The Stoic Philosophy of John Keats

My paper “The Stoic Philosophy of John Keats” answers in large part why John Keats, the Romantic poet, figures largely in my living philosophy as a Stoic exemplar. What is left unexplained resides in my fascination and reverence for a suffering and extraordinary person.

The Stoic Philosophy of John Keats

“ ‘. . . to bear all naked truths, / And to envisage circumstance, all calm, / That is the top of sovereignty. Mark well!’ ” Hyperion

Three months before John Keats died in Rome, he wrote his valedictory letter. He addressed his closest friend, Charles Brown, describing the toll consumption had taken and preparing Brown for news of his death: “There, you rogue, I put you to the torture; but you must bring your philosophy to bear . . .”1 Taken alone, this advice might appear an off-hand comment; however, it was the last of many statements that Keats made about philosophy in his letters. In his final days, as through his life, Keats did not believe that religion offered the way to reconcile oneself to adversity or that it revealed the mysteries for which the tangible world was the allegorical representation; for him, philosophy provided guidance for living and, if not an answer to the eternal questions, at least clues. Keats was interested in and valued philosophy second only to poetry and, well into his career as a poet, he even stated in a letter that “the human friend philosopher” was more “genuine” than a “fine writer” (364). Keats’s philosophy takes shape in his letters and surfaces at times in his poetry, and it is a philosophy that is at one with Roman Stoicism. I have identified Stoic ideas in his letters, in a number of his poems, and in his approach to life primarily to view Keats and his work from the new perspective that a comparative study affords. I have incidentally endorsed Stoicism: that Keats, one of the greatest and most revered English poets, suffered a life of hardship, pondered philosophical matters and arrived at essentially a Stoic philosophy serves as a strong recommendation for that system–a philosophical approach to life that is viable for the present day.2 Stoicism can be briefly defined, for purposes of a starting point for the discussion to follow, as a program for achieving a tranquil life that finds value in adversity, promotes the use of reason to overcome emotion (because reason is the attribute particular to man), teaches the unimportance of external events, advocates
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moderation in all things, and views death as a solution, transition or end, since life after death is unknowable. 3
Many scholars believe that during the years of 1818 through 1819, Keats was attempting to develop a comprehensive philosophical system.”4 In a letter written during that period, Keats declared that, although he was only “straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness” (304), he deserved credit for working toward knowing himself, and he supported the value of philosophical endeavors by quoting John Milton: “ ‘How charming is divine Philosophy, / Not harsh and crabbed, as dull fools suppose, / But musical as is Apollo’s lute’ ” (304-5). Having identified that Keats had a strong philosophical tendency, scholars of literature and philosophy have sought in his poetry elements of Humanism,5 Platonism,6 and Zen Buddhism.7 Humanism might underlie his poems, but it is less a method for daily living and a response to eternal questions than the historical development of a general attitude. Also, a study of Keats as a Platonist must focus on his poetics, not on a method for living because Plato was a dialectician and theorist; certainly Keats was not suggesting to Brown that he deal with grief by remembering Platonic ideas. As for Zen Buddhism, there is an overlap in small ways between that and Stoicism, but Zen elements, if any, in certain poems do not connect Keats, personally or philosophically, to that system of belief.
In demonstrating that Keats developed a Stoic philosophy, I must propose that he was influenced by Stoic thought, arrived at Stoic ideas coincidentally, or that he fell somewhere on the scale between the two possibilities. The last prevails, although far closer to coincidence than influence. As for any direct influence on Keats, even though he did read Latin fluently, there is no evidence that he read any Stoic writers. He borrowed books from friends and from libraries, set himself a course of study, and stated that he was going to ask William Hazlitt’s advice on
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books to read; Hazlitt was a “philosopher” and an acolyte of Montaigne, who had borrowed many Stoic concepts. However, no books by Stoic writers were among his books when he died, he never mentioned reading them in his letters, and biographers and scholars, such as Robert Gittings, have investigated carefully what Keats read in order to discern influences on his poetry and have not mentioned any of those writers. In considering indirect influences, Hellenistic and Roman philosophical ideas could have reached Keats through various writers. Moses Hadas in his introduction to The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca (1958) has explained, regarding the ubiquity of Stoic thought after the time of Marcus Aurelius: “After his time the school as such faded out, but its doctrines perceptibly influenced later Neoplatonism and some of the Church Fathers and became a substantial strand in the skein of European thought” (26). In particular, Vergil (an author Keats knew well and whom Seneca quoted to preface his essays), French philosophers (he read Voltaire), and the English poets (particularly Shakespeare and Milton) contained sifted grains of Stoicism. Keats’s familiarity with Socrates, through Plato or others, might account for some landmarks of Stoicism in his intellectual landscape, since Socrates is considered the Adam of an extended philosophical family tree that included Stoicism. William Irvine in A Guide to the Good Life (2009) has described the influence of Socrates on Stoicism: “It is as if Socrates, on his death, had fissioned into Plato and Antisthenes, with Plato inheriting Socrates’ interest in theory and Antisthenes inheriting his concern with living a good life. . . . Unfortunately, although the theoretical side of philosophy flourished, the practical side his withered away” (20). Antisthenes and “the practical side” are Stoic.
Given the dispersal of Stoic teaching, tracing any particular Stoic influence on Keats is like finding the end of a spider’s web. Keats himself recognized that his philosophical musings were fed by myriad and preexisting streams of thought: “I have often pitied a tutor who has to

hear ‘Nom. Musa’ so often dinn’d into his ears—I hope you may not have the same pain in this scribbling—I may have read these things before, but I never had even a thus dim perception of them; and moreover I like to say my lesson to one who will endure my tediousness, for my own sake” (131). That quote illustrates that, despite any attenuated Socratic and Stoic ancestry of his readings, Keats was originating his philosophical thoughts, rather than studying prior systems; through that process he arrived at a preponderance of Stoicism coincidentally.

The Purpose and Development of Philosophy

Keats concerned himself in his philosophy with finding the best way to deal with life, rather than with pursuing theoretical exercises in logic. The philosophy of Stoicism also concerned itself with a way to confront life, as distinguished from metaphysics. Moses Hadas has described the difference: “Its program was at all times more important than the scaffolding of logic and physics erected to support it . . .”8 The origin of Stoicism accounts for its practicality, as Hadas explained: “Stoicism aimed at reconciling the claims of the individual with the “demands of his overwhelmingly enlarged environment” after the fall of the city-state that had hitherto served to define the individual’s world.9 Incidentally, the growth of a system to fill a void in society is analogous to its providing the agnostic individual, like Keats, a philosophy in the absence of organized religion. Beyond designing a useful system for himself, Keats also aimed at a larger, non-personal benefit from philosophy, as he explained in a letter: “I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good to the world. Some do it with their society—some with their wit—some with their benevolence—some with a sort of power of conferring pleasure and good humour on all they meet—and a thousand ways, all dutiful to the command of great nature—there is but one way for me. The road lies through application, study, and thought. . . . I have been hovering for some time between an exquisite sense of the

luxurious, and a love for philosophy,—were I calculated for the former, I should be glad. But as I am not, I shall turn all my soul to the latter” (120-21). The larger, non-personal goal of benefitting society that Keats mentioned figures as a purpose of the Stoics. Seneca, a Roman Stoic, who lived from about 4 B.C. to 165 A.D., encouraged his acolytes to work for the good of the country, then, if forced out of civic duty or prevented by circumstance from participating in the community, to pursue teaching, writing or philosophy—all valuable for the world as much as for oneself. Seneca advised: “If, then, you bestow the time you abstract from public business upon study, you will not be deserting or shirking your duty.”10 I rely throughout this paper on Seneca as the representative of Roman Stoicism because his essays and letters offer the most developed, comprehensive, and accessible Stoic information.
As for his approach to developing a philosophy, Keats did not devote himself to one preceptor, but rather he worked out matters for himself, as noted above in the discussion of the influences that Keats was heir to in developing his philosophy. Keats’s approach of gathering ideas from various sources mimics Stoicism’s syncretistic nature: Seneca borrowed from any school of thought where he found a useful item of knowledge, and having done so it was as much his as anyone’s: “Whatever is true is mine,” Seneca stated (77), regardless of whether Epicurus, for example, was known for the idea. Seneca also exhorted his students not to receive ideas passively, but to create their system. Seneca admonished his followers not to remain a “subaltern” to other thinkers, but to “Take command and say things that will be handed down to posterity” (186). Therefore, Keats acted in accord with Seneca’s precept in fashioning his own cut of philosophy, rather than following the notions of any given school. Creating one’s own system struck him as the correct path because he felt anyone could construct his own philosophy: “Memory should not be called Knowledge. Many have original minds who do not think it—they

are led away by Custom. Now it appears to me that almost any Man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel . . . with a few points to tip with the fine Web of his Soul. . .”(88-9). Keats’s thoughts in that statement echo Seneca’s idea that those who never create but only interpret “exercise their memories on what is not their own. But to remember is one thing, to know another” (187). We see that point of view in the letter to Brown cited at the beginning of this paper because Keats did not write “our” (as one might to refer to a shared religion), but “your philosophy”–Brown was apparently charged with developing his own.
Keats, like the Stoics, developed a practical philosophy; however, he did of course expound on art and poetry, creating an aesthetic philosophy notable for his ideas on the relation of beauty and truth, on the chameleon poet, and on negative capability. His aesthetics overlap his practical philosophy because Keats believed that poetry could alleviate suffering and that writing it consoled him: “Life must be undergone, and I certainly derive some consolation from the thought of writing one or two more poems before it ceases. . .” (139). It so happens that our representative Stoic, Seneca, also veered off the path of practical philosophy to address the nature of a writer, perhaps because he was also a playwright. Despite Stoicism’s general lack of interest in aesthetics and its concern for reigning in emotion, Seneca allowed a passionate and immoderate mindset for writing: he referred to the statements of Plato and Aristotle and their views on the mixture of madness and genius typical to great poetic creativity, then articulated his own belief: “ . . . in any case only a mind that is excited is capable of great and transcendant utterance. . . . It must tear itself from the trodden path, palpitate with frenzy. . . ” (106). On that point, Keats would have nodded in complete agreement. In a poem included in a letter to his brother George, Keats described the poet as being in a “trance,” capable of perceptions like no other person (21). Keats also stated in his letters that, when immersed in writing, he was in a sort

of fever (414) and that the presence of any person, “burst on him like a thunderbolt” (363). That he worked himself up into such a feverish state almost lends credibility to the medical injunction imposed on Keats when ill against writing poetry because it would impede his recovery (459).

The Nature of a Sage

Keats and Seneca were in agreement on the kind of person who merited the title of a philosopher. Keats freely used the term “philosopher” in his letters, and by that term he intended the highest accolade. Less obvious, but discernible, was what exactly he meant by that word. His letters reveal that a philosopher exhibited two necessary attributes: outwardly he was disinterested and inwardly he delved into the mysteries of life. Applying that measure to certain personal acquaintances and literary figures, Keats noted that his contemporary William Wordsworth lacked the first criterion: “I am sorry that Wordsworth has left a bad impression wherever he visited in town by his egotism, Vanity and bigotry. Yet he is a great poet if not a philosopher” (92). Thus he concluded, despite having considered Wordsworth and John Milton philosophers in an earlier letter; he had even given Wordsworth the greater ability to see “into the human heart” because he lived in a later time of greater intellectual development than Milton’s (130-31). The shortcoming of Wordsworth described by the quote was his lack of disinterestedness. Attempting to cut a fine figure in society and to foster self-serving agendas routed disinterestedness, and Keats considered Wordsworth, lamentably, to have engaged in those practices. The disinterested person Keats declared was not to be found because “. . . there are none prepared to suffer in obscurity for their Country” (218). In observing how uncommon the trait was Keats wrote: “Very few men have ever arrived at a complete disinterestedness of Mind: very few have been influenced by a pure desire of the benefit of others,–in the greater part of the Benefactors of Humanity some meretricious motive has sullied their greatness—some

melodramatic scenery has fascinated them” (303). In his letter on this topic, Keats appears immersed in working out his thoughts, as he continued for several lines before realizing that he considered two men to be such disinterested individuals: Socrates and Jesus (304). (His examples happen to be Stoic in nature: Socrates was the first in the line of Stoic descent and Christianity incorporated many Stoic doctrines because they assimilated easily into Christian doctrine). The other “philosophers” that he mentioned in his letters, who achieved some measure of disinterestedness and achieved insight into the human heart, were Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth, as discussed, and, in passing, William Godwin and Voltaire.
Seneca also valued disinterestedness and extolled the process of exploring the nature of life. Seneca described in his letters individuals exhibiting very similar characteristics to those that Keats deplored in Wordsworth, citing examples of wasted lives those who spent time “gadding about the city on social duties” (50) and ridiculed vanity at length (61). One of Seneca’s primary examples of disinterestedness in action was Scipio Africanus, although he many times referred to Socrates as exemplary, particularly in the way in which he met his death. Scipio formed the subject of an entire letter, having made a powerful impression on Seneca when he visited his country house (216-19). Seneca marveled at the simplicity with which he lived after making the hugely disinterested act of leaving Rome to return to his farm because it was best for Roman democracy: “How could I not admire the high spirit which withdrew him into voluntary exile and so disburdened the state?” (216). On the second criterion of a philosopher, Seneca encouraged his acolytes to ponder philosophical matters as the summum bonum: “. . . there is nothing that the lapse of time does not dilapidate and exterminate. But the dedications of philosophy are impregnable; age cannot erase their memory or diminish their force. Each succeeding generation will hold them in ever higher reverence . . .” (67).

Tranquility over Adversity and Joy

Whether in early 19th century England or ancient Rome, it would not take much thought, philosophical or otherwise, to conclude that suffering and sorrow accounted for a large measure of existence and that death was ever close at hand. Keats and Seneca developed consistent explanations for the existence of hardship and ways to reconcile man to it. Keats concluded from the natural world that hardship was an intrinsic part of life: “The whole appears to resolve into this—that Man is a poor forked creature subject to the same mischances as the beasts of the forest, destined to hardships and disquietude of some kind or other” (325). He continued in that letter to opine that man could no more escape his suffering than the rose could avoid the withering sun or the fish disperse the ice of winter streams (326). Further, no great person, no Socrates walking the earth, could mitigate that reality (325). Seneca would not have disputed the natural and constant nature of hardship, but attributed its origin to gods. This point of difference is minor because such gods were akin to forces of nature and embodied an ideal perfection. The gods were all powerful, yet nowhere does Seneca suggest placating them or supplicating for a change anymore than Keats would have left offerings to nature for a mitigation of his illness.
Thus, given the natural origin of hardship and its inescapability, the question for philosophy was how to reconcile oneself to it. Neither Keats nor Seneca gave any credence to suffering as punishment or as the basis for the compensations of a heavenly afterlife. Instead, their common theme was the usefulness of adversity to achieve self-knowledge and to form a person: more particularly, for Keats to form a soul, for Seneca to fashion a stalwart individual. Early in his correspondence, Keats stated in passing that “. . . difficulties nerve the Spirit of a Man—they make our Prime Objects a Refuge as well as a Passion” (16). Later, he coupled hardship with knowledge, stating allegorically that from difficult experiences one entered farther

into the previously obscured rooms of knowledge located in the mansion of life (129). Then, in a long letter to his brother George and sister-in-law dated as having been started on February 14, 1819, Keats gave a sustained discussion on the purpose of adversity. He expressed a confirmed belief that a person’s identity, also referred to as his soul, was molded through hardship. He posited: “Do you not see how necessary a world of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?” (327). Accordingly, he termed life not a “vale of tears,” but a “vale of soul-making” (326). Keats also added another asset to the account of hardship: without it, death would be unendurable, with everyman’s end tantamount to “Eve leaving Paradise” (325). There was a third use for adversity: the creation of poetry. As noted earlier, although Keats’s philosophy of life was, in Stoic fashion, practical in its orientation and separate from his aesthetics, many of his contemplations led to poetry. For Keats, a great poem required discomfort. Regarding a poem of Wordsworth that William Hazlitt had criticized, Keats felt that the poem was lacking because it was not written with a troubled mind: “. . . if Wordsworth had thought a little deeper at that moment, he would not have written the poem at all. I should judge it to have been written in one of his most comfortable moods of his life—it is a kind of sketchy intellectual landscape, not a search after truth . . .” (44-5). Although Keats did not pursue the logic of Dr. Pangloss and state that suffering was for the best because it gave the world material for poetry, he did seem to consider adversity as necessary for poetry and, in that regard, of value.
Seneca’s parallel essay to Keats’s “vale of soul-making letter” is an essay “On Providence” (27-45). His many apothegms on the utility of adversity in the essay coincide with Keats’s ideas. Seneca states that through adversity individuals become stalwart and worthy; indeed there is no knowing that a person is great unless he has had the opportunity to show it through confronting adversity (36). “I account you unfortunate because you have never been

unfortunate. You have passed through life without an adversary; no one can know your potentiality, not even you. For self-knowledge testing is necessary” (36). Therefore, one could only arrive at one’s true character by facing challenges (37), just as one could not, in Keats’s terminology, achieve a soul without such challenges. Keats and Seneca, we see, were like-minded in developing a nature-based explanation for the existence of adversity and a way to reconcile man to it that goes so far as to consider adversity not only as eradicable but useful, even necessary.
Seneca’s explaining adversity served the goal of attaining a kind of happiness, termed tranquility. For that reason Roman Stoic philosophy has been termed “eudaemonistic ethics;” as William Irvine explains regarding Stoicism and its quest for tranquility: “It is concerned not with moral right and wrong but with having a ‘good spirit,’ that is, with living a good, happy
life. . .” 11 At the heart of Stoicism was the search for tranquility, a consistent state of mind, free of excitement or depression (79-80). For Seneca, understanding and reconciling oneself to adversity fostered tranquility; however, emotions arising from hardship were not the only challenge to a tranquil state of mind. Any excessive emotion threatened it. In essays and letters Seneca would slip in the reminder from time to time that “anything carried to excess is wrong” (92) and that “all excesses are injurious” (38). Such excessive emotion included the joy produced by pleasure. Joy is here to be distinguished from a state of cheerfulness or content in connoting a passionate excess, a high spike in the emotional cardiogram. Did Keats strive to obtain tranquility, that basic goal of Stoicism which includes not only freedom from the turmoil of hardship but the joys of pleasure? In his letters Keats does not pronounce tranquility his goal, per se, yet it can be reasonably inferred that tranquility was his philosophical end. It is natural that he would have sought the relief of tranquility for “his horrid Morbidity of Temperament”

