{Sun 25 March 2007}   The Priesthood of the Soul

The priesthood of the soul

Old essays written in flow

I have just found in an old backup file some essays of mine on subjects close to my heart, which I had feared were lost. They were created in WordPerfect in 1992 and 1993 on my first computer a 7.5kg whopper of a laptop which I abandoned in about 1997, I think. I have no idea whether these thoughts and approaches would be considered to have any validity now in any current education programme, but part of me doesn’t care. I just want to affirm and reconnect with my experience of “flow” at the time and also to reconsider now these influences which I know have formed and informed my approach to poetry.

A belated shout-out to my teachers

As I read through them, and read the markers’ comments again, I am amazed both at the intensity with which my mind was working at the time, and at my concurrent inability then to absorb either the praise or the criticism that the markers gave. My relative maturity now enables me to see how much care was taken by the markers in their thoughtful comments and I am embarrassed to realise how little I valued them then. My driving need for approbation and reinforcement prevented me from realising that people were offering me exactly these simply by taking my writing seriously enough to offer me thoughtful feedback.

I have no record of the mark I received for this one, but the lecturer actually wrote a five-page response to this twelve-page essay. (I’ve inserted subheadings for readability on the blog; the original essay had none, as was common then.)

The Priesthood of the Soul:
The relationship between Imagination and Reason in Keats.

The vale of Soul-making

The Romantic obsession with the apparent dichotomy between Passion and Reason is given a new twist in Keats’s unique theology:

Call the world … “The vale of Soul-making”…. 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…. Spirit-creation … is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years — These three Materials are the Intelligence — the human Heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul… As various as the Lives of Men are — so various become their souls.

Letter 123, 335-6, The Letters of John Keats i

A chemical metaphor for the poetic process

That Keats favours a chemical metaphor for the processes of both poetry and human experience indicates how much his rational and his imaginative faculties complement each other. In The Chemistry of the Poetic Process, Stuart M. Sperry minutely demonstrates how much Keats borrows from his scientific reading to develop his poetic philosophy.ii

He shows that Keats sees poetry as a process whereby the material world’s beauties and travails are absorbed via the senses and distilled, through an inner contemplative-experiential mechanism called ‘intensity’, into an essence of thought. Such thought, however, cannot be equated with rational conclusions arrived at through logic. Sensation acted upon by the imagination (the agent of intensity) produces a fresh complex of sense-stimulating beauties which open up new avenues for exploration.

For the reader, the poem then forms an acutely tuned part of his material world and invites him to a similar experience of intensification and distillation of thought. In consequence, the reader’s appreciation may differ from the poet’s. Keats’s own capacity for existing in uncertainty allows his readers to fashion their own souls as they choose. In one letter he asserts that poetry can lead man into contemplation and through it to an active awareness (by which he means sensitivity to potential pathways rather than any single, absolute conviction) which could transform humanity (48, 103-4). This is how the poet functions as priest of the soul in ‘the vale of Soulmaking’.

The power of art to evaporate “disagreeables”

In his letter to George and Tom Keats of 27 December 1817, Keats says, ‘the excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth’ (32, 71). In other words, when the work is so powerful (in the artistic and imaginative sense) that one is able to exclaim upon the beauty of the art irrespective of its subject matter, any unpleasantness represented in it is no longer ‘disagreeable’ to contemplation. The beholder’s new perception has its own truth.

Keats sees poetry in the Gifford vs Hazlitt argument about poetry

It is impossible not to recall this statement when one reads the later journal-letter to George and Georgiana Keats. Here Keats is so excited by a debate between Hazlitt and Gifford on the affective power of poetry that he copies out Hazlitt’s entire defense for their enjoyment (123, 308-10).

Gifford has taken issue with Hazlitt’s assertion that Shakespeare sides more with those in power in Coriolanus than with those whose cause is just, despite his accurate and perceptive representation of the issues at stake. Hazlitt argues that Poetry as an imaginative process naturally aligns itself with ‘the language of power’ because the accoutrements and achievements of power fuel the imagination. He does not assert that the emotive power of poetry is the same as the executive power of authority, but he challenges Gifford to deny that the latter provides material for the former. Therefore, ‘Poetry triumphs over Principle, and bribes the passions to make a sacrifice of common humanity’.

Keats vs Hazlitt

This argument echoes Keats’s own conviction about the transforming power of poetry. However, whereas Keats considers poetry’s ‘strong and tragical effect’ as in part constituting the truth of poetry and as good in itself, Hazlitt asserts an objective standard of goodness and desirable morality.

