The preference for the Keats of the letters to the Keats of the poems is more than the outcome of a critic’s desert-island fantasy. When Christopher Ricks remarks that he would choose the letters over the poems, but that he is glad that he does not have to choose, he is making a statement of principle: that the letters contain life as the poems, great as they are, do not and perhaps cannot, for the reason that there is a crucial and novel aspect of Keats’ imagination that is better suited for expression in letters than poetry. The preference for the letters is an acknowledgment that poetry is not enough, cannot be enough, not only in life, but in the life of the imagination; the preference is an assertion that Keats’ letters, for all of their great statements of poetic principle and critical insight, should not be read in the service of the poems or poetry. They should be read as filling a distinct craving or need from that which the poems satisfy.
It is not that the letters, unlike the poems, were written out of need; not that the letters liberated a romping fancy as the poems did not (though Keats’ mind ranges further, and to less likely quarters, in the letters); not even that the poems constrain register and voice as the letter do not (though they do). But the need that drives the letters is a need that does not yield poetry, or at least not poetry alone (the poetry that is in the letters is of their tissue, if not their issue, having been written usually before the letter was composed).
Trilling found in the letters an admirable stability of self; John Jones, reading them more in service of the poems than Trilling, finds in them an extension of Keats’ poetic capacity to feel out the experience of feeling; Ricks, coming to from the opposite direction from Trilling, and building on a remark of Jones, notes their extraordinarily self-aware expression of self-awareness, their unflinching awareness of the self’s flinching insecurities when exposed to others.
There really may be little left to say about the letters, but the sense that they do satisfy something distinct in a reader—which so many readers have felt—struck me today and here is an attempt at why. I will limit myself to discussing one letter only, that of 14-31 October, 1818, written to the George Keatses (Keats’ brother George and his wife, Georgiana), in the United States. The letter can be found online here.
The exemplary phrase of the letter, which describes its own special sensitivity and clarity, comes early, as he praises his brother’s wife: I have a tenderness for you, and an admiration which I feel to be as great and more chaste than I have for any woman int he world. You will mention Fanny–her character is not formed; her identity does not press upon me as yours does.
“Press upon me” we might take to express an imposition; but for Keats that experience of passive susceptibility to another’s identity is a source of sustenance. When Keats says that Fanny does not have a character fully formed, perhaps he means that she is not yet able to be written to with the same ease and range with which he can write to George and Georgiana. She cannot press upon her because he cannot write that pressure into existence in the desirous reveries that surmount absence his letters, and that depend on his really believing that he knew who another was, and on his believing that they in turn really know him.
Keats can be counted among other great writers of intimacy in the nineteenth century, Wordsworth, Eliot, and James. But for those writers, intimacy is most often absence, the idealized object of yearning, whereas in Keats, intimacy is achieved. For those writers, moreover, in the separation of selves intimacy is known by the shadow it casts: by the estrangement and alienation as two persons face one another in physical or at least psychological immediacy.Keats does not tell us that intimacy depends on separation or the prospect of separation, but he shows conversely that one aspect of intimacy does not depend on touch, permanence, proximity, or even a shared expression of common experience.
Keats’ letters are not performances of intimacy, but they are constitutive of it; they show intimacy coming into being, as the separation of physical distance is redeemed by the protection it affords for unabashed, unblushing appreciation and apprehension of who another is. The ground of the intimacy is the physical presence, but the letters are the flourishing of it: in them, Keats revels in his own feelings for another as representing genuine knowledge of that other, and as guarantors that they too will understand him.
Even Proust, who at times resembles Keats in his capacity to surmount the separations by acts of reverie and memory, is far charier than Keats in trusting in his own trust, and in trusting that others can and will trust in return—and this all without a whiff of a suspicion that Keats might be culpably gullible. Keats is persuasively attuned to the precariousness, and the rareness, of what he claims; he guards against those who would claim that he has no guard to let down and no sense of the essential divisions and distances between people. That he has a diligent guard is in part why the relief is palpable when he does give himself over to believing in his knowing others, and to believing in their knowing him.