(17) which affected him to the point he felt unable to write, which only compounded his misery: “I am so depressed that I have not an idea to put to paper . . . my hand feels like lead . . .” (133). Keats described that the inability to write caused him actual pain (243). To live a good life, Keats had to reach a state conducive to writing, which he referred to as being “in cue” to write (286). The only way to work an improvement on his mental state would have been on his own, through his philosophy. Keats by his own avowal did spend periods in a state that suited him and that fits the definition of tranquility, i.e. one untroubled by emotion. He professed to confront bad news without excessive emotion: “The first thing that strikes me on hearing a misfortune having befallen another in this–‘Well, it cannot be helped: he will have the pleasure of trying the resources of his Spirit’ ” (54). Keats continued by admitting that such a reaction could appear emotionally over reserved: “. . . should you observe anything cold in me not to put it to the account of heartlessness, but abstraction–for I assure you I sometimes feel not the influence of a passion or affection during a whole Week . . . ” (54).
In his poetry, Keats makes a more overt statement in favor of tranquility, as he addressed the control of emotions at both extremes. First, in Hyperion Keats expressed the theme that an explanation of adversity leads to the desired state of tranquility.12 Oceanus, a “Sophist and Sage,” (Book II, line 168) pronounces a Stoic manifesto in his monologue to the fallen Titans. He addresses the defeated Titans who, writhing in the agony of their defeat, are “passion-strung” (Book II, line 173). He assures them they need not feel bereft and wretched, but rather tranquil:
‘My voice is not a bellows unto ire.
Yet listen, ye who will, whilst I bring proof . . .
And in the proof much comfort will I give,
If ye will take that comfort in its truth.

We fall by course of Nature’s law, not force
Of thunder or of Jove.’
(Book II, lines 176-81)
Oceanus explains that they have failed to see the truth of the matter: “ ‘One avenue was shaded from thine eyes, / Through which I wandered to eternal truth” (Book II, lines 186-87). In truth, the calamity was the process of the old order making way for the new, analogous to the ongoing renewal of nature (208, Book II, lines 217 et seq.)
The message that Oceanus imparts to the Titans accords with Keats’s Stoic view on adversity expressed in his letters, i.e. that adversity is purposeful, and it goes further to express that such an understanding promotes calm, in effect a tranquil state of mind. There is textual support in the poem to conclude that Oceanus expresses Keats’s own Stoic views. Of the three characters who speak to Saturn on the topic of the trauma and dismay of the Titans after their fall, Oceanus is more positively portrayed than the other two, as his speech seems to cast a spell over the listening Titans: “Whether through poz’d conviction, or disdain, / They guarded silence, when Oceanus / Left murmuring, what deepest thought can tell?” (Book II, lines 244-46). Cylmene, who speaks next, and who is pointedly non-Stoic, is depicted in unflattering tones. Whereas Oceanus murmurs, she laments: “Cylmene . . .only complain’d, / With hectic lips. . .(Book II, lines 249-50) and embarks on a self-indulgent ramble on her intense grief and confused joy that carries no weight with her listeners. The next Titan to speak, Enceladus, as non-Stoic in his own way as Cylmene, indulges emotion, inciting an impossible revenge:
‘Now ye are flames, I’ll tell you how to burn,
And purge the ether of our enemies;
How to feed fierce the crooked stings of fire,

And singe away the swollen clouds of Jove,
Stifling that puny essence in his tent.’ ”
(Book II, lines 326-330)
Another reason to consider Oceanus as Keats’s Stoic ambassador is that Oceanus recognizes the rightful ascendancy of Apollo, the expressive figure most revered in Keats’s oeuvre. Indeed, part of the reason to accept the fall of the Titan world is that a greater beauty is coming with the advent of Apollo. In the poem, nature pours forth glorious beauties to herald Apollo, “the Father of all verse” (Book III, line 13): “Flush every thing that hath a vermeil hue, / Let rose glow intense and warm the air, / And let the clouds of even and of morn Float in voluptuous fleeces o’er the hills” (Book III, lines 13-17). The hymn to Apollo continues for several more lines to its crescendo, as the poet rejoices with his Muse that “Apollo is once more the golden theme!” (Book III, line 28).
As for joy and its excesses, Keats seemed to embrace the Stoic admonition against indulging pleasure in the pursuit of joy. First, in keeping with the non-hedonistic precepts of the Stoics, Keats disavowed joy as a goal in his letters. He stated that he knew little of joy, even though that letter predated two of his greatest sorrows, the death of one brother and the departure of the other to America: “. . . I scarcely remember counting upon any happiness–I look not for it if it not be in not in the present hour . . .” (54). He also described the unreliability of joy when commenting on the news of the death of a friend’s father: “This is the world—thus we cannot expect to give away many hours to pleasure. Circumstances are like clouds continually gathering and bursting. While we are laughing, the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events—while we are laughing it sprouts, it grows, and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck” (302-3). Keats called joy a “phantom” to express its transient and

hardly perceptible nature in the poem “On Death.” “Can death be sleep when life is but a dream, / And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?” (part I, lines 1-2). In addition to joy as an ephemeron, it is a threat to tranquility in the last stanza of the “Ode on Melancholy.” As in the poem “On Death,” joy is fleeting and hardly perceptible, but in the “Ode” Keats also exposes joy’s dire consequences as “the shortest path to pain,” as Emily Brontё phrased it twenty-four years later.13 Keats drew word tableaux to depict the symbiotic relationship of the joys of pleasure and sorrow.
. . . Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.”
(part III, lines 2-10)
In the “Ode,” joy is always leaving, pleasure turns toxic in the length of time a bee alights at a flower, and the person who has known the éclat of joy falls victim forever to a mighty sadness. It would be hard to argue that Keats could be viewed as extolling such a person, in the vein of celebrating the momentary emotion regardless of the cost; the images and diction argue otherwise. Aside from pleasure becoming poison, the image for joy in the poem is the bursting of the grape: purely of the senses, extremely fleeting, and in the end inconsequential. None of

which connotes any value. By comparison, the sadness endures: the once joyful soul has become a fixture in a shrine—a place of permanence. The trope of capture mimics Seneca’s view that the joys of pleasure have the power to enslave. The images, as well as the tone of the poem conveyed through the solemn words “veiled,” “sadness” and “cloudy” in no way support the jubilant idea that the joyful moment was worth it after all. Therefore, by unstated contrast, the Stoic individual who keeps to a moderate course, who does not indulge the excess of joy, is spared the sorrow and can live in tranquility.
We see, then, Keats contemplated the reason for adversity and arrived at his own understanding of its origin and usefulness; having done so, he laid the basis for seeking the shelter of tranquility from the storm clouds that he described as ever-forming. He further recognized that tranquility was undermined not only by the agony of hardship but also by the thrill of joy. On all those points, Keats not only tracked Stoic footprints in his letter writing and daily life, but also enshrined Stoic thought in verse worthy for Seneca to quote, along with Vergil, to preface his essays.

Knowledge and Reason

Knowledge played an important part to foster tranquility for both Keats and Seneca. Keats yearned to devote himself to study and extolled knowledge: “Every department we see of Knowledge is excellent and calculated towards a great whole . . .” (125). He attributed to it a calming benefit: “An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people—it takes away the heat and fever; and helps, by widening speculation, to ease the Burden of the Mystery, a thing which I begin to understand a little . . .” (125-126). Seneca presaged that thought with his statement: “If you devote yourself to study you will escape your distaste for life . . .” (84). Keats wondered, however, if knowledge sufficed in all cases: “It is impossible to know how far knowledge will

console us for the death of a friend, and the ill ‘that flesh is heir to’ ” (126). Although he stated that it was impossible, farther in the letter he suggested to the contrary, by observing that a proposition could be established as true if it were tested by experience. Whereas Keats, as the fledging Stoic, expressed reservations about the power of knowledge to outweigh the emotions in all cases, Seneca, the confirmed preceptor of Stoicism, admitted no impediment to the power of knowledge. For example, he unreservedly offered to his mother the benefit of knowledge as the answer to grief: “And so I would lead you to the sure refuge of all who fly from Fortune–to liberal studies. They will heal your wound, they will eradicate your sadness” (131).
Despite the reservations expressed in the above-quoted letter, Keats gets closer to Seneca’s faith in knowledge when he depicts the power of knowledge in Hyperion. As discussed above regarding the monologue of Oceanus, thought and understanding bring tranquility, whereas emotion, unthinkingly indulged, creates misery. Later in the poem, with the appearance of Apollo, Keats makes a case for the beneficial power of knowledge. Apollo at first roams around bewildered and forlorn. “I strive to search wherefore I am so sad, / Until a melancholy numbs my limbs; / And then upon the grass I sit and moan, / Like one who once had wings” (214, Book III, lines 88-90). His spirit quickly begins to rise from its funk as knowledge pours into his head, and he exclaims: “Knowledge enormous makes a god of me” (line 113). Metaphorically, Apollo at the beginning is man in his infant stage who, in Keatsian terms, has not yet explored the rooms of knowledge and is burdened by the mystery of life (129).
In Hyperion Keats allows Apollo, a god, to acquire knowledge spontaneously, but for man on earth reason was necessary. Reason, synonymous with thinking, is the basis for acquiring knowledge (whether deductive or inductive–any other purported way of knowing would rely on instinct.) Reason, like knowledge, implicates the power of the mind, the emotions

the heart. If Stoicism were distilled into one element it would be the necessity of reason–the sine qua non of the system. The Stoics distinguished man from the animals in his ability to reason; each animal had its special feature, and man’s was reason, as Seneca stated: “What is best in man? Reason, which puts him ahead of the animals and next to the gods” (209). For the Stoics a departure from reason was a failure to act in accordance with nature, in contravention of man’s purpose. Also, without reason there was no path toward a happy life, since, as discussed above, reason explained adversity and made control of the emotions possible (239). Reason was the “true good” and Seneca devoted an essay to proving that axiom (256-261).
In the duel of head and heart, Keats, Stoic-like, promoted reason. When confronted with sorrow, Keats believed that reason was helpful, as seen in a letter to his brother George and his sister-in-law, when their brother Tom was near death. Keats encouraged them to think upon what could be counted as valuable and consoling: “I have Fanny [his sister] and I have you—three people whose happiness to me is sacred–and it does annul that selfish sorrow . . . after thinking a moment or two that you suffer in common with all mankind hold it not a sin to regain your cheerfulness” (212). Although Keats’s advice might seem commonsensical to some, the notion of fixing ones thoughts on whatever of value remains centers Stoic thought. As Seneca pointed out, “No situation is so harsh that a dispassionate mind cannot find some consolation in it” (93). Even though Keats encouraged thinking to console his family members upon Tom’s death, over a year later he admitted in connection with the death of a friend the difficulty of facing one’s own grief: “Even so we have leisure to reason on the misfortunes of our friends; our own touch us too nearly for words” (303). Seneca too acknowledged that reason had a particularly tough time in cases of grief. He wrote that “sorrow is always stubborn” (109) and felt that one had to “allow grief its claims of nature” (102).

In addition to sorrow, sexual love was an issue of the heart that posed a challenge for reason to confront. Keats stated at one point that he was going to control his passions (i.e. exercise reason over feelings) towards women in referring to his sexual trysts in Oxford, and it seems in fact he did. For Seneca, lust was one of the top two excesses that reason should overcome (54). Seneca did not address conjugal love; presumably he did not consider it conducive to excessive passion. Keats found that for him it did constitute an excess severely at odds with tranquility. On the topic of passionate love, reason failed in his life and won in his poem Lamia. In the former, Keats expressed many times that love and marriage would interfere with a life of calm and solitude, which he considered essential to him as a poet. He avoided seeing Fanny Brawne for several months because his passion was too disturbing to his peace of mind and ability to write (378). However, in the end, circumstances cast him back into her orbit and he was powerless to reason himself out of her gravitational pull. Looking at his work, one can interpret his poem “Lamia” as his Stoic statement on the topic of romantic love in which reason conquers irrational passion, even annihilates it. Lycius is a lover and as such is ruled by emotion. “Apollonius sage” represents reason: he is a philosopher, who has been to Lycius “a trusty guide and good instructor” (Part I, lines 374-375). He bears the name, intentionally or not, of a Roman Stoic philosopher, Apollonius of Chalcedon, who tutored Marcus Aurelius14. From the moment Lycius perceives Lamia, no reasonable thought comes into his head. Indeed, it would be hard to construct a situation more ruled by the heart to the utter exclusion of reason than that of Lycius. His passion distorts his view of his trusty teacher, as the sight of Apollonius then is like “The ghost of folly haunting my sweet dreams” (Part I, line 376). He is so dominated by his passions that he becomes intent on marrying a woman whose name he does not even know. After he determines to marry her, he queries: “Sure some sweet name thou hast, though,

by my truth, / I have not asked it. . .” (Part II, lines 85-86). Apollonius realizes that Lycius, in succumbing to Lamia, has embarked on an emotional course that will ultimately lead to unhappiness because the passionate love that consumes him must diminish. In support of that eventuality, the narrator drops hints where the romance is headed, noting that if the relationship had lasted longer, love would have waned: “. . . but too short was their bliss / To breed distrust and hate, that make the soft voice hiss” (Part II, lines 10-11). The word “hiss” there even suggests that Lamia might revert to her snake-origins when the raptures of passion end. Even during their extremely brief relationship there occurs a lapse in their unity of emotion. In the tiff resulting from Lycius’s desire for a wedding, Lamia grows concerned because she knows how quickly love can wane: “That but a moment’s thought is passion’s passing bell” (Part II, line 39). How misguided Lycius has been in allowing himself to become enmeshed in this emotion, devoid of reason and false, with an underside of misery, finds metaphorical and hyperbolic expression in Lycius’s lover being a snake in reality. In “Lamia” the woman Lycius loves is not what she seems to be, and neither is love once played out to it natural consequences. Apollonius, in his wisdom, understands the link between passion and misery; he wears a Stoic toga in advocating that Lycius steer clear of such excessive emotion.
It might appear that the poem disparages philosophy and that Apollonius plays the villain. That interpretation could come from the usual bias toward romance, but it is also supported by the point of view in which the poem is told: the reader experiences the early parts of the poem through Lamia’s perspective, and thereby develops an affinity for her. Nonetheless, Apollonius is not incorrect in his assessment of the doomed situation; Lamia was indeed a snake, and the passion would have worn out; Lycius would have remained with, “a heart high sorrowful and

cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue,” as Keats phrased the aftermath of passion in another poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (part III, lines 9-10).

