Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Chamber of Maiden-Thought

John Keats to J. H. Reynolds

Teignmouth May 3, 1818.

My dear Reynolds,
What I complain of is that I have been in so an uneasy a state of mind as not to be fit to write to an invalid. I cannot write to any length under a disguised feeling. I should have loaded you with an addition of gloom, which I am sure you do not want. I am now, thank God, in a humour to give you a good groats worth; for Tom, after a night without a wink of sleep, and overburthened with fever, has got up, after a refreshing day-sleep and is better than he has been for a long time; and you I trust have been again round the Common without any effect but refreshment. - As to the matter, I hope I can say, with Sir Andrew, "I have matter enough in my head" in your favor. And now, in the second place, for I reckon that I have finished my Imprimis, I am glad you blow up the weather; all through your letter there is a leaning towards a climate-curse, and you know what a delicate satisfaction there is in having a vexation anathematized. One would think there has been growing up for these last four thousand years, a grandchild Scion of the old forbidden tree, and that some modern Eve had just violated it; and that there was come, with double charge, "Notus and Afer black with thunderous clouds from Sierraliona." Tom wants to be in Town--we will have some such days upon the heath like that of last summer--and why not with the same book? or what do you say to a black-letter Chaucer printed in 1596: aye I have got one huzza! I shall have it bound gothique--a nice sombre binding; it will go a little way to unmodernize. And, also, I see no reason, because I have been away this last month, why I should not have a peep at your Spencerian - notwithstanding you speak of your office, in my thought, a little too early; for I do not see why a mind like yours is not capable of harbouring and digesting the whole Mystery of Law as easily as Parson Hugh does Pepins, which did not hinder him from his poetic canary. Were I to study physic, or rather Medicine again, I feel it would not make the least difference in my poetry; when the mind is in its infancy a bias is in reality a bias, but when we have acquired more strength, a bias becomes no bias. Every department of knowledge we see excellent and calculated towards a great whole. I am so convinced of this, that I am glad at not having given away my medical books, which I shall again look over to keep alive the little I know thitherwards; and moreover intend, through you and Rice, to become a sort of pip-civilian. An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people; it takes away the heat and fever; and helps, by widening speculation, to ease the burden of the Mystery, a thing I begin to understand a little, and which weighed upon you in the most gloomy and true sentence in your letter. The difference of high sensations, with and without knowledge, appears to me this - in the latter case we are falling continually ten thousand fathoms deep, and being blown up again, without wings and with all [the] horror of a bare shouldered creature; in the former case, our shoulders are fledge, and we go thro' the same air and space without fear. This is running one's rigs on the score of abstracted benefit; when we come to human life and the affections, it is impossible how a parallel of breast and head can be drawn; (you will forgive me for thus privately treading out [of] my depth, and take it for treading as schoolboys tread the water;) it is impossible to know how far knowledge will console us for the death of a friend and the ill "that flesh is heir to." With respect to the affections and poetry, you must know by a sympathy my thoughts that way, and I dare say these few lines will be but a ratification. I wrote them on May-day, and intend to finish the ode all in good time.

Mother of Hermes! and still youthful Maia!
May I sing to thee
As thou was hymned on the shores of BaiƦ?
Or may I woo thee
In earlier Sicilian? or thy smiles
Seek as they once were sought, in Grecian isles,
By bards who died content in pleasant sward,
Leaving great verse unto a little clan?
O give me their old vigour, and unheard,
Save of the quiet Primrose, and the span
Of Heaven, and few ears
Rounded by thee my song should die away
Content as theirs
Rich in the simple worship of a day.

You may be anxious to know for fact to what sentence in your letter I allude. You say "I fear there is little chance of any thing else in this life." You seem by that to have been going through, with a more painful and acute zest, the same labyrinth that I have--I have come to the same conclusion thus far. My branchings-out therefrom have been numerous: one of them is the consideration of Wordsworth's genius and as a help, in the manner of gold being the meridian line of worldly wealth, how he differs from Milton. And here I have nothing but surmises, from an uncertainty whether Milton's apparently less anxiety for Humanity proceeds from his seeing further or no than Wordsworth, and whether Wordsworth has, in truth, epic passion, and martyrs himself to the human heart, the main region of his song. In regard to his genius alone, we find what he says true, as far as we have experienced, and we can judge no further but by larger experience; for axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they have been proved upon our pulses. We read fine things, but never feel them to the full until we have gone [over] the same steps as the author. I know this is not plain; you will know exactly my meaning when I say, that now I shall relish Hamlet more than I ever have done--or better. You are sensible no man can set down venery as a bestial or joyless thing, until he is sick of it, and therefore all philosophizing in it would be mere wording. Until we are sick, we understand not; in fine, as Byron says, "Knowledge is Sorrow;" and I go on to say that "Sorrow is Wisdom;" and further, for aught we can know for certainty, "Wisdom is folly." So you see how I have run away from Wordsworth and Milton, and shall still run away from what was in my head, to observe, that some kind of letters are good squares, others handsome ovals, others orbicular, others spheroid--and why should there not be another species with two rough edges, like a rat-trap? I hope you will find all my long letters of that species, and all will be well; for by merely touching the spring delicately and ethereally, the rough-edged will fly immediately into a proper compactness; and thus you may make a good wholesome loaf, with your own leaven in it, of my fragments. If you cannot find this said rat-trap sufficiently tractable, alas! for me, it being an impossibility in grain for my ink to stain otherwise. If I scribble long letters I must play my vagaries; I must be too heavy, or too light, for whole pages; I must be quaint and free of tropes and figures; I must play my draughts as I please, and for my advantage and your erudition, crown a white with a black, or a black with a white, and move into black or white, far and near as I please; I must go from Hazlitt to Patmore, and make Wordsworth and Coleman play at leap-frog, or keep one of them down a whole half holiday at fly-the-garter; "From Gray to Gay, from Little to Shakespeare." I shall resume after dinner.