Hazlitt is wary of poetic power because it may compromise truth rather than create it. His statement that ‘the sense of power abstracted from the sense of good…reconciles us (to the contemplation of horrors)’ seems at first to accord with Keats’s ‘evaporation of disagreeables’, but Hazlitt evidently mistrusts this reconciliation, calling it ‘subtle sophistry of the human mind, that tolerates and pampers evil to guard against its approaches’. In his view, failure to see that poetry’s imaginative power compromises reason (and thus correct morality) results in the selfish, hypocritical assertion that Shakespeare is not biased in his treatment of the opposing factions in Coriolanus and thus, through deliberate lack of awareness, prevents a cure.

Poetry’s philosophy is superior

A few pages later, on the basis of his youth and ignorance, Keats asks whether ‘superior beings’ may not yet be delighted by his representation of ‘graceful attitudes’, even though he falls into them by instinct. His next statement possibly explains his identification with Hazlitt’s passage:

Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine… (In the same way) our reasoning though erroneous…may be fine. This is the very thing in which consists poetry.

Letter 123, 317, The Letters of John Keats

However, the thrust of his thought is that poetry’s effective truth consists in something other than the bare materials from which it is built and that certain inaccuracies may therefore be overlooked. In the sense that an embodiment is not as refined as an abstraction, ‘poetry is not so fine a thing as philosophy’, but the philosophy arrived at via poetry (the truth arrived at via beauty), is superior to any attainable by the rational mind.

In fact, Keats does not comment directly on the argument, other than to note the ‘manner’ of its management. He delights in the energy of its genesis and development, saying of Hazlitt admiringly, ‘He hath a demon’. His appreciation is characteristically sensitive rather than analytical. In the absence of any explicit statement of agreement, one cannot know whether Keats’s pleasure is based simply on the argument’s accord, so far as it goes, with his earlier position, or whether he is moving toward justifying a greater role for reason in (at least) the assessment of the poetic oeuvre.

Reason makes ‘Ode to Psyche’ richer

Interestingly, in this same letter he includes ‘Ode to Psyche’ as ‘the first and the only one with which (he has) taken even moderate pains’, implying a conscious application of intellect to the imagination. He says that he thinks ‘it reads more richly for it’ (339).

Thematically, this ode raises similar issues. The poet addresses the goddess Psyche (the personification both of creativity and of the human soul) as though she were present, but by ‘remembrance’ early introduces the theme to be developed later that she is one of a dying breed. History (a story told by Reason) and mythology (a story told by Imagination) are already in conflict. This is therefore not only an invocation, but, as Sperry suggests, an act of re-creation.iii

Themes of imagination and reason stanza by stanza

The first stanza describes a vision (dreamt or actual? As in ‘Nightingale’, we are never to know) of Psyche and Cupid in the first innocence of their love. The images are lush, indulgent, ingenuous, as though to reflect the spontaneity of the relationship between love and the imagination before man began to lose his reverence for them.

Stanza two presents the man with the prophetic eye, exceptional among the present faithless, who still sees the beauty of Psyche and believes in it. Yet he too is conscious that she is one of a ‘faded hierarchy’, disregarded, without servants or worshippers.

In stanzas three and four he vows to perform these duties for her, thus calling her into being and building up her reality again. The strong thrust of the poem is that she depends for her existence, or at least for the effectiveness of that existence, on the devotion of Man. If she is a personification of Man’s own soul, then he is individually responsible for forming distinct identity from pure intelligence, as advocated in the ‘Soul-making’ letter.

Negative capability and ambivalence

Sperry points out the ambivalence implicit in the poet’s vow of devotion in stanza four: that ‘dark-cluster’d trees / Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep’, surrounding any worship the poet can offer with an ominous brooding. His is a devotion of artifice (Fancy must ‘feign’), deliberately constructed by a ‘shadowy thinker’.

Negative capability means that this poet can consider Psyche as more than a mute relic of history; that he can admit her mythology, but also that he will never be unequivocally sure of her power, or of her reunion with Cupid. He constructs the rosy sanctuary, sets up the light and opens the casement in hope, cherishing her as best he can, but cannot create the unfeigned, unconcerned innocence of the atmosphere of the first stanza.

Sperry notes the significance of the light, as in the original story it was Psyche’s use of the lamp to gain a forbidden glance at her lover that was the beginning of her pain. The light here at the end of the poem clearly symbolizes the impossibility of returning to prior innocence. Creativity has become hard work and although he retains his wonder at its potential, we sense the loneliness of the poet’s determination in a world where people can no longer apprehend beauty with unselfconscious delight.

Keats is clear-eyed about reality

So if the rationalist is inclined to class Keats as an escapist when he hears his passionate cry for ‘sensations rather than thoughts’ (31, 68) or his repeated celebration of dreams, sleep and indolence, he must revise his opinion on hearing the full testimony of the poet’s letters and works.

For example, on March 17 and 19 in the journal-letter, Keats describes two types of indolence. The first is tedious, because enforced, the second delicious, because it is a natural lingering of sleep upon both senses and soul, where ‘the fibres of the brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body’. He continues, ‘this is the only happiness; and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind’. The context indicates that he means not that it is rare for such instances to be advantageous, but rather that such happy instances seldom occur.

