Essay on Poetic Theory

Selections from Keats’s Letters (1817)

by John Keats


John Keats died of tuberculosis at the age of 25 after writing a remarkable number of poems that have helped define the Romantic tradition. Keats and his siblings George, Tom, and Frances (Fanny) lost their father when he died after a fall from a horse in 1803, and their mother to tuberculosis in 1811. Keats was an apprentice to an apothecary–surgeon when he was 15; he received his apothecary certificate in 1816, but gave up that profession in order to write.

Keats was acquainted with the writer and editor Leigh Hunt, who introduced him to some of the leading intellectuals and writers of the time. Dogged by illness and poverty, Keats was unable to marry Fanny Brawne, whom he fell in love with and was engaged to in 1818. Keats, like his mother and brother Tom, contacted tuberculosis. He was invited to Rome by Shelley to convalesce, and eventually traveled there in 1821 with the painter John Severn; his health continued to decline and he died in Rome.

The excerpts from Keats’s letters give us glimpses of his thoughts about poetry, and of the concerns that occupied him in 1817 and 1818, the years before he would write some of his best-known works. His letters have also served generations of writers with provocative ideas and insights into poetry and the creative process. In the letters, he writes about beauty, the imagination, and the concept of “Negative Capability”—“when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Keats also address the merits of other poets, including Milton, Keat’s contemporary Wordsworth, and Shakespeare, who Keats admired above all other writers. He often calls out for qualities he wishes he could attain as a poet and person, as when he asks “for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” In other letters Keats shows his talent for original metaphors and insights into life, as when he likens life to a “large Mansion of Many Apartments,” in which we slowly feel and find our way through darkened rooms.” Such observations and imaginative spurts make Keats’s letters required reading for any poet or critic and as important as Keats’s poems.

In 1819, Keats had an extremely rich year of creativity; he wrote “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and his six great odes, which include “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on Indolence,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

The recipients of the letters are friends—the poet and insurance clerk John Hamilton Reynolds, and Benjamin Bailey; Keats’s brothers George and Tom; and John Taylor—a member of the publishing house Taylor and Hessey where his long poem Endymion was published.

[On Shakespeare and “Eternal Poetry”: Letter to J. H. Reynolds, 17, 18 April 1817]
Carisbrooke April 17th

My dear Reynolds,

Ever since I wrote to my Brothers from Southampton I have been in a taking, and at this moment I am about to become settled. for I have unpacked my books, put them into a snug corner—pinned up Haydon—Mary Queen of Scotts, and Milton with his daughters in a row. In the passage I found a head of Shakspeare which I had not before seen—It is most likely the same that George spoke so well of; for I like it extremely—Well—this head I have hung over my Books, just above the three in a row, having first discarded a french Ambassador—Now this alone is a good morning’s work—Yesterday I went to Shanklin, which occasioned a great debate in my mind whether I should live there or at Carisbrooke. Shanklin is a most beautiful place—sloping wood and meadow ground reaches round the Chine, which is a cleft between the Cliffs of the depth of nearly 300 feet at least. This cleft is filled with trees & bushes in the narrow part; and as it widens becomes bare, if it were not for primroses on one side, which spread to the very verge of the Sea, and some fishermen’s huts on the other, perched midway in the Ballustrades of beautiful green Hedges along their steps down the sands. [ . . . ] From want of regular rest, I have been rather narvus—and the passage in Lear—‘Do you not hear the Sea?’—has haunted me intensely.   

[A draft of the Sonnet ‘On the Sea’ follows]

April 18th

Will you have the goodness to do this?  Borrow a Botanical Dictionary—turn to the words Laurel and Prunus show the explanations to your sisters and Mrs Dilk and without more ado let them send me the Cups Basket and Books they trifled and put off and off while I was in Town—ask them what they can say for themselves—ask Mrs Dilk wherefore she does so distress me—Let me know how Jane has her health—the Weather is unfavorable for her—Tell George and Tom to write.—I’ll tell you what—On the 23rd was Shakespeare born—now If I should receive a Letter from you and another from my Brothers on that day ’twould be a parlous good thing—Whenever you write say a Word or two on some Passage in Shakespeare that may have come rather new to you; which must be continually happening, notwithstand that we read the same Play forty times—for instance, the following, from the Tempest, never struck me so forcibly as at present,

Shall, for that vast of Night that they may work,

All exercise on thee—’ 

How can I help bringing to your mind the Line—

In the dark backward and abysm of time

I find that I cannot exist without poetry—without eternal poetry—half the day will not do—the whole of it—I began with a little, but habit has made me a Leviathan—I had become all in a Tremble from not having written any thing of late—the Sonnet over leaf did me some good.  I slept the better last night for it—this Morning, however, I am nearly as bad again—Just now I opened Spencer, and the first Lines I saw were these.—

‘The noble Heart that harbors virtuous thought,
And is with Child of glorious great intent,
Can never rest, until it forth have brought
Th’ eternal Brood of Glory excellent—’


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[On the Imagination and “a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts”: Letter to Benjamin Bailey, 22 November 1817]


[ . . . ] But I am running my head into a Subject which I am certain I could not do justice to under five years study and 3 vols octavo—and moreover long to be talking about 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 the 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 consequitive reasoning—and yet it must be—Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever 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 convinced 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 have its rewards in the repetion 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, felt 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 your’s and therefore it is necessary to your eternal Happiness that you not only drink this old Wine of Heaven which I shall call the redigestion of our most ethereal Musings on Earth; but also increase in knowledge and know all things. 

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Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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 John  Keats


John Keats, who died at the age of twenty-five, had perhaps the most remarkable career of any English poet. He published only fifty-four poems, in three slim volumes and a few magazines. But at each point in his development he took on the challenges of a wide range of poetic forms from the sonnet, to the Spenserian romance, to the Miltonic epic, defining anew their possibilities with his own distinctive fusion of earnest energy, . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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