‘A Man of Letters’: The importance of reading Keats’s correspondence alongside his poetry

John Keats: A Pencil Drawing made by Charles Brown, July 1819
John Keats, a pencil drawing made by Charles Brown, July 1819.









The poet John Keats (1795-1821) wrote and received many letters during his lifetime. Fortunately for those of us wishing to study Keats’s work all these years later, much of his correspondence survived and has been edited and printed into various selections. Reading these letters helps provide an excellent window into Keats’s poems, revealing his thoughts on poetry, and the inspiring ideas that form part of the creative writing process.

One example of the correlation between Keats’s poems and his letters is found in the sonnet ‘This mortal body of a thousand days’, composed during a visit to the cottage of Robert Burns, a poet whom Keats greatly admired. The visit occurred during the summer of 1818, when Keats traveled around the United Kingdom with his friend and fellow writer Charles Brown (who also sketched the portrait of Keats used in this post). Keats wrote a letter to his friend J.H Reynolds in July 1818, describing his visit to Burns’s cottage and the difficulty he had in writing the sonnet whilst there. Keats had thought the trip would be a source of inspiration, but instead he expressed thorough disappointment with his poem, declaring in the letter the lines to be ‘so bad I cannot transcribe them’.

Another example of Keats’s letters being used to reveal the stories behind his poetry is found in Jane Campion’s 2009 film Bright Star. The film takes its title from Keats’s poem ‘Bright Star’, the sonnet many critics connect to a letter Keats sent to his fiancé Fanny Brawne on May 3rd, 1818, in which her refers to her as a ‘fair star’.  Campion uses the letters exchanged between the pair to form the film’s premise, weaving the correspondence into a fictional account of their love. Direct quotations are lifted from Keats’s letters to form part of the characters dialogue, and extracts from some of his poems are also included.

A clip from the film ‘Bright Star’ directly lifts a quote from one of Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne in July 1819, and is reproduced via Youtube: 

The following website is a great starting point for more information on Keats’s letters and poetry. It has useful online resources including images, poems and letters, and a useful bibliography of Keats related publications: Philweb Bibliographical Archive: John Keats

All quotations from the letters are taken from the Oxford World Classics publication ‘John Keats Selected Letters’ edited by Robert Gittings and John Lee.

Image reproduced from http://www.phillwebb.net/history/Nineteenth/Keats/Keats.htm

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