A great deal of this has to do with the form of expression: a letter invites, we might think, some assertion of intimacy. The conventions of letters dispose their authors to profess open admiration and nearness of heart across distances. But it is not convention that makes readers return to Keats’ letters. It would be better to say that the letter is the suitable form for what Keats discovers in his writing because the letter is conditioned by the separation that Keats redeems.
Look at how Keats arrives at his remark about Georgiana’s identity pressing upon him:
I have Fanny and I have you—three people whose Happiness to me is sacred—and it does annul that selfish sorrow which I should otherwise fall into, living as I do with poor Tom who looks upon me as his only comfort—the tears will come into your Eyes—let them—and embrace each other—thank heaven for what happiness you have, and after thinking a moment or two that you suffer in common with all Mankind hold it not a sin to regain your cheerfulness—I will relieve you of one uneasiness of overleaf: I returned I said on account of my health—I am now well from a bad sore throat which came of bog trotting in the Island of Mull—of which you shall hear by the copies I shall make from my Scotch Letters—Your content in each other is a delight to me which I cannot express—the Moon is now shining full and brilliant—she is the same to me in Matter, what you are to me in Spirit. If you were here my dear Sister I could not pronounce the words which I can write to you from a distance: I have a tenderness for you, and an admiration which I feel to be as great and more chaste than I can have for any woman in the world. You will mention Fanny—her character is not formed, her identity does not press upon me as yours does.
There’s nothing especially moving in the expression of admiration: “I have a tenderness for you, and an admiration which I feel to be as great and more chaste than I can have for any woman in the world.” But the expression grants priority while aspiring to do justice to feelings for others: it is the thought that his brother Tom “looks upon me as his only comfort,” that drives Keats to assume sorrow: Tom is isolated, without the strength to depend on more than one, and that is cause for grief. Keats, by contrast, has many, and in praising the one, his sister, he cannot set her above without then qualifying (“any woman”; “You will mention Fanny”; the first “you” includes his brother George), and none of it seems hedging because there is no wheedling or ulterior motives beyond stating rightly how so many can be cared about, and how his caring about them can be a compensation for the other sort of pressure of caring for, and being so intensely, exclusively cared about by, another brother, Tom.
He calls it a “selfish sorrow” to live only with Tom only, and it’s in that phrase too that he presumes and creates an intimacy: his own sorrow is selfish because it would not take into account alongside Tom’s misery the happiness that belongs to them, and by belonging to them himself also. He would be selfish not to share in their happiness as he shares in Tom’s misery. The presumption that his own caring is an act of justice, or a sort of expenditure, that might be generous or selfish, depends on his believing that others care in turn; that his caring as he does, his feeling for others as he does, matters in itself—though, beyond the letter, beyond the distances, it could not. It has weight and bearing only in so far as it is in the letter at all; and it is in the letter because of the distance between them.
The intimacy likewise is admitted by “more chaste.” These are feelings, the insistence on chastity allows, that are more romantic than friendship; but then the circumstances of his writing, the distance between them, means that she can abolish from her mind the fear that there is a lurking motivation, an accompanying gesture or touch, that would set the words in another, wrong light. His raising the matter as he does raises the prospect that in other worlds, other times; it is not lecherous or adulterous because so adamant a denial, but it is the sort of thing that shouldn’t be repeated to a brother’s wife.
“You will mention Fanny” moves Keats further back from the unsavory thought, closing as it does the familial circle, Fanny the one sister (by blood), and Georgiana the other (by marriage); and the phrase imagines the understanding it would have: Georgiana would be too thoughtful not to think of her other sister, and she would be too understanding of Keats’ own mind not to know what he would say; all the while he knows her well enough to know her rejoinder. The alternative: “Fanny does not count,” no mention of what Georgiana would say, would maintain Georgiana in awkward silence as Keats argues for the purity of his feelings for her; to anticipate her voice and give her voice in the letter in the only way he can is to dispel the blush forming on her face. Another alternative, “You will tell me I am too extreme in my praise,” would draw the intimacy between them too close on a matter that is already potentially (as “more chaste” allows) too intimate.
