The Selected Letters of John Keats (1795–1821) pierce the myth that is the poet Keats. This myth immortalized in Shelley’s “Adonais.” This myth whose language 20th-century poet Wilfred Owen said he would fight and die to preserve. The myth who knotted truth and beauty: “What imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth.”
Keats’ letters to his family and friends, written from when he was twenty-one until his death at age twenty-five, show a man who struggled deeply with self-doubt, yet saw himself—hoped for himself—poetic immortality. In 1817, after Keats decides to forgo a career as a surgeon and become a poet, he writes:1
I am ambitious of doing the world some good: if I should be spared that may be the work of maturer years—in the interval, I will assay to reach as high a summit in Poetry as the nerve bestowed upon me will suffer.
Of course, Keats would inherit the tuberculosis and die soon after. Not to mention he was confined to a sickbed for much of the last two years of his life. Although sickness must have been on his mind, death was more mythical. His doctors often told him he was fit as anything, and the illness was “in his mind.”
Keats writes to Fanny Brawne in 1819:
I have been in so irritable a state of health these two or three last days that I did not think I should be able to write this week. Not that I was so ill, but so much so as only to be capable of an unhealthy teasing letter.
Keats sees himself in an “ill-state” but not a sick state. Regardless of his state, Keats was almost never alone, disproving the notion that creatives need solitude.As these Selected Letters attest, he was surrounded by friends, mentors, family, and individuals who bolstered his self-esteem and creativity and looked after him in sickness. 2
Yesterday I went into town for the first time for these three weeks—I met people from all parts and of all sets—Mr Towers—one of the Holts—Mr Domine Williams—Mr Woodhouse—Mrs Hazlitt and son—Mrs Webb—Mrs Septimus Brown…
Ralph Waldo Emerson said he wrote letters to friends to ease and enable his writing hand. John Steinbeck wrote to his friend and publisher every day while he was writing his last great novel, East of Eden.
Keats published his first collection, Poems, in 2018, and it was poorly received. Letter-writing was a nurturing space for Keats to create without judgement.3
The brightest point and harshest pain are in Keats’ letters to Fanny Brawne, a woman he loved all-consumingly but heartbreakingly, was not able to marry due to his illness.
My dearest Girl,
This moment I have set myself to copy some verses out fair. I cannot proceed with any degree of content. I must write you a line or two and see if that will assist in dismissing you from my Mind for ever so short a time. Upon my Soul I can think of nothing else…My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you—I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again—my Life seems to stop there—I see no further.
It’s interesting that in the letter to Fanny Keats mentions a future that does not exist. Of course, he owes it to being without her, “life seems to stop there”; one wonders if it is Keats’ incipient recognition of mortality.
In his last known letter, dated in late 1820, two months before he died, Keats discusses his inevitable death in the only way he (or any human) could: awareness without understanding.
I have a habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence. God knows how it would have been—but it appears to me—however, I will not speak of that subject.
Like his mother before him, Keats died young from tuberculous. He died in the care and arms of Joseph Severn. A significant collection of his selected letters are now available online, thanks to Harvard University.4