Nature Mystics – John Keats

Aug 5th, 2013 | By | Category: Nature Mystics

rebeccaJohn Keats is often cited as a seminal influence on many of the other writers in this series. Therefore it is worth jumping back in time from Mary Webb’s period (the early twentieth century) to Keats’ time (the late Regency period) in order to examine Keats’ work and find out why he was so influential, and how his work relates to the spectrum of pantheists and other nature worshipping traditions. Reaching beyond the musings of my fifteen year old self who had heavily annotated my copy of ‘Selected Letters and Poems of Keats’, this particular exploration has yielded some surprises. This means it is time for a confession. Keats is only the second writer in this series, and already the working title of this exploration is looking a little bit shaky. It is possible that by the end of this journey, the conclusion may be that these writers were not ‘nature mystics’ at all. They do all have a spiritual quest in common, although each one takes a slightly different form. It is also possible that this ‘work in progress’ will need to be re-named, perhaps something along the lines of ‘Writers on a Spiritual Quest: occult influences found under our very noses’.

Keats represents the second generation of Romantic poets, coming hard on the heels of the first generation, Wordsworth and Coleridge, who published their trailblazing Lyrical Ballads in 1797. The Romantics are often referred to as pantheists, but such definitions are never clear cut. Wordsworth leaned more towards a Christian pantheism, while Coleridge experimented more with Mysticism (and opium) most famously writing ‘Kubla Khan’ on awakening from an opium trip. It is often stated that Keats and the other Romantic poets followed Wordsworth and Coleridge’s leanings towards pantheism, but these borders are never clear cut, and this is where John Keats puts rather a spanner in the works of anyone hoping for a neat classification. His own belief system (like Webb’s) is misty, ineffable, and not clearly defined beyond his love of poetry, beauty, and his love of love. Keats did not just look to nature for inspiration, but rather to human nature; his muse was more often found in human behaviour (often his own) and also in the emotional storms of his life (of which there were many). Keats lived and loved with a passion, but also battled the black dog of depression throughout his life. If one were to identify an overarching theme in his work, it would probably be his quest for self-knowledge. For anyone on a spiritual path for any length of time, this theme cannot fail to resonate. John Keats is less of a nature mystic, and more a ‘human nature mystic’; a writer who endeavoured to ‘know thyself’, as the entrance to the Delphic Oracle once instructed.

photokeatsbustKeats’ Life: putting his work in context 
It is often apparent that the lives of great writers were more dramatic than fiction, and John Keats is no exception. Born in 1795 in London, his family life was somewhat tempestuous. His father was killed in a riding accident when John was only nine years old, leaving his mother in financial difficulty. She remarried within two months, and when her own father died, she entered into a very acrimonious lawsuit against her mother over her father’s estate. Within two years of her second marriage, she and her husband separated, and she sent her children to live with the grandmother she had fallen out with. John Keats was the eldest of four children, and he and his two brothers were sent to school in Enfield. When he was thirteen, his mother and grandmother were reconciled, and his mother came to live with them. The reunion was short-lived, as she contracted tuberculosis and died a year later. The young John (then fourteen) had been in charge of her nursing, and took her loss very badly. Later that year, he left school and was apprenticed to a surgeon, but the relationship was stormy, and Keats later left his residence, to train instead at Guy’s hospital. By all accounts he became very skilled in medicine. 

It was in his late teenage years that Keats discovered poetry, by spending much of his spare time with an old school friend who had remained in formal education. Keats was introduced to the work of Spenser, which inspired him to write his first poem, aged eighteen. The next few years were spent absorbed in poetry, as he experimented with different forms. In 1816 (at the age of twenty one) he obtained a license to practice as an apothecary, but he became more and more convinced that his calling was to be a poet, not a doctor. By the time he received his license, his grandmother had died, and his financial affairs had been left in the care of a trustee. The trustee had embezzled Keats’ money, convinced that he wouldn’t need the money if he was to be practicing the affluent profession of medicine. This had long-lasting effects on Keats, who struggled financially for the rest of his life. Unknown to anyone at the time, his maternal grandfather had left a trust fund which would have solved this problem, but no one knew of its existence until later. 

