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John Keats's Passionate, Lusty Letters Are the Key to His Poems

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No publication on Keats could be more acceptable just now than a complete edition of his letters. It was high time for someone to include in a definitive edition the correspondence discovered in recent years, and there is no one who could have done this more appropriately than the present editor, a son of Harry Buxton Forman. For over forty years the elder Mr. Forman worked at the task of making all evidence on Keats available by collecting new materials, revising the old in the light of fresh discoveries and publishing and republishing the letters and poems in notable standard editions. It was Mr. Forman who first made public the poet’s delightfully human letters to his sister Fanny, and who had the courage to print, in the face of considerable Victorian criticism, the love letters to Fanny Brawne. This editor never considered his work finished, and when he died in 1917 he left a quantity of revised and new materials designed for still further editions. Maurice Buxton Forman has gone on from where his father left off, and, making use of all possible new data, has been able to give us the most complete and valuable printing of the letters up to this time.

Keats wrote remarkable letters. Shelley once reminded young Henry Reveley of a bargain they had made. “You are to write me uncorrected letters, just as the words come,” he said; “I like coin from the mint, though it may be a little rough at the edges.” Keats’s letters were like this, struck fresh from a glowing mind, with no blemish of affectation or reserve. Their great value is that they give us so much authentic knowledge of the life and sensations of a man who, born to be a poet, with a tendency to dwell apart in imaginative realms of his own, was yet a very wise and alert citizen of the everyday world. To read these letters for the first time is to discover a new Keats: a witty, chatty, sensitive human being, a solicitous and loyal friend and brother, a sympathetic observer of men and the world about him, a sagely philosophic commentator on his own poetry, on questions of his art, and on some of the vexing, unsolved problems of existence. They show him, too, a lover, who, tormented with doubts and, in the end, with the certainties of unfulfilled passion, wrote a language of anguish at times almost too painful to be borne. In addition, the letters, themselves often rising to pure poetry, give continual new meaning to the poems. What Keats puts into verse, he was forever writing about to his friends, and many a hard passage in the poetry is made understandable through some lucid unpremeditated utterance in prose.

When the Fanny Brawne correspondence was first published, Matthew Arnold declared that these letters read like the love letters of a surgeon’s apprentice, and Coventry Patmore charged that there was nothing in them which deserved “a much better name than lust,” that there was no trace of “the singing robes of love” which should characterize the expression of such feelings by a “man of splendid imagination like Keats.” There is, however, something quite above vulgarity and lust in these letters. One thing they show is that with Keats love and beauty are closely related. “Why may I not speak of your Beauty,” he wrote, “since without that I could never have loved you?—I cannot conceive any beginning of such love as I have for you but Beauty.” And again, “All my thoughts, my unhappiest days and nights, have, I find, not at all cured me of my love of Beauty, but made it so intense that I am miserable that you are not with me.” At other times Keats writes to Miss Brawne things less loverlike, but full of suggestion as to the kind of man he was:

I was alone for a couple of months while Brown went gadding over the country with his ancient knapsack. Now I like his society as well as any Man’s, yet regretted his return—it broke in upon me like a Thunderbolt. I have got in a dream among my Books—really luxuriating in a solitude and silence you alone should have disturb’d.

Self-revealing passages like this are found throughout the letters. It would be pleasant to quote form them at length, but two or three extracts must suffice. An excellent bit of self-criticism, indicative of the trend of Keats’s creative mind in early 1818, occurs in a newly published letter to Haydon:

In Endymion I think you may have many bits of the deep and sentimental cast—the nature of Hyperion will lead me to treat it in a more naked and grecian Manner—and the march of passion and endeavor will be undeviating—and one great contrast between them will be—that the Hero of the written tale being mortal is led on, like Buonaparte, by circumstances; whereas the Apollo in Hyperion—being a fore-seeing God will shape his actions like one.

Another passage, from a new fragment (there are in this edition 230 letters and parts of letters as against the former total of 217), the inside sheet of a letter to Bailey, now recovered “through help from America” after being lost for over a hundred years, is of particular interest as corroborating other evidence in Keats of anti-aristocratic leanings and intense hatred of injustice. Keats is writing to his friend Bailey in response to news of some wrong at the hands of no less a person than the Bishop of Lincoln. The tone is one of vigorous invective:

It must be shocking to find in a sacred Profession such barefaced oppression and impertinence—The Stations and Grandeurs of the World have taken it into their heads that they cannot commit themselves towards an inferior in rank—but is not the impertinence from one above to one below more wickedly mean than from the low to the high? There is something so nauseous in self-willed yawning impudence in the shape of conscience—it sink the Bishop of Lincoln into a smashed frog putrefying: that a rebel against common decency should escape the Pillory! That a mitre should cover a Man guilty of the most coxcombical, tyrannical and indolent impertinence! I repeat this word for the offense appears to me most especially impertinent—and a very serious return would be the Rod—Yet doth he sit in his Palace. Such is this World—and we live—you have surely in a continual struggle against the suffocation of accidents—we must bear (and my Spleen is mad at the thought thereof) the Proud Mans Contumely.

In a different temper the young poet would have been more philosophic, as when he wrote to Reynolds, “Why don’t you, as I do, look unconcerned at what may be called more particularly Heart-vexations? They never surprise me—lord! a man should have the fine point of his soul taken off to become fit for this world”; or when he remarked to Bailey, “The first thing that strikes me on hearing a Misfortune having befallen another is this—‘Well it cannot be helped—he will have the pleasure of trying the resources of his spirit!’” But Keats was a man of variety in mood and thought. He died with his mind still unsettled about many things which had long been subjects of inner conflict. He was trying hard, however, to understand his world, to know and master himself and to put his great powers to their best uses. In their simple communicative sincerity the letters furnish the best record of this unique poetic life, and we are grateful to Mr. Forman for having placed so fine an edition of them at our disposal.