John Keats (1795–1821) was not a traditional believer. His letters are studded with disdain for institutional Christianity. The title of his one poem on the subject, the youthful “Written in Disgust at Vulgar Superstition” (1816), gives a nice picture of his attitude at the most extreme. And it must be said that the Church of England at his time (which was something of an employment service for the younger sons of the propertied classes) deserved the disdain it got from political liberals like Keats. The church was allied with the most reactionary political forces against reform and Catholic Emancipation. It was distrusted for the low quality of its preaching, the poor aesthetics of its services, and the corruption involved in its pluralism, absenteeism, and competition for preferment.
At the same time Keats was not an atheist. His religious attitudes were something between deism and Unitarianism, and he placed Christ with Socrates as the two figures who represented his poetic ideals to the highest degree:
"I have no doubt that thousands of people never heard of have had hearts comp[l]etely disinterested: I can remember but two—Socrates and Jesus. … That he was so great a man that though he transmitted no writing of his own to posterity, we have his Mind and his sayings and his greatness handed to us by others. It is to be lamented that the history of the latter was written and revised by Men interested in the pious frauds of Religion. Yet through all this I see his splendor." (letter to the George Keatses, 19 March 1819; Keats, 1958, Vol. 2, p. 80)
Like many rationalists of the era, Keats felt that the miraculous and metaphysical Christ was added later to the story of Jesus. But Keats was not “rabidly anti-Christian,” as one critic has it (Atkins, 2009, p. 43). Shelley was far more vehemently and vocally anti-Christian; he would goad the believers at Leigh Hunt’s table (most notably Benjamin Robert Haydon) in ways that Keats neither participated in nor quite approved of. Keats had close friends who were traditional believers (among them, Haydon, Joseph Severn, and Benjamin Bailey, later an Anglican clergyman and archdeacon).
By far the most comprehensive examination of Keats’s belief is Robert Ryan’s Keats: The Religious Sense (1976), which examines the development of Keats’s belief among personal influences like Hunt, Benjamin Bailey, and Severn (who nursed him on his deathbed). Severn’s tale of Keats dying as something like a Christian may be more wishful remembrance than the truth, but his account of Keats’s admiration of his own quiet faith and certainly of reading Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying to him in the week before his death (confirmed by others) may very well be accurate.
Biblical Allusion in Keats.
As Nicholas Roe (1997) has shown, Keats had a singularly good education at Enfield School, a school run by liberal dissenters that gave Keats a solid scientific and linguistic training far more useful than the rote learning of Greek and Latin reserved for the upper classes. At the time, during a very reactionary era, certain portions of dissent leaned toward republicanism and certainly advocated disestablishment. At Enfield, the instructors also taught the natural sciences because the learning of the earth’s processes was thought to glorify God’s creation. Keats would certainly have studied the Bible at such an institution.
Though Keats did not learn Greek, his poetry is full of classical references and the development of scenes, themes, and whole poems from the slightest classical tags. In comparison, references to the Bible in his poetry are few and far between (primarily, in Lloyd Jeffrey’s list, to the mere outlines of the creation story in Genesis and Adam and Eve). His one famous evocation of the Bible is from the book of Ruth, which is fairly unsurprising, considering that that appealing story has little mention of the Deity. Similar to his use of classical myth, Keats adds a great deal to the outline of the character. He expands upon the mental condition of Ruth, fantasizing in his “Ode to a Nightingale” that the bird’s song must be the same one that she heard:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a pathThrough the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The biblical text does not mention Ruth’s emotions as she gleans the fields, nor does it mention any nightingale. Keats creates her state of mind, “sick for home … amid the alien corn,” giving her an interiority and emotion that is purely Keatsian.
