The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Keats on the Measure of Compassion

Keats on the Measure of Compassion

“Have compassion for everyone you meet,” Lucinda Williams sings in the gorgeous song based on her father’s poem of the same title, “You do not know / What wars are going on / Down there, where the spirit meets the bone.” A generation earlier, the psychologist turned pioneering sculptor Anne Truitt wrote in her uncommonly insightful diary: “I have always been mystified by the speed with which people condemn one another… This seems to give them intense pleasure. Whenever I am tempted by this pleasure, I remember some impulse in myself that could have led me, granted certain circumstances, into the condemned position. This has caused me to distrust the part of myself that would relish self-righteousness.”

The saccharine pleasure of self-righteousness is, upon even the most cursory reflection, incompatible with compassion — with the ability to consider another’s foibles and mistakes with the same generosity of interpretation, in the same breadth of context and character, one would consider one’s own.

That is what the great Romantic poet John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) explores in one of the timeless treasures collected in his Selected Letters (public library).

Life mask of John Keats by Benjamin Haydon, 1816 (National Portrait Gallery)

In a letter to his dearest friend, penned in early 1818, just before a series of life-blows plunged the young poet into his most harrowing depression yet, Keats writes:

Men should bear with each other — there lives not the Man who may not be cut up, aye hashed to pieces on his weakest side. The best of Men have but a portion of good in them — a kind of spiritual yeast in their frames which creates the ferment of existence — by which a Man is propell’d to act and strive and buffet with Circumstance.

Only with such a compassionate orientation, Keats suggests, can we begin to care about and durably connect with another. In consonance with Hannah Arendt’s admonition against trying to change those we love, he argues that the healthiest, strongest connection is forged when we willingly face and accept the foibles and peculiarities of the other from the outset:

The sure way… is first to know a Man’s faults, and then be passive, if after that he insensibly draws you towards him then you have no Power to break the link.

Complement this fragment of Keats’s endlessly rewarding Selected Letters — which also gave us his precocious wisdom on the mightiest consolation for a heavy heart, what gives meaning to human existence, how solitude opens up our channels to truth and beauty, and his exquisite love letter to Fanny Brawne — with Carl Sagan on compassion and moving beyond us vs. them and historian Karen Armstrong on compassion and the true meaning of the Golden Rule, then revisit Oliver Sacks on the art of choosing empathy over vengeance.

Published July 2, 2019




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