John Hamilton Reynolds sent his friend John Keats two forgettable sonnets about Robin Hood (here and here), and Keats replied with memorable and deeply tactful wit:
“I thank you for your dish of Filberts — would I could get a basket of them by way of dessert every day for the sum of twopence. Would we were a sort of ethereal Pigs, and turned loose to feed upon spiritual Mast and Acorns — which would be merely being a squirrel and feeding upon filberts, for what is a squirrel but an airy pig, or a filbert but a sort of archangelical acorn?”
With Dr. Johnson, Keats is one of literature’s great exemplars of friendship–cultivating and keeping friends, and being one. After the nutty introduction, Keats braves a criticism. He proposes an excision and says: “We must cut this, and not be rattlesnaked into any more of the like.” Note the “we.” Yes, we should read our contemporaries (even Wordsworth), he agrees:
“But, for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist? Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself.”
Excellent advice, in poetry and the rest of life. Too many bully us with their Philosophy, or mere opinions. When we want to hear a sermon, we go to church. Write, don’t preach. Keats continues:
“We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, and, if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself — but with its subject. How beautiful are the retired flowers! — how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway, crying out, `Admire me, I am a violet! Dote upon me, I am a primrose!’”
Primping poets are indecent. In Keats’ letter we hear a young poet -- twenty-two, with three years left – claiming his turf, warning away the competition, confident (mostly) at last. Keats, in turn, sends Reynolds two of his poems in the “Spirit of Outlawry,” he says. “Your letter and its sonnets gave me more pleasure than will the Fourth Book of Childe Harold and the whole of anybody’s life and opinions. In return for your Dish of Filberts, I have gathered a few Catkins, I hope they’ll look pretty.”
Keats wrote his letter to Reynolds two-hundred years ago today, on Feb. 3, 1818.