products of imagination, in dreams, in art, and in poetry.” Mary Visick puts forth that the poem calls for the “need of reconciling complex imaginative values with natural or with moral philosophy; the poet finally abandons the whole dilemma and seeks to take refuge in ‘new romance.’” Walter Evert asserts that the poem is overall “concerned with the unhappy vagaries of imagination.” All of these three extensive analyses emphasize the tension of unreconciled opposites within the poem. However, scholar W. J. Bates thinks that “it would have disturbed rather than flattered Keats that, long after his death, these lines, like so much of his impromptu verse, were salvaged, printed as ‘poetry,’ and then approached with formal expectations that are wildly irrelevant. Therefore, instead of performing any sort of close analysis of the poem, the ways that its formal qualities contribute to its macro-role in contemplating the presentations of art will be considered instead, in accordance to the aim of this paper. While Chatterjee recognizes that the “clash between the inner and the external world undoubtedly constitutes the theme of this troubled poem; the ramifications of this theme demand close scrutiny”—this paper will focus on the important unreconciled opposites outside of the poem itself.
This epistle-poem is composed of 113 lines told in 56 sets of heroic couplets. (The one out-standing line is line 105, where the end word “moods” does not rhyme with anything, and does not have a paired line, at all.) The poem is rather long for something to be included in a letter; in many other letters Keats will write the majority of his content in prose, before inserting, here and there, sections of verse (usually much shorter than 113 lines long.) This oddity is mitigated by the fact that the poem is essentially the letter. It absorbs the greeting of the letter into its opening line, thus: “Dear Reynolds, as last night I lay in bed,/There came before my eyes that wonted thread.” The quality of the poem, that is, its usage of language, has been critiqued as having “certain obvious lapses in taste, [such as] the meaningless caprice of the opening paragraph with the unnecessary banality of line 11 and the vulgar pronunciation of perhaps as p’raps in line 14, all due in a measure to the rapidity of its production, [but this epistle-poem still] marks a great advance in style and treatment of subject upon the earlier epistles. The heroic couplet is well controlled throughout, enjambment is sparingly and effectively employed, and there are no double endings to the lines”. This rapidity of production is the same reason Bates cited for the unnecessary close readings of this epistle-poem and other epistle-poems like it. Yet despite the validity of such a claim, reading the poem as a less significant product of its more significant context is valuable insofar as it reflects the fleeting and momentary mindset of its author.
The rapidity of this poem’s production is all the more striking when its content is considered. The epistle-poem spends several lines considering a painting. The ending of the letter, written in prose, will be discussed in fuller detail later in this paper; for the time now it is sufficient only to mention that, in it, Keats directs his recipient’s attention, thus: “You know, I am sure, Claude’s Enchanted Castle and I wish you may be pleased with my remembrance of it,” he writes, in prose, after his epistle-poem. The Enchanted Castle (1664) is an oil painting by Baroque English painter Claude Lorrain, illustrating the tale of the princess Psyche and her love affair with the god Cupid. While Psyche features as the prominent, and the only, human subject of the painting, she is dwarfed by the rest of the image, which contains a lush and mystical landscape.
In much of Keats’s poetry, that is, not only this epistle-poem, there is a “tendency…towards an imagery of stillness or repose [that] has been the subject of frequent critical comment”. Scholars have said that “Keats’s imagery is characterized by a ‘sense of power momentarily in its restraint, of massive repose, which yet gives promise of decisive action’”; that there is not simply “absence of motion, ‘but of things poised on the brink of action, their motion briefly arrested and ready to continue.’” Bate argues that Keats’s ideal in poetry is “the dynamic caught in momentary repose.”