He does not flinch away from the prospect of intimacies that may be other than familial, but even here he is concerned with not giving too much of his feeling to any one person; he writes persistently under a self-imposed duty to allot and distribute his fascinations and absorption in others. Here is Keats fascinated, and aroused, by Jane Cox, the cousin of the Reynolds:
When she comes into a room she makes an impression the same as the Beauty of a Leopardess. She is too fine and too conscious of herself to repulse any Man who may address her—from habit she thinks that nothing particular. I always find myself more at ease with such a woman; the picture before me always gives me a life and animation which I cannot possibly feel with anything inferior. I am at such times too much occupied in admiring to be awkward or in a tremble. I forget myself entirely because I live in her. You will by this time think I am in love with her; so before I go any further I will tell you I am not—she kept me awake one Night as a tune of Mozart’s might do. I speak of the thing as a pastime and an amusement, than which I can feel none deeper than a conversation with an imperial woman, the very “yes” and “no” of whose Lips is to me a Banquet. I don’t cry to take the moon home with me in my Pocket nor do I fret to leave her behind me. I like her and her like because one has no sensations—what we both are is taken for granted. You will suppose I have by this had much talk with her—no such thing—there are the Miss Reynoldses on the look out—They think I don’t admire her because I did not stare at her.
They call her a flirt to me—What a want of knowledge! She walks across a room in such a manner that a Man is drawn towards her with a magnetic Power. This they call flirting! they do not know things. They do not know what a Woman is. I believe though she has faults—the same as Charmian and Cleopatra might have had. Yet she is a fine thing speaking in a worldly way: for there are two distinct tempers of mind in which we judge of things—the worldly, theatrical and pantomimical; and the unearthly, spiritual and ethereal—in the former Buonaparte, Lord Byron and this Charmian hold the first place in our Minds; in the latter, John Howard, Bishop Hooker rocking his child’s cradle and you my dear Sister are the conquering feelings. As a Man in the world I love the rich talk of a Charmian; as an eternal Being I love the thought of you. I should like her to ruin me, and I should like you to save me. Do not think, my dear Brother, from this that my Passions are headlong, or likely to be ever of any pain to you—
“Admiration” was the word for Georgiana, but it seems much fitter for Jane Cox. He is obviously head over heels for her, and the insistence that she is like the moon is a defensive removal of suspicion that he would think himself her suitor, but it is also once again the assumption of knowledge of another, and in that knowledge intimacy of a kind with another, as a consequence of distance (the moon has already appeared in the letter, to describe George and Georgiana’s love). “They call her a flirt to me–what a want of knowledge!”: but knowledge he has, and he admires her as a species apart, a Woman, first, but then as a type that is exemplified by men and women alike (Napoleon, Byron, and “this Charmian”). But the landing of the flight of fancy, the return to Georgiana, is the strangest moment of all, as Keats seen drawn to her with a magnetic power.
He would not become too absorbed in any one, as if to do so would be injurious to several parties: to his own, for the sake of his vulnerability; to the one in whom he is absorbed, for the sensitivity to the burden that brings; to all the others he loves, for the sense that they might feel, not spurned, but as if his care for them had depreciated, as if the words by which he had expressed his care for them had lost their value. Here to me is one of the most extraordinary aspects of the letters: the governing belief that all of the statements of care for others hold good, bind as contracts, and must be duly acknowledged in other praise and professions of love and care, and, what is more, having been stated, count as something enduring in a world where so little endures (least of all the conventional expressions of affection in letters; but Keats insists, by incessantly balancing and qualifying and discriminating between his, that his really do count; believing that they did, they did).
Death and illness, hardly uncommon in Keats’ letters, propel the opening pages of the October 1818 letter forward as Keats slings between updates on who has what, updates on who has recovered, or hasn’t, from what, and his comic narrative vignettes, his play on words, and his affirmations of admiration and love. The bonds of intimacy established in the letter are never at a safe remove from the threats of final separation. When Keats feels that the identity of another presses upon him, it is an affirmation of life, and a reminder that he too is still alive; he presses back by writing; what counts is that those pressures are maintained and affirmed; to shift entirely against one person, would be to neglect pressing against others, where that pressing is what makes life endurable, though life cannot endure.
