There is the occasion and there is the utterance; there is the condition and there is the judgment; there is the time and place and there is the creation. Reading Keats’ letters, the first impulse is to pluck out the phrases that speak to the depths, that transcend the circumstances of their conception; that impulse needs correcting. The letters are great because, rather than transcend their contingent, practical, transactional occasions, they settle so deeply into them; they fill those occasions, draw out from them what is within them; doing so, confident in their place, and in their relation to the places of others, they communicate those occasions more fully to us, both preserving them for what they are by mining them for the riches they contain. That is, they do something that is different from poetry, not good in the same way as a poem can be good, but good on entirely distinct grounds. Even when prompted by something external to itself, whether written under commission or in praise or in protest, a poem need not attend to another, to business, or to the cadences of correspondence as a letter does; at the same time, it needs to attend to its own unity, to its beginning and ending within its own limits, as a letter does not. So in his letters, Keats was both more and less free than in occasional, topical verse; the freedom is formal, the limitation was circumstantial, as in a poem it would not be. The problem of communicating beyond the recipients did not, it seems, enter into his head—and could not have, if the letters were to succeed on the terms they do, since to speak beyond the addressee would be to abandon the limitations, the pressures, and the contingencies of circumstance that give charge to the formal freedom, that the freedom serves. Because his imaginative freedom is in service of the letter at hand, as a letter, not as a poem-as-letter, or letter-in-bottle, or future-collected-letter, the place and time of that letter, its situation and situatedness, are communicated with the force of a scene in a novel—and also, as in a novel of merit, their significance is allowed to speak on its own terms, rather than to be imposed from without. When Keats philosophizes, opines, and soars into fancy, it is because that is what the situation permits; he never seems to be abusing the situation to prove himself, but instead proves the situation of the letter to contain more than it might seem. That is, he reveals the relationship, the shared world, shared horizons, and shared language of the letter and recipient, to be, in themselves, bracing in their familiarity and steadying in their strangeness.
Hence, Keats’ words are not just: “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. 2d. 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, seem natural to 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 to another axiom – That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.”
Instead, they are the entirety of the letter (it’s a mark of Ricks’ critical discernment that he recognized just what and how much of the letters he had to quote in his study of Keats–which is to say, a great deal, and sometimes the letters in their entirety):
Hampstead, February 27th, 1818
Hampstead, 27 Feby
My dear Taylor –
Your alteration strikes me as being a great Improvement – And now I will attend to the punctuations you speak of – The comma should be at soberly, and in the other passage, the Comma should follow quiet. I am extremely indebted to you for this attention, and also for your after admonitions. It is a sorry thing for me that any one should have to overcome prejudices in reading my verses – that affects me more than any hypercriticism on any particular passage – In Endymion, I have most likely but moved into the go-cart from the leading-strings – In poetry I have a few axioms, and you will see how far I am from their centre.
1st. 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.
2d. 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, seem natural to 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 to another axiom – That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all. – However, it may be with me, I cannot help looking into new countries with ‘O for a Muse of Fire to ascend!’ If Endymion serves me as a pioneer, perhaps I ought to be content – I have great reason to be content, for thank God I can read, and perhaps understand Shakespeare to his depths; and I have I am sure many friends, who, if I fail, will attribute any change in my life and temper to humbleness rather than pride – to a cowering under the wings of great poets, rather than to a bitterness that I am not appreciated. I am anxious to get Endymion printed that I may forget it and proceed. I have copied the 3rd Book and begun the 4th.
Your sincere and obliged friend,
The power of Keats’ axioms does not depend on their being in the letter, but the letter’s power depends on the relationship between the axioms and Taylor’s “alteration” of punctuation, and Keats’ own last corrections (or revisions) of punctuation, since there is both a tension and a continuity between them: the tension in that Keats’ acceptance of Taylor’s help suggests that Taylor’s mind is capable of possessing the verse in some degree, as if the writing of it were itself a “Remembrance” of his own thoughts: the small alterations of commas suggesting Taylor’s understanding of poet and poem; the tension resides also in the pressure on “natural” (repeated twice, a tick of Keats’ letters elsewhere too, in “like the Sun come natural natural to him,” and in “as naturally as the Leaves to a tree”), where the alteration of punctuation and corrections for a printer might seem other than the “natural natural” spontaneity of verse, might seem instead a “natural unnatural” or “unnatural natural” stage of composition, less inspired than (so to speak) punctilious.
But there is continuity too, between Keats’ anxiety to make the reader content but not breathless, since punctuation is, among other things, a means of measuring the breath of a reader; and, more deeply, the occasion of punctuation revision serves as a corrective to too blithe a notion of what “naturally as the Leaves to a tree” might mean: a process of small alterations and modifications, rather than a sudden springing into being. The occasion, that is, registers that the “Leaves” come to a tree surely, but not immediately. There is, moreover, a further thought in “Leaves” of the pages of the work, the physical paper, with its imprinted marks of commas and stops, to which the tree-poet Keats must attend. The fact of its being a letter, the fact of the axioms being for and to, and in a sense, of Taylor’s presence–Taylor his editor and friend–tugs against any simple heroism of the poet’s independence; Keats’ tree does not stand alone, and could not. “You will see how far I am from their Centre,” Keats writes, with the axioms themselves at the center of his letter, and the letter, itself in motion between Keats and Taylor, belies also Keats’ restlessness as regards his own art, set against the firm course of the Sun that he evokes (“shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leave him in the Luxury of twilight”) and the rootedness of the tree itself. Keats turns from his axioms, or turns upon them, to consider himself “I cannot help looking into new countries,” with Endymion imagined as “a Pioneer.” This is the restlessness of the poet-in-process, the ambitious, maturing poet, as it is to his publisher whom he does not wish to disappoint, and whom he trusts to support him–which is in part the source of the poignancy in the ultimate intimation of failure.
Keats worries over both the criticism that will sting and doubts his own ability to bear it and move on, so that, rather than a clear center of rootedness and orbit, or a courageous pioneer, he contemplates instead the possibility of a “change in my life and Temper” leading him to “a cowering under the Wings of great Poets,” a thought is balanced by pride in what is not cowering but itself a heroic exploration, “Thank God I can read and perhaps understand Shakespeare to his depths,” tempered in turn by the “perhaps” that acknowledges both Keats’ limitations (not known as certainties, as limitations are often are not) and also that for an author to have depths means an accompanying uncertainty as to just what is being encountered and how much more there is.
Keats flies from the idea of cowering beneath wings, rather than letting the image itself take flight: “I am anxious to get Endymion printed that I may forget it and proceed.” Upon which he returns to the correct punctuation–which is itself, as is the rest of the letter, a concern with what a poem is and should be, which is the concern of the letter as a whole. But it considers not only, as a matter of principle and philosophy, what a poet is and what a poem could and should be, but it moves and movingly feels its way through, and admits Taylor into the feeling, of standing before that principle and philosophy, as a living, and livable, prospect.
[Note: Keats’ letters are great because their techniques of encountering the occasion and moment also answer to difficulties that are other than, more broad than, the occasion and moment, without making it seem as if the latter are excuses or of secondary importance; his techniques for encountering the moment’s exigency and the occasion of each letter find within the occasion a circumstance that exceeds it.]