In 1816 (when Keats was twenty-one) he met Leigh Hunt, which was to be a life-changing event. Hunt had published some of Keats’ work in the Examiner, and meeting Hunt opened up a new world of experience for him. He was now moving in literary circles, and his social group included writers like Byron and Shelley. This gave Keats the momentum he needed to give up medicine forever, in favour of being a poet. Wordsworth and Coleridge had stormed onto the literary scene, publishing the Lyrical Ballads in 1797, as a reaction against the lofty language and highly structured work of the Augustan school, as typified by writers like Pope. By contrast, the Romantics set out to use common language, and freer forms of poetry, like the ‘ballads’ of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s title. The first generation of Romantics also explored ideas of pantheism, although Wordsworth later returned to a form of Christian pantheism; Coleridge was more inclined to mysticism, and (for the sake of the title of this series) was probably more of a nature mystic than any of his peers. Keats was greatly influenced by both Wordsworth and Coleridge (although they had a somewhat strained personal relationship).  The second generation continued to work in opposition to the approach of the classical school, and placed more emphasis on the value of emotional responses over rational enlightenment.  

Keats career as a poet was very short lived, as it really only lasted five years. To begin with, his poetry received mixed reviews, but his faith in his ability enabled him to continue, somewhat presciently stating that he thought he would become a great poet after his death. In 1818, Keats set off on a walking tour of Scotland with a friend, but returned home to Hampstead early as he was unwell. On returning, he found his brother very obviously dying with tuberculosis, and stayed to nurse him, whilst composing his epic poem, ‘Hyperion’. When his brother died, Keats moved to Wentworth Place, to live with Charles Brown. This house has since been re-named Keats House, and now houses the Keats museum. 

keats houseBut the drama of Keats life was by no means over. Soon after he moved to Wentworth Place, the Brawne family moved into the other half of the house. Keats fell in love with Fanny Brawne, and wrote some of his most impassioned work for her, such as ‘Bright Star’, and ‘the Eve of Saint Agnes’. Following his brother’s death, Keats entered a period of depression and restlessness, in which he wrote long and tortured letters to Fanny Brawne, desperate to be with her, but unable to marry because of his financial difficulties. A short while later, Keats became ill again, and this time, he soon suspected he was suffering from latent tuberculosis, contracted whilst nursing his brother, although doctors told him he had nothing to fear. He knew the symptoms very well and also knew the prognosis was not good, having now nursed two family members through the disease. His final year was one of great pain and anguish, since doctors would not agree on a diagnosis, and therefore did little to alleviate his discomfort and suffering. In late 1820 it was decided he would benefit from spending the winter in Italy, so he and a friend set out for Rome, but it was there that he died in February 1821, at the age of just twenty-six. 

Keats was buried in Rome, with his chosen epitaph carved on his headstone, so clearly indicative of one who has walked a spiritual path of seeking self-knowledge. It read, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’. 

Keats and Spirituality
The original heading for this section might have been ‘Keats as a Nature Mystic’, but the only way to make this title fit would be to broaden the definition of ‘nature’ so wide,  as to encompass all of human life and behaviour. While a nature mystic is essentially someone who connects to the divine through the natural world, there is little evidence to suggest that Keats did this, although his descriptions of nature are highly evocative (as are all of his descriptions of beauty in the world). Nature is an obvious source of beauty, and as such is written about in Keats’ poetry, but whether he saw this as a way of connecting to the divine is not immediately obvious. Unlike Mary Webb, Keats did not appear to meditate in nature in order to find inspiration; he was a city dweller all his life, although the outlying parts of the city he lived in (such as Hampstead and Enfield) would have been far less urban than they might be considered today. He did, however, find endless fascination in human behaviour, and was very much on a spiritual quest to know himself, and his own behaviour. Robert Gittings (one of Keats’ biographers) suggests that Keats used his correspondence with close friends and family as a form of ‘spiritual journal’, recording over time a clear pattern of development. In his letters, Keats often ruminates over the processes in which he has reached various philosophical conclusions, and examines his own thought processes in great detail. Gittings also concludes that Keats’ self-awareness was second to none for a young man of such intense feeling. Not surprisingly, he also had an innate sense of the tragedy of life.

