The Unwritten Late-Life Poetry of John Keats as Adumbrated in a Posthumous Epistle

Amit Majmudar
March 18, 2012
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T. S. Eliot says somewhere Keats’s poetry hadn’t yet evolved to the point where it could express the philosophical mind we find in the Letters. Keats, at the time of his death, was working through some heavy Miltonic influence (“Hyperion” fragments) as he had worked earlier through the influence of Edmund Spenser (“The Eve of St. Agnes”). Keats did this by pattern mimesis, that is, writing in the predecessor’s form and filling it with as much of himself as he could manage. (This is opposed to material mimesis, in which a poet tries to rewrite previously mastered subject-matter in a form more distinctive to himself; consider how the young Dryden asked the elderly John Milton for permission recast Paradise Lost in heroic couplets).

So “The Eve of St. Agnes” isn’t very allegorical and doesn’t treat of chivalry; Keats uses Spenser’s form to do something un-Spenserian. Keats’s bit of Milton isn’t Biblical; rather it attempts a highly Miltonic blank verse to do Gods-of-Yore Romantic wistfulness. The Odes are justly famous because they are the most concentrated display of Keats’s precocious verbal resources; but the philosophical mind of the Letters, as Eliot correctly saw, has not yet exerted itself in verse.

This potential future poetry that Eliot foresaw for Keats is adumbrated in one of Keats’s posthumously published poems. Fittingly, the poem is itself a letter, the “Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds.”

 

DEAR Reynolds! as last night I lay in bed,

There came before my eyes that wonted thread

O shapes, and shadows, and remembrances,

That every other minute vex and please:

Things all disjointed come from north and south, –

Two Witch’s eyes above a Cherub’s mouth,

Voltaire with casque and shield and habergeon,

And Alexander with his nightcap on;

Old Socrates atying his cravat,

And Hazlitt playing with Miss Edgeworth’s cat;

And Junius Brutus, pretty well so so,

Making the best of’s way towards Soho.

 

Few are there who escape these visitings, –

Perhaps one or two whose lives have patent wings,

And thro’ whose curtains peeps no hellish nose,

No wild-boar tushes, and no Mermaid’s toes;

But flowers bursting out with lusty pride,

And young Æolian harps personified;

Some Titian colours touch’d into real life, –

The sacrifice goes on; the pontiff knife

Gleams in the Sun, the milk-white heifer lows,

The pipes go shrilly, the libation flows:

A white sail shows above the green-head cliff,

Moves round the point, and throws her anchor stiff;

The mariners join hymn with those on land.

 

You know the Enchanted Castle, – it doth stand

Upon a rock, on the border of a Lake,

Nested in trees, which all do seem to shake

From some old magic-like Urganda’s Sword.

O Phoebus! that I had thy sacred word

To show this Castle, in fair dreaming wise,

Unto my friend, while sick and ill he lies!

 

You know it well enough, where it doth seem

A mossy place, a Merlin’s Hall, a dream;

You know the clear Lake, and the little Isles,

The mountains blue, and cold near neighbour rills,

All which elsewhere are but half animate;

There do they look alive to love and hate,

To smiles and frowns; they seem a lifted mound

Above some giant, pulsing underground.

 

Part of the Building was a chosen See,

Built by a banish’d Santon of Chaldee;

The other part, two thousand years from him,

Was built by Cuthbert de Saint Aldebrim;

Then there’s a little wing, far from the Sun,

Built by a Lapland Witch turn’d maudlin Nun:

And many other juts of aged stone

Founded with many a mason-devil’s groan.

 

The doors all look as if they op’d themselves,

The windows as if latch’d by Fays and Elves,

And from them comes a silver flash of light,

As from the westward of a Summer’s night;

Or likea beauteous woman’s large blue eyes

Gone mad thro’ olden songs and poesies.

 

See! what is coming from the distance dim!

A golden Galley all in silken trim!

Three rows of oars are lightening, moment whiles,

Into the verd’rous bosoms of those isles;

Towards the shade, under the Castle wall,

It comes in silence, – now ’tis hidden all.

The Clarion sounds, and from a Postern-gate

An echo of sweet music doth create

A fear in the poor Herdsman, who doth bring

His beasts to trouble the enchanted spring, –

He tells of the sweet music, and the spot,

To all his friends, and they believe him not.

 

O that our dreamings all, of sleep or wake,

Would all their colours from the sunset take:

From something of material sublime,

Rather than shadow our own soul’s day-time

In the dark void of night. For in the world

We jostle, – but my flag is not unfurl’d

On the Admiral-staff, – and so philosophize

I dare not yet! Oh, never will the prize,

High reason, and the love of good and ill,

Be my award! Things cannot to the will

Be settled, but they tease us out of thought;

Or is it that imagination brought

Beyond its proper bound, yet still confin’d,

Lost in a sort of Purgatory blind,

Cannot refer to any standard law

Of either earth or heaven? It is a flaw

In happiness, to see beyond our bourn, –

It forces us in summer skies to mourn,

It spoils the singing of the Nightingale.

 

Dear Reynolds! I have a mysterious tale,

And cannot speak it: the first page I read

Upon a Lampit rock of green sea-weed

Among the breakers; ’twas a quiet eve,

The rocks were silent, the wide sea did weave

An untumultous fringe of silver foam

Along the flat brown sand; I was at home

And should have been most happy, – but I saw

Too far into the sea, where every maw

The greater on the less feeds evermore. –

But I saw too distinct into the core

Of an eternal fierce destruction,

And so from happiness I far was gone.

Still am I sick of it, and tho’, to-day,

I’ve gather’d young spring-leaves, and flowers gay

Or periwinkle and wild strawberry,

Still do I that most fierce destruction see, –

The Shark at savage prey, – the Hawk at pounce, –

The gentle Robin, like a Pard or Ounce,

Ravening a worm, – Away, ye horrid moods!

Moods of one’s mind! You know I hate them well.

You know I’d sooner be a clapping Bell

To some Kamtschatcan Missionary Church,

Than with these horrid moods be left i’ the lurch.

 

 

Keats strikes me as distinctly more at ease here than anywhere else in his verse; he is not striking a pose, and he is not consciously striving after Beauty. Playfulness segues into dark philosophy at the end. The preference that dreams could be sourced directly in external nature rather than the mind and its disjointed memories is the most interesting philosophical idea in Keats’s verse; as if to prove Eliot’s point, that is precisely where Keats interrupts himself to declare that he mustn’t philosophize. Of course, he goes on to do just that, and the concluding insight into the “Law of the Fishes” cuts against the nature-idealizing Romanticism of the age. Notice that he illustrates the Law of the Fishes with…fishes. A fine example of the poet failing the thinker. If the poet Keats had lived long enough to catch up to the thinker Keats, we might have had, not another Milton or Spenser, but probably a great philosopher-poet, a kind of English Dante, or perhaps an Eliot antedating Eliot. Eliot probably sensed this at some level and accordingly praised Keats’s letters above Keats’s verse, seeing, in Keats’s Letters, the ultrasound image of his unborn forefather.

 

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