Advice to writers? John Keats on dealing with distractions

There are very few writers who do not, on occasion, have an attack of ‘the vapours’ – defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘ a sudden feeling of faintness, nervousness or a state of depression’. It is a  general feeling of inadequacy; a point at which all one’s work seems pointless and sub-standard. It was often used to describe an ‘hysteria’ peculiar to females, but in truth it is something that many who write for a living, on whatever subject, experience. For me it comes on me as a feeling of listlessness –  my favourite word is ‘ennui’ – and it is caused by endless procrastination. Stress levels rise and everything seems impossible. At that point I often turn away from my work and read a little Keats, whose letters are full of inspirational passages on the nature of writing and on the power of the imagination.

In this extract from one of his lengthy ‘journal letters’, written over a period of ten days in 1819 and addressed to his brother George, he offers us some sage advice on the best way to deal with listlessness and dissatisfaction: (spellings are all Keats’ own)

To George and Georgiana Keats,

17, 18, 20, 21, 24, 25, 27 September 1819

My name with the literary fashionables is vulgar – I am a weaver boy to them – a Tragedy would lift me out of this mess. And mess it is as far as it regards our Pockets – But be not cast down any more than I am. I feel I can bear real ills better than imaginary ones. Whenever I find myself growing vapourish, I rouse myself, wash and put on a clean shirt brush my hair and clothes, tie my shoestrings neatly and in fact adonize as I were going out – then all clean and comfortable I sit down to write. This I find the greatest relief – Besides I am becoming accustom’d to the privations of the pleasures of sense. In the midst of the world I live like a Hermit. I have forgot how to lay plans for enjoyment of any Pleasure. I feel I can bear any thing, any misery, even imp[r]isonment-so long as I have neither wife nor child.’

Later in the letter he says:

Some think I have lost that poetic ardour and fire ‘t is said I once had – the fact is perhaps I have: but instead of that I hope I shall substitute a more thoughtful and quiet power. I am more frequently, now, contented to read and think – but now & then, haunted with ambitious thoughts. Qui[e]ter in my pulse, improved in my digestion; exerting myself against vexing speculations – scarcely content to write the best verses for the fever they leave behind. I want to compose without this fever. I hope lone day shall. You would scarcely imagine I could live alone so comfortably “Kepen in solitarinesse” I told Anne, the servent here, the other day, to say I was not at home if anyone should call. I am not certain how I should endu[r]e loneliness and bad weather together. 

The letters Keats wrote to his brothers are written with such immediacy that one can almost imagine he is in the room with them, holding forth in conversation. Reading this I can feel inspired to calm myself, take a deep breath and sit down once more to write an article; a blog post; edits to my fiction.

Letter to Fanny. May 1820

However, this letter disguises Keats’ true state of mind. It was written from Winchester, at a time when his feelings for Fanny Brawne and the intensity with which he mused upon the effect of love on his poetic ambitions were causing him debilitating anguish. He is intent on avoiding causing his family in America any anxiety, but knowing his history as we do now, it is poignant in the extreme. Within a few weeks of this letter all of his best work would be written, his ‘fever’ increasing until the symptoms of tuberculosis became undeniable. His love for Fanny became all-consuming; they were secretly engaged and from then on his letters become increasingly prone to expressions of anger and frustration.

Later in this letter, which is well worth reading in full, he is disparaging of women, of love and the effect it has had on his friends. ‘Nothing strikes me so forcibly with a sense of the rediculous as love – A Man in love I do think cuts the sorryest figure in the world – Even when I know a poor fool to be really in pain about it, I could burst out laughing in his face – His pathetic visage becomes irrisistable.’

Apparently referring to his friend Haslam he is in reality describing his own feelings. He cannot take his own advice. The letter is a biographical gem; its inspiration comes not from the advice to tie your shoelaces and get out of your pyjamas but from the opportunity it offers to witness the power of words to tell one story and express quite another.

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One Response to Advice to writers? John Keats on dealing with distractions

  1. esmeraldamac says:

    …and indeed that he could still write about something – his feelings – but just not what he wanted to write. Perhaps that’s the best thing when stuck – just keep plonking the words down until the distractions are worked out. Good post :)

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