The action of pressing returns later in the letter, where Keats describes what it means in the context of a friendship that seems to resemble his friendship with Georgiana:
Since I wrote thus far I have met with that same Lady again, whom I saw at Hastings and whom I met when we were going to the English Opera. It was in a Street which goes from Bedford Row to Lamb’s Conduit Street – I passed her and turned back – she seemed glad of it; glad to see me and not offended at my passing her before. We walked on towards Islington where we called on a friend of her’s who keeps a Boarding School. She has always been an enigma to me – she has been in a Room with you and with Reynolds and wishes we should be acquainted without any of our common acquaintance knowing it. As we went along, some times through shabby, sometimes through decent Streets I had my guessing at wort, not knowing what it would be and prepared to meet any surprise – First it ended at this House at Islington: on parting from which I pressed to attend her home. She consented, and then again my thoughts were at work what it might lead to, tho’ now they had received a sort of genteel hint from the Boarding School. Our Walk ended in 34 Gloucester Street, Queen Square – not exactly so for we went up stairs into her sitting room – a very tasty sort of place with Books, Pictures a bronze statue of Buonaparte, Music, aeolian Harp; a Parrot, a Linnet – a Case of choice Liqueurs &c. &c. &c. She behaved in the kindest manner – made me take home a Grouse for Tom’s dinner – Asked for my address for the purpose of sending more game – As I had warmed with her before and kissed her – I thought it would be living backwards not to do so again – she had a better taste: she perceived how much a thing of course it was and shrunk from it – not in a prudish way but in as I say a good taste. She contrived to disappoint me in a way which made me feel more pleasure than a simple Kiss could do – She said I should please her much more if I would only press her hand and go away. Whether she was in a different disposition when I saw her before – or whether I have in fancy wrong’d her I cannot tell. I expect to pass some pleasant hours with her now and then: in which I feel I shall be of service to her in matters of knowledge and taste: if I can I will. I have no libidinous thought about her – she and your George are the only women à peu près de mon age whom I would be content to know for their mind and friendship alone. I shall in a short time write you as far as I know how I intend to pass my Life – I cannot think of those things now Tom is so unwell and weak.
Here is Keats describing what it means to yield to fascination and to desire, while stopping short of consummation: “She said I should please her much more if I would only press her hand and go away”—but Keats, disappointed though he is, takes that intimation to press the hand as an invitation to an acquaintance in which her identity too might press on his own: “I have no libidinous thought about her—she and your George are the only women à peu près de mon age whom I would be content to know for their mind and friendship alone.” “Content” hedges a bit, and the French is a dodge—a pose to mitigate his smarting at rejection–but the press of the hand is a some consolation evidently: he sees in it a promise, and he maintains, astonishingly, his high hopes of what he will come to know in her, as much as he has come to find in Georgiana. But the promise is made to seem realer for Keats by his summoning it in a letter addressed, in part, to his brother’s wife: his openness with Georgiana acts as a guarantor to his openness with her; Isabella’s pressure on his hand recalls that she too might press her identity on his as his brother’s wife does; Georgiana is the measure of what a woman might be to Keats, and so is the grounds for belief in this other woman.
The reality of knowing another is never, for Keats, dyadic: never two alone. Where the letter posits and generates intimacy between Keats and another, it always does so in the presence of other intimacies; he extends and opens himself towards one on the condition that he remains extended and open towards all of those for whom he cares. It’s a virtuoso balancing act.
At roughly the same time as he was writing to George and Georgiana, Keats composed a letter to Richard Woodhouse that became one of his most famous statements on poetic art:
As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort of which, if I am any thing, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body – The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures. If then he has no self, and if I am a Poet, where is the Wonder that I should say I would write no more? Might I not at that very instant have been cogitating on the Characters of Saturn and Ops? It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature – how can it, when I have no nature? When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated
Considering Keats’ poetry, which offers very little by way of character, readers may wonder at his characterization of a poet. But if we look to Keats’ statements on poetry as statements about how he would live as a person among people, we find his remarks to Woodhouse continuous with his letter to his brother and brother’s wife: the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated.
It is not in the poems, but in the letters where Keats most profoundly “conceives of others,” where to conceive of them is to claim to know them, and where their pressure on him is generated and sustained by the same expressions in which he claims to be meeting it. But in the letters also, the intimacy that his words imagine and realize is a refusal of annihilation or even absorption into another: the pressure sustains a nearness that preserves the identities he cherishes.