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...
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