Return to Table of Contents

Return to Tolkien, Volume III


Of the Romantics, Keats in many respects is the most tragically brilliant. Endowed with a formidable intellect but knowing he would die so young from TB, Keats' short time was devoted to living as much as he could, not in a hedonistic sense, but in modes conducive to accepting all paradoxes and opposites, even if his moments on earth did not allow for solutions. He was intelligent enough not know that he could not know but more than surface issues. In one of his letters, Keats compared existence to a mansion with many rooms or chambers, and as the soul--which Keats believed man self-actualized--grew from the chamber of infancy to that of maiden thought, more and more rooms representing facets of reality were there to explore. The adventure of life was to do so.

ASSIGNMENT:Keats wrote a series of letters to his family and friends, expressing views on a wide range of issues, not the least of which were literary, philosophical and moral. Read the excerpts from the letters, and explain what Keats means by the following:

1. Adam's dream and the imagination. (recall Paradise Lost)

2. The metaphor of music and song

3. Negative capability (related to Shakespeare)

4. The mansion and chambers of the mind

5. Keats' opinion of Shakespeare and his fellow Romantics

6. Soul-making and the educational metaphor

7. Keats' view of traditional Christian doctrine on heaven and the after-life

CHECK THIS SITE for additional primary and secondary resources: biography, drafts of poems etc.


Keats wrote a series of letters to his family and friends in which he speculated about whatever interested him, and his interests were vast--the arts, literature, philosophy, medicine. They read like "rough drafts"--they often seem to ramble from one subject to the next, but their brilliance is unmistakable. They were written by a man who had so much of worth to say, but not enought time to say it. Perhaps a clear sign of the author's intellectual integrity was his willingness to admit that he did not know...

The text below is that of the edition of the Letters by IIyder E. Rollins (1958)

I have edited these for our purposes. Some of the original grammar and spelling has been preserved. Keats was not always careful of such matters as he was rushing to get down the content.

The letters cited below have been reprinted in full in THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE, VOLUME 2, 1979.

[to Benjamin Bailey]

[The Authenticity of the Imagination:]

[November 22,1817]

My dear Bailey,

"O I wish I was as certain of the end of all your troubles as that of your momentary start about the authenticity of the Imagination. I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination--What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth'-whether it existed before or not for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty--In a Word, you may know my favorite Speculation by my first Book and the little song I sent in my last--which is a representation from the fancy of tile probable mode of operating in these Matters--The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream--he awoke and found it truth. I am the more zealous in this affair, because I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by conse quitive reasoning--and yet it must be ran it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever when arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections--However it may be, O for a Life of Sensations" rather than of Thoughts! It is "a Vision in the form of Youth" a Shadow of reality to come--and this consideration has further conv[i]nced me for it has come as auxiliary to another favorite Speculation of mine, that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated'-And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation rather than hunger as you do after Truth-- Adam's dream will do here and seems to be a conviction that Imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human Life and its spiritual repetition. But as I was saying--the simple imaginative Mind may ha-e its rewards in the repetition of its own silent Working coming continually on the spirit with a fine suddenness-- to compare great things with small--have you never by being surprised with an old Melody--in a delicious place--by a delicious voice, fe[l]t over again your very speculations and surmises at the time it first operated on your soul-do you not remember forming to yourself the singer's face more beautiful that it was possible and yet with the elevation of the Moment you did not think so--even then you were mounted on the Wings of Imagination so high--that the Prototype must be here after--that delicious face you will see What a time! I am continually running away from the subject-- sure this cannot be exactly the case with a complex Mind--one that is imaginative and at the same time careful of its fruits--who would exist partly on sensation partly on thought--to whom it is necessary that years should bring the philosophic Mind--such an one I consider yours and therefore it is necessary to your eternal Happiness that you not only have drink this old Wine of I-leaven which I shall call the redigestion of our most ethereal Musings on Earth; but also increase in knowledge and know all things...

