J.B. Priestley in Literature and Western Man (1960) forthrightly confirms what I’ve often suspected. He singles out the odes and some of the sonnets as Keats’ chief achievement in verse, but goes on to write:
“…before his last fatal illness he developed and matured so quickly, adding to his poetry the high spirits, good sense, flashes of unusual insight, of his letters, that potentially he seems the greatest of these [English Romantic] poets, promising to be master of almost any form of literature.”
“High spirits” is just right. We don’t expect Keats to be funny or the life of the party, and generally in the poems he’s not, but in the “Negative Capability” letter of Dec. 22, 1817, to his brothers Tom and George, he asserts “how much superior humour is to wit in respect to enjoyment.” Read the letter written in Dumsfires, Scotland, July 2, 3 and 5, 1818, to his fifteen-year-old sister Fanny. Included are nearly four pages of rhyming nonsense verse, composed for a little sister who missed her big brother:
“There was a naughty boy
And a naughty boy was he
For nothing would he do
But scribble poetry—"
Then, in mock apology, Keats writes:
“My dear Fanny, I am ashamed of writing you such stuff, nor would I if it were not for being tired after my day's walking, and ready to tumble into bed so fatigued that when I am asleep you might sew my nose to my great toe and trundle me round the town like a Hoop without waking me. Then I get so hungry a Ham goes but a very little way and fowls are like Larks to me--A Batch of Bread I make no more ado with than a sheet of parliament; and I can eat a Bull's head as easily as I used to do Bull's eyes. I take a whole string of Pork Sausages down as easily as a Pen'orth of Lady's fingers. Ah dear I must soon be contented with an acre or two of oaten cake a hogshead of Milk and a Clothes-basket of Eggs morning noon and night when I get among the Highlanders.”
In a blindfold test, detractors and admirers alike might fail to identify the author. Just two weeks earlier, already in Scotland, Keats writes to his brother Tom, who is dying of the tuberculosis that will have killed both brothers in less than three years:
“What astonishes me more than any thing is the tone, the coloring, the slate, the stone, the moss, the rock-weed; or, if I may so say, the intellect, the countenance of such places. The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance.”
This tonal mastery of prose substantiates what Priestley suggests:
“He is too often considered in terms of his tragi-comic love-affair, his tuberculosis, his melancholy flight to Italy, his grave in Rome, as if he were a sentimental schoolgirl’s idea of a romantic poet. But the poetry itself, his letters, his life in its factual details, show us a very different sort of man, immense if shadowy in his promise, solid and enduring in his performance, brief though it was.”
Keats was born on this date, Oct. 31, in 1795, and died Feb. 23, 1821, age twenty-five.