As this letter shows, John Keats’s letters are valued almost as much as his poetry for the insight they offer into life and literature – his own, and that of others.
The letter is written to Leigh Hunt, who was staying with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at the time. Towards the end of the letter, Keats refers to a story about Shelley dramatically quoting Shakespeare on the death of kings. By joking about deaths of poets, he foreshadows his and Shelley’s premature deaths in 1821 and 1822.
In April 1817, Keats had moved on from a trip to the Isle of Wight to Margate, where he was visiting his brother Tom.
Apologising for not having written sooner, Keats moves to praise their mutual acquaintance William Hazlitt’s writing; describing a particular sentence as ‘like a Whale’s back on the Sea of Prose’.
Moving to discuss Shakespeare’s Christianity, Keats quotes passages from Measure for Measure and Twelfth Night which he respectively considers ‘for’ and ‘against’ it. Around this point he begins to consider his own vocation:
I have asked myself so often why I should be a Poet more than other Men, – seeing how great a thing it is, – how great things are to be gained by it – What a thing to be in the Mouth of Fame […]
Yet he then announces that he began ‘my Poem’ – Endymion – ‘a fortnight since’ and is making good progress.