However, Keats’s letters, which are probably the most well-known letters of any poet in his century, evince a familiarity with the Bible that, while not unique among English readers of the time, is certainly surprising considering Keats’s own theological leanings. Ryan argues that contact with Benjamin Bailey especially, who was both a thoroughgoing churchman and a political liberal, made Keats look “more closely and more respectfully” at Christianity (1976, p. 180). “There was comfort in the simple faith of most Christians which the natural religion of the enlightened did not offer … ” (p. 165). More recently, John Savarese (2011), influenced by the philosopher Charles Taylor, has suggested that Keats was more affected by Christianity than his early flippancy lets on: “… criticizing Christianity may not be as radical or as simple a posture as is sometimes assumed.” Challenging “subtraction stories” of secularization, in which the emergence of “secular” values like liberal pluralism and autonomous state institutions is characterized as a removal of religion, Taylor has argued that such values can be understood as developments of a specifically Christian logic. On this argument, Keats’s secularist program, which often seems to give him his subversive edge, may in fact be substantially continuous with what it claims to be critiquing (Taylor, 2007, pp. 389–390). Following Taylor, Ryan, and Savarese, one can look more closely at Keats’s framing of religious arguments, specifically at their imagery and language, which more often than not depend upon specific passages of the Bible.
The reader of Keats, while rightfully focusing on Keats’s description of the details of his “natural religion,” also has to come to grips with his correspondence to his younger sister Fanny that responds to questions she drew up in preparation for her confirmation. Keats’s numbered responses evince not only a thorough knowledge of a conventional reading of the Bible, but also of the ordinary tenets of the Anglican faith. The following letter, written in March 1819, comes long into his friendship with Bailey (which was to end permanently several months later when Bailey jilted a friend’s sister to marry a bishop’s daughter) but after his enthusiasm for Hunt and his circle began to cool. Critics have had to explain away or ignore this particular letter because it shows a Keats more than familiar with the Anglican catechism and a traditional reading of the King James Bible:
"3 The meaning is that we are confirmed members of Christ It is not administered till 14 years of age the mind [is] not judged to be sufficiently mature and capable. The act of confirmation imposes on the Christian self-circumspection; as by that ceremony the Christian duties of God fathers and god-mothers is annulled and put an end to—as you see in the catechism—“they promise and vow three things in my name”—Confirmation absolves this obligation. …"
6 Look in Isaia for “A virgin shall conceive” &c—Look in the Psalms for “The Kings of the Earth set themselves and the Princes take counsel together” and “they parted my Garments among them &” and “My god, my god why has thou forsaken me &c” In Jeremia “Comfort ye, comfort ye &” In Daniel The stone cut out of the mountain without hands that breaks the image in pieces is a type of the Kingdom of Christ—Look at the 2nd Chat. Isaiah —Chp 7–9—“For unto us a child is bo[r]n” 11—Jeremiah Chap xxxi Micah Chap 5—Zechariah Chap 6 and Chap 13 verse 6. Those I have marked will be sufficient—You will remember their completion in the new testament.(to Fanny Keats, 31 March 1819; Keats, 1958, Vol. 2, pp. 49–50)
This letter did not shape early biographies of Keats, as it was first printed in 1934. A knowledgeable believer might certainly have quoted from memory those passages of Isaiah. But the passage suggests a closeness beyond that, especially with its rapid references to specific passages of the minor prophets Zechariah and Micah. That Keats is quoting from memory, rather than looking up these passages to answer his sister, can be intuited from the slight misquotation of Psalm 2:2—Keats has rendered “the rulers take counsel together” as “the Princes take counsel together.”
Of course, the letter certainly does not make clear that Keats believes all that he writes here; we also do not have Fanny’s letters in response. It is probable that Keats is giving her these answers only to competently answer the parson. But his intimacy with the Bible still stands. That the letter was important to Keats is obvious from the first line of his next letter to Fanny, “I have been expecting a letter from you about what the Parson said about your answers” (to Fanny Keats, 13 April 1819; Keats, 1958, Vol. 2, p. 51).
The Bible and Keats’s Imagination.
Looking at the well-known passages in which Keats constructs a belief system in contradistinction to Christianity, Ryan (1976) argues that Keats’s formulation of the role of suffering, and the purpose of life in “schooling” a soul, were in part influenced by Keats having to confront the existence of suffering in conversation with Bailey. These lucid and well-known letters were written before and during Keats’s writing of his letters to his sister Fanny.
