“I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity; It should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”
Fine is one of those small English words dense with multiple, contradictory meanings. Used colloquially, we’ve reduced it to a flavorless synonym for “nice” or “okay.”
The OED spells out a small dictionary-within-a-dictionary of meanings, from “of good or excellent quality; superior, select” to “free from turbidity.” Closest to Keats’ usage is probably “subtle; minute, precise,” which makes “fine excess” a muted oxymoron, and describes his own best poems, where the language is almost excessive, as in Shakespeare. It teeters on the edge of purple.
The experience Keats describes in the rest of the sentence is rare and precious – when another’s words read like our own, like an old memory, as when Keats writes: “The Poetry of earth is never dead.” “Singularity” implies self-conscious eccentricity, oddness for its own sake, not as the expression of the poet’s sensibility. Keats calls his ideals “axioms,” as in geometry. They are assumed to be true and serve as the premise of all that follows. Later in the letter, Keats is less convincing when he formulates a Romantic article of faith: “But it is easier to think what poetry should be, than to write it - And this leads me to another axiom - That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.” Most good poems are labored over, revised sometimes for years.
The passages quoted are from the letter Keats wrote two-hundred years ago on this date, Feb. 27, to his publisher John Taylor, who was editing Endymion.