Death

Keats made a number of remarkable and direct statements about death in his letters and his poetry, and those expressions further align him with the Stoics. In the early stages of his consumption, Keats came upon the idea that death, viewed as an impending certainty, served to beautify life. “How astonishingly does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties upon me” (461). Although he did not advise others to keep death in mind, he did so himself. He proclaimed in a letter well before he fell ill with consumption, “. . . I am never alone without rejoicing that there is such a thing as death. . .” (138). He also expressed several times in his letters his belief that he would die young, as well as in his sonnet, “When I have fears that I may cease to be.”Keeping thoughts of death ever in mind is an essential Stoic practice. Seneca counseled that “old and young alike should have death before their eyes. . .” (176). The purposes of that exercise were to encourage a person to make the most of his life, to put events in perspective, and to make the eventual end less daunting. In addition to the practice of keeping death in mind, Keats and Seneca also shared similar views on what happened after death; both felt it was an unknown, but in any event there was nothing to dread. Looking first at Seneca, he wrote: “What is death? Either end or transition. I do not fear ceasing to be, for it is the same as not having begun to be, nor am I afraid of transition, for no alternative state can be so limiting” (201). As for how to confront one’s own death, Seneca referred to Julius Canus as one who faced death properly: he anticipated the arrival of his executioners with calm and, most notably, curiosity

(100-1). Such a frank acceptance counts as a basic Stoic element; however, uniquely Stoic, according to Moses Hadas, is the active advocacy for suicide as a solution if all else
failed. 15 Seneca advised his students to keep in mind that, “If you do not wish to fight you may escape. . . .only observe and you will see what a short and direct road leads to freedom”(45). He devoted a letter to considering the benefits of suicide under varying circumstances (202-7). Keats proffered no opinion on an afterlife; although he made a couple of random statements in letters about the possibility of there being one; the prospect of an afterlife seemed irrelevant to his philosophy on how to live. He never expressed any fear in regard to dying and he shared Seneca’s view of the usefulness of death. The torment at the end of his life was not that he would die; he felt as if he had already died and was living a “posthumous existence” (518). Keats would have followed Seneca’s advice and ended his life, faced with the unrelenting agony of a terminal illness. According to Severn, Keats sought suicide by an overdose of laudanum; Severn, reluctantly but dutifully, removed the bottle of relief from the apartment in
Rome. 16 Approaching the end, Keats exhibited no more fear of death than the Stoic Canus had, and he had the presence of mind to sympathize with Severn and calmly reassure him that he would die easily.17
In addition to statements in letters, Keats’s poetry provides his views on death, since contemplations of death are typical to that genre, and thereby further reveals an accord with Seneca’s idea of death as an escape. First, death is a welcome event in the sonnet “To Sleep” when weighed against the travails of life. Although the title might appear to be an address, as in an ode, it is the first link to death in invoking Hamlet’s soliloquy considering the benefits of death, “to die, to sleep, to dream, ah there’s the rub.” Words connoting death define the benefits of sleep in the poem, creating a metaphor between sleep and death with the shared comparative

element being welcome relief. Sleep is an embalmer and provider of gloom, dark, shade, and escape. The final image of falling asleep is that of locking the casket: “Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards, / And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul” (lines 13-14). Again, Keats courts death in the sonnet with the opening lines: “Why did I laugh to-night?” In that poem, leaving metaphor aside, Keats directly states that despite imagining the best that life has to offer, he would readily meet his death as the greatest reward: “I know this Being’s lease, / My fancy to its utmost blisses spreads; / Yet would I on this very midnight cease, / And the world’s gaudy ensigns see in shreds; / Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indeed, / but Death intenser—Death is Life’s high meed.” Midnight again brings a desire to die in “Ode to a Nightingale:” “Now more than ever it seems rich to die, / To cease upon the midnight with no pain, / While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!” (part VI, lines 5-8).
The Stoic Lifestyle, Solitude, and the Disdain of Fame
There is symmetry between the manner in which Keats lived and what Seneca described as a Stoic lifestyle. The unimportance of material goods, the self-sufficient love of solitude that disdained socializing, and the importance of the internal versus external world were the hallmarks of an appropriate life outlined by Seneca that Keats represented; he even outdid Seneca in bringing those values to life. Keats lived very simply, unconcerned for creature comforts and the money that was necessary to provide them. He had few possessions and no established home; his only desire with respect to his lodging was quiet and proximity to a library. He walked or rode on the outside of coaches in all weather. He was glad for a good meal if it came his way, but attached no importance to fine dining. He admitted to enjoying excessively only one “palate affair,” claret (288). In his letters, he never complained about his way of life. Much of his lifestyle might follow from a lack of funds; however, Keats could have done better

by himself if he had cared more about money. He could have pursued his profession as a surgeon; he had an inheritance and would have had more if he had been more active in his financial affairs; and he loaned money to friends that he needed for himself, and then borrowed from his publishers to meet harassing duns.
The Stoics were not ascetics, like the mendicant and homeless Cynics, but Seneca preached against self indulgence in lifestyle. “We pass now to property, the greatest source of affliction to humanity. Reflect, then, how much less a grief it is not to have money than to lose it . . . (89). Seneca exhorted his acolytes to live as follows: “We must learn to strengthen self-restraint, curb luxury, temper ambition, moderate anger, view poverty calmly, cultivate frugality. . . and make it our business to get out riches from ourselves rather than from fortune” (91). He also gushed praise at the simplicity of Scipio’s dwelling, particularly his simple bath, which was at odds with the trend of great luxury in baths. An additional detail of coincidence arises between Seneca and Keats on the subject of wine. Just as Keats allowed it his one indulgence, so Seneca made his exception from moderation the occasional indulgence of wine to lift the spirits (105).
Keats described in his letters the great degree to which he valued solitude. “I think . . . I could pass my life very nearly alone though it would last eighty years” ( 369) He many times expressed his attraction to a solitary life that would allow him to study and write, and he assured his brother, George, that he thrived in isolation: “ . . . think of my Pleasure in solitude in comparison of my commerce with the world. . .” (226). Although Keats is known for having several faithful friends, upon whom he greatly depended, there is a distinction between friendship and socializing. Keats associated with many people and had his gregarious phases, yet he came to resent socializing, which depleted his store of hours to write and study and he

disdained the mean-spiritedness and vanity that he was prone to encounter while socializing. He felt he had to “smother his spirit” in society (243) He swore off congregating “with literary men”; his one-time admiration for Wordsworth as a person was diminished by his acquaintance with him, and he became very critical of his one-time close associate, Leigh Hunt. Keats expressed that “trapsing” around to make visits was a waste of time (222). With precise similarity, Seneca agreed that friendship did not impinge on a solitary life, as vacuous socializing did, and Seneca extolled friendship as one of the best things life can offer (88). He stated regarding socializing, “We must cut down on gadding about. So many men make the rounds of houses, theater, and thrust themselves into other people’s affairs, and always give the impression of being busy. . . .they ramble about with no purpose” (98).
The third feature of a Stoic lifestyle is the importance of the internal world, versus the external world. According to Seneca, “A man is happy, I maintain, when no circumstance can reduce him; he keeps to the heights and uses no buttress but himself, for a man sustained is likely to fall” (239). The ability to be self-sufficient was crucial to the Stoics: Seneca wrote that it was one of two necessary causes for happiness (239) and that, “It is important to withdraw into one’s self” (104). Keats certainly burned the fuel of his inner resources, and turning inward to his own mind was a philosophical approach that matched his creative proclivity. The Stoic view that the mind is a refuge, full of potential and unaffected by external events suits writers particularly, who sound their imaginations. Emily Brontё called imagination the “world within,” and similarly, Keats stated, “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” (225). Also, he commented that he wrote what he imagined rather than what he saw, which was, in his view, Byron’s approach and an inferior endeavor. Milton also expressed the idea in “Paradise Lost” when Satan declares: “The
mind is its own place and can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell.” Keats echoed Satan when he wrote, “The soul is a world of itself, and has enough to do in its own home” (369). The similarity is not surprising, given that in a few lines above he had remarked how “the ‘Paradise Lost’ becomes a greater wonder.”
A large element of the external world that Keats discounted, even disdained, was the public and its opinion of his poetry. As Keats defied the odds of ever being successful and devoted himself to his poetry, he found the reason to continue within himself. He wrote in a letter after his failure with the critics and the public: “No external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary perception and ratification of what is fine” (207). Keats’s declaration that he would write poetry, if only to tear it up the next day (211) was not bravado, but Stoicism. It hits the same note as Seneca’s statement on an audience, a banner apothegm for “unsuccessful” writers like Keats: “. . . few are enough, one is enough, none is enough” (174).
Coincidence, Limitations, and Ultimate Worth
The unity of thought between Keats and the Stoics detailed in this paper should not be taken as a facile occurrence, first, because the convergence of thought is so great: a comprehensive monograph of the Stoic nature of Keats’s philosophy would exceed the length of an article. Furthermore, for all the possible threads of Stoicism that seem familiar and that were woven into literature and other philosophies, there were many intellectual and social influences during the Romantic era strongly in conflict with Stoicism that Keats might have embraced instead: the Romantic literary ideas from the Continent exalting self-indulgent, passionate, even destructive, emotion; the pursuit of financial success in an increasingly mercantile system; the approbation of society in a class-based country; and, most notably, Christianity. Particularly in his tormented final days, Keats might have succumbed to its influence, given that Dr. Clark,

Keats’s attending physician in Rome, and Joseph Severn, his devoted friend and nurse in Rome, encouraged it, certain that Keats was deprived and worsened by a failure to embrace religion.18 Also, the similarities in philosophical thought between Keats and Seneca actually exceed what I have treated in this paper, both in the degree of detail on each topic and in number of topics. There are elements of Stoicism that Keats did not seem to have discovered; however, it is not surprising, since his philosophical development was cut short by his death at the age of only twenty-five. One might similarly surmise that there are also many notions of a philosophical nature expressed by Keats that do not accord with Stoicism, although I would argue that is not the case with regard to his practical philosophy; I borrow Keats’s own words to explain any divergence of thought: “Minds would leave each other in contrary directions, traverse each other in numberless points, and at last greet each other at the journey’s end” (89).
Coming back to the fundamental eudaemonistic ethics of Stoicism, I could hardly propose Keats as an honorary Roman Stoic unless his philosophy did do him some good in his life. He did, despite his philosophy, fall into periods of depression: yet, perhaps his philosophy helped him to climb out. Keats assured his brother George and his sister-in-law in a letter that his philosophy did shore him up. After one of his extended philosophical discourses he wrote,
“. . . look over the two last pages and ask yourself whether I have not that in me which will bear the buffets of the world” (305). Later once consumption besieged him, Keats’s letters and those written by his attendants in Rome suggest that perhaps his philosophy failed him; one such he wrote to Brown after setting sail for Rome, ill and bereft of Fanny Brawne: “Is there another life? Shall I awake and find this all a dream? There must be; we cannot be created for this sort of suffering.” That letter and others from Keats and Severn suggest that any failure of philosophy was an occasional break down under torture: Severn described the unrelenting pain Keats

suffered from the deterioration of his lungs and stomach and his extreme mental anguish in awful detail and then concluded: “. . . his suffering now is beyond description.” 19 Keats and Seneca went into exile and, Keats, like Seneca, awaited his death sentence. The description by Tacitus of Seneca’s forced suicide20 tends to intrigue, whereas Keats’s ordeal is sad and haunting, yet both doomed men had their philosophy. Keats, not long after his arrival to the destination of his death, the apartment at the bottom of the Spanish Steps in Rome, found the strength to write a letter and affirm his philosophy. After he advised Brown to bring his philosophy to bear, he added, “. . .as I do mine, or, really, how should I be able to live” (519).

1 John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, ed. H. Buxton Forman (London: Reeves & Turner, 1895; repr., Ellibron Classics, 2005), 519. References to Keats’s letters are to this edition and are hereafter cited parenthetically by page number.
2 For an example of one of many presentations of Stoicism for the present day, see William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life (Oxford University Press, 2009).
3 Moses Hadas, “Introduction,” in The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca (New York: W.W. Norton, 1958), 19-26. See also Irvine, The Guide to the Good Life, 17 et seq.
4 Robert Gittings, John Keats: the Living Year (Harvard University Press, 1954), 4.
5 Roberta D. Cornelius, “Keats as a Humanist,” Keats-Shelley Journal, winter (1956).
6 Douka Kabitoglou, “Adapting Philosophy to Literature: the Case of John Keats,” Studies in Philology 89.1 (1992).
7 Richard P. Benton, “Keats and Zen,” Philosophy East and West 16 (1966).
8 Hadas, “Introduction,” 19.
29
9 Ibid., 20.
10 Seneca, The Stoic of Philosophy of Seneca, ed. and trans. Moses Hadas (New York: W.W. Norton 1958), 84. References to the statements of Seneca are to this text and are hereafter cited parenthetically.
11 Irvine, The Guide to the Good Life, 34-5.
12 John Keats, The Complete Poems of John Keats (New York: the Modern Library, 1994). References to Keats’s poetry are to this edition and are cited hereafter by poem, book or part (where necessary), and line.
13 Emily Jane Brontё, “How Clear She Shines,” in The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Brontё, ed. C.W. Hatfield (Columbia University Press, 1941), line 36.
14 Irvine, The Guide to the Good Life, 56.
15 Hadas, “Introduction” to “On Providence” in The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, 27.
16 The Keats Circle, 203.
17 Ibid, 224.
18 The Keats Circle, ed. Hyder Rollins (Harvard University Press, 1967) vol.1, 181,186,194.
19 The Keats Circle. 202.
20 Hadas, “Introduction,” 7-8.