This crossing a letter is not without its association--for chequer-work leads us naturally to a milkmaid, a milkmaid to Hogarth, Hogarth to Shakespeare; Shakespear to Hazlitt, Hazlitt to Shakespeare; and thus by merely pulling an apron string we set a pretty peal of chimes at work. Let them chime on, while, with your patience, I will return to Wordsworth--whether or no he has an extended vision or a circumscribed grandeur-- whether he is an eagle in his nest or on the wing; and, to be more explicit, and to show you how tall I stand by the giant, I will put down a simile of human life as far as I now perceive it; that is, to the point to which I say we both have arrived at. Well, I compare human life to a large mansion of many apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being yet shut upon me. The first we step into we call the Infant or Thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think. We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it, but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle within us. We no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere. We see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight. However, among the effects this breathing is father of, is that tremendous one of sharpening one's vision into the heart and nature of man, of convincing ones nerves that the world is full of misery and heartbreak, pain, sickness, and oppression--whereby this Chamber of Maiden-thought become gradually darken'd, and at the same time, on all sides of it, many doors are set open--but all dark--all leading to dark passages. We see not the ballance of good and evil; we are in a mist, we are now in that state, we feel the "Burden of the Mystery." To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive, when he wrote 'Tintern Abbey,' and it seems to me that his genius is explorative of those dark passages. Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them. He is a genius and superior [to] us, in so far as he can, more than we, make discoveries and shed a light in them. Here I must think Wordsworth is deeper than Milton, though I think it has depended more upon the general and gregarious advance of intellect than individual greatness of mind. From the "Paradise Lost" and the other works of Milton, I hope it is not too presuming, even between ourselves, to say, his Philosophy, human and divine, may be tolerably understood by one not much advanced in years. In his time, Englishmen were just emancipated from a great superstition - and men had got hold of certain points and resting places in reasoning which were too newly born to be doubted, and too much opposed by the rest of Europe, not to be thought etherial and authentically divine. Who could gainsay his ideas on virtue, vice, and chastity in Comus, just at the time of the dismissal of a hundred social disgraces? Who would not rest satisfied with his hintings at good and evil in the Paradise Lost, when just free from the inquisition and burning in Smithfield? The Reformation produced such immediate and great benefits, that Protestantism was considered under the immediate eye of heaven, and its own remaining dogmas and superstition, then, as it were, regenerated, constituted those resting places and seeming sure points of reasoning. From that I have mentioned, Milton, whatever he may have thought in the sequel, appears to have been content with these by his writings. He did not think with the human heart as Wordsworth has done; yet Milton, as a Philosopher, had surely as great powers as Wordsworth. What is then to be inferr'd? O! many things: it proves there is really a grand march of intellect; it proves that a mighty Providence subdues the mightiest minds to the service of the time being, whether it be in human knowledge or religion.

I have often pitied a tutor who has to hear "Nom. Musa" - so often dinn'd into his ears: I hope you may not have the same pain in this scribbling--I may have read these things before, but I never had even a thus dim perception of them; and, moreover, I like to say my lesson to one who will endure my tediousness for my own sake.

After all there is certainly something real in the world--Moore's present to Hazlitt is real. I like that Moore, and am glad I saw him at the theatre just before I left town. Tom has spit a leetle blood this afternoon, and that is rather a damper--but I know--the truth is, there is something real in the world. Your third Chamber of Life shall be a lucky and a gentle one, stored with the wine of Love and the bread of Friendship.

When you see George, if he should not have received a letter form me, tell him he will find one at home most likely. Tell Bailey I hope soon to see him. Remember me to all. The leaves have been out here, for many a day - I have written to George for the first stanzas of my Isabel - I shall have them soon, and will copy the whole out for you.
Your affectionate friend
John Keats

-from Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats editied by R. Monckton Milnes (London: New York: 1848).

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