One could trade favorite passages from Keats’ letters for a lifetime without risk of flagging enthusiasm or exhausting the lode, as Nige and I appear to be doing. (And enjoy how Nige lets Keats comment by not commenting on Kay Ryan.) Keats’ genius for poetry and prose is almost indecent, an affront to journeymen, especially coming from a man who died at age twenty-five. Here’s Nige on the letters:
“That's the joy - one of the joys - of Keats's letters. You never know what's coming next, as he slides and swerves from sense to nonsense, from his inner to his outer life, from cod Latin to a few dismissive words that suddenly introduce, in this case, his last great poem, the Ode to Autumn. There's an added frisson here, as his throwaway remarks on bowing foreshadow that heartbreaking last farewell, a little over a year later: 'I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow...'”
As Nige says, and as might be said of the great essayists (Lamb, Hazlitt), “You never know what’s coming next.” Here’s an example, from March 19, 1819, a Friday (it’s nice to know such things). The poet writes to his brother and sister-in-law, George and Georgiana Keats:
“Yesterday I got a black eye - the first time I took a Cricket bat. [Charles] Brown who is always one's friend in a disaster applied a leech to the eyelid, and there is no inflammation this morning though the ball hit me torn on the sight - 'twas a white ball. I am glad it was not a clout. This is the second black eye I have had since leaving school - during all my school days I never had one at all - we must eat a peck before we die…”
The anecdote is antidote to the libelous legend of Keats the ethereal wraith. He’s twenty-three, already infected with the bacillus that will kill him in less than two years, but two months away from writing the great odes. Here’s a man who takes a cricket bat in the eye, submits to leeching without complaint and concludes before moving on to his next digression, “we must eat a peck before we die…” – followed by:
“-- This morning I am in a sort of temper indolent and supremely careless: I long after a stanza or two of Thompson's Castle of indolence. My passions are all asleep from my having slumbered till nearly eleven and weakened the animal fibre all over me to a delightful sensation about three degrees on this side of faintness - if I had teeth of pearl and the breath of lillies I should call it langour - but as I am - especially as I have a black eye - I must call it Laziness. In this state of effeminacy the fibres of the brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body, and to such a happy degree that pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable frown.”
Stout fellow. Keep in mind his youth.
“Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness of counteance as they pass by me: they seem rather like three figures on a greek vase [!] - a Man and two women whom no one but myself could distinguish in their disguisement. This is the only happiness; and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind.”
Keats was apprenticed to a surgeon at age sixteen. What follows is a heartfelt application of “Negative Capability”:
“I have this moment received a note from [William] Haslam in which he expects the death of his Father - who has been for some time in a state of insensibility - his mother bears up he says very well - I shall go to town tomorrow to see him. This is the world - thus we cannot expect to give way many hours to pleasure - Circumstances are like Clouds continually gathering and bursting - While we are laughing the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events - while we are laughing it sprouts it grows and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck - Even so we have leisure to reason on the misfortunes of our friends; our own touch us too nearly for words. Very few men have ever arrived at a complete disinterestedness of Mind: very few have been influenced by a pure desire of the benefit of others - in the greater part of the Benefactors to Humanity some meretricious motive has sullied their greatness - some melodramatic scenery has fascinated them - From the manner in which I feel Haslam's misfortune I perceive how far I am from any humble standard of disinterestedness - Yet this feeling ought to be carried to its highest pitch as there is no fear of its ever injuring Society - which it would do I fear pushed to an extremity - For in wild nature the Hawk would loose his Breakfast of Robins and the Robin his of Worms - the Lion must starve as well as the swallow. The greater part of Men make their way with the same instinctiveness, the same unwandering eye from their purposes, the same animal eagerness as the Hawk. The Hawk wants a Mate, so does the Man - look at them both they set about it and procure one in the same manner. They want both a nest and they both set about one in the same manner - The noble animal Man for his amusement smokes his pipe - the Hawk balances about the Clouds - that is the only difference of their leisures. This it is that makes the Amusement of Life - to a speculative Mind.”
Knowing what we know, and longing for what might have been, the words are heartbreaking.
“I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a Stoat or a fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass - the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it. I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along - to what? the Creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it. But then, as Wordsworth says, `we have all one human heart’ - there is an ellectric fire in human nature tending to purify - so that among these human creatures there is continually some birth of new heroism. The pity is that we must wonder at it: as we should at finding a pearl in rubbish.”
One is tempted to go on transcribing the words without pause, to look at the reader and point at the words and say, “See, it’s all here. Here is a man.” His humility, his human witness, is appalling. Imagine, without the braggadocio, Whitman’s “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.”