The Stoic Philosophy of John Keats
“ ‘. . . to bear all naked truths, / And to envisage circumstance, all calm, / That is the top of sovereignty. Mark well!’ ” Hyperion
Three months before John Keats died in Rome, he wrote his valedictory letter. He addressed his closest friend, Charles Brown, describing the toll consumption had taken and preparing Brown for news of his death: “There, you rogue, I put you to the torture; but you must bring your philosophy to bear . . .”1 Taken alone, this advice might appear an off-hand comment; however, it was the last of many statements that Keats made about philosophy in his letters. In his final days, as through his life, Keats did not believe that religion offered the way to reconcile oneself to adversity or that it revealed the mysteries for which the tangible world was the allegorical representation; for him, philosophy provided guidance for living and, if not an answer to the eternal questions, at least clues. Keats was interested in and valued philosophy second only to poetry and, well into his career as a poet, he even stated in a letter that “the human friend philosopher” was more “genuine” than a “fine writer” (364). Keats’s philosophy takes shape in his letters and surfaces at times in his poetry, and it is a philosophy that is at one with Roman Stoicism. I have identified Stoic ideas in his letters, in a number of his poems, and in his approach to life primarily to view Keats and his work from the new perspective that a comparative study affords. I have incidentally endorsed Stoicism: that Keats, one of the greatest and most revered English poets, suffered a life of hardship, pondered philosophical matters and arrived at essentially a Stoic philosophy serves as a strong recommendation for that system–a philosophical approach to life that is viable for the present day.2 Stoicism can be briefly defined, for purposes of a starting point for the discussion to follow, as a program for achieving a tranquil life that finds value in adversity, promotes the use of reason to overcome emotion (because reason is the attribute particular to man), teaches the unimportance of external events, advocates
2
moderation in all things, and views death as a solution, transition or end, since life after death is unknowable. 3
Many scholars believe that during the years of 1818 through 1819, Keats was attempting to develop a comprehensive philosophical system.”4 In a letter written during that period, Keats declared that, although he was only “straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness” (304), he deserved credit for working toward knowing himself, and he supported the value of philosophical endeavors by quoting John Milton: “ ‘How charming is divine Philosophy, / Not harsh and crabbed, as dull fools suppose, / But musical as is Apollo’s lute’ ” (304-5). Having identified that Keats had a strong philosophical tendency, scholars of literature and philosophy have sought in his poetry elements of Humanism,5 Platonism,6 and Zen Buddhism.7 Humanism might underlie his poems, but it is less a method for daily living and a response to eternal questions than the historical development of a general attitude. Also, a study of Keats as a Platonist must focus on his poetics, not on a method for living because Plato was a dialectician and theorist; certainly Keats was not suggesting to Brown that he deal with grief by remembering Platonic ideas. As for Zen Buddhism, there is an overlap in small ways between that and Stoicism, but Zen elements, if any, in certain poems do not connect Keats, personally or philosophically, to that system of belief.
In demonstrating that Keats developed a Stoic philosophy, I must propose that he was influenced by Stoic thought, arrived at Stoic ideas coincidentally, or that he fell somewhere on the scale between the two possibilities. The last prevails, although far closer to coincidence than influence. As for any direct influence on Keats, even though he did read Latin fluently, there is no evidence that he read any Stoic writers. He borrowed books from friends and from libraries, set himself a course of study, and stated that he was going to ask William Hazlitt’s advice on
3
books to read; Hazlitt was a “philosopher” and an acolyte of Montaigne, who had borrowed many Stoic concepts. However, no books by Stoic writers were among his books when he died, he never mentioned reading them in his letters, and biographers and scholars, such as Robert Gittings, have investigated carefully what Keats read in order to discern influences on his poetry and have not mentioned any of those writers. In considering indirect influences, Hellenistic and Roman philosophical ideas could have reached Keats through various writers. Moses Hadas in his introduction to The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca (1958) has explained, regarding the ubiquity of Stoic thought after the time of Marcus Aurelius: “After his time the school as such faded out, but its doctrines perceptibly influenced later Neoplatonism and some of the Church Fathers and became a substantial strand in the skein of European thought” (26). In particular, Vergil (an author Keats knew well and whom Seneca quoted to preface his essays), French philosophers (he read Voltaire), and the English poets (particularly Shakespeare and Milton) contained sifted grains of Stoicism. Keats’s familiarity with Socrates, through Plato or others, might account for some landmarks of Stoicism in his intellectual landscape, since Socrates is considered the Adam of an extended philosophical family tree that included Stoicism. William Irvine in A Guide to the Good Life (2009) has described the influence of Socrates on Stoicism: “It is as if Socrates, on his death, had fissioned into Plato and Antisthenes, with Plato inheriting Socrates’ interest in theory and Antisthenes inheriting his concern with living a good life. . . . Unfortunately, although the theoretical side of philosophy flourished, the practical side his withered away” (20). Antisthenes and “the practical side” are Stoic.
Given the dispersal of Stoic teaching, tracing any particular Stoic influence on Keats is like finding the end of a spider’s web. Keats himself recognized that his philosophical musings were fed by myriad and preexisting streams of thought: “I have often pitied a tutor who has to
4
hear ‘Nom. Musa’ so often dinn’d into his ears—I hope you may not have the same pain in this scribbling—I may have read these things before, but I never had even a thus dim perception of them; and moreover I like to say my lesson to one who will endure my tediousness, for my own sake” (131). That quote illustrates that, despite any attenuated Socratic and Stoic ancestry of his readings, Keats was originating his philosophical thoughts, rather than studying prior systems; through that process he arrived at a preponderance of Stoicism coincidentally.
The Purpose and Development of Philosophy
Keats concerned himself in his philosophy with finding the best way to deal with life, rather than with pursuing theoretical exercises in logic. The philosophy of Stoicism also concerned itself with a way to confront life, as distinguished from metaphysics. Moses Hadas has described the difference: “Its program was at all times more important than the scaffolding of logic and physics erected to support it . . .”8 The origin of Stoicism accounts for its practicality, as Hadas explained: “Stoicism aimed at reconciling the claims of the individual with the “demands of his overwhelmingly enlarged environment” after the fall of the city-state that had hitherto served to define the individual’s world.9 Incidentally, the growth of a system to fill a void in society is analogous to its providing the agnostic individual, like Keats, a philosophy in the absence of organized religion. Beyond designing a useful system for himself, Keats also aimed at a larger, non-personal benefit from philosophy, as he explained in a letter: “I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good to the world. Some do it with their society—some with their wit—some with their benevolence—some with a sort of power of conferring pleasure and good humour on all they meet—and a thousand ways, all dutiful to the command of great nature—there is but one way for me. The road lies through application, study, and thought. . . . I have been hovering for some time between an exquisite sense of the
5
luxurious, and a love for philosophy,—were I calculated for the former, I should be glad. But as I am not, I shall turn all my soul to the latter” (120-21). The larger, non-personal goal of benefitting society that Keats mentioned figures as a purpose of the Stoics. Seneca, a Roman Stoic, who lived from about 4 B.C. to 165 A.D., encouraged his acolytes to work for the good of the country, then, if forced out of civic duty or prevented by circumstance from participating in the community, to pursue teaching, writing or philosophy—all valuable for the world as much as for oneself. Seneca advised: “If, then, you bestow the time you abstract from public business upon study, you will not be deserting or shirking your duty.”10 I rely throughout this paper on Seneca as the representative of Roman Stoicism because his essays and letters offer the most developed, comprehensive, and accessible Stoic information.
As for his approach to developing a philosophy, Keats did not devote himself to one preceptor, but rather he worked out matters for himself, as noted above in the discussion of the influences that Keats was heir to in developing his philosophy. Keats’s approach of gathering ideas from various sources mimics Stoicism’s syncretistic nature: Seneca borrowed from any school of thought where he found a useful item of knowledge, and having done so it was as much his as anyone’s: “Whatever is true is mine,” Seneca stated (77), regardless of whether Epicurus, for example, was known for the idea. Seneca also exhorted his students not to receive ideas passively, but to create their system. Seneca admonished his followers not to remain a “subaltern” to other thinkers, but to “Take command and say things that will be handed down to posterity” (186). Therefore, Keats acted in accord with Seneca’s precept in fashioning his own cut of philosophy, rather than following the notions of any given school. Creating one’s own system struck him as the correct path because he felt anyone could construct his own philosophy: “Memory should not be called Knowledge. Many have original minds who do not think it—they
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are led away by Custom. Now it appears to me that almost any Man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel . . . with a few points to tip with the fine Web of his Soul. . .”(88-9). Keats’s thoughts in that statement echo Seneca’s idea that those who never create but only interpret “exercise their memories on what is not their own. But to remember is one thing, to know another” (187). We see that point of view in the letter to Brown cited at the beginning of this paper because Keats did not write “our” (as one might to refer to a shared religion), but “your philosophy”–Brown was apparently charged with developing his own.
Keats, like the Stoics, developed a practical philosophy; however, he did of course expound on art and poetry, creating an aesthetic philosophy notable for his ideas on the relation of beauty and truth, on the chameleon poet, and on negative capability. His aesthetics overlap his practical philosophy because Keats believed that poetry could alleviate suffering and that writing it consoled him: “Life must be undergone, and I certainly derive some consolation from the thought of writing one or two more poems before it ceases. . .” (139). It so happens that our representative Stoic, Seneca, also veered off the path of practical philosophy to address the nature of a writer, perhaps because he was also a playwright. Despite Stoicism’s general lack of interest in aesthetics and its concern for reigning in emotion, Seneca allowed a passionate and immoderate mindset for writing: he referred to the statements of Plato and Aristotle and their views on the mixture of madness and genius typical to great poetic creativity, then articulated his own belief: “ . . . in any case only a mind that is excited is capable of great and transcendant utterance. . . . It must tear itself from the trodden path, palpitate with frenzy. . . ” (106). On that point, Keats would have nodded in complete agreement. In a poem included in a letter to his brother George, Keats described the poet as being in a “trance,” capable of perceptions like no other person (21). Keats also stated in his letters that, when immersed in writing, he was in a sort
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of fever (414) and that the presence of any person, “burst on him like a thunderbolt” (363). That he worked himself up into such a feverish state almost lends credibility to the medical injunction imposed on Keats when ill against writing poetry because it would impede his recovery (459).
The Nature of a Sage
Keats and Seneca were in agreement on the kind of person who merited the title of a philosopher. Keats freely used the term “philosopher” in his letters, and by that term he intended the highest accolade. Less obvious, but discernible, was what exactly he meant by that word. His letters reveal that a philosopher exhibited two necessary attributes: outwardly he was disinterested and inwardly he delved into the mysteries of life. Applying that measure to certain personal acquaintances and literary figures, Keats noted that his contemporary William Wordsworth lacked the first criterion: “I am sorry that Wordsworth has left a bad impression wherever he visited in town by his egotism, Vanity and bigotry. Yet he is a great poet if not a philosopher” (92). Thus he concluded, despite having considered Wordsworth and John Milton philosophers in an earlier letter; he had even given Wordsworth the greater ability to see “into the human heart” because he lived in a later time of greater intellectual development than Milton’s (130-31). The shortcoming of Wordsworth described by the quote was his lack of disinterestedness. Attempting to cut a fine figure in society and to foster self-serving agendas routed disinterestedness, and Keats considered Wordsworth, lamentably, to have engaged in those practices. The disinterested person Keats declared was not to be found because “. . . there are none prepared to suffer in obscurity for their Country” (218). In observing how uncommon the trait was Keats wrote: “Very few men have ever arrived at a complete disinterestedness of Mind: very few have been influenced by a pure desire of the benefit of others,–in the greater part of the Benefactors of Humanity some meretricious motive has sullied their greatness—some
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melodramatic scenery has fascinated them” (303). In his letter on this topic, Keats appears immersed in working out his thoughts, as he continued for several lines before realizing that he considered two men to be such disinterested individuals: Socrates and Jesus (304). (His examples happen to be Stoic in nature: Socrates was the first in the line of Stoic descent and Christianity incorporated many Stoic doctrines because they assimilated easily into Christian doctrine). The other “philosophers” that he mentioned in his letters, who achieved some measure of disinterestedness and achieved insight into the human heart, were Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth, as discussed, and, in passing, William Godwin and Voltaire.
Seneca also valued disinterestedness and extolled the process of exploring the nature of life. Seneca described in his letters individuals exhibiting very similar characteristics to those that Keats deplored in Wordsworth, citing examples of wasted lives those who spent time “gadding about the city on social duties” (50) and ridiculed vanity at length (61). One of Seneca’s primary examples of disinterestedness in action was Scipio Africanus, although he many times referred to Socrates as exemplary, particularly in the way in which he met his death. Scipio formed the subject of an entire letter, having made a powerful impression on Seneca when he visited his country house (216-19). Seneca marveled at the simplicity with which he lived after making the hugely disinterested act of leaving Rome to return to his farm because it was best for Roman democracy: “How could I not admire the high spirit which withdrew him into voluntary exile and so disburdened the state?” (216). On the second criterion of a philosopher, Seneca encouraged his acolytes to ponder philosophical matters as the summum bonum: “. . . there is nothing that the lapse of time does not dilapidate and exterminate. But the dedications of philosophy are impregnable; age cannot erase their memory or diminish their force. Each succeeding generation will hold them in ever higher reverence . . .” (67).
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Tranquility over Adversity and Joy
Whether in early 19th century England or ancient Rome, it would not take much thought, philosophical or otherwise, to conclude that suffering and sorrow accounted for a large measure of existence and that death was ever close at hand. Keats and Seneca developed consistent explanations for the existence of hardship and ways to reconcile man to it. Keats concluded from the natural world that hardship was an intrinsic part of life: “The whole appears to resolve into this—that Man is a poor forked creature subject to the same mischances as the beasts of the forest, destined to hardships and disquietude of some kind or other” (325). He continued in that letter to opine that man could no more escape his suffering than the rose could avoid the withering sun or the fish disperse the ice of winter streams (326). Further, no great person, no Socrates walking the earth, could mitigate that reality (325). Seneca would not have disputed the natural and constant nature of hardship, but attributed its origin to gods. This point of difference is minor because such gods were akin to forces of nature and embodied an ideal perfection. The gods were all powerful, yet nowhere does Seneca suggest placating them or supplicating for a change anymore than Keats would have left offerings to nature for a mitigation of his illness.
Thus, given the natural origin of hardship and its inescapability, the question for philosophy was how to reconcile oneself to it. Neither Keats nor Seneca gave any credence to suffering as punishment or as the basis for the compensations of a heavenly afterlife. Instead, their common theme was the usefulness of adversity to achieve self-knowledge and to form a person: more particularly, for Keats to form a soul, for Seneca to fashion a stalwart individual. Early in his correspondence, Keats stated in passing that “. . . difficulties nerve the Spirit of a Man—they make our Prime Objects a Refuge as well as a Passion” (16). Later, he coupled hardship with knowledge, stating allegorically that from difficult experiences one entered farther
