John Keats continually searched for the right kind of solitude. Keats’ poems and personal letters track a continual, questioning journey through varying manifestations of personal and poetic solitude. A letter to his brother and sister-in-law, George and Georgiana Keats, on the 25th October 1818 gives an insight into one of Keats’ battles with differing types of solitude, though both of which are an intriguing mix of solitude and connectivity. The letter gives two distinct facets of solitude, one associated with Keats the caring brother, plagued by loss and wishing to connect with his family, and the other with Keats the poet, who needs solitude (or at least some form of it) to create.
Keats writes from 1 Well Walk in Hampstead, where he had moved with his brothers, George and Tom, in April 1817 to escape the damp rooms of Cheapside due to Keats’ frequent colds and Tom’s deteriorating health. Both George and John nursed Tom through his tuberculosis, the Keats ‘family disease’ which ultimately killed their mother and all three brothers. Keats embarked on a walking tour of the Lake District and Scotland in mid-1818, accompanied by George and his wife Georgiana, who emigrated to the United States from Liverpool half way through the journey. During this walking tour, Keats’ own health was beginning to deteriorate, having caught a cold on the Isle of Mull and developed a fever.
Shortly after leaving Inverness, Keats received a letter urging him to return to Hampstead as Tom’s health had declined. Keats writes this letter to George and Georgiana a few weeks after returning from the tour to find an emaciated and feverish Tom. Here, in the face of Tom’s imminent death and his own illness, Keats turns to questions of solitude at the very beginnings of his annus mirabilis:
Ours are ties which independent of their own Sentiment are sent us by providence to prevent the deleterious effects of one great, solitary grief.
Keats appeals to the shared familial ties with his brother and sister-in-law as the counter to this ‘great, solitary grief’ in the face of Tom’s decline in health. His connections with George, Georgiana, and his lover, Fanny Brawne, the ‘three people whose Happiness to [him] is sacred’ ‘does annul that selfish sorrow which [he] should otherwise fall into’. His relationships with these three are the bulwark against his melancholic disposition, or ‘unreflection head’ as he terms it earlier in the letter, which he sees as his solitary and ‘selfish sorrow’ in relation to ‘poor Tom who looks upon me as his only comfort.’
After his mother’s death (also due to tuberculosis) during his schooling, the younger Keats turned to solitude to deal with the grief, often hiding beneath his teacher’s raised platform in the aftermath of her death. In contrast, here Keats calls on a collective family emotion to ‘bear up against any Calamity for my sake as I do for your’s.’ The prospect of grief, that ‘great, solitary’ thing, leads Keats to press for the collective sharing of emotion as a counter to this solitary experience.
He calls on George and Georgiana to allow their sorrow to become physically apparent, a moment of collective emotion that can connect them:
the tears will come into your Eyes – let them – and embrace each other – thank heaven for what happiness you have and after thinking a moment or two that you suffer in common with all Mankind hold it not a Sin to regain your cheerfullness
To keep a future solitary grief at bay, Keats urges a continued connection with a suffering held ‘in common with all Mankind’. He pushes his family members to feel their independent emotions, but in doing so to find their connection with each other (and mankind as a whole) via suffering as a means to regain cheerfulness.
Yet, later in the letter, Keats the poetic creator swiftly seeks to remove Keats the brother from any of this sharing himself. There is a distinct difference between the communal and collective feeling associated with Keats the brother, and the solitude of Keats the poet. In contrast to the familial connections which counter ‘solitary grief’, Keats rejects such domestic bliss for himself and embraces solitude, writing ‘Notwithstanding your Happiness and your recommendation I hope I shall never marry.’
Keats takes great lengths to dismiss women and relationships with women, which would only become a hinderance to his goal of poetic glory. Despite his passionate relationship with Fanny Brawne, which saves him from his ‘selfish sorrow’ earlier in the letter, here his ‘mighty abstract Idea [of] Beauty in all things stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness.’ He contemplates ‘an amiable wife and sweet Children [as] a part of that Beauty, but I must have a thousand of those beautiful particles to fill up my heart.’
With the prospect of encroaching death and solitary grief, Keats turns to his family to renew his sense of connectedness, but in poetic solitude Keats creates a familial connection with nature itself: ‘The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children.’ As a result, his ‘Solitude is sublime’ and rather than conjugal happiness he has ‘sublimity to welcome me home.’ His connection with nature is so close that Keats disappears into it, writing, ‘I melt into the air with a voluptuousness so delicate that I am content to be alone.’
Keats’ poetic life may be alone but is sensually connected with nature as he melts voluptuously into the wind, his natural wife. He asks his brother to think of his ‘Pleasure in Solitude, in comparison of my commerce with the world.’ This commerce with the world is not an equal exchange; he is at the mercy of others who ‘do not know me, not even my most intimate acquaintance.’ ‘Every one thinks he sees my weak side against my will’, Keats laments, but ‘I am content to be thought all this because I have in my own breast so great a resource.’ Alone within the commerce of the world, Keats’ imagination is his solitary refuge to indulge in his ‘yearning Passion’ ‘for the beautiful, [and] connected.’
This passion for the ‘connected’ is key to understanding Keats’ differing versions of solitude in this letter and across his poetry. At the root of these solitudes are the lamentation of death and a search for poetic life, both of which are dependent on feelings of connection. For Keats the poet, solitary reflection away from the commerce of the world is the path to poetic glory. Yet behind this, for Keats the brother, solitary grief is countered by shared tears.
James Morland (@jameswmorland) is a postdoctoral research fellow on the ‘Pathologies of Solitude’ project at Queen Mary University of London.