A Keatsian Christmas

How a Yuletide letter changed a poet, and how it can change you, too.

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Even if the only poetry you’ve ever read was in high school when the teacher made you do so — blasted adults — you likely intuited that there was something rather different, scope-wise, about the verse of winter from the verse of the warmer seasons.

The latter often enough featured the imagery of green fields and forests fit for Robin Hood to come strolling along and challenge all to an archer’s contest, with fireflies in the night and, if you were reading for deeper meanings, boundless futures comfortingly equipped with boundless possibilities. A poetry one might consider as more laden with hope than head — as I think of it, that special cognizance that has little to do with external vistas and more to do with buffeting internal winds. That is the poetry of the winter.

Not terribly cheery, you might say, and not what we think of at Christmas, but it was perhaps the most winter-based of all poets, in terms of the ideas coursing through his poems, who had his greatest epiphany during the season.

Come Christmastime 1817, John Keats had just turned 22 (on Halloween). He would have three Christmases remaining before he died of tuberculosis in February 1821. His verse to date had been, on the balance, fine, with some poems that would, with the breaks and luck that one naturally needs in these matters, last.

“One First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” for example, dates from the October before. Chapman was a translator and a star during his time, so far as translators went. He was also earthier than his predecessors, doing away with the standard niceties in his work. Keats, who would not have been a creative writing program kind of guy, loved this. The real stuff, to his thinking.

One time, sitting with a buddy in a bar, he rose to his feet, pushed his ale aside, and started reading Chapman’s work aloud, becoming increasingly more passionate. The poet was pumped up — so much so he went home that night and, come the morrow, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” was in hand. Talk about putting one up on the scoreboard.

Keats was suitably pleased with himself, and why not? With youth comes excitement, and part of that excitement stems from not knowing that what you just did maybe isn’t quite as magical as you think it is, though it has its own magic nonetheless. And for youth, that is more than enough.

Later, upon coming of what we’ll call poetic age, we poets can look back, and what had been viewed as the best there could be may become a work indicative of moving from one promising phase to another — one which can’t be moved on from. Because it’s the end, as far as going on this particular coil as an artist, within which we can also feel something we can’t express, something beyond us, something that makes us feel we are tapping into something that maybe will be revealed to us in full somewhere else.

You know that feeling if you’ve ever been moved by a great work of art, and I’d say that the season of Christmas has an aspect of that same feeling, too. Which is maybe why something weird — or not at all regular, anyway — happened to Keats at Christmas 1817.

As a young man at the time — and Keats always remained a young man, even if his soul came to possess millennia — he was gallivanting a lot: going to the museum, concerts, seasonal pantomimes, gossiping with friends, griping about who was having success, and taking a kind of personal stock that crystalizes in a December 22 letter he wrote to his brothers, George and Tom.

Keats’ letters are among the most moving, enjoyable works in the English language. There are times — and I’m not saying these times prevail, but I have them often enough — that I value Keats’ letters, as a whole, more than his poems, as a whole. Now, isolate some groups of poems, and, yes, fine, the poems carry the day. But for an easeful day in, day out display of genius in but one single volume of works, give me the letters.

Anyway, things were about to get rough for Keats in 1818. Tom would die, and Keats’ own health would start to get first dicey, and then scary. Over the course of a full life, the artist matures at a rate such that if you’re a writer, you don’t look at your 40s, your 50s, and even beyond that as times when you might not do your best work. But what has always fascinated me in Keats is that there seems to have been a timer in him that went off which said, in essence, okay, son, it’s go time, time to get to that next level, the unsurpassable level, for we might not be long for this burg. Consider, then, the Christmas letter, a remarkable document that is a sort of soul-based, one-man census-taking.

Keats begins with a mirthful tone, and you envy him the sheer activity of his Christmas season. His dance card looks livelier than yours, and he’s not toting kids around to the latest watered-down Nutcracker production. He is a blur of activity. He apologizes for going so long between letters, and gets excited about a review he just did of a production of Richard III, for Shakespeare is much on Keats’ mind this Christmas. He then speaks of an outing at the museum, where he ponders a painting called Death on the Pale Horse.

