When I am in a room with people, if I am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then, not myself goes home to myself, but the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me, that I am in a very little time annihilated …
(John Keats to Richard Woodhouse, Post-mark, Hampstead, 27 Oct. 1818.)
Keats’s famous explanation of his identity as a poet to his friend Richard Woodhouse now resonates oddly with us. Aside from the new irony we might find in his use of the word ‘annihilated’, the scenario he outlines is one which has been denied us during lockdown. To be in a room with people over the last eighteen months has come to feel like a luxury. As we have been slowly returning to in-person poetry readings over recent weeks we have been reassessing what being in a room with people amounts to – what difference it makes.
Keats’s letter reminds us of one of the more creative consequences of sociality for a young poet in 1818 attempting to define his new form of poetic identity. He uses the experience of feeling himself oppressed by the presence of others in a room in order to articulate himself. In the lull of his creative consciousness – in those moments when he is not engaged in poetic musings – what he refers to here as ‘creations of my own brain’ – he is able to define himself by contrast with the surrounding social scene. Out of this comes ...
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