Keats on the Joy of Singledom and How Solitude Opens Our Creative Channels to Truth and Beauty
By Maria Popova
“Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul… Seek solitude,” the great French artist Eugène Delacroix counseled himself in 1824. Just a few years earlier, another timeless patron saint of the creative spirit extolled the rewards of solitude as a supreme conduit to truth and beauty.
Celebrated as one of the greatest poets humanity has ever produced, John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) married an extraordinary capacity for transcendence with an uncommon share of sorrow. His short life was suffused with loss from a young age — his father died after a horseback accident when Keats was eight and his mother died of tuberculosis when he was fourteen. And yet even amid his darkest despair, Keats maintained a luminous faith in truth, beauty, and the power of the imagination.
I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination — What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth — whether it existed before or not — for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.
For Keats, the sacred road to love and beauty passed through the gates of solitude. With loss as his constant companion since childhood, he had no choice but to seek solace in the only certainty that couldn’t be taken away from him: his own living self.
In his early twenties, Keats found himself warmed for the first time by the fire of romantic love. But just as he was beginning to surrender to the possibility of happiness in communion, his brother Tom began exhibiting increasingly severe symptoms of tuberculosis. In nursing him, the young poet exposed himself to the infection that would eventually take his own life three years later. Watching Tom fade, Keats was faced once again with the impending devastation of having his loved ones taken from him one by one, leaving him even more alone than before — and more determined than ever to use his solitude for creative sustenance.
In a letter from late October of 1818, 23-year-old Keats offers a most magnificent testament to the power of what Bertrand Russell called “fruitful monotony,” that great fertilizer of creative flourishing. The young poet writes to his brother George and his sister-in-law Georgina:
Notwithstand[ing] your Happiness and your recommendation I hope I shall never marry. Though the most beautiful Creature were waiting for me at the end of a Journey or a Walk; though the carpet were of Silk, the Curtains of the morning Clouds; the chairs and Sofa stuffed with Cygnet’s down; the food Manna, the Wine beyond Claret, the Window opening on Winander mere, I should not feel — or rather my Happiness would not be so fine, as my Solitude is sublime. Then instead of what I have described, there is a Sublimity to welcome me home — The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children. The mighty abstract Idea I have of Beauty in all things stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness — an amiable wife and sweet Children I contemplate as a part of that Beauty. But I must have a thousand of those beautiful particles to fill up my heart. 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 — No sooner am I alone than shapes of epic greatness are stationed around me, and serve my Spirit the office which is equivalent to a King’s body guard… I melt into the air with a voluptuousness so delicate that I am content to be alone… I have written this that you might see I have my share of the highest pleasures and that though I may choose to pass my days alone I shall be no Solitary… I am as happy as a Man can be… with the yearning Passion I have for the beautiful, connected and made one with the ambition of my intellect.
With an eye to the perennial problem of how woefully we misjudge each other’s inner worlds based on outward appearances, Keats adds:
Think of my Pleasure in Solitude, in comparison of my commerce with the world — there I am a child — there they do not know me not even my most intimate acquaintance — I give into their feelings as though I were refraining from irritating a little child — Some think me middling, others silly, others foolish — every one thinks he sees my weak side against my will; when in truth it is with my will — I am content to be thought all this because I have in my own breast so great a resource.
Tom died five weeks later. The bereavement only intensified Keats’s communion with solitude, and yet he channeled it as a creative force, tapping ever more deeply into that great resource within his own breast. The trying period after Tom’s death marked the beginning of Keats’s annus mirabilis — the yearlong spell of creative vitality under which he produced most of the work for which he is best beloved today, including his “Ode to a Nightingale.”
Complement this particular fragment of Keats’s wholly enchanting Selected Letters with Edward Abbey’s sublime 1968 love letter to solitude and this modern-day manifesto for how to be alone, then revisit psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why “fertile solitude” is essential for creative work.
Published February 1, 2016