Instead of killing himself, Keats ate a nectarine. This was September 22, 1819. Melancholy generally — though he balanced his blues with a sanguine generosity his many friends admired — Keats was now despondent, "lax, unemployed, unmeridian’d, and objectless," verging on the anguish that drove him, a year later, to try to poison himself.
Fortune had flogged him. His guardian’s mishandling of his inheritance, combined with his own loose economizing, had left him dangerously in debt, and his best prospect for a job, not promising, was hack journalism. He feared that his chronic sore throat omened the consumption that had killed his mother and brother. (Four months later, his lungs would violently hemorrhage.) And though he had just completed what may have been the most productive summer in literary history, which he had capped, 24 hours earlier, with the majestic "To Autumn," bad reviews and poor sales of earlier verse portended oblivion. Finally, he was torn up over Fanny Brawne. He "ache[d]" to be with her, would die for only "one hour" at her side, but lacked the nerve to see her when he had the chance. He couldn’t "bear flashes of light" and then have to "return to [his] glooms again."
Keats rallied on this September day to write a letter to his friend Charles Dilke. The poet opens briskly, asking Dilke to arrange new London lodgings for him. But the tone turns sullen. His "temper and imagination" are capriciously flinging him down or up, exhausting his will to do much of anything. He needs to act. If he can’t compose poetry, he can at least look to his "immediate welfare." His only vocational hope, though, is journalism, prostitution of intellect.
He continues in this cheerless tone, shuffling peevishly from one complaint to another, bereft of his two most shining virtues, from which sprang his poems and sweet nature: empathy — the ability to feel the world through the body of another — and flexibility, openness to ambiguity, the darkness always bleeding into the light. He is self-absorbed, confused, bitter.
The poet dares to eat a peach. He casts Prufrockian despair aside, and, with self-forgetting abandon, blissfully gluts the tongue on the honeyed orange-amber, becoming engulfed while engulfing, relishing the consummation of juice and spit. The communion makes for an experience, an instant gone crazily alive: ecstasy only, the going out of ego into another, the reception of that otherness into the porous sameness of self. Such rapturous tasting is brief salvation, if being saved means overcoming isolation and merging joyously once more with the world’s flourishing.
Bliss is sensual shock. Keats knew. "I look not for [happiness] if it be not in the present hour — nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince and pick about the Gravel."
In another creature, in this case a winged thing, is Keats’s virtue restored, his talent for dissolving "I" into "thou." Once Keats was so immersed in Spenser’s description of a whale that he, in telling of a passage, "hoisted himself up, and looked burly and dominant, as he said, ‘What an image that is — sea-shouldering whales!’" Another time, the man turned billiard ball, delighting in its "roundness, smoothness[,] volubility & the rapidity of its motion."
Keats can delve, from nectarine to pit to atom; or he can fling himself out: into leaf, tree, sun. Whatever the sphere, he is giddy: "I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds."
That Keats could distribute his being through the universe, and transmute his passages into poems astonishingly vital: This is sublime, as was Shakespeare, law-abiding playwright, when he metamorphosed into murderous Macbeth. But even more extraordinary is that Keats achieved such transcendence while mired in misery.
With one hand Keats loads a note with despair; with the other, he raises fruit, gleefully gulps, floats above woe. How to conceive this capaciousness, this double vision? Does the duplicity disclose a painful rip down the center of a psyche, or signal a mutual arising of interdependent opposites, each side requiring, informing, and intensifying the other? Or is the two-sidedness, impossibly, both: terrible tear and gratifying harmony?
A sperm whale, the Ishmael of Melville’s novel notes, has eyes on either side of its head, where humans have ears, and so can examine at once "two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in exactly an opposite direction," as if "a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstrations of two distinct problems in Euclid." This binary sight intimates a brain "much more comprehensive, combining, and subtle than man’s," but precludes a forward unified horizon and so is blind to a straight-on foe, or friend. The line between "first-rate intelligence," Fitzgerald’s phrase for a mind capable of holding "two opposed ideas … at the same time," and a "crack-up," the novelist’s word for going mad, is so fine that it fades.
Leviathan-empath and muse of F. Scott, rent between affliction and nectarine, knowing that the sweetened tongue is but a brief respite from the gall that still haunts the taste, Keats was keenly sensitive to life’s borderlands. Most of the time he was able to harmonize the schizoid and the seamless into supple, compelling poems. He had a genius for facing and reconciling the everyday abrasions and caresses that make up ordinary life: cold mornings, jealousy, insomnia, passion unrequited and requited, dying friends, gin, well-fitting boots, kindness. By exemplifying how to negotiate gracefully among these boring, baffling, devastating, exhilarating realities — how to manage them without sinking into despair or sliding into superficiality — Keats blended truth and beauty.
"A man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory." So Keats asserted, implying that a noble person’s life should be treated like that of a fictional character, an Ishmael or a Hamlet or a Clarissa Dalloway, whose actions aren’t accidental and singular but designed, universal. Keats aspired to be such a figure, a model for how to live, how to make a soul.
Embracing the messy surfaces of the material world is typically not associated with that most ancient word, "soul." For Platonists and Christians, for instance, the soul is the supernatural portion of a human being, best cultivated when the urges of the flesh are denied. To deny the pleasures of time is to orient the soul to eternity, its proper home.
For Keats, who calls the world itself the "vale of Soul-making," the soul isn’t an eternal substance, but an aptitude — we cultivate it over a lifetime — for affirming the "Pains and troubles" of the world and transforming them into meaningful, potent aesthetic forms, which can be poems or paintings but also gardening and good parenting.
This soul-work is what differentiates us from one another, makes us "Identities," individuals. No one can suffer my pain but me, and my response to that is my singularity. The kind of self I make, base or noble, depends upon how I interpret my sorrow, whether narrowly or expansively.
Genius for Keats is capaciousness, the ability to feel the pain of the other almost as closely as I feel my own. This is the core of his famous negative capability. To hover in "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" is to create a space in which I can be petulant over my own pain while at the same time compassionate, since I realize that in my suffering, I am one with the world.
Such an interpretation of hurt is art: the grim turned generous. Every step is a tumble toward the grave, but we can decide how to fall — the bitter face-plant or a graceful forward roll. The bruises are nasty, but their purplish centers resemble the skins of nectarines.
Eric G. Wilson is a professor of English at Wake Forest University. He is the author, most recently, of How to Make a Soul: The Wisdom of John Keats (Northwestern University Press, 2015), from which this essay is adapted.