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into the previously obscured rooms of knowledge located in the mansion of life (129). Then, in a long letter to his brother George and sister-in-law dated as having been started on February 14, 1819, Keats gave a sustained discussion on the purpose of adversity. He expressed a confirmed belief that a person’s identity, also referred to as his soul, was molded through hardship. He posited: “Do you not see how necessary a world of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?” (327). Accordingly, he termed life not a “vale of tears,” but a “vale of soul-making” (326). Keats also added another asset to the account of hardship: without it, death would be unendurable, with everyman’s end tantamount to “Eve leaving Paradise” (325). There was a third use for adversity: the creation of poetry. As noted earlier, although Keats’s philosophy of life was, in Stoic fashion, practical in its orientation and separate from his aesthetics, many of his contemplations led to poetry. For Keats, a great poem required discomfort. Regarding a poem of Wordsworth that William Hazlitt had criticized, Keats felt that the poem was lacking because it was not written with a troubled mind: “. . . if Wordsworth had thought a little deeper at that moment, he would not have written the poem at all. I should judge it to have been written in one of his most comfortable moods of his life—it is a kind of sketchy intellectual landscape, not a search after truth . . .” (44-5). Although Keats did not pursue the logic of Dr. Pangloss and state that suffering was for the best because it gave the world material for poetry, he did seem to consider adversity as necessary for poetry and, in that regard, of value.
Seneca’s parallel essay to Keats’s “vale of soul-making letter” is an essay “On Providence” (27-45). His many apothegms on the utility of adversity in the essay coincide with Keats’s ideas. Seneca states that through adversity individuals become stalwart and worthy; indeed there is no knowing that a person is great unless he has had the opportunity to show it through confronting adversity (36). “I account you unfortunate because you have never been
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unfortunate. You have passed through life without an adversary; no one can know your potentiality, not even you. For self-knowledge testing is necessary” (36). Therefore, one could only arrive at one’s true character by facing challenges (37), just as one could not, in Keats’s terminology, achieve a soul without such challenges. Keats and Seneca, we see, were like-minded in developing a nature-based explanation for the existence of adversity and a way to reconcile man to it that goes so far as to consider adversity not only as eradicable but useful, even necessary.
Seneca’s explaining adversity served the goal of attaining a kind of happiness, termed tranquility. For that reason Roman Stoic philosophy has been termed “eudaemonistic ethics;” as William Irvine explains regarding Stoicism and its quest for tranquility: “It is concerned not with moral right and wrong but with having a ‘good spirit,’ that is, with living a good, happy
life. . .” 11 At the heart of Stoicism was the search for tranquility, a consistent state of mind, free of excitement or depression (79-80). For Seneca, understanding and reconciling oneself to adversity fostered tranquility; however, emotions arising from hardship were not the only challenge to a tranquil state of mind. Any excessive emotion threatened it. In essays and letters Seneca would slip in the reminder from time to time that “anything carried to excess is wrong” (92) and that “all excesses are injurious” (38). Such excessive emotion included the joy produced by pleasure. Joy is here to be distinguished from a state of cheerfulness or content in connoting a passionate excess, a high spike in the emotional cardiogram. Did Keats strive to obtain tranquility, that basic goal of Stoicism which includes not only freedom from the turmoil of hardship but the joys of pleasure? In his letters Keats does not pronounce tranquility his goal, per se, yet it can be reasonably inferred that tranquility was his philosophical end. It is natural that he would have sought the relief of tranquility for “his horrid Morbidity of Temperament”
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(17) which affected him to the point he felt unable to write, which only compounded his misery: “I am so depressed that I have not an idea to put to paper . . . my hand feels like lead . . .” (133). Keats described that the inability to write caused him actual pain (243). To live a good life, Keats had to reach a state conducive to writing, which he referred to as being “in cue” to write (286). The only way to work an improvement on his mental state would have been on his own, through his philosophy. Keats by his own avowal did spend periods in a state that suited him and that fits the definition of tranquility, i.e. one untroubled by emotion. He professed to confront bad news without excessive emotion: “The first thing that strikes me on hearing a misfortune having befallen another in this–‘Well, it cannot be helped: he will have the pleasure of trying the resources of his Spirit’ ” (54). Keats continued by admitting that such a reaction could appear emotionally over reserved: “. . . should you observe anything cold in me not to put it to the account of heartlessness, but abstraction–for I assure you I sometimes feel not the influence of a passion or affection during a whole Week . . . ” (54).
In his poetry, Keats makes a more overt statement in favor of tranquility, as he addressed the control of emotions at both extremes. First, in Hyperion Keats expressed the theme that an explanation of adversity leads to the desired state of tranquility.12 Oceanus, a “Sophist and Sage,” (Book II, line 168) pronounces a Stoic manifesto in his monologue to the fallen Titans. He addresses the defeated Titans who, writhing in the agony of their defeat, are “passion-strung” (Book II, line 173). He assures them they need not feel bereft and wretched, but rather tranquil:
‘My voice is not a bellows unto ire.
Yet listen, ye who will, whilst I bring proof . . .
And in the proof much comfort will I give,
If ye will take that comfort in its truth.
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We fall by course of Nature’s law, not force
Of thunder or of Jove.’
(Book II, lines 176-81)
Oceanus explains that they have failed to see the truth of the matter: “ ‘One avenue was shaded from thine eyes, / Through which I wandered to eternal truth” (Book II, lines 186-87). In truth, the calamity was the process of the old order making way for the new, analogous to the ongoing renewal of nature (208, Book II, lines 217 et seq.)
The message that Oceanus imparts to the Titans accords with Keats’s Stoic view on adversity expressed in his letters, i.e. that adversity is purposeful, and it goes further to express that such an understanding promotes calm, in effect a tranquil state of mind. There is textual support in the poem to conclude that Oceanus expresses Keats’s own Stoic views. Of the three characters who speak to Saturn on the topic of the trauma and dismay of the Titans after their fall, Oceanus is more positively portrayed than the other two, as his speech seems to cast a spell over the listening Titans: “Whether through poz’d conviction, or disdain, / They guarded silence, when Oceanus / Left murmuring, what deepest thought can tell?” (Book II, lines 244-46). Cylmene, who speaks next, and who is pointedly non-Stoic, is depicted in unflattering tones. Whereas Oceanus murmurs, she laments: “Cylmene . . .only complain’d, / With hectic lips. . .(Book II, lines 249-50) and embarks on a self-indulgent ramble on her intense grief and confused joy that carries no weight with her listeners. The next Titan to speak, Enceladus, as non-Stoic in his own way as Cylmene, indulges emotion, inciting an impossible revenge:
‘Now ye are flames, I’ll tell you how to burn,
And purge the ether of our enemies;
How to feed fierce the crooked stings of fire,
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And singe away the swollen clouds of Jove,
Stifling that puny essence in his tent.’ ”
(Book II, lines 326-330)
Another reason to consider Oceanus as Keats’s Stoic ambassador is that Oceanus recognizes the rightful ascendancy of Apollo, the expressive figure most revered in Keats’s oeuvre. Indeed, part of the reason to accept the fall of the Titan world is that a greater beauty is coming with the advent of Apollo. In the poem, nature pours forth glorious beauties to herald Apollo, “the Father of all verse” (Book III, line 13): “Flush every thing that hath a vermeil hue, / Let rose glow intense and warm the air, / And let the clouds of even and of morn Float in voluptuous fleeces o’er the hills” (Book III, lines 13-17). The hymn to Apollo continues for several more lines to its crescendo, as the poet rejoices with his Muse that “Apollo is once more the golden theme!” (Book III, line 28).
As for joy and its excesses, Keats seemed to embrace the Stoic admonition against indulging pleasure in the pursuit of joy. First, in keeping with the non-hedonistic precepts of the Stoics, Keats disavowed joy as a goal in his letters. He stated that he knew little of joy, even though that letter predated two of his greatest sorrows, the death of one brother and the departure of the other to America: “. . . I scarcely remember counting upon any happiness–I look not for it if it not be in not in the present hour . . .” (54). He also described the unreliability of joy when commenting on the news of the death of a friend’s father: “This is the world—thus we cannot expect to give away many hours to pleasure. Circumstances are like clouds continually gathering and bursting. While we are laughing, the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events—while we are laughing it sprouts, it grows, and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck” (302-3). Keats called joy a “phantom” to express its transient and
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hardly perceptible nature in the poem “On Death.” “Can death be sleep when life is but a dream, / And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?” (part I, lines 1-2). In addition to joy as an ephemeron, it is a threat to tranquility in the last stanza of the “Ode on Melancholy.” As in the poem “On Death,” joy is fleeting and hardly perceptible, but in the “Ode” Keats also exposes joy’s dire consequences as “the shortest path to pain,” as Emily Brontё phrased it twenty-four years later.13 Keats drew word tableaux to depict the symbiotic relationship of the joys of pleasure and sorrow.
. . . Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.”
(part III, lines 2-10)
In the “Ode,” joy is always leaving, pleasure turns toxic in the length of time a bee alights at a flower, and the person who has known the éclat of joy falls victim forever to a mighty sadness. It would be hard to argue that Keats could be viewed as extolling such a person, in the vein of celebrating the momentary emotion regardless of the cost; the images and diction argue otherwise. Aside from pleasure becoming poison, the image for joy in the poem is the bursting of the grape: purely of the senses, extremely fleeting, and in the end inconsequential. None of
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which connotes any value. By comparison, the sadness endures: the once joyful soul has become a fixture in a shrine—a place of permanence. The trope of capture mimics Seneca’s view that the joys of pleasure have the power to enslave. The images, as well as the tone of the poem conveyed through the solemn words “veiled,” “sadness” and “cloudy” in no way support the jubilant idea that the joyful moment was worth it after all. Therefore, by unstated contrast, the Stoic individual who keeps to a moderate course, who does not indulge the excess of joy, is spared the sorrow and can live in tranquility.
We see, then, Keats contemplated the reason for adversity and arrived at his own understanding of its origin and usefulness; having done so, he laid the basis for seeking the shelter of tranquility from the storm clouds that he described as ever-forming. He further recognized that tranquility was undermined not only by the agony of hardship but also by the thrill of joy. On all those points, Keats not only tracked Stoic footprints in his letter writing and daily life, but also enshrined Stoic thought in verse worthy for Seneca to quote, along with Vergil, to preface his essays.
Knowledge and Reason
Knowledge played an important part to foster tranquility for both Keats and Seneca. Keats yearned to devote himself to study and extolled knowledge: “Every department we see of Knowledge is excellent and calculated towards a great whole . . .” (125). He attributed to it a calming benefit: “An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people—it takes away the heat and fever; and helps, by widening speculation, to ease the Burden of the Mystery, a thing which I begin to understand a little . . .” (125-126). Seneca presaged that thought with his statement: “If you devote yourself to study you will escape your distaste for life . . .” (84). Keats wondered, however, if knowledge sufficed in all cases: “It is impossible to know how far knowledge will
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console us for the death of a friend, and the ill ‘that flesh is heir to’ ” (126). Although he stated that it was impossible, farther in the letter he suggested to the contrary, by observing that a proposition could be established as true if it were tested by experience. Whereas Keats, as the fledging Stoic, expressed reservations about the power of knowledge to outweigh the emotions in all cases, Seneca, the confirmed preceptor of Stoicism, admitted no impediment to the power of knowledge. For example, he unreservedly offered to his mother the benefit of knowledge as the answer to grief: “And so I would lead you to the sure refuge of all who fly from Fortune–to liberal studies. They will heal your wound, they will eradicate your sadness” (131).
Despite the reservations expressed in the above-quoted letter, Keats gets closer to Seneca’s faith in knowledge when he depicts the power of knowledge in Hyperion. As discussed above regarding the monologue of Oceanus, thought and understanding bring tranquility, whereas emotion, unthinkingly indulged, creates misery. Later in the poem, with the appearance of Apollo, Keats makes a case for the beneficial power of knowledge. Apollo at first roams around bewildered and forlorn. “I strive to search wherefore I am so sad, / Until a melancholy numbs my limbs; / And then upon the grass I sit and moan, / Like one who once had wings” (214, Book III, lines 88-90). His spirit quickly begins to rise from its funk as knowledge pours into his head, and he exclaims: “Knowledge enormous makes a god of me” (line 113). Metaphorically, Apollo at the beginning is man in his infant stage who, in Keatsian terms, has not yet explored the rooms of knowledge and is burdened by the mystery of life (129).
In Hyperion Keats allows Apollo, a god, to acquire knowledge spontaneously, but for man on earth reason was necessary. Reason, synonymous with thinking, is the basis for acquiring knowledge (whether deductive or inductive–any other purported way of knowing would rely on instinct.) Reason, like knowledge, implicates the power of the mind, the emotions
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the heart. If Stoicism were distilled into one element it would be the necessity of reason–the sine qua non of the system. The Stoics distinguished man from the animals in his ability to reason; each animal had its special feature, and man’s was reason, as Seneca stated: “What is best in man? Reason, which puts him ahead of the animals and next to the gods” (209). For the Stoics a departure from reason was a failure to act in accordance with nature, in contravention of man’s purpose. Also, without reason there was no path toward a happy life, since, as discussed above, reason explained adversity and made control of the emotions possible (239). Reason was the “true good” and Seneca devoted an essay to proving that axiom (256-261).
In the duel of head and heart, Keats, Stoic-like, promoted reason. When confronted with sorrow, Keats believed that reason was helpful, as seen in a letter to his brother George and his sister-in-law, when their brother Tom was near death. Keats encouraged them to think upon what could be counted as valuable and consoling: “I have Fanny [his sister] and I have you—three people whose happiness to me is sacred–and it does annul that selfish sorrow . . . after thinking a moment or two that you suffer in common with all mankind hold it not a sin to regain your cheerfulness” (212). Although Keats’s advice might seem commonsensical to some, the notion of fixing ones thoughts on whatever of value remains centers Stoic thought. As Seneca pointed out, “No situation is so harsh that a dispassionate mind cannot find some consolation in it” (93). Even though Keats encouraged thinking to console his family members upon Tom’s death, over a year later he admitted in connection with the death of a friend the difficulty of facing one’s own grief: “Even so we have leisure to reason on the misfortunes of our friends; our own touch us too nearly for words” (303). Seneca too acknowledged that reason had a particularly tough time in cases of grief. He wrote that “sorrow is always stubborn” (109) and felt that one had to “allow grief its claims of nature” (102).
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In addition to sorrow, sexual love was an issue of the heart that posed a challenge for reason to confront. Keats stated at one point that he was going to control his passions (i.e. exercise reason over feelings) towards women in referring to his sexual trysts in Oxford, and it seems in fact he did. For Seneca, lust was one of the top two excesses that reason should overcome (54). Seneca did not address conjugal love; presumably he did not consider it conducive to excessive passion. Keats found that for him it did constitute an excess severely at odds with tranquility. On the topic of passionate love, reason failed in his life and won in his poem Lamia. In the former, Keats expressed many times that love and marriage would interfere with a life of calm and solitude, which he considered essential to him as a poet. He avoided seeing Fanny Brawne for several months because his passion was too disturbing to his peace of mind and ability to write (378). However, in the end, circumstances cast him back into her orbit and he was powerless to reason himself out of her gravitational pull. Looking at his work, one can interpret his poem “Lamia” as his Stoic statement on the topic of romantic love in which reason conquers irrational passion, even annihilates it. Lycius is a lover and as such is ruled by emotion. “Apollonius sage” represents reason: he is a philosopher, who has been to Lycius “a trusty guide and good instructor” (Part I, lines 374-375). He bears the name, intentionally or not, of a Roman Stoic philosopher, Apollonius of Chalcedon, who tutored Marcus Aurelius14. From the moment Lycius perceives Lamia, no reasonable thought comes into his head. Indeed, it would be hard to construct a situation more ruled by the heart to the utter exclusion of reason than that of Lycius. His passion distorts his view of his trusty teacher, as the sight of Apollonius then is like “The ghost of folly haunting my sweet dreams” (Part I, line 376). He is so dominated by his passions that he becomes intent on marrying a woman whose name he does not even know. After he determines to marry her, he queries: “Sure some sweet name thou hast, though,