In this epistle-poem, in his remembrance of The Enchanted Castle, Keats is not painting an image with his words per se, at least not in the way he does so explicitly in works like “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819). Rather, Keats is performing a sort of ekphrasis, a linguistic illustration of an artwork. Nevertheless, the literal anchoring of this epistle-poem in the remembrance of a single, static painting is a definite way for Keats to express this quality of stillness which permeates his corpus. “His images endow silence with a certain being of its own. It is no mere negation of sound or noise, but a presence to be felt, and almost heard. Keats conveys experience in complex and paradoxical personifications,” writes Swaminathan in The Still Image in Keats’s Poetry, in a return to the paradoxical or opposed natures of the elements in Keats’s works. The Enchanted Castle inspired the completed poem “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819), one of Keats’s most beloved, acclaimed, and studied poems, but these related lines in a single letter also contain reference to this painting offer up a different significance. Letters are something which inherently involve movement and transition—and, it might even be said—lack of stillness. The fact that this letter which will be transported from Keats to his friend, and will be removed from its author or creator, goes against the tendency towards stillness found in its verse content. Yet it is the content of this epistle-poem, and the contents of its author’s life which created it, that necessitate this stillness. Points of immense gravity lie in Keats’s own life during the composition of this letter. His dear brother Tom is deathly ill with tuberculosis, something which weighs heavily on Keats’s heart, especially after having nursed his mother on her deathbed during his adolescence. In line 110 of the epistle-poem, he explicit mentions his daily concerns for his brother: “Do you get health—and Tom the same—I’ll dance,/And from detested moods in new Romance/Take refuge.” Furthermore, by inserting certain lines of still imagery into this dynamic poem, and then into this letter, which is a vehicle of motion—an item of delivery and of communication—Keats instills a reverence into his personal letters which extends beyond the simple presence of verses in these correspondences.
Moving forward from the reconciliation between stillness and movement is the way that this epistle-poem finds a balance between the value of the individual and the value of the other. The prominence of reconciliation is not completely new to theoretical work on Keats; scholar Robert Gittings describes Keats’s letters as making up the body of a “spiritual journal,” and that they were not for specific others as much as they were for “synthesis”. Despite this immediate gravitation towards synthesis, Keats’s letters do put due importance on the individuality of the recipient. His letters to different members of his family and his different friends vary in tone and style, and perhaps most significantly in the poetry that they contain. For example, his poems to his brother George and his wife Georgiana contain some of the longest, brightest, and most completed lines in his letters; his tone, there, is also more colloquial. His tone with his friends changes from person to person, whether it is “ambitious with Haydon” or “reflective and philosophical with Bailey and Reynolds” or “paternal with his sister, Fanny”. Furthermore, the epistle-poem of March 25, 1818 was composed only for Reynolds: Keats specifies, after his lines end, that he hopes to have cheered up the sick Reynolds, and chose the subject of The Enchanted Castle because he thought Reynolds would appreciate it.
The differentiation, as well as the bringing together, of the individual and the other, inevitably brings up the concern of personal versus public consumption. This is of especial concern to artists. In another letter to Reynolds, written on April 10, 1818, Keats rails that he “never wrote a single line of poetry with the least shadow of public thought”. This is clearly untrue to some degree, as the young poet was lauded by others for his poetic talents, and sought publication, as poetry became his professional career. The “public thought” that Keats is unhappy about here has to do with the opinions of certain critics. Around this time, a mere couple of years before his death which no one at the time foresaw, Keats’s poetry was scathingly criticized by professional literary critics. This criticism only served to worsen his uncertainties about the purpose and the value of art. “Poetry,” he once wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey on March 13, 1818, “may be a mere Jack-a-lanthern to amuse whoever may chance to be struck with its brilliance. The artist ought to be a friend of man—a physician to all men—but how can an artist labour for mortal good and ease the giant agony of the world?”. This, at the very least, demonstrates that Keats clearly kept public opinion in his mind as he composed poetry, because he viewed—even if he doubts this view from time to time—the consumption of art by general others to be a way of healing the brokenness of humanity. Reynolds, the recipient of the 1818 epistle-poem, seemingly also agrees with Keats’s belief in sharing poetry with the world. In a response to the Quarterly Review’s unpleasant review of Keats’s Endymion, Reynolds writes that: “The genius of Mr. Keats is peculiarly classical; and, with the exception of a few faults, which are the natural followers of youth, his imagination and his language have a spirit and intensity which we should in vain look for in half the popular poets of the day…Poetry is a thing of generalities—a wanderer amid persons and things—not a pauser over one thing, or with one person”. Reynolds’s usage of the terms “pauser” and his phrasing of “over one thing, or with one person,” harken back to the unique function of poetry contained in letters, which are sent to other people. The poetry that is contained in Keats’s letters does precisely what Reynolds puts forth as the mission of poetic arts, to wander from person to person and thing to thing. Not only does the epistle-poem blur the lines between individuality in creator and recipient, but it also forms a bridge between the personal mission for creating poetry and the public goal of receiving and consuming and appreciating the works. Just as poetry is an immensely personal process, so it is an immensely public presentation. Because of the aim of the artist in easing “the great agony of the world,” these processes are now one and the same.
