The crucible letters

The letters of John Keats number among the finest we possess. Written between the ages of 21 and 25, they stage one of the most intense displays of personal and poetic growth by a creative mind. To say they show potential ignited into fact is to say a lit match benefits fireworks.

Like all great letters, Keats's reveal the fine particularity of their writer's character while illuminating the universality of his vision. One returns to them over and over. Their capacity to nourish, surely the sign of greatness in letters, is boundless. Often it's the felicity of a single phrase that inspires: "My imagination is a Monastery and I am its Monk." More often, though, the lure is meditative counsel: "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."

What separates and distinguishes Keats's letters is their insistent illumination of the poetic process itself. To read them consecutively is to witness that process activelym unfolding and strengthening before our eyes. The effect is that of a time-lapse film suddenly sped up, spinning an image of instantaneous growth.

The modern imagination continues to be staggered by the brutal contrast between the philosophic richness of the letters and the human brevity of their span. These are not, after all, the culled wisdom of an old man; memory's revisions. They are the letters of a young man in his prime, trialed, tested, immaculate of guile.

Beneath the endless surface charm of these letters, we hit on the heart of Keats's appeal: the continual defining of the moral self. His fitful if inspired quest for self-reliance, for "energy over despair," is at stern odds against the notion of indolent self-pity. "Vale of tears?" he writes, "What a little circumsribed straightened notion! I say 'Soul Making.'"

No one familiar with Keats's life can accuse him of facile or dangerous optimism. Life, he knew, held its vivid cruelties. However solid his talent for friendship, the intensely empathic nature that delights his biographers, Keats understood reality's "bitter sweet Shakesperian fruit." His conviction in the lived process "of provings and alterations and perfectionings" finds its logical conclusion in his statement "That which is creative must create itself." For him, choice, responsibility, energy, were all.

"A Man's life of any worth is a continual allegory," he wrote in a letter of 1819."Shakespeare led a life of Allegory: his works are the comments on it." And later, "(Shakespeare) had only to think of anything in order to become that thing." This, we feel, is Keats's poetic credo and his personal ambition. To be capable, as he wrote, "of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

In his preface to Keats's letters (also reprinted in "The Opposing Self"), Lionel Trilling suggests that Keats's "giving so generous a credence to growth, development and possibility . . . to the idea of community," marks him as "the last image of health at the very moment when the sickness of Europe began to be apparent."

Contemplating Keats's final hours, his concern for his companion's thankless vigil, Trilling concludes sadly, "The tone, we feel, is not ours. . . . We do not have what produces this tone, the implicit and explicit commitment to the self even in the moment of its extinction. Events, it would seem, have destroyed that commitment."

Surely if we salvage any instruction from the letters pitted with financial and personal misfortune, it's that events were precisely what sharpened that commitment in the poet.Keats showed us far more than imagination's powers applied to poetry. He showed us how they apply to livingm one's life. He showed us that in life, as in poetry, a cannibalism of the self doesn't necessarily ensure survival.

This is what continues to draw us back to the letters. Amid his "healthy deliberation" on a world full "of light and shade, of gusto," Keats discloses a stunning capacity for reality. As in his final odes, we sense a self given over to a larger rimless world. A world where imagination is the very stratagem of the self's survival.

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