[To George and Thomas Keats]

[Negative Capability:]

[December 21, 27 ?, 1817]

My dear Brothers

...the excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth- Examine King Lear & you will find this exemplified throughout; but in this picture we have unpleasantness without any momentous depth of speculation excited, in which to bury its repulsiveness-- The picture is larger than Christ struck me, what quality which Shakespeare possessed so enormously--I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason--

[To John Hamilton Reynolds]

[Wordsworth's Poetry:]

[February 3, 1818]

My dear Reynolds,

It may be said that we ought to read our Contemporaries, that Wordsworth&c should have their due from us. but for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist-- Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself--Many a man can travel to the very bourne of Heaven,and yet want confidence to put down his half seeing... Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.-How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose! Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this.

[to John Taylor]

[Keats's Axioms in Poetry:]

[February 27, 1818]

My dear Taylor,

... In Poetry I have a few axioms, and you will see how far I am from their center. 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-l" Its touches of Beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural natural too him--shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight--but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it--and this leads me on to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all...

[to John Hamilton Reynolds]

[...the chambers of human life:]

[May 3, 1818]

... axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses: We read fine things but never feel them to the full until we have gone the same Steps as the Author --I know this is not plain; you will know exactly my meaning when I say, that now I shall relish Hamlet more than I ever have done-... Until we are sick, we understand not;--in fine, as Byron says, "Knowledge is sorrow," and I go on to say that "Sorrow is Wisdom"--and further for aught we can know for certainty! "Wisdom is folly"... I compare human life to a large mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me--The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think--We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle --within us--we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere,we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one's vision into the-head heart and nature of Man--of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression--whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken'd and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open--but all dark--all leading to dark passages--We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist--We are now in that state--We feel the "burden of the Mystery," To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote "Tintern Abbey" and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages. Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them. he is a Genius and superior [to] us...

[to George and Goergiana Keats]

[The vale of soul making:]

[February 14-May 3, 1819]

The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is "a vale of tears" from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven--what a little circumscribe[d] straightened notion! Call the world if you Please "The vale of Soul-making" Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say "Soul making'' Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence-There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions--but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. I[n]telligences are atoms of perception --they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God --how then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them--so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each ones individual existence? How, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because I think it a grander system of salvation than the Christian religion -- or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation--This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years--These three Materials are the Intelligence--the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming theSoul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity. I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive-and vet I think I perceive it--that you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible-- I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read--I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School--and I will call the Child able to read, the Soulmade from that school and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul! A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, It is the Minds Bible, it is the Minds experience, it is the teat from which the mind or intelligence sucks its identity--As various as the Lives of Men are--so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, Identical Souls of the sparks of his own essence--This appears to me faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity--I am convinced that many difficulties which Christians labour under would vanish before it--there is one wh[i]ch even now Strikes me--the Salvation of Children--In them the Spark or intelligence returns to God without an identity-it having had no time to learn of, and be altered by, the heart--or seat of the human Passions...

ASSIGNMENT: We will read the following poems, applying the literary theory from the letters to their study:

a.Bright Star

b.Eve of St. Agnes

c.Ode to Autumn

d.Ode on a Grecian Urn--For this poem, read the following information to aid in interpreting the last lines...

Keats' poem and its enigmatic final lines have been the subject of much controversy, especially since no less a poet and critic than T.S. Eliot remarked that either he did not understand what they meant, or they were a "blemish" on an otherwise beautiful poem.


1.The consensus of four manuscripts (one of which was made by Keats' brother) reads:

      Beauty is truth,---Truth Beauty----that is all
      Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

2.The copy of the poem that Keats himself probably provided for publication early in 1820 likewise lacked quotation marks, but later in 1820, a copy survives presumably under Keats' supervision with quotation marks, but Keats was very ill...

      "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"----that is all
      Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.



4. Remember that with Keats' poetry, you are looking for dramatizations of the ideas articulated in the letters.