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by my truth, / I have not asked it. . .” (Part II, lines 85-86). Apollonius realizes that Lycius, in succumbing to Lamia, has embarked on an emotional course that will ultimately lead to unhappiness because the passionate love that consumes him must diminish. In support of that eventuality, the narrator drops hints where the romance is headed, noting that if the relationship had lasted longer, love would have waned: “. . . but too short was their bliss / To breed distrust and hate, that make the soft voice hiss” (Part II, lines 10-11). The word “hiss” there even suggests that Lamia might revert to her snake-origins when the raptures of passion end. Even during their extremely brief relationship there occurs a lapse in their unity of emotion. In the tiff resulting from Lycius’s desire for a wedding, Lamia grows concerned because she knows how quickly love can wane: “That but a moment’s thought is passion’s passing bell” (Part II, line 39). How misguided Lycius has been in allowing himself to become enmeshed in this emotion, devoid of reason and false, with an underside of misery, finds metaphorical and hyperbolic expression in Lycius’s lover being a snake in reality. In “Lamia” the woman Lycius loves is not what she seems to be, and neither is love once played out to it natural consequences. Apollonius, in his wisdom, understands the link between passion and misery; he wears a Stoic toga in advocating that Lycius steer clear of such excessive emotion.
It might appear that the poem disparages philosophy and that Apollonius plays the villain. That interpretation could come from the usual bias toward romance, but it is also supported by the point of view in which the poem is told: the reader experiences the early parts of the poem through Lamia’s perspective, and thereby develops an affinity for her. Nonetheless, Apollonius is not incorrect in his assessment of the doomed situation; Lamia was indeed a snake, and the passion would have worn out; Lycius would have remained with, “a heart high sorrowful and
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cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue,” as Keats phrased the aftermath of passion in another poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (part III, lines 9-10).
Death
Keats made a number of remarkable and direct statements about death in his letters and his poetry, and those expressions further align him with the Stoics. In the early stages of his consumption, Keats came upon the idea that death, viewed as an impending certainty, served to beautify life. “How astonishingly does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties upon me” (461). Although he did not advise others to keep death in mind, he did so himself. He proclaimed in a letter well before he fell ill with consumption, “. . . I am never alone without rejoicing that there is such a thing as death. . .” (138). He also expressed several times in his letters his belief that he would die young, as well as in his sonnet, “When I have fears that I may cease to be.”
Keeping thoughts of death ever in mind is an essential Stoic practice. Seneca counseled that “old and young alike should have death before their eyes. . .” (176). The purposes of that exercise were to encourage a person to make the most of his life, to put events in perspective, and to make the eventual end less daunting. In addition to the practice of keeping death in mind, Keats and Seneca also shared similar views on what happened after death; both felt it was an unknown, but in any event there was nothing to dread. Looking first at Seneca, he wrote: “What is death? Either end or transition. I do not fear ceasing to be, for it is the same as not having begun to be, nor am I afraid of transition, for no alternative state can be so limiting” (201). As for how to confront one’s own death, Seneca referred to Julius Canus as one who faced death properly: he anticipated the arrival of his executioners with calm and, most notably, curiosity
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(100-1). Such a frank acceptance counts as a basic Stoic element; however, uniquely Stoic, according to Moses Hadas, is the active advocacy for suicide as a solution if all else
failed. 15 Seneca advised his students to keep in mind that, “If you do not wish to fight you may escape. . . .only observe and you will see what a short and direct road leads to freedom”(45). He devoted a letter to considering the benefits of suicide under varying circumstances (202-7). Keats proffered no opinion on an afterlife; although he made a couple of random statements in letters about the possibility of there being one; the prospect of an afterlife seemed irrelevant to his philosophy on how to live. He never expressed any fear in regard to dying and he shared Seneca’s view of the usefulness of death. The torment at the end of his life was not that he would die; he felt as if he had already died and was living a “posthumous existence” (518). Keats would have followed Seneca’s advice and ended his life, faced with the unrelenting agony of a terminal illness. According to Severn, Keats sought suicide by an overdose of laudanum; Severn, reluctantly but dutifully, removed the bottle of relief from the apartment in
Rome. 16 Approaching the end, Keats exhibited no more fear of death than the Stoic Canus had, and he had the presence of mind to sympathize with Severn and calmly reassure him that he would die easily.17
In addition to statements in letters, Keats’s poetry provides his views on death, since contemplations of death are typical to that genre, and thereby further reveals an accord with Seneca’s idea of death as an escape. First, death is a welcome event in the sonnet “To Sleep” when weighed against the travails of life. Although the title might appear to be an address, as in an ode, it is the first link to death in invoking Hamlet’s soliloquy considering the benefits of death, “to die, to sleep, to dream, ah there’s the rub.” Words connoting death define the benefits of sleep in the poem, creating a metaphor between sleep and death with the shared comparative
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element being welcome relief. Sleep is an embalmer and provider of gloom, dark, shade, and escape. The final image of falling asleep is that of locking the casket: “Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards, / And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul” (lines 13-14). Again, Keats courts death in the sonnet with the opening lines: “Why did I laugh to-night?” In that poem, leaving metaphor aside, Keats directly states that despite imagining the best that life has to offer, he would readily meet his death as the greatest reward: “I know this Being’s lease, / My fancy to its utmost blisses spreads; / Yet would I on this very midnight cease, / And the world’s gaudy ensigns see in shreds; / Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indeed, / but Death intenser—Death is Life’s high meed.” Midnight again brings a desire to die in “Ode to a Nightingale:” “Now more than ever it seems rich to die, / To cease upon the midnight with no pain, / While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!” (part VI, lines 5-8).
The Stoic Lifestyle, Solitude, and the Disdain of Fame
There is symmetry between the manner in which Keats lived and what Seneca described as a Stoic lifestyle. The unimportance of material goods, the self-sufficient love of solitude that disdained socializing, and the importance of the internal versus external world were the hallmarks of an appropriate life outlined by Seneca that Keats represented; he even outdid Seneca in bringing those values to life. Keats lived very simply, unconcerned for creature comforts and the money that was necessary to provide them. He had few possessions and no established home; his only desire with respect to his lodging was quiet and proximity to a library. He walked or rode on the outside of coaches in all weather. He was glad for a good meal if it came his way, but attached no importance to fine dining. He admitted to enjoying excessively only one “palate affair,” claret (288). In his letters, he never complained about his way of life. Much of his lifestyle might follow from a lack of funds; however, Keats could have done better
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by himself if he had cared more about money. He could have pursued his profession as a surgeon; he had an inheritance and would have had more if he had been more active in his financial affairs; and he loaned money to friends that he needed for himself, and then borrowed from his publishers to meet harassing duns.
The Stoics were not ascetics, like the mendicant and homeless Cynics, but Seneca preached against self indulgence in lifestyle. “We pass now to property, the greatest source of affliction to humanity. Reflect, then, how much less a grief it is not to have money than to lose it . . . (89). Seneca exhorted his acolytes to live as follows: “We must learn to strengthen self-restraint, curb luxury, temper ambition, moderate anger, view poverty calmly, cultivate frugality. . . and make it our business to get out riches from ourselves rather than from fortune” (91). He also gushed praise at the simplicity of Scipio’s dwelling, particularly his simple bath, which was at odds with the trend of great luxury in baths. An additional detail of coincidence arises between Seneca and Keats on the subject of wine. Just as Keats allowed it his one indulgence, so Seneca made his exception from moderation the occasional indulgence of wine to lift the spirits (105).
Keats described in his letters the great degree to which he valued solitude. “I think . . . I could pass my life very nearly alone though it would last eighty years” ( 369) He many times expressed his attraction to a solitary life that would allow him to study and write, and he assured his brother, George, that he thrived in isolation: “ . . . think of my Pleasure in solitude in comparison of my commerce with the world. . .” (226). Although Keats is known for having several faithful friends, upon whom he greatly depended, there is a distinction between friendship and socializing. Keats associated with many people and had his gregarious phases, yet he came to resent socializing, which depleted his store of hours to write and study and he
25
disdained the mean-spiritedness and vanity that he was prone to encounter while socializing. He felt he had to “smother his spirit” in society (243) He swore off congregating “with literary men”; his one-time admiration for Wordsworth as a person was diminished by his acquaintance with him, and he became very critical of his one-time close associate, Leigh Hunt. Keats expressed that “trapsing” around to make visits was a waste of time (222). With precise similarity, Seneca agreed that friendship did not impinge on a solitary life, as vacuous socializing did, and Seneca extolled friendship as one of the best things life can offer (88). He stated regarding socializing, “We must cut down on gadding about. So many men make the rounds of houses, theater, and thrust themselves into other people’s affairs, and always give the impression of being busy. . . .they ramble about with no purpose” (98).
The third feature of a Stoic lifestyle is the importance of the internal world, versus the external world. According to Seneca, “A man is happy, I maintain, when no circumstance can reduce him; he keeps to the heights and uses no buttress but himself, for a man sustained is likely to fall” (239). The ability to be self-sufficient was crucial to the Stoics: Seneca wrote that it was one of two necessary causes for happiness (239) and that, “It is important to withdraw into one’s self” (104). Keats certainly burned the fuel of his inner resources, and turning inward to his own mind was a philosophical approach that matched his creative proclivity. The Stoic view that the mind is a refuge, full of potential and unaffected by external events suits writers particularly, who sound their imaginations. Emily Brontё called imagination the “world within,” and similarly, Keats stated, “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” (225). Also, he commented that he wrote what he imagined rather than what he saw, which was, in his view, Byron’s approach and an inferior endeavor. Milton also expressed the idea in “Paradise Lost” when Satan declares: “The
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mind is its own place and can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell.” Keats echoed Satan when he wrote, “The soul is a world of itself, and has enough to do in its own home” (369). The similarity is not surprising, given that in a few lines above he had remarked how “the ‘Paradise Lost’ becomes a greater wonder.”
A large element of the external world that Keats discounted, even disdained, was the public and its opinion of his poetry. As Keats defied the odds of ever being successful and devoted himself to his poetry, he found the reason to continue within himself. He wrote in a letter after his failure with the critics and the public: “No external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary perception and ratification of what is fine” (207). Keats’s declaration that he would write poetry, if only to tear it up the next day (211) was not bravado, but Stoicism. It hits the same note as Seneca’s statement on an audience, a banner apothegm for “unsuccessful” writers like Keats: “. . . few are enough, one is enough, none is enough” (174).
Coincidence, Limitations, and Ultimate Worth
The unity of thought between Keats and the Stoics detailed in this paper should not be taken as a facile occurrence, first, because the convergence of thought is so great: a comprehensive monograph of the Stoic nature of Keats’s philosophy would exceed the length of an article. Furthermore, for all the possible threads of Stoicism that seem familiar and that were woven into literature and other philosophies, there were many intellectual and social influences during the Romantic era strongly in conflict with Stoicism that Keats might have embraced instead: the Romantic literary ideas from the Continent exalting self-indulgent, passionate, even destructive, emotion; the pursuit of financial success in an increasingly mercantile system; the approbation of society in a class-based country; and, most notably, Christianity. Particularly in his tormented final days, Keats might have succumbed to its influence, given that Dr. Clark,
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Keats’s attending physician in Rome, and Joseph Severn, his devoted friend and nurse in Rome, encouraged it, certain that Keats was deprived and worsened by a failure to embrace religion.18 Also, the similarities in philosophical thought between Keats and Seneca actually exceed what I have treated in this paper, both in the degree of detail on each topic and in number of topics. There are elements of Stoicism that Keats did not seem to have discovered; however, it is not surprising, since his philosophical development was cut short by his death at the age of only twenty-five. One might similarly surmise that there are also many notions of a philosophical nature expressed by Keats that do not accord with Stoicism, although I would argue that is not the case with regard to his practical philosophy; I borrow Keats’s own words to explain any divergence of thought: “Minds would leave each other in contrary directions, traverse each other in numberless points, and at last greet each other at the journey’s end” (89).
Coming back to the fundamental eudaemonistic ethics of Stoicism, I could hardly propose Keats as an honorary Roman Stoic unless his philosophy did do him some good in his life. He did, despite his philosophy, fall into periods of depression: yet, perhaps his philosophy helped him to climb out. Keats assured his brother George and his sister-in-law in a letter that his philosophy did shore him up. After one of his extended philosophical discourses he wrote,
“. . . look over the two last pages and ask yourself whether I have not that in me which will bear the buffets of the world” (305). Later once consumption besieged him, Keats’s letters and those written by his attendants in Rome suggest that perhaps his philosophy failed him; one such he wrote to Brown after setting sail for Rome, ill and bereft of Fanny Brawne: “Is there another life? Shall I awake and find this all a dream? There must be; we cannot be created for this sort of suffering.” That letter and others from Keats and Severn suggest that any failure of philosophy was an occasional break down under torture: Severn described the unrelenting pain Keats
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suffered from the deterioration of his lungs and stomach and his extreme mental anguish in awful detail and then concluded: “. . . his suffering now is beyond description.” 19 Keats and Seneca went into exile and, Keats, like Seneca, awaited his death sentence. The description by Tacitus of Seneca’s forced suicide20 tends to intrigue, whereas Keats’s ordeal is sad and haunting, yet both doomed men had their philosophy. Keats, not long after his arrival to the destination of his death, the apartment at the bottom of the Spanish Steps in Rome, found the strength to write a letter and affirm his philosophy. After he advised Brown to bring his philosophy to bear, he added, “. . .as I do mine, or, really, how should I be able to live” (519).
1 John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, ed. H. Buxton Forman (London: Reeves & Turner, 1895; repr., Ellibron Classics, 2005), 519. References to Keats’s letters are to this edition and are hereafter cited parenthetically by page number.
2 For an example of one of many presentations of Stoicism for the present day, see William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life (Oxford University Press, 2009).
3 Moses Hadas, “Introduction,” in The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca (New York: W.W. Norton, 1958), 19-26. See also Irvine, The Guide to the Good Life, 17 et seq.
4 Robert Gittings, John Keats: the Living Year (Harvard University Press, 1954), 4.
5 Roberta D. Cornelius, “Keats as a Humanist,” Keats-Shelley Journal, winter (1956).
6 Douka Kabitoglou, “Adapting Philosophy to Literature: the Case of John Keats,” Studies in Philology 89.1 (1992).
7 Richard P. Benton, “Keats and Zen,” Philosophy East and West 16 (1966).
8 Hadas, “Introduction,” 19.
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9 Ibid., 20.
10 Seneca, The Stoic of Philosophy of Seneca, ed. and trans. Moses Hadas (New York: W.W. Norton 1958), 84. References to the statements of Seneca are to this text and are hereafter cited parenthetically.
11 Irvine, The Guide to the Good Life, 34-5.
12 John Keats, The Complete Poems of John Keats (New York: the Modern Library, 1994). References to Keats’s poetry are to this edition and are cited hereafter by poem, book or part (where necessary), and line.
13 Emily Jane Brontё, “How Clear She Shines,” in The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Brontё, ed. C.W. Hatfield (Columbia University Press, 1941), line 36.
14 Irvine, The Guide to the Good Life, 56.
15 Hadas, “Introduction” to “On Providence” in The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, 27.
16 The Keats Circle, 203.
17 Ibid, 224.
18 The Keats Circle, ed. Hyder Rollins (Harvard University Press, 1967) vol.1, 181,186,194.
19 The Keats Circle. 202.
20 Hadas, “Introduction,” 7-8.