"I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me—The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think—We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by awakening of the thinking principle—within us—we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight." (letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 May 1818; Keats, 1958, Vol. 1, pp. 280–281)
Today, “mansion” is likely only to convey a sense of a very large house. The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that through the eighteenth century, “mansion” indicated a place to stay temporarily, which is significant as it indicates a specific use by Keats. But its employment here, in Keats’s humane terms, must remind even casual readers of the New Testament of Jesus’s words in the beginning of the fourteenth chapter of John: “Let not your heart be troubled; ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house there are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you” (John 14:1–2 KJV). Keats is using precisely the imagery and vocabulary of Jesus to make his point about the role of suffering and the purpose of life, bringing Christ’s “many mansions” to Earth. Christ’s words here are also meant to be words of comfort, to in part address the mental suffering of his audience (“Let not your heart be troubled”). Keats’s stationing of his “mansion of many apartments” depends on a familiarity with the New Testament that many contemporary readers have lost. It at once marks a relationship to the book of John and a distance from it.
Keats’s composes one of his most well-known and beautiful letters on the role of suffering in phrases additionally familiar to readers of the Bible:
"Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making.” Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say ‘Soul making’ Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence—There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions—but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. I[n]telligences are atoms of perception—they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God—How then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them—so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? I—low, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because I think it a grander system of salvation than the chrystain religion. … I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive—and yet I think I perceive it—that you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible—I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read—I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School—and I will call the Child able to—read, the Soul made from that School and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?" (letter to the George Keatses, 14 February–3 May 1819; Keats, 1958, Vol. 2, pp. 102–103)
A committed atheist like Shelley would not feel the need to write about the soul; other contemporaries like Hunt might use it in a purely poetic sense. Of course the whole concern for an immortal soul is Christian, and the notion of soul-making, immortal or not, comes from the very beginning of the Bible: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen 2:2 KJV). Keats’s letter defines the role, manifestation, and purpose of that soul and the role of suffering in making that soul individual. And as he writes, for his “soul-making” to matter he defines the soul as immortal. His philosophy seems less an alternative to the New Testament than an outgrowth of it. Even the word he chooses to label the world the place of soul-making, the poetic “vale,” while lacking the particularity of the word “mansion,” has religious resonances that a word like “valley” would not. “Vale” is used many times in the Old Testament to indicate geographical place—the “vale of Siddim” in Genesis, and the “sycamore trees that are in the vale, for abundance” used to construct the Temple and mentioned in the almost identical verses of 1 Kings 10:27 and 2 Chronicles 1:15 (KJV). The proverbial phrase “vale of tears,” which Keats’s “vale of soul-making” cannot but mirror, comes from the Douay translation of the Vulgate’s valle lacrimarum of Psalm 83:7. (The Douay uses the term “vale” far more often than the King James Version, using “vale” where the King James has “valley.”)
Keats’s knowledge of the Bible was substantial. As I have argued here, Keats’s faith in poetry has a closer relationship to Christianity and the Bible than a superficial reading would suggest. His letters show its roots. The terms of Keats’s “secular” thought are far more biblical than even he might have recognized.
[See also ROMANTIC LITERATURE.]
- Atkins, G. Douglas. Literary Paths to Religious Understanding. New York and Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
- Jeffrey, Lloyd N. “Keats and the Bible.” Keats-Shelley Journal 10 (Winter 1961): 59–70.
- Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. 2 vols. Edited by Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958.
- Keats, John. John Keats: The Complete Poems. 3d ed. Edited by Jack Stillinger. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1977.
- Roe, Nicolas. John Keats and the Culture of Dissent. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.
- Ryan, Robert. Keats: The Religious Sense. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976.
- Savarese, John. “Psyche’s ‘whisp’ring fan’ and Keats’s Genealogy of the Secular.” Studies in Romanticism 50, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 389–411.
- Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 2007.
- Barth, J. Robert. “Keats’s Way of Salvation.” Studies in Romanticism 45, no. 2 (Summer 2006): 285–298.
- Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap , 1979.
- Maxwell, J. C. “Keats and the Bible.” Keats-Shelley Journal 11 (Winter 1962): 15–16.
- Sharp, Ronald A. Keats, Skepticism, and the Religion of Beauty. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1979.