The sudden news conveyed in his very next sentence dramatically underscores his meaning, as though an ironic Fate had been waiting in the wings preparing an entrance for just such a moment (123, 315-16). This invasion of harsh reality into the dream of happiness was nothing new to Keats. He had dealt with it all his life, as a function of both his temperament and his circumstances, leading him to adopt the attitude described so eloquently in his letter to Benjamin Bailey of 22 November 1817:

I scarcely remember counting on any Happiness — I look not for it if it be not in the present hour — nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights — or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince and pick about the Gravel. The first thing that strikes me on hearing a Misfortune having befalled another is this. “Well it cannot be helped — he will have the pleasure of trying the resources of his spirit”.

Letter 31, 69, The Letters of John Keats

What is interesting here is Keats’s reference to the activity of both the imagination (identification with the bird) and reason (his pragmatic ‘first reaction’) as ways of dealing with the ever-intruding reality of suffering.

Observation and deduction ‘ease the Burden of the Mystery’

Six months later, in a letter to J.H. Reynolds (64, 140-5), Keats advocates that knowledge should be gained to steady the experience of sensations, introducing this thought with an uncharacteristic statement of restraint: ‘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’.

Although ‘knowledge’ obviously includes information gathered via the senses, which is not incongruous with his previous philosophy, the context here, especially in his discussion of Milton and Wordsworth, makes it clear that he also has in mind principles deduced by reason from sense experience. However, he still leans towards Wordsworth, who ‘martyrs himself to the human heart’ and is more aware of its complexities and its potential for a mixture of motivations, both good and evil.

In this vein, nowhere is his annexation of the terms ‘thinking’ or ‘thought’ to his own purposes made more explicit than in this letter. Thinking people are those who by the imaginative-creative process are able to ‘be intense upon’ sensations or their artistic representation, distilling from them an essence of perception which he calls thought. So when the human being moves, in the ‘Mansion of Many Apartments (human life)’, from the ‘infant chamber of thoughtlessness’ to the ‘Chamber of Maidenthought’, he is not initiated into rational processes, but into intuitive contemplation and perception.

However, Keats effectively concedes now that some rational discipline may help the initiate to keep his bearings as his heart leads him into the many dark passages of possibility which branch off from this second chamber. It is in fact ‘a mighty providence (which) subdues the mightiest minds to the service of the time being, whether it be in human knowledge or Religion’.

Technical expertise is necessary for poetry

It is in this spirit that Keats explores the technical aspects of poetic process in the sonnet, ‘If by dull rhymes our English must be chained’. While he chafes at the restraint of form, he submits to its necessity, although in the process modifying it. He does not denigrate that capacity which analyses and selects appropriate diction, syntax, poetic forms and so forth. Clearly, his rational faculties are engaged in these activities.

In view of this gradually increasing, but always evident, care for the application of knowledge to the realm of the imagination (to expand its sources and its impact), we can justifiably regard Keats’s earlier cry, ‘O for a life of sensations, not of thoughts’ as hyperbolic. He clearly never intended to annihilate the rational faculty.

Imagination enables philosophers to reason

In fact, by the time he writes the great odes and ‘Lamia’, he is very unsure whether any kind of escape from reason is possible. In a letter of 9 June 1819 (128, 346-7) he even expresses the desire to ‘be more of a Philosopher (than) a versifying Pet-lamb’. However, his concept of true philosophy is still Wisdom gained through the heart’s experience. He remains consistent with his suggestion in the letter to Benjamin Bailey of 22 November 1817 that philosophers are incapable of arriving at useful conclusions without taking some imaginative leaps (31, 68).iv The true poet will be a true philosopher as neither the mere versifier nor the pure rationalist can ever be.

He touches on the practical implications of this belief for his writing when he responds to criticism of ‘Endymion’. He says that because he is committed to beauty almost as an ideal (like a Platonic concept), he is able to criticize his own work when it falls short of that abstraction. However, he asserts that he did the best that he could at the time. Although he might write better now, this would be a consequence of the process of Poetry’s self-creation in the writing. ‘The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself – that which is creative must create itself’ (89, 220-3).

Yet he also says, ‘my judgement is as active while I am actually writing as my imagination. In fact all my faculties are strongly excited, & in their full play’. We can understand this paradox if we see that for him judgement, reason or philosophy could be either hot or cold (see ‘Lamia’ II.230) and that it was the latter sort that he rejected. Gittings quotes Keats as saying, ‘and shall I afterwards, when my imagination is idle, & the heat in which I wrote, has gone off, sit down coldly to criticise’ (7-8).