The Stoic Philosophy of John Keats
“ ‘. . . to bear all naked truths, / And to envisage circumstance, all calm, / That is the top of sovereignty. Mark well!’ ” Hyperion
Three months before John Keats died in Rome, he wrote his valedictory letter. He addressed his closest friend, Charles Brown, describing the toll consumption had taken and preparing Brown for news of his death: “There, you rogue, I put you to the torture; but you must bring your philosophy to bear . . .”1 Taken alone, this advice might appear an off-hand comment; however, it was the last of many statements that Keats made about philosophy in his letters. In his final days, as through his life, Keats did not believe that religion offered the way to reconcile oneself to adversity or that it revealed the mysteries for which the tangible world was the allegorical representation; for him, philosophy provided guidance for living and, if not an answer to the eternal questions, at least clues. Keats was interested in and valued philosophy second only to poetry and, well into his career as a poet, he even stated in a letter that “the human friend philosopher” was more “genuine” than a “fine writer” (364). Keats’s philosophy takes shape in his letters and surfaces at times in his poetry, and it is a philosophy that is at one with Roman Stoicism. I have identified Stoic ideas in his letters, in a number of his poems, and in his approach to life primarily to view Keats and his work from the new perspective that a comparative study affords. I have incidentally endorsed Stoicism: that Keats, one of the greatest and most revered English poets, suffered a life of hardship, pondered philosophical matters and arrived at essentially a Stoic philosophy serves as a strong recommendation for that system–a philosophical approach to life that is viable for the present day.2 Stoicism can be briefly defined, for purposes of a starting point for the discussion to follow, as a program for achieving a tranquil life that finds value in adversity, promotes the use of reason to overcome emotion (because reason is the attribute particular to man), teaches the unimportance of external events, advocates
2
moderation in all things, and views death as a solution, transition or end, since life after death is unknowable. 3
Many scholars believe that during the years of 1818 through 1819, Keats was attempting to develop a comprehensive philosophical system.”4 In a letter written during that period, Keats declared that, although he was only “straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness” (304), he deserved credit for working toward knowing himself, and he supported the value of philosophical endeavors by quoting John Milton: “ ‘How charming is divine Philosophy, / Not harsh and crabbed, as dull fools suppose, / But musical as is Apollo’s lute’ ” (304-5). Having identified that Keats had a strong philosophical tendency, scholars of literature and philosophy have sought in his poetry elements of Humanism,5 Platonism,6 and Zen Buddhism.7 Humanism might underlie his poems, but it is less a method for daily living and a response to eternal questions than the historical development of a general attitude. Also, a study of Keats as a Platonist must focus on his poetics, not on a method for living because Plato was a dialectician and theorist; certainly Keats was not suggesting to Brown that he deal with grief by remembering Platonic ideas. As for Zen Buddhism, there is an overlap in small ways between that and Stoicism, but Zen elements, if any, in certain poems do not connect Keats, personally or philosophically, to that system of belief.
In demonstrating that Keats developed a Stoic philosophy, I must propose that he was influenced by Stoic thought, arrived at Stoic ideas coincidentally, or that he fell somewhere on the scale between the two possibilities. The last prevails, although far closer to coincidence than influence. As for any direct influence on Keats, even though he did read Latin fluently, there is no evidence that he read any Stoic writers. He borrowed books from friends and from libraries, set himself a course of study, and stated that he was going to ask William Hazlitt’s advice on
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books to read; Hazlitt was a “philosopher” and an acolyte of Montaigne, who had borrowed many Stoic concepts. However, no books by Stoic writers were among his books when he died, he never mentioned reading them in his letters, and biographers and scholars, such as Robert Gittings, have investigated carefully what Keats read in order to discern influences on his poetry and have not mentioned any of those writers. In considering indirect influences, Hellenistic and Roman philosophical ideas could have reached Keats through various writers. Moses Hadas in his introduction to The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca (1958) has explained, regarding the ubiquity of Stoic thought after the time of Marcus Aurelius: “After his time the school as such faded out, but its doctrines perceptibly influenced later Neoplatonism and some of the Church Fathers and became a substantial strand in the skein of European thought” (26). In particular, Vergil (an author Keats knew well and whom Seneca quoted to preface his essays), French philosophers (he read Voltaire), and the English poets (particularly Shakespeare and Milton) contained sifted grains of Stoicism. Keats’s familiarity with Socrates, through Plato or others, might account for some landmarks of Stoicism in his intellectual landscape, since Socrates is considered the Adam of an extended philosophical family tree that included Stoicism. William Irvine in A Guide to the Good Life (2009) has described the influence of Socrates on Stoicism: “It is as if Socrates, on his death, had fissioned into Plato and Antisthenes, with Plato inheriting Socrates’ interest in theory and Antisthenes inheriting his concern with living a good life. . . . Unfortunately, although the theoretical side of philosophy flourished, the practical side his withered away” (20). Antisthenes and “the practical side” are Stoic.
Given the dispersal of Stoic teaching, tracing any particular Stoic influence on Keats is like finding the end of a spider’s web. Keats himself recognized that his philosophical musings were fed by myriad and preexisting streams of thought: “I have often pitied a tutor who has to
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hear ‘Nom. Musa’ so often dinn’d into his ears—I hope you may not have the same pain in this scribbling—I may have read these things before, but I never had even a thus dim perception of them; and moreover I like to say my lesson to one who will endure my tediousness, for my own sake” (131). That quote illustrates that, despite any attenuated Socratic and Stoic ancestry of his readings, Keats was originating his philosophical thoughts, rather than studying prior systems; through that process he arrived at a preponderance of Stoicism coincidentally.
The Purpose and Development of Philosophy
Keats concerned himself in his philosophy with finding the best way to deal with life, rather than with pursuing theoretical exercises in logic. The philosophy of Stoicism also concerned itself with a way to confront life, as distinguished from metaphysics. Moses Hadas has described the difference: “Its program was at all times more important than the scaffolding of logic and physics erected to support it . . .”8 The origin of Stoicism accounts for its practicality, as Hadas explained: “Stoicism aimed at reconciling the claims of the individual with the “demands of his overwhelmingly enlarged environment” after the fall of the city-state that had hitherto served to define the individual’s world.9 Incidentally, the growth of a system to fill a void in society is analogous to its providing the agnostic individual, like Keats, a philosophy in the absence of organized religion. Beyond designing a useful system for himself, Keats also aimed at a larger, non-personal benefit from philosophy, as he explained in a letter: “I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good to the world. Some do it with their society—some with their wit—some with their benevolence—some with a sort of power of conferring pleasure and good humour on all they meet—and a thousand ways, all dutiful to the command of great nature—there is but one way for me. The road lies through application, study, and thought. . . . I have been hovering for some time between an exquisite sense of the
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luxurious, and a love for philosophy,—were I calculated for the former, I should be glad. But as I am not, I shall turn all my soul to the latter” (120-21). The larger, non-personal goal of benefitting society that Keats mentioned figures as a purpose of the Stoics. Seneca, a Roman Stoic, who lived from about 4 B.C. to 165 A.D., encouraged his acolytes to work for the good of the country, then, if forced out of civic duty or prevented by circumstance from participating in the community, to pursue teaching, writing or philosophy—all valuable for the world as much as for oneself. Seneca advised: “If, then, you bestow the time you abstract from public business upon study, you will not be deserting or shirking your duty.”10 I rely throughout this paper on Seneca as the representative of Roman Stoicism because his essays and letters offer the most developed, comprehensive, and accessible Stoic information.
As for his approach to developing a philosophy, Keats did not devote himself to one preceptor, but rather he worked out matters for himself, as noted above in the discussion of the influences that Keats was heir to in developing his philosophy. Keats’s approach of gathering ideas from various sources mimics Stoicism’s syncretistic nature: Seneca borrowed from any school of thought where he found a useful item of knowledge, and having done so it was as much his as anyone’s: “Whatever is true is mine,” Seneca stated (77), regardless of whether Epicurus, for example, was known for the idea. Seneca also exhorted his students not to receive ideas passively, but to create their system. Seneca admonished his followers not to remain a “subaltern” to other thinkers, but to “Take command and say things that will be handed down to posterity” (186). Therefore, Keats acted in accord with Seneca’s precept in fashioning his own cut of philosophy, rather than following the notions of any given school. Creating one’s own system struck him as the correct path because he felt anyone could construct his own philosophy: “Memory should not be called Knowledge. Many have original minds who do not think it—they
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are led away by Custom. Now it appears to me that almost any Man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel . . . with a few points to tip with the fine Web of his Soul. . .”(88-9). Keats’s thoughts in that statement echo Seneca’s idea that those who never create but only interpret “exercise their memories on what is not their own. But to remember is one thing, to know another” (187). We see that point of view in the letter to Brown cited at the beginning of this paper because Keats did not write “our” (as one might to refer to a shared religion), but “your philosophy”–Brown was apparently charged with developing his own.
Keats, like the Stoics, developed a practical philosophy; however, he did of course expound on art and poetry, creating an aesthetic philosophy notable for his ideas on the relation of beauty and truth, on the chameleon poet, and on negative capability. His aesthetics overlap his practical philosophy because Keats believed that poetry could alleviate suffering and that writing it consoled him: “Life must be undergone, and I certainly derive some consolation from the thought of writing one or two more poems before it ceases. . .” (139). It so happens that our representative Stoic, Seneca, also veered off the path of practical philosophy to address the nature of a writer, perhaps because he was also a playwright. Despite Stoicism’s general lack of interest in aesthetics and its concern for reigning in emotion, Seneca allowed a passionate and immoderate mindset for writing: he referred to the statements of Plato and Aristotle and their views on the mixture of madness and genius typical to great poetic creativity, then articulated his own belief: “ . . . in any case only a mind that is excited is capable of great and transcendant utterance. . . . It must tear itself from the trodden path, palpitate with frenzy. . . ” (106). On that point, Keats would have nodded in complete agreement. In a poem included in a letter to his brother George, Keats described the poet as being in a “trance,” capable of perceptions like no other person (21). Keats also stated in his letters that, when immersed in writing, he was in a sort
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of fever (414) and that the presence of any person, “burst on him like a thunderbolt” (363). That he worked himself up into such a feverish state almost lends credibility to the medical injunction imposed on Keats when ill against writing poetry because it would impede his recovery (459).
The Nature of a Sage
Keats and Seneca were in agreement on the kind of person who merited the title of a philosopher. Keats freely used the term “philosopher” in his letters, and by that term he intended the highest accolade. Less obvious, but discernible, was what exactly he meant by that word. His letters reveal that a philosopher exhibited two necessary attributes: outwardly he was disinterested and inwardly he delved into the mysteries of life. Applying that measure to certain personal acquaintances and literary figures, Keats noted that his contemporary William Wordsworth lacked the first criterion: “I am sorry that Wordsworth has left a bad impression wherever he visited in town by his egotism, Vanity and bigotry. Yet he is a great poet if not a philosopher” (92). Thus he concluded, despite having considered Wordsworth and John Milton philosophers in an earlier letter; he had even given Wordsworth the greater ability to see “into the human heart” because he lived in a later time of greater intellectual development than Milton’s (130-31). The shortcoming of Wordsworth described by the quote was his lack of disinterestedness. Attempting to cut a fine figure in society and to foster self-serving agendas routed disinterestedness, and Keats considered Wordsworth, lamentably, to have engaged in those practices. The disinterested person Keats declared was not to be found because “. . . there are none prepared to suffer in obscurity for their Country” (218). In observing how uncommon the trait was Keats wrote: “Very few men have ever arrived at a complete disinterestedness of Mind: very few have been influenced by a pure desire of the benefit of others,–in the greater part of the Benefactors of Humanity some meretricious motive has sullied their greatness—some
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melodramatic scenery has fascinated them” (303). In his letter on this topic, Keats appears immersed in working out his thoughts, as he continued for several lines before realizing that he considered two men to be such disinterested individuals: Socrates and Jesus (304). (His examples happen to be Stoic in nature: Socrates was the first in the line of Stoic descent and Christianity incorporated many Stoic doctrines because they assimilated easily into Christian doctrine). The other “philosophers” that he mentioned in his letters, who achieved some measure of disinterestedness and achieved insight into the human heart, were Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth, as discussed, and, in passing, William Godwin and Voltaire.
Seneca also valued disinterestedness and extolled the process of exploring the nature of life. Seneca described in his letters individuals exhibiting very similar characteristics to those that Keats deplored in Wordsworth, citing examples of wasted lives those who spent time “gadding about the city on social duties” (50) and ridiculed vanity at length (61). One of Seneca’s primary examples of disinterestedness in action was Scipio Africanus, although he many times referred to Socrates as exemplary, particularly in the way in which he met his death. Scipio formed the subject of an entire letter, having made a powerful impression on Seneca when he visited his country house (216-19). Seneca marveled at the simplicity with which he lived after making the hugely disinterested act of leaving Rome to return to his farm because it was best for Roman democracy: “How could I not admire the high spirit which withdrew him into voluntary exile and so disburdened the state?” (216). On the second criterion of a philosopher, Seneca encouraged his acolytes to ponder philosophical matters as the summum bonum: “. . . there is nothing that the lapse of time does not dilapidate and exterminate. But the dedications of philosophy are impregnable; age cannot erase their memory or diminish their force. Each succeeding generation will hold them in ever higher reverence . . .” (67).
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Tranquility over Adversity and Joy
Whether in early 19th century England or ancient Rome, it would not take much thought, philosophical or otherwise, to conclude that suffering and sorrow accounted for a large measure of existence and that death was ever close at hand. Keats and Seneca developed consistent explanations for the existence of hardship and ways to reconcile man to it. Keats concluded from the natural world that hardship was an intrinsic part of life: “The whole appears to resolve into this—that Man is a poor forked creature subject to the same mischances as the beasts of the forest, destined to hardships and disquietude of some kind or other” (325). He continued in that letter to opine that man could no more escape his suffering than the rose could avoid the withering sun or the fish disperse the ice of winter streams (326). Further, no great person, no Socrates walking the earth, could mitigate that reality (325). Seneca would not have disputed the natural and constant nature of hardship, but attributed its origin to gods. This point of difference is minor because such gods were akin to forces of nature and embodied an ideal perfection. The gods were all powerful, yet nowhere does Seneca suggest placating them or supplicating for a change anymore than Keats would have left offerings to nature for a mitigation of his illness.
Thus, given the natural origin of hardship and its inescapability, the question for philosophy was how to reconcile oneself to it. Neither Keats nor Seneca gave any credence to suffering as punishment or as the basis for the compensations of a heavenly afterlife. Instead, their common theme was the usefulness of adversity to achieve self-knowledge and to form a person: more particularly, for Keats to form a soul, for Seneca to fashion a stalwart individual. Early in his correspondence, Keats stated in passing that “. . . difficulties nerve the Spirit of a Man—they make our Prime Objects a Refuge as well as a Passion” (16). Later, he coupled hardship with knowledge, stating allegorically that from difficult experiences one entered farther
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into the previously obscured rooms of knowledge located in the mansion of life (129). Then, in a long letter to his brother George and sister-in-law dated as having been started on February 14, 1819, Keats gave a sustained discussion on the purpose of adversity. He expressed a confirmed belief that a person’s identity, also referred to as his soul, was molded through hardship. He posited: “Do you not see how necessary a world of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?” (327). Accordingly, he termed life not a “vale of tears,” but a “vale of soul-making” (326). Keats also added another asset to the account of hardship: without it, death would be unendurable, with everyman’s end tantamount to “Eve leaving Paradise” (325). There was a third use for adversity: the creation of poetry. As noted earlier, although Keats’s philosophy of life was, in Stoic fashion, practical in its orientation and separate from his aesthetics, many of his contemplations led to poetry. For Keats, a great poem required discomfort. Regarding a poem of Wordsworth that William Hazlitt had criticized, Keats felt that the poem was lacking because it was not written with a troubled mind: “. . . if Wordsworth had thought a little deeper at that moment, he would not have written the poem at all. I should judge it to have been written in one of his most comfortable moods of his life—it is a kind of sketchy intellectual landscape, not a search after truth . . .” (44-5). Although Keats did not pursue the logic of Dr. Pangloss and state that suffering was for the best because it gave the world material for poetry, he did seem to consider adversity as necessary for poetry and, in that regard, of value.
Seneca’s parallel essay to Keats’s “vale of soul-making letter” is an essay “On Providence” (27-45). His many apothegms on the utility of adversity in the essay coincide with Keats’s ideas. Seneca states that through adversity individuals become stalwart and worthy; indeed there is no knowing that a person is great unless he has had the opportunity to show it through confronting adversity (36). “I account you unfortunate because you have never been
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unfortunate. You have passed through life without an adversary; no one can know your potentiality, not even you. For self-knowledge testing is necessary” (36). Therefore, one could only arrive at one’s true character by facing challenges (37), just as one could not, in Keats’s terminology, achieve a soul without such challenges. Keats and Seneca, we see, were like-minded in developing a nature-based explanation for the existence of adversity and a way to reconcile man to it that goes so far as to consider adversity not only as eradicable but useful, even necessary.
Seneca’s explaining adversity served the goal of attaining a kind of happiness, termed tranquility. For that reason Roman Stoic philosophy has been termed “eudaemonistic ethics;” as William Irvine explains regarding Stoicism and its quest for tranquility: “It is concerned not with moral right and wrong but with having a ‘good spirit,’ that is, with living a good, happy
life. . .” 11 At the heart of Stoicism was the search for tranquility, a consistent state of mind, free of excitement or depression (79-80). For Seneca, understanding and reconciling oneself to adversity fostered tranquility; however, emotions arising from hardship were not the only challenge to a tranquil state of mind. Any excessive emotion threatened it. In essays and letters Seneca would slip in the reminder from time to time that “anything carried to excess is wrong” (92) and that “all excesses are injurious” (38). Such excessive emotion included the joy produced by pleasure. Joy is here to be distinguished from a state of cheerfulness or content in connoting a passionate excess, a high spike in the emotional cardiogram. Did Keats strive to obtain tranquility, that basic goal of Stoicism which includes not only freedom from the turmoil of hardship but the joys of pleasure? In his letters Keats does not pronounce tranquility his goal, per se, yet it can be reasonably inferred that tranquility was his philosophical end. It is natural that he would have sought the relief of tranquility for “his horrid Morbidity of Temperament”
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(17) which affected him to the point he felt unable to write, which only compounded his misery: “I am so depressed that I have not an idea to put to paper . . . my hand feels like lead . . .” (133). Keats described that the inability to write caused him actual pain (243). To live a good life, Keats had to reach a state conducive to writing, which he referred to as being “in cue” to write (286). The only way to work an improvement on his mental state would have been on his own, through his philosophy. Keats by his own avowal did spend periods in a state that suited him and that fits the definition of tranquility, i.e. one untroubled by emotion. He professed to confront bad news without excessive emotion: “The first thing that strikes me on hearing a misfortune having befallen another in this–‘Well, it cannot be helped: he will have the pleasure of trying the resources of his Spirit’ ” (54). Keats continued by admitting that such a reaction could appear emotionally over reserved: “. . . should you observe anything cold in me not to put it to the account of heartlessness, but abstraction–for I assure you I sometimes feel not the influence of a passion or affection during a whole Week . . . ” (54).
In his poetry, Keats makes a more overt statement in favor of tranquility, as he addressed the control of emotions at both extremes. First, in Hyperion Keats expressed the theme that an explanation of adversity leads to the desired state of tranquility.12 Oceanus, a “Sophist and Sage,” (Book II, line 168) pronounces a Stoic manifesto in his monologue to the fallen Titans. He addresses the defeated Titans who, writhing in the agony of their defeat, are “passion-strung” (Book II, line 173). He assures them they need not feel bereft and wretched, but rather tranquil:
‘My voice is not a bellows unto ire.
Yet listen, ye who will, whilst I bring proof . . .
And in the proof much comfort will I give,
If ye will take that comfort in its truth.
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We fall by course of Nature’s law, not force
Of thunder or of Jove.’
(Book II, lines 176-81)
Oceanus explains that they have failed to see the truth of the matter: “ ‘One avenue was shaded from thine eyes, / Through which I wandered to eternal truth” (Book II, lines 186-87). In truth, the calamity was the process of the old order making way for the new, analogous to the ongoing renewal of nature (208, Book II, lines 217 et seq.)
The message that Oceanus imparts to the Titans accords with Keats’s Stoic view on adversity expressed in his letters, i.e. that adversity is purposeful, and it goes further to express that such an understanding promotes calm, in effect a tranquil state of mind. There is textual support in the poem to conclude that Oceanus expresses Keats’s own Stoic views. Of the three characters who speak to Saturn on the topic of the trauma and dismay of the Titans after their fall, Oceanus is more positively portrayed than the other two, as his speech seems to cast a spell over the listening Titans: “Whether through poz’d conviction, or disdain, / They guarded silence, when Oceanus / Left murmuring, what deepest thought can tell?” (Book II, lines 244-46). Cylmene, who speaks next, and who is pointedly non-Stoic, is depicted in unflattering tones. Whereas Oceanus murmurs, she laments: “Cylmene . . .only complain’d, / With hectic lips. . .(Book II, lines 249-50) and embarks on a self-indulgent ramble on her intense grief and confused joy that carries no weight with her listeners. The next Titan to speak, Enceladus, as non-Stoic in his own way as Cylmene, indulges emotion, inciting an impossible revenge:
‘Now ye are flames, I’ll tell you how to burn,
And purge the ether of our enemies;
How to feed fierce the crooked stings of fire,
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And singe away the swollen clouds of Jove,
Stifling that puny essence in his tent.’ ”
(Book II, lines 326-330)
Another reason to consider Oceanus as Keats’s Stoic ambassador is that Oceanus recognizes the rightful ascendancy of Apollo, the expressive figure most revered in Keats’s oeuvre. Indeed, part of the reason to accept the fall of the Titan world is that a greater beauty is coming with the advent of Apollo. In the poem, nature pours forth glorious beauties to herald Apollo, “the Father of all verse” (Book III, line 13): “Flush every thing that hath a vermeil hue, / Let rose glow intense and warm the air, / And let the clouds of even and of morn Float in voluptuous fleeces o’er the hills” (Book III, lines 13-17). The hymn to Apollo continues for several more lines to its crescendo, as the poet rejoices with his Muse that “Apollo is once more the golden theme!” (Book III, line 28).
As for joy and its excesses, Keats seemed to embrace the Stoic admonition against indulging pleasure in the pursuit of joy. First, in keeping with the non-hedonistic precepts of the Stoics, Keats disavowed joy as a goal in his letters. He stated that he knew little of joy, even though that letter predated two of his greatest sorrows, the death of one brother and the departure of the other to America: “. . . I scarcely remember counting upon any happiness–I look not for it if it not be in not in the present hour . . .” (54). He also described the unreliability of joy when commenting on the news of the death of a friend’s father: “This is the world—thus we cannot expect to give away many hours to pleasure. Circumstances are like clouds continually gathering and bursting. While we are laughing, the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events—while we are laughing it sprouts, it grows, and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck” (302-3). Keats called joy a “phantom” to express its transient and
