Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1429
The letters of John Keats begin in 1816 and end with his death in 1821. They are very much a personal record, so much so that their publication in the nineteenth century occasioned notable critical hostility. The Victorians were shocked by these letters. Men like Matthew Arnold and even Algernon Swinburne stated that they were too emotional, and should not be presented to public view. Modern criticism has taken a completely different viewpoint; the love letters are acknowledged to be among the greatest of their kind and the passages on criticism are now thought to be major documents of Romantic aesthetics.
The correspondents of Keats were Benjamin Bailey 1791-1853 a friend to whom Keats addressed a number of letters with matters of importance from a critical point of view; Fanny Brawne (1800-1865), the subject of the famous love letters; Charles Armitage Brown (1786-1842), himself a writer; Charles Wentworth Dilke (1789-1864), a generous friend and admirer of the poet; Charles Cowden Clarke (1787-1877), an early friend and literary influence; William Haslam (1795-1851), a school-fellow friend and a financial supporter of Keats; Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846), a painter much admired by the poet; Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), essayist and an early influence on Keats and other writers of the time; Fanny Keats (1803-1889), sister of the poet; George Keats (1797-1841), a brother; Joseph Severn (1793-1879), the poet and diplomat in whose arms Keats died; and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), an admirer of his brother poet.
Throughout the letters there are many references to the great men who created the literature of England. Keats, although not formally educated in literary studies, was conscious of his heritage as a writer. One of the great themes of these letters is therefore English literature itself, and Keats’s relationship to it. He mentions the names of Shakespeare and Milton often, and he continually tries to orient his own attitudes and work toward the great works of the past. In writing to his brother he goes through a whole catalogue of poets and essayists, in the process showing his strong sense of belonging to a community of the literate. He reveals that he reads matter outside what might be thought of as the range of poetry: the works of Voltaire, Gibbon, and Rabelais. In addition to these he reveals that he is interested in and indeed familiar with the work of Swift among the older writers, and with the whole spectrum of literature in his century: Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Hunt, Scott, and Hazlitt. Keats mentions these men and others often, and generally he reveals the operation of a strong critical sense. He tries not only to understand what these writers represent, but in what ways he himself can come to terms with them as a writer.
Shakespeare is certainly one of the great to whom his letters make important reference. In a significant letter of 1818 he states that he can read and understand Shakespeare “to his depths.” The importance of Shakespeare to Keats was profound; he classified him as among those ultimate realities of life, like the existence of the sun and stars themselves.
If the letters have a good deal to say about Keats’ vocation, they have perhaps even more to say about his feelings. The letters to Fanny Brawne express many things: perhaps the most constant themes are the depth of his love, his feelings of inadequacy in that love, and the sense he attains of the meaning this love has in establishing new conditions for his existence. Keats admits that his contemplation of Fanny prevents his obsessive preoccupation with himself: with his ego, his work, and, ultimately, with his death. The luxuries over which he broods are, he says, the beauty of this woman and the hour of his death. The letters are not full of elaborate, reasoned, and eloquent statement, but give the appearance of the irresistible, disordered, and even hasty expression of deep feelings. They move very rapidly from expressions of joy to those of sadness, from talk of self to discussion of things more abstract. There is a good deal of news in these letters, even of gossip. Keats’s own phrase describing his state is that of “uneasy spirits,” and the letters convey these feelings directly and forcefully. There is a strong element of consciousness in these letters. Keats strives to create for the object of these letters the tone and appearance of the world through which he moves, and of the things which he experiences.
The letters to his friends reveal a strong sense of the obligations of friendship. It is one of the great topics to which he returns again and again. He asks forgiveness time after time for putting the demands of art ahead of those of friendship, and he states the impossibility of rationally dividing himself between the art of writing and that of friendship. He writes, with some pride, that he is glad not to be a burden to his friends. Yet, increasingly as the time of his death approached, he did become dependent on them for financial aid and for comfort of a less material kind. That they responded to his need is to their lasting honor.
When Keats writes about his friendships he continually takes a conciliatory and even humble tone. He begins by asking whether he can, in fact, allow himself to intrude upon his friends to the extent of imposing his problems, even his sense of self, upon them. Yet when Keats writes of his art there is a difference in tone. He has a firm conviction of the essential rightness of criticism and, even when writing about Milton and other figures in the Pantheon of letters, he is honest about what he thinks are their failings. He believes, for example, that in many ways Wordsworth is to be preferred to Milton, because the former supplies a sense of “the human heart.” Yet, to balance and give equal critical judgment, he adds that Milton was a much better thinker. In commenting on his own dedication to writing he said very strongly that he preferred his own criticism to that of others. Society mattered very little to him, and its opinions of art even less.
The letters have far more variety in them than the textbooks mention. They are in effect a calendar of events for Keats, in which he brings to his own mind and that of his correspondent the nature of those things which have affected his train of thought. They are in a sense both journals and letters, full of references to the dramas he has seen and the opinions he has formed about them; about the books he has read and the comparisons he has drawn from them; about the people he has met, and the way their characters have engaged him. Perhaps the outstanding trait of these letters is simply their universality: one letter to his brother, for example, covers everything from Freemasonry to fairy tales, and it is written in lively and expressive metaphors drawn from all the experiences of life. In fact, the letters are a kind of factory of language in that they reveal the same kind of experimentation with the possibilities of language as do the poems.
Throughout the letters Keats refuses to deceive himself. He does not hide the meaning of his brother’s symptoms, and he acknowledges that this fatal sickness has its own place in the scheme of things. Perhaps the most famous letters deal with his awareness of his own approaching death; their rigorous honesty and insight are, one grants, unique. His wishes for death every day, a letter of 1820 admits, yet he wishes too that the pains of life might continue because they may be all he has. With almost scientific objectivity he considers the thought of his death, but wastes very small self-pity on it. As in most of his earlier letters, those of his later life are centered not on the problem of the end of things but on their creation. The work must continue, and it must endure.
A summary of the meaning of the letters must take account of the complexity of their response to life. They are chronicles as well as criticisms, and they require attention to details as well as emotional responses in their readers. Keats himself remarked that he may not have left anything immortal behind him, except the memories of his friends. He was wrong in his belief and statement. But he was right when he intimates that his friendships, of which his letters are the concrete expression, were themselves of tremendous importance.
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