The excerpts From Keats's letters are in normal text; my comments
on the excerpts are italicized.
"As tradesmen say every thing is worth what it will fetch, so probably
every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer--being
in itself a nothing--"
March 3, 1818
Keats typically is thinking in terms of opposites--specifically,
intellect and passion; in this instance his desire for unity is achieved by
his making the "mental pursuit" also a passionate or ardent pursuit. His
poems are ardent mental pursuits. It should come as no surprise that Keats
valued intensity or that his poems are generally intense.
" . . several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me,
what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature &
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--Coleridge, for instance, would
let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery,
from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued
through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great
poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates
December 21, 27 (?), 1817
In this famous passage, Keats explains the concept
of Negative Capability, a concept which has been frequently used by literary
critics to the present day. Negative Capability (the willingness to remain
in doubt or not to resolve conflicts or ambiguities) may be seen in his poetry;
for instance, in the concluding questions of "Ode to a Nightingale." Appropriately,
the phrase itself is an oxymoron, a joining of conflicting or opposing elements.
Keats is mistaken in his description of Coleridge and misuses the word
"penetralia" (there is no singular form of this word, only the plural "penetrale");
however, neither of these errors detracts from the validity of his theory.
"Well--I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two
of which I can only describe, 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 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 effects
this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one's vision
into the 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 ballance of good and evil. We are in
a Mist--We are now in that state--We feel the 'burden of the Mystery'. .
May 3, 1818
In identifying only two of the apartments, he is
referring to the stage he has reached in his own life. He has progressed
to thought or intellect; he calls this thought "maiden" in the sense of (1)
first or (2) untried or (3) both. Thinking is a pleasurable experience
but graduating from it reveals the misery and sorrow in the world. This insight
brings the realization that there are other doors but they lead to "dark
passages"; "dark" may mean (1) unknown or (2) dismal or (3) both. Humanity,
not just Keats, is in this situation; we are all of us unclear ("in a Mist")
about our "dark" choices and burdened by "the Mystery" or dark unknown.
". . .I love you; all I can bring you is a swooning admiration
of your Beauty. . . . You absorb me in spite of myself--you alone: for I
look not forward with any pleasure to what is call'd being settled in the
world; I tremble at domestic cares--yet for you I would meet them, though
if it would leave you the happier I would rather die than do so. I have two
luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death.
O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the
world: it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take
a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it. From no others would I
take it. I am indeed astonish'd to find myself so careless of all charms but
yours--remembering as I do the time when even a bit of ribband was a matter
of interest with me. What softer words can I find for you after this--what
it is I will not read. Nor will I say more here, but in a Postscript answer
any thing else you may have mentioned in your Letter in so many words--for
I am distracted with a thousand thoughts. I will imagine you Venus tonight
and pray, pray, pray to your star like a Hethen."
This letter was written to Fanny Brawne, his beloved fiance. Even in the throes
of intense love, pain and pleasure were intertwined for Keats, his two "luxuries"
being thoughts of her loveliness and thoughts of his death. The greatest
fulfillment he can imagine is to possess her and to die simultaneously.
Of course, death here may have sexual overtones. Keats closed the letter,
"Your's ever, fair Star." Some critics have connected this letter to the
sonnet "Bright Star" because of the references
to Fanny as a star and because of the connection of death, love, and swooning
(compare this connection to the last line of the sonnet).
"--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
circumscribed 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. Intelligences 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 chrystain
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
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 the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess
the sense of Identity. I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive--and
yet 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 Child able to read, the Soul made 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 letter is often read as a background
for "Ode to Psyche".
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