He knows he’s supposed to like it. Other people do, anyway. And he’s okay with it, on one level, but then the tone of the letter starts to change. It becomes less about sharing Yuletide comings and goings with dearly missed siblings and more about a journey one man is newly embarking upon, upon which no brothers could come, nor anyone else for that matter. This Christmas version of Keats is readying for a departure. And when you read the letter, you can feel him knowing this.

“But there is nothing to be intense upon,” he offers regarding the painting. “No women one feels mad to kiss; no face swelling into reality. The excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate…”

Disagreeables, perhaps, including death as we think of death. But Keats was developing new notions of death and of life and what it meant to partake of both, to succumb to one and triumph over the other, and how those processes were as relevant and interchangeable for each of the two forces. And who the hell do you talk to about that when you’re starting to figure that out? He’s talking to his brothers, of course, but that’s in a nominal fashion, for the person Keats is really writing to, as the Christmas letter takes this first shift, is Keats himself.

And truly he has hit upon something big: a work of art should not feel like a work of art if it’s a great work of art. It should feel like life. You should not be focused on its art-ness or its potential art-ness, because it should be transporting you to deal with a kind of life-ness, a you-ness. Newness, too, but with a look back to the past. “Your past,” to use a line from the second of Scrooge’s ghosts. That kiss one was once made to feel, and all of the variations thereof.

The letter turns snippy at that point, but not overly so — just some gossip about unpleasant dining companions. We all do it. It’s even done in Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. Goes with the holiday. But Keats goes further, and is less bothered by how much he didn’t enjoy these people as for the main reason he didn’t enjoy them: they were all alike. They did everything alike. They gripped their wine glasses alike. Everything was the same. They try to out-witticize each other, and Keats starts missing a good old belly laugh — some joy divorced from pretentiousness, from trying to prove how clever you are. How you’re more clever than the person who just spoke, as the person who speaks after you will try to prove they’re more clever still.

For Keats, it’s all bollocks. These are the people who will see merits in Death on the Pale Horse that Keats knows are not there. Read back through some earlier letters and you can imagine him being more favorably inclined to these people. But the shift is happening. And then we move back to Shakespeare. Keats and Shakespeare, Shakespeare and Keats. He will not let go of the Bard.

In a letter the previous month to his friend J.H. Reynolds, Keats goes on and on about Shakespeare’s sonnets. He says he’s never seen such beauty. But what is remarkable is that Keats isn’t talking up Shakespeare like some fan or someone who wants to get other people to see what he does in Shakespeare. He wants, put simply, to go there. To do his version of that. And he’s seeing that, at least as far as poetry-making goes, which is different than legacy-making, he may be able to find a way to hang. In fact, he knows he can. No one else does, and it’s not really something you can voice to people, and so we come to the moment of Keats’ Christmas letter that is most readily a message of the season from the poet, to the poet.

“…[S]everal 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…”

You know what he means, don’t you? He means letting go. Having the character and the courage and trust in yourself to accept darkness. That you will never know some things that you think you should know. That you will never learn other things that you were promised you would be told. In our digital age, a comparison would be that you don’t need to know what is going on on the screen of your phone every 20 minutes, or even every six months.

Because none of that, the knowledge that can be passed along that way, in any of those ways, is the knowledge that is going to truly move you along as a person. Or as an artist. Which, for Keats, were the same two things, just as Christmas is both the start of something and a yearly end of something else.

As far as we know, Keats never used the phrase “Negative Capability” again. There was no need. As Orson Welles said, once can be enough. And once can certainly be enough if something definitively takes hold, as this new awareness did for Keats. One might think of it as being willing enough and brave enough to go swimming in the black waters where knowledge is not so plain, rather than the well-lit pool where we always know where to turn, or one of those vernal ponds of the poetry of warmer times.

Keats would go on to write the Odes — the finest poetry, in my view, in the history of literature — and these were not works that could have been written by someone who had not taken the plunge that this particular poet did. Pulling knowledge from the unknown. Getting control from that which one cannot control. It’s really no different, as Keats was learning, from succumbing to life and conquering death, and vice versa.

Granted, I do not picture him humming carols and writing this letter over a cup of mulled cider, but that is only because I imagine he had blank sheaves of paper strewn about the writing table, ready to be filled up with new art just as soon as he completed telling his brothers what he was up to that Christmas season. •

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
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