Keats’ upbringing with his grandmother was a Christian one, but later in life, his Christian faith ‘dwindled and mutated’, according to Andrew Motion (the former poet laureate, one of Keats’ more recent biographers). His personal faith system is quite hazy, and is difficult to define clearly. Keats did dissent from organised religion, and instead is said to have favoured a more ‘natural’ religion. This would broadly be defined as the belief that divinity is part of nature, and not separate from it. But his only incontrovertible declarations of faith were in poetry, beauty, and love (both physical and spiritual), and his most consistent belief was in his calling as a poet. 

Critics often have a polarised view of Keats’ philosophy. Some biographers believe he was essentially a man of science (as a result of his medical training) and clearly a humanist, while others ascribe a profoundly mystical path. One study by Jennifer Wunder has examined his links to Hermeticism and secret societies, such as the Rosicrucian order and Freemasonry, and has found a consistent pattern of hermetic imagery within his poetry. Wunder points out that Keats’ quest to know himself was also reflective of the initiatory system of secret societies, where one increased one’s own self-knowledge whilst progressing through the degrees. She identifies his intended path as being one where he ‘was to move from human passions to knowledge and transmute that knowledge to poetry that might provide physic to men’. Keats declared that he wanted to use his poetry to heal people, and by doing so, be ‘one who pours out a balm upon the world’.  

While there is no clear evidence to suggest that Keats was actually a member of the Rosicrucian Fraternity or the Freemasons, the imagery used by both movements shows up repeatedly in his poetry and his letters, so much so that it is too clear to be passed off as a coincidence. For example, his epic poem ‘Hyperion’ is sometimes interpreted as an initiation which shares much in common with those of the secret societies; from preparation through to the actual rite (which takes the form of a symbolic death and re-birth) followed by a period of re-integration, and continued learning through different stages. The same study also points out there may be several explanations for the hermetic imagery, aside from Keats having actually been a member of either movement. During his medical training at Guy’s Hospital, Keats became firm friends with a fellow student, John Spurgin, who was a follower of the Swedish philosopher and Christian mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg, and discussed these philosophies at great length with Keats, as well as the hermetic philosophies. Wunder also suggests that the popularity of secret societies such as the Freemasons at this time meant that the philosophical ideas behind the movements, and the blending of Hermeticism and Neo-Platonism were commonly known within society. This in turn filtered into the arts, and was explored in gothic novels and other romantic literature, particularly in the work of those who influenced Keats, such as Coleridge, Burns and Hunt. While the Rosacrucians and the Freemasons may have been secret societies, they looked to similar alchemical and philosophical texts for inspiration. These books, such as works by Cornelius Agrippa, Hermes Trismegistus, Marsilio Ficino and Paracelsus, were also commonly read by Keats’ contemporaries, particularly while studying (as Keats did) to become a doctor or an apothecary. Keats may not have allied himself with one particular definable religion or philosophy, but it does not mean he wasn’t interested in them. Wunder concludes that during the Romantic period, mysticism and secularisation existed side by side in Masonic organisations, so it is possible to conclude that this may have disseminated out into wider society. 

While Keats is considered to be fluent in the language of hermetic traditions, his only declared religious feelings were towards poetry, beauty and love. One of Keats’ most often quoted philosophies comes from ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ where Keats writes, 

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all Ye need to know. 