Uncertainty creates possibilities; possibilities create problems

Keats’s celebration of the ability to be in uncertainty has both positive and negative consequences. Positively, it releases the artist into an ever-expanding field of possibilities. Because no path is determined, he may go any way he chooses. However, such freedom means that no one path can be held to have any more validity than another, so it is difficult to maintain the integrity of any journey.v

In other words, the poet is constantly susceptible to the suggestions, consequences and tangential realizations engendered by each step in a particular direction, each of which insists on a significance equal to that of the original path. A foray along any of these new roads again opens up myriad possibilities, ad infinitum. It is difficult then to bring any work to an honest conclusion, or all posited conclusions must at most be treated as potentially insufficient.vi

Crystallizing the paradox

The length and the nature of the narrative poem demand the kind of conclusion that a Poet-in-process, who believes that a poem is in itself an act of creation and an act of discovery, cannot give. (Reason expects some reward and relief for the diligent following of thought and plot.) Sperry suggests that the odes are more successful because here the poet ‘has attempted not any final escape from the problem but merely to crystallize the paradox as it exists’ (245-7). This paradox is the poet’s state of ‘perpetual indeterminacy’ as to whether poetry intensifies experience (expanding the imagination) or transforms it into abstractions (capable of being appreciated by reason).

To rephrase it as a question: Is the poet capable of his inescapable calling to the priesthood of Psyche despite the limitations that finiteness and mortality (which are apprehended rationallyvii) place on the imagination? Where pure reason must see these two capacities as irresolvably contradictory, ‘negative capability’ views their relationship as one of creative tension which generates the tantalizingly mysterious yet crystal beauty of a ‘Nightingale’ or an ‘Urn’.


As Keats never attempted to systematize either his philosophy or its vocabulary, his interchangeable use of terms can be confusing. This table attempts some organization of the concepts mentioned in the essay. The first two columns indicate ideas which he directly opposes, the third his integrative or synthesizing ideas.


  • Heart
  • Sensation & Watchfulness
  • Uncertainty
  • Indolence
  • Happiness
  • Passion
  • Imagination
  • Mythology
  • Sensations
  • Heart
  • Experience
  • Graceful attitudes
  • Instinct
  • Body
  • Dream
  • Speculation


  • Mind
  • Law & Precept
  • Facts & Reason
  • Busyness after truth
  • Misery
  • Reason
  • Judgement
  • History
  • Thoughts
  • Intelligence
  • Abstraction
  • Erroneous reasoning
  • Philosophy
  • Mind
  • Reality
  • Knowledge


  • Beauty
  • Soul
  • Thought
  • Poetry
  • Intensity
  • Contemplation
  • Psyche
  • Negative Capability
  • Soulmaking
  • Imagination
  • Identity
  • Perception
  • Wisdom
  • True Philosophy


Cook, Elizabeth, ed.The Oxford Authors: John Keats : A Critical Edition of the Major Works. Oxford, Oxford U. Press, 1990.
Forman, Maurice Buxton, ed.The Letters of John Keats. London, Oxford University Press, 1947.
Gittings, Robert, ed.The Odes of Keats and their Earliest Known Manuscripts. London, Heinemann, 1970. 7-16,65-79.
Leavy, Stanley A.‘John Keats’ Psychology of Creative Imagination.’ Literature and Psychoanalysis. Ed. Edith Kurzweil & William Phillips. New York, Columbia University Press, 1983. 201-14.
Sperry, Stuart M.Keats the Poet. Princeton,University Press, 1974. Chapter 2: ‘The Chemistry of the Poetic Process’. 30-71. Chapter 10: ‘Romantic Irony’. 242-91.


  1. All references to the letters are indexed to the Forman edition, with the number of the letter given first, followed by the page reference.
  2. I am indebted to Sperry’s discussion for the ideas in this opening statement. His argument clearly influences the direction of the essay from this point.
  3. Sperry’s interpretation of this poem as ambivalent in his chapter on ‘Romantic Irony’ (249-61) has largely influenced my own analysis here and in the comments that follow.
  4. My attention was drawn to this quotation by Stanley Leavy’s mention of it in his essay, ‘John Keats’ Psychology of Creative Imagination’.
  5. The introduction to Sperry’s chapter on ‘Romantic Irony’ stimulated my thoughts on this paradox and its resolution.
  6. I am indebted to Sperry again for this idea.
  7. I am indebted to Don MacLennan for pointing out that in the sonnets, “Bright Star” and “Why did I laugh tonight?” Keats is rationally, not imaginatively, aware of death. Our whole discussion of Keats was extremely stimulating and helpful.

TiaTalk says:

[…] Well, I’ve just given in to an impulse to update the grammar in the essay on “The Priesthood of the Soul“, although I admit that it’s 99.999% likely that I’m the only one who would […]

David says:

You aren’t the only one to read it. Fascinating stuff. : )

Tia says:

:) Thanks, David!

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