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hardly perceptible nature in the poem “On Death.” “Can death be sleep when life is but a dream, / And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?” (part I, lines 1-2). In addition to joy as an ephemeron, it is a threat to tranquility in the last stanza of the “Ode on Melancholy.” As in the poem “On Death,” joy is fleeting and hardly perceptible, but in the “Ode” Keats also exposes joy’s dire consequences as “the shortest path to pain,” as Emily Brontё phrased it twenty-four years later.13 Keats drew word tableaux to depict the symbiotic relationship of the joys of pleasure and sorrow.
. . . Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.”
(part III, lines 2-10)
In the “Ode,” joy is always leaving, pleasure turns toxic in the length of time a bee alights at a flower, and the person who has known the éclat of joy falls victim forever to a mighty sadness. It would be hard to argue that Keats could be viewed as extolling such a person, in the vein of celebrating the momentary emotion regardless of the cost; the images and diction argue otherwise. Aside from pleasure becoming poison, the image for joy in the poem is the bursting of the grape: purely of the senses, extremely fleeting, and in the end inconsequential. None of
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which connotes any value. By comparison, the sadness endures: the once joyful soul has become a fixture in a shrine—a place of permanence. The trope of capture mimics Seneca’s view that the joys of pleasure have the power to enslave. The images, as well as the tone of the poem conveyed through the solemn words “veiled,” “sadness” and “cloudy” in no way support the jubilant idea that the joyful moment was worth it after all. Therefore, by unstated contrast, the Stoic individual who keeps to a moderate course, who does not indulge the excess of joy, is spared the sorrow and can live in tranquility.
We see, then, Keats contemplated the reason for adversity and arrived at his own understanding of its origin and usefulness; having done so, he laid the basis for seeking the shelter of tranquility from the storm clouds that he described as ever-forming. He further recognized that tranquility was undermined not only by the agony of hardship but also by the thrill of joy. On all those points, Keats not only tracked Stoic footprints in his letter writing and daily life, but also enshrined Stoic thought in verse worthy for Seneca to quote, along with Vergil, to preface his essays.
Knowledge and Reason
Knowledge played an important part to foster tranquility for both Keats and Seneca. Keats yearned to devote himself to study and extolled knowledge: “Every department we see of Knowledge is excellent and calculated towards a great whole . . .” (125). He attributed to it a calming benefit: “An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people—it takes away the heat and fever; and helps, by widening speculation, to ease the Burden of the Mystery, a thing which I begin to understand a little . . .” (125-126). Seneca presaged that thought with his statement: “If you devote yourself to study you will escape your distaste for life . . .” (84). Keats wondered, however, if knowledge sufficed in all cases: “It is impossible to know how far knowledge will
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console us for the death of a friend, and the ill ‘that flesh is heir to’ ” (126). Although he stated that it was impossible, farther in the letter he suggested to the contrary, by observing that a proposition could be established as true if it were tested by experience. Whereas Keats, as the fledging Stoic, expressed reservations about the power of knowledge to outweigh the emotions in all cases, Seneca, the confirmed preceptor of Stoicism, admitted no impediment to the power of knowledge. For example, he unreservedly offered to his mother the benefit of knowledge as the answer to grief: “And so I would lead you to the sure refuge of all who fly from Fortune–to liberal studies. They will heal your wound, they will eradicate your sadness” (131).
Despite the reservations expressed in the above-quoted letter, Keats gets closer to Seneca’s faith in knowledge when he depicts the power of knowledge in Hyperion. As discussed above regarding the monologue of Oceanus, thought and understanding bring tranquility, whereas emotion, unthinkingly indulged, creates misery. Later in the poem, with the appearance of Apollo, Keats makes a case for the beneficial power of knowledge. Apollo at first roams around bewildered and forlorn. “I strive to search wherefore I am so sad, / Until a melancholy numbs my limbs; / And then upon the grass I sit and moan, / Like one who once had wings” (214, Book III, lines 88-90). His spirit quickly begins to rise from its funk as knowledge pours into his head, and he exclaims: “Knowledge enormous makes a god of me” (line 113). Metaphorically, Apollo at the beginning is man in his infant stage who, in Keatsian terms, has not yet explored the rooms of knowledge and is burdened by the mystery of life (129).
In Hyperion Keats allows Apollo, a god, to acquire knowledge spontaneously, but for man on earth reason was necessary. Reason, synonymous with thinking, is the basis for acquiring knowledge (whether deductive or inductive–any other purported way of knowing would rely on instinct.) Reason, like knowledge, implicates the power of the mind, the emotions
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the heart. If Stoicism were distilled into one element it would be the necessity of reason–the sine qua non of the system. The Stoics distinguished man from the animals in his ability to reason; each animal had its special feature, and man’s was reason, as Seneca stated: “What is best in man? Reason, which puts him ahead of the animals and next to the gods” (209). For the Stoics a departure from reason was a failure to act in accordance with nature, in contravention of man’s purpose. Also, without reason there was no path toward a happy life, since, as discussed above, reason explained adversity and made control of the emotions possible (239). Reason was the “true good” and Seneca devoted an essay to proving that axiom (256-261).
In the duel of head and heart, Keats, Stoic-like, promoted reason. When confronted with sorrow, Keats believed that reason was helpful, as seen in a letter to his brother George and his sister-in-law, when their brother Tom was near death. Keats encouraged them to think upon what could be counted as valuable and consoling: “I have Fanny [his sister] and I have you—three people whose happiness to me is sacred–and it does annul that selfish sorrow . . . after thinking a moment or two that you suffer in common with all mankind hold it not a sin to regain your cheerfulness” (212). Although Keats’s advice might seem commonsensical to some, the notion of fixing ones thoughts on whatever of value remains centers Stoic thought. As Seneca pointed out, “No situation is so harsh that a dispassionate mind cannot find some consolation in it” (93). Even though Keats encouraged thinking to console his family members upon Tom’s death, over a year later he admitted in connection with the death of a friend the difficulty of facing one’s own grief: “Even so we have leisure to reason on the misfortunes of our friends; our own touch us too nearly for words” (303). Seneca too acknowledged that reason had a particularly tough time in cases of grief. He wrote that “sorrow is always stubborn” (109) and felt that one had to “allow grief its claims of nature” (102).
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In addition to sorrow, sexual love was an issue of the heart that posed a challenge for reason to confront. Keats stated at one point that he was going to control his passions (i.e. exercise reason over feelings) towards women in referring to his sexual trysts in Oxford, and it seems in fact he did. For Seneca, lust was one of the top two excesses that reason should overcome (54). Seneca did not address conjugal love; presumably he did not consider it conducive to excessive passion. Keats found that for him it did constitute an excess severely at odds with tranquility. On the topic of passionate love, reason failed in his life and won in his poem Lamia. In the former, Keats expressed many times that love and marriage would interfere with a life of calm and solitude, which he considered essential to him as a poet. He avoided seeing Fanny Brawne for several months because his passion was too disturbing to his peace of mind and ability to write (378). However, in the end, circumstances cast him back into her orbit and he was powerless to reason himself out of her gravitational pull. Looking at his work, one can interpret his poem “Lamia” as his Stoic statement on the topic of romantic love in which reason conquers irrational passion, even annihilates it. Lycius is a lover and as such is ruled by emotion. “Apollonius sage” represents reason: he is a philosopher, who has been to Lycius “a trusty guide and good instructor” (Part I, lines 374-375). He bears the name, intentionally or not, of a Roman Stoic philosopher, Apollonius of Chalcedon, who tutored Marcus Aurelius14. From the moment Lycius perceives Lamia, no reasonable thought comes into his head. Indeed, it would be hard to construct a situation more ruled by the heart to the utter exclusion of reason than that of Lycius. His passion distorts his view of his trusty teacher, as the sight of Apollonius then is like “The ghost of folly haunting my sweet dreams” (Part I, line 376). He is so dominated by his passions that he becomes intent on marrying a woman whose name he does not even know. After he determines to marry her, he queries: “Sure some sweet name thou hast, though,
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by my truth, / I have not asked it. . .” (Part II, lines 85-86). Apollonius realizes that Lycius, in succumbing to Lamia, has embarked on an emotional course that will ultimately lead to unhappiness because the passionate love that consumes him must diminish. In support of that eventuality, the narrator drops hints where the romance is headed, noting that if the relationship had lasted longer, love would have waned: “. . . but too short was their bliss / To breed distrust and hate, that make the soft voice hiss” (Part II, lines 10-11). The word “hiss” there even suggests that Lamia might revert to her snake-origins when the raptures of passion end. Even during their extremely brief relationship there occurs a lapse in their unity of emotion. In the tiff resulting from Lycius’s desire for a wedding, Lamia grows concerned because she knows how quickly love can wane: “That but a moment’s thought is passion’s passing bell” (Part II, line 39). How misguided Lycius has been in allowing himself to become enmeshed in this emotion, devoid of reason and false, with an underside of misery, finds metaphorical and hyperbolic expression in Lycius’s lover being a snake in reality. In “Lamia” the woman Lycius loves is not what she seems to be, and neither is love once played out to it natural consequences. Apollonius, in his wisdom, understands the link between passion and misery; he wears a Stoic toga in advocating that Lycius steer clear of such excessive emotion.
It might appear that the poem disparages philosophy and that Apollonius plays the villain. That interpretation could come from the usual bias toward romance, but it is also supported by the point of view in which the poem is told: the reader experiences the early parts of the poem through Lamia’s perspective, and thereby develops an affinity for her. Nonetheless, Apollonius is not incorrect in his assessment of the doomed situation; Lamia was indeed a snake, and the passion would have worn out; Lycius would have remained with, “a heart high sorrowful and
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cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue,” as Keats phrased the aftermath of passion in another poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (part III, lines 9-10).
Death
Keats made a number of remarkable and direct statements about death in his letters and his poetry, and those expressions further align him with the Stoics. In the early stages of his consumption, Keats came upon the idea that death, viewed as an impending certainty, served to beautify life. “How astonishingly does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties upon me” (461). Although he did not advise others to keep death in mind, he did so himself. He proclaimed in a letter well before he fell ill with consumption, “. . . I am never alone without rejoicing that there is such a thing as death. . .” (138). He also expressed several times in his letters his belief that he would die young, as well as in his sonnet, “When I have fears that I may cease to be.”
Keeping thoughts of death ever in mind is an essential Stoic practice. Seneca counseled that “old and young alike should have death before their eyes. . .” (176). The purposes of that exercise were to encourage a person to make the most of his life, to put events in perspective, and to make the eventual end less daunting. In addition to the practice of keeping death in mind, Keats and Seneca also shared similar views on what happened after death; both felt it was an unknown, but in any event there was nothing to dread. Looking first at Seneca, he wrote: “What is death? Either end or transition. I do not fear ceasing to be, for it is the same as not having begun to be, nor am I afraid of transition, for no alternative state can be so limiting” (201). As for how to confront one’s own death, Seneca referred to Julius Canus as one who faced death properly: he anticipated the arrival of his executioners with calm and, most notably, curiosity
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(100-1). Such a frank acceptance counts as a basic Stoic element; however, uniquely Stoic, according to Moses Hadas, is the active advocacy for suicide as a solution if all else
failed. 15 Seneca advised his students to keep in mind that, “If you do not wish to fight you may escape. . . .only observe and you will see what a short and direct road leads to freedom”(45). He devoted a letter to considering the benefits of suicide under varying circumstances (202-7). Keats proffered no opinion on an afterlife; although he made a couple of random statements in letters about the possibility of there being one; the prospect of an afterlife seemed irrelevant to his philosophy on how to live. He never expressed any fear in regard to dying and he shared Seneca’s view of the usefulness of death. The torment at the end of his life was not that he would die; he felt as if he had already died and was living a “posthumous existence” (518). Keats would have followed Seneca’s advice and ended his life, faced with the unrelenting agony of a terminal illness. According to Severn, Keats sought suicide by an overdose of laudanum; Severn, reluctantly but dutifully, removed the bottle of relief from the apartment in
Rome. 16 Approaching the end, Keats exhibited no more fear of death than the Stoic Canus had, and he had the presence of mind to sympathize with Severn and calmly reassure him that he would die easily.17
In addition to statements in letters, Keats’s poetry provides his views on death, since contemplations of death are typical to that genre, and thereby further reveals an accord with Seneca’s idea of death as an escape. First, death is a welcome event in the sonnet “To Sleep” when weighed against the travails of life. Although the title might appear to be an address, as in an ode, it is the first link to death in invoking Hamlet’s soliloquy considering the benefits of death, “to die, to sleep, to dream, ah there’s the rub.” Words connoting death define the benefits of sleep in the poem, creating a metaphor between sleep and death with the shared comparative
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element being welcome relief. Sleep is an embalmer and provider of gloom, dark, shade, and escape. The final image of falling asleep is that of locking the casket: “Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards, / And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul” (lines 13-14). Again, Keats courts death in the sonnet with the opening lines: “Why did I laugh to-night?” In that poem, leaving metaphor aside, Keats directly states that despite imagining the best that life has to offer, he would readily meet his death as the greatest reward: “I know this Being’s lease, / My fancy to its utmost blisses spreads; / Yet would I on this very midnight cease, / And the world’s gaudy ensigns see in shreds; / Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indeed, / but Death intenser—Death is Life’s high meed.” Midnight again brings a desire to die in “Ode to a Nightingale:” “Now more than ever it seems rich to die, / To cease upon the midnight with no pain, / While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!” (part VI, lines 5-8).
The Stoic Lifestyle, Solitude, and the Disdain of Fame
There is symmetry between the manner in which Keats lived and what Seneca described as a Stoic lifestyle. The unimportance of material goods, the self-sufficient love of solitude that disdained socializing, and the importance of the internal versus external world were the hallmarks of an appropriate life outlined by Seneca that Keats represented; he even outdid Seneca in bringing those values to life. Keats lived very simply, unconcerned for creature comforts and the money that was necessary to provide them. He had few possessions and no established home; his only desire with respect to his lodging was quiet and proximity to a library. He walked or rode on the outside of coaches in all weather. He was glad for a good meal if it came his way, but attached no importance to fine dining. He admitted to enjoying excessively only one “palate affair,” claret (288). In his letters, he never complained about his way of life. Much of his lifestyle might follow from a lack of funds; however, Keats could have done better
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by himself if he had cared more about money. He could have pursued his profession as a surgeon; he had an inheritance and would have had more if he had been more active in his financial affairs; and he loaned money to friends that he needed for himself, and then borrowed from his publishers to meet harassing duns.
The Stoics were not ascetics, like the mendicant and homeless Cynics, but Seneca preached against self indulgence in lifestyle. “We pass now to property, the greatest source of affliction to humanity. Reflect, then, how much less a grief it is not to have money than to lose it . . . (89). Seneca exhorted his acolytes to live as follows: “We must learn to strengthen self-restraint, curb luxury, temper ambition, moderate anger, view poverty calmly, cultivate frugality. . . and make it our business to get out riches from ourselves rather than from fortune” (91). He also gushed praise at the simplicity of Scipio’s dwelling, particularly his simple bath, which was at odds with the trend of great luxury in baths. An additional detail of coincidence arises between Seneca and Keats on the subject of wine. Just as Keats allowed it his one indulgence, so Seneca made his exception from moderation the occasional indulgence of wine to lift the spirits (105).
Keats described in his letters the great degree to which he valued solitude. “I think . . . I could pass my life very nearly alone though it would last eighty years” ( 369) He many times expressed his attraction to a solitary life that would allow him to study and write, and he assured his brother, George, that he thrived in isolation: “ . . . think of my Pleasure in solitude in comparison of my commerce with the world. . .” (226). Although Keats is known for having several faithful friends, upon whom he greatly depended, there is a distinction between friendship and socializing. Keats associated with many people and had his gregarious phases, yet he came to resent socializing, which depleted his store of hours to write and study and he
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disdained the mean-spiritedness and vanity that he was prone to encounter while socializing. He felt he had to “smother his spirit” in society (243) He swore off congregating “with literary men”; his one-time admiration for Wordsworth as a person was diminished by his acquaintance with him, and he became very critical of his one-time close associate, Leigh Hunt. Keats expressed that “trapsing” around to make visits was a waste of time (222). With precise similarity, Seneca agreed that friendship did not impinge on a solitary life, as vacuous socializing did, and Seneca extolled friendship as one of the best things life can offer (88). He stated regarding socializing, “We must cut down on gadding about. So many men make the rounds of houses, theater, and thrust themselves into other people’s affairs, and always give the impression of being busy. . . .they ramble about with no purpose” (98).
The third feature of a Stoic lifestyle is the importance of the internal world, versus the external world. According to Seneca, “A man is happy, I maintain, when no circumstance can reduce him; he keeps to the heights and uses no buttress but himself, for a man sustained is likely to fall” (239). The ability to be self-sufficient was crucial to the Stoics: Seneca wrote that it was one of two necessary causes for happiness (239) and that, “It is important to withdraw into one’s self” (104). Keats certainly burned the fuel of his inner resources, and turning inward to his own mind was a philosophical approach that matched his creative proclivity. The Stoic view that the mind is a refuge, full of potential and unaffected by external events suits writers particularly, who sound their imaginations. Emily Brontё called imagination the “world within,” and similarly, Keats stated, “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” (225). Also, he commented that he wrote what he imagined rather than what he saw, which was, in his view, Byron’s approach and an inferior endeavor. Milton also expressed the idea in “Paradise Lost” when Satan declares: “The
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mind is its own place and can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell.” Keats echoed Satan when he wrote, “The soul is a world of itself, and has enough to do in its own home” (369). The similarity is not surprising, given that in a few lines above he had remarked how “the ‘Paradise Lost’ becomes a greater wonder.”
A large element of the external world that Keats discounted, even disdained, was the public and its opinion of his poetry. As Keats defied the odds of ever being successful and devoted himself to his poetry, he found the reason to continue within himself. He wrote in a letter after his failure with the critics and the public: “No external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary perception and ratification of what is fine” (207). Keats’s declaration that he would write poetry, if only to tear it up the next day (211) was not bravado, but Stoicism. It hits the same note as Seneca’s statement on an audience, a banner apothegm for “unsuccessful” writers like Keats: “. . . few are enough, one is enough, none is enough” (174).
Coincidence, Limitations, and Ultimate Worth
The unity of thought between Keats and the Stoics detailed in this paper should not be taken as a facile occurrence, first, because the convergence of thought is so great: a comprehensive monograph of the Stoic nature of Keats’s philosophy would exceed the length of an article. Furthermore, for all the possible threads of Stoicism that seem familiar and that were woven into literature and other philosophies, there were many intellectual and social influences during the Romantic era strongly in conflict with Stoicism that Keats might have embraced instead: the Romantic literary ideas from the Continent exalting self-indulgent, passionate, even destructive, emotion; the pursuit of financial success in an increasingly mercantile system; the approbation of society in a class-based country; and, most notably, Christianity. Particularly in his tormented final days, Keats might have succumbed to its influence, given that Dr. Clark,
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Keats’s attending physician in Rome, and Joseph Severn, his devoted friend and nurse in Rome, encouraged it, certain that Keats was deprived and worsened by a failure to embrace religion.18 Also, the similarities in philosophical thought between Keats and Seneca actually exceed what I have treated in this paper, both in the degree of detail on each topic and in number of topics. There are elements of Stoicism that Keats did not seem to have discovered; however, it is not surprising, since his philosophical development was cut short by his death at the age of only twenty-five. One might similarly surmise that there are also many notions of a philosophical nature expressed by Keats that do not accord with Stoicism, although I would argue that is not the case with regard to his practical philosophy; I borrow Keats’s own words to explain any divergence of thought: “Minds would leave each other in contrary directions, traverse each other in numberless points, and at last greet each other at the journey’s end” (89).
Coming back to the fundamental eudaemonistic ethics of Stoicism, I could hardly propose Keats as an honorary Roman Stoic unless his philosophy did do him some good in his life. He did, despite his philosophy, fall into periods of depression: yet, perhaps his philosophy helped him to climb out. Keats assured his brother George and his sister-in-law in a letter that his philosophy did shore him up. After one of his extended philosophical discourses he wrote,
“. . . look over the two last pages and ask yourself whether I have not that in me which will bear the buffets of the world” (305). Later once consumption besieged him, Keats’s letters and those written by his attendants in Rome suggest that perhaps his philosophy failed him; one such he wrote to Brown after setting sail for Rome, ill and bereft of Fanny Brawne: “Is there another life? Shall I awake and find this all a dream? There must be; we cannot be created for this sort of suffering.” That letter and others from Keats and Severn suggest that any failure of philosophy was an occasional break down under torture: Severn described the unrelenting pain Keats
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suffered from the deterioration of his lungs and stomach and his extreme mental anguish in awful detail and then concluded: “. . . his suffering now is beyond description.” 19 Keats and Seneca went into exile and, Keats, like Seneca, awaited his death sentence. The description by Tacitus of Seneca’s forced suicide20 tends to intrigue, whereas Keats’s ordeal is sad and haunting, yet both doomed men had their philosophy. Keats, not long after his arrival to the destination of his death, the apartment at the bottom of the Spanish Steps in Rome, found the strength to write a letter and affirm his philosophy. After he advised Brown to bring his philosophy to bear, he added, “. . .as I do mine, or, really, how should I be able to live” (519).
1 John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, ed. H. Buxton Forman (London: Reeves & Turner, 1895; repr., Ellibron Classics, 2005), 519. References to Keats’s letters are to this edition and are hereafter cited parenthetically by page number.
2 For an example of one of many presentations of Stoicism for the present day, see William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life (Oxford University Press, 2009).
3 Moses Hadas, “Introduction,” in The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca (New York: W.W. Norton, 1958), 19-26. See also Irvine, The Guide to the Good Life, 17 et seq.
4 Robert Gittings, John Keats: the Living Year (Harvard University Press, 1954), 4.
5 Roberta D. Cornelius, “Keats as a Humanist,” Keats-Shelley Journal, winter (1956).
6 Douka Kabitoglou, “Adapting Philosophy to Literature: the Case of John Keats,” Studies in Philology 89.1 (1992).
7 Richard P. Benton, “Keats and Zen,” Philosophy East and West 16 (1966).
8 Hadas, “Introduction,” 19.
29
9 Ibid., 20.
10 Seneca, The Stoic of Philosophy of Seneca, ed. and trans. Moses Hadas (New York: W.W. Norton 1958), 84. References to the statements of Seneca are to this text and are hereafter cited parenthetically.
11 Irvine, The Guide to the Good Life, 34-5.
12 John Keats, The Complete Poems of John Keats (New York: the Modern Library, 1994). References to Keats’s poetry are to this edition and are cited hereafter by poem, book or part (where necessary), and line.
13 Emily Jane Brontё, “How Clear She Shines,” in The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Brontё, ed. C.W. Hatfield (Columbia University Press, 1941), line 36.
14 Irvine, The Guide to the Good Life, 56.
15 Hadas, “Introduction” to “On Providence” in The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, 27.
16 The Keats Circle, 203.
17 Ibid, 224.
18 The Keats Circle, ed. Hyder Rollins (Harvard University Press, 1967) vol.1, 181,186,194.
19 The Keats Circle. 202.
20 Hadas, “Introduction,” 7-8.

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