Additionally, in a letter to Fanny Brawne in October 1819, towards the end of his short life, Keats wrote, 

I have been astonished that men could die martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you. My creed is love and you are its only tenet. 

Keats’ Written Work
Keats work is remarkably extensive, for such a relatively short career. His oeuvre consists of both his poems and his recorded letters, and while it might be tempting to read only his poetry, his letters make for an enlightening context for the poems, and there is merit in reading them alongside. Keats experimented in several poetic forms during his career. Keats much admired Shakespeare, and consequently spent some time emulating the sonnets. Later he experimented with longer epic poems, such as in ‘Hyperion’ and ‘Lamia’. His best known work comes from his later period, when he began to work with ‘Odes’. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is one of his best known, 

Darkling I listen; and for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath

‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is equally remembered, 

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, 

But possibly the most well-known work by Keats (which often people know without realising) is ‘To Autumn’, 

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
conspiring with him how to load and bless
with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.

Keats may have lived a relatively short life, but his legacy to the artists who followed him (in all fields) is worthy of mention. Keats was a formative influence on Webb, Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Lawrence, and Hardy to name a few. His poetry was also immortalised in the art work of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, who painted works based on many of his poems, such as ‘La Belle Dames Sans Merci’, ‘Isabella’ and ‘The Eve of Saint Agnes’. For such a young life, the ripples through the pond left by his passing went wide. 

Further recommended reading
Gittings, Robert, Selected Poems and Letters of Keats, (London: Heinemann, 1986) 

Motion, Andrew, Keats, (London: Faber and Faber, 1997) 

Wunder, Jennifer, Keats, Hermeticism, and the Secret Societies, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008)

rebeccaRebecca Beattie is the author of ‘The Lychway’ and ‘Somewhere She is There’. She has contributed to Abraxas Journal, and is currently doing Post-Graduate reasearch into Mary Webb. She also blogs at www.rebeccabeattie.co.uk

One Comment to “Nature Mystics – John Keats”

  1. David Pryke says:

    Hi, I really enjoyed reading this blog about Keats and where he sits among the Romantic poets. That is something that has concerned me for quite some time – I am a retired teacher of English and I have taught Keats to all levels virtually all through my career of 40 years. My first in-depth reading of Keats was at Bristol University, where I studied under Professor Christopher Ricks, who at the time was promoting his book “Keats and Embarrassment”. From there, I went into teaching and in my lessons I followed the traditional line – that Keats is a Romantic poet. But that always troubled me. His poetry just does not fit the same mould as Coleridge’s or Wordsworth’s or Blake’s.

    I have spent the last 2 years of my retirement re-reading Keats and reappraising his work. About 18 months ago I came across Jennifer Wunder’s wonderful article and it seemed to tie in with so many of my own thoughts.

    So, to cut a long story short, I have been working on a book that offers a new perspective on Keats and his poetry. I believe Keats saw himself as a poet in the Hermetic tradition, a poet healer, a poet hero, one who must undertake the quest and venture into the dark regions of the soul in order to retrieve the light. If I am correct, that puts Keats firmly in a more Classical tradition…the title of my book, “John Keats a Youth Elect,” is taken from Endymion, Keats’ seminal work. I believe Keats saw himself as the chosen one, the young poet of his generation elected to undertake Endymion’s quest for true love. Of course, Endymion’s love of the moon goddess is Keats’ own quest for love – and indeed everyone’s quest for love in this world that is a Vale of Sorrows.

    “John Keats a Youth Elect” is part history, part biography and part literary commentary, taking the reader form Keats’ childhood to a few weeks of his death. Emphasising the Hermetic nature of his poetry, the work is structured on the cards of the Tarot pack, with Keats as a child being The Fool at the start of his journey through life, encountering the Hanged Man, Death and all the other cards of the major arcana, to a fulfilment in The World, the final card.

    My book is available in print and as a kindle ebook – just in case you are interested.

    regards,

    David Pryke

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