In this same protest to the Quarterly Review Reynolds writes: “The manners of the world, the fictions and wonders of other worlds are its [the mind of poets] subjects; not the pleasures of hope, or the pleasures of memory. The true poet confines his imagination to no one thing—this soul is an invisible ode to the passions”. The role of the poet’s mind is to encompass as much of the universe as possible, and the role of the poet is to make sense of these realities into graspable works. “Keats undoubtedly regarded poetry as his vocation in the religious sense of that word,” writes Baker in John Keats and Symbolism. and so “his understanding of the nature of art is organically connected to his understanding of larger issues.” But, as seen earlier, Keats’s understanding of the nature of art wavers. He values and devalues it seemingly in alternation. In his letters, he often uses the prose around his verses to critique his own work. After the poem in the epistle-poem he writes to Reynolds:
My Dear Reynolds,
In hopes of cheering you through a Minute or two I was determined nill-he will-he to send you some lines, so you will excuse the unconnected subject and careless verse. You know, I am sure, Claude’s Enchanted Castle and I wish you may be pleased with my remembrance of it. The Rain is Come on again. I think with me Devonshire stands a very poor chance. I shall damn it up hill and down dale if it keeps up to the average of 6 fine days in three weeks. Let me have better news of you.
Your affectionate friend,
Tom’s Rememberances to you. Remb. us to all—
He asks to be excused for the “unconnected subject” of his poem and the “careless verse.” Keats’s understanding of larger issues does not necessarily further his understanding of the nature of art, although Baker is right in saying that the two are tightly tied together. For example, the larger issues of pain in the world and of human physical inability are reasons for the wavering of Keats’s constantly developing understanding of the value of art. In writing to George on the 19 of March, 1819, after Tom’s death, Keats reveals his pained state of mind: “Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness as they pass by me: they seem rather like three figures on a greek vase—a Man, and two women who no one by myself could distinguish in their disguisement”. Hints of this melancholia can be found in the 1818 epistle-poem as well, in which an upbeat attitude is maintained, but strains of fatalism still shine through; it seems that “beauty itself, whether natural or artistic, seems no more valid than the enchanted castle which is only a delightful illusion”. Keats’s value of art, or of his own art, depends on the larger factors at play in his life, and his “sensibility was [deeply] stirred by the actual. It is true, of course, that in some of his early poems he proposes an escapist view of poetry…Yet even in his abortive tales of chivalry (Calidore, Specimen of an Induction), the grasp of reality is clearly meant to provide the substance of the poetry, and is not an accidental and scarcely welcome intrusion into a pleasant daydream”. The way Keats chooses to grasp his reality determines the way he produces his poems, even as he comments on these poems over and over again, and reshapes them into more complete pieces than the epistle-poems found in his letters. Many of Keats’s letters themselves foreshadow prominent, complete poems to come, as these letters reflect the poet’s current mindset, and his most recent outlook on the world.
The letters, too, show “no embarrassment in mingling serious ideas with bits of idle gossip, light-hearted banter, comments on women and the weather”, even as they include poetry both of Keats’s creation and of others’. “Here the poems are not isolated aesthetic events…so much as natural extensions of his [Keats’s] ordinary existence. Some of Keats’s most supple and original sonnets grow organically out of specific contexts, reflecting both the patterns of his thought at the moment of writing and the interest of individual correspondents,” writes scholar Grant Scott, “The happy marriage of poetry and prose in the letters tells us that for Keats, poetry was not a job or a career but a necessity, like breathing.” The marriage of poetry and prose is not the only union that takes place. Like generations, further reconciliations take place that involve the movement of letters as items of correspondence, and the natural functions of letter-writing; the self-assessment that is evident in Keats’s epistle-poems and his general contemplations about the value of art are also brought to the surface. In bringing prose together with poetry, regular correspondences with verse; in binding together artificial profession with organic breathing; Keats finds ultimate resolution by bringing life together with writing about life.
 Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats. Edited by Grant F. Scott. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), xxii.
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Schwartz, Lewis M. Keats Reviewed by His Contemporaries: A Collection of Notices for the Years 1816-1821. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1973.
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After his death at the tender age of twenty-five, English poet John Keats left behind a legacy of hundreds of letters in addition to his published poems. These letters to […]