John Keats and Christianity

John Keats (1795-1821) as a poet exemplified the brilliance of creativity and the "true voice" of feeling; he personified nature in his works as an entity capable of expressing itself through the sensory perception that humans enjoy. (1) When we arrive at his religious views, however, we are subjected to the ever so recurring theme of uncritical inquiry and fanciful objections based on ignorance and subjectivism. Keats' letters reveal a strikingly original and personal view of organized religion; such as his objections and subsequent rejection of the Christian faith. Art and Salvation through the creative process replace, what was for him, reprehensible Christian sensibilities.

Keats was one of the most influential English lyric poets; the archetype of the Romantic writer. Keats' emphasis was that the deepest meaning of life lay in the apprehension of material beauty, although his mature poems reveal his fascination with a world of death and decay. As a Romantic writer, his outlook on life already poses significant problems, especially when it comes to objectivity. Romanticism was a movement of the 18th and 19th centuries that marked a reaction in several different mediums, such as philosophy, literature, art, and religion. Romanticism questioned the authority of formal doctrines, such as neo-classicism and any of the ideas of the preceeding period, marking a liberalism in literature and any other form of expression. In England, the Romantic movement was marked by such characteristics as sentimentalism, superficial nostalgia, deification of nature, individualism, subjectivism, and primitivism. The long term after effects of this movement vary, but no doubt it had adverse affects on thought processes, including making truth claims without any evidence to do so. J.A. Cuddon wrote "there are those who in general support [the] attitude that it was a sickness of the spirit and a disorganizing irruption of subjectivism." (2) Subjectivism is dangerous for it is a breeding ground that gives rise to a whole host of uncertainties. For example, Keats had no way by which to measure stability, whether it was moral or intellectual. Often, Keats could not be trusted since he was never sure of anything he held to. He writes, "I have not one Idea of the truth of any of my speculations" (383). Secondly, it is difficult to arrive at an absolute view of truth from a subjective standpoint because the definition of truth and its origin are unspecified and unclear. In other words, truth becomes arbitrary because it is based on feelings and preferences, rather than facts or reason.

In order to determine the religious beliefs of someone like Keats, we cannot merely build a premise on the basis of his poetry or other creative output; it is difficult to ascertain "intent" when taking a customary glance at some poetic constructions. It is necessary then to make a distinction between the text's intention and the author's intention; the examination must begin with Keats' letters since it is here that we can have a poignant reflection of his thoughts and ideas. Keats' letters illustrate several levels of his religious or pseudo-religious beliefs; his many references to higher powers, the afterlife, salvation, the soul, and other topics generally make up the rubric of his religious ideas. Several observations come to mind when studying the varied opinion oriented ideas and philosophical speculations of his sometimes tormented mind:

First, Keats did not consider himself a Christian, nominal or practising. It is clear that he does not know how to define what a Christian is, for he arbitrarily contrives a definition that is not necessarily accurate. For example, in a letter to Leigh Hunt (10 May 1817) he writes: "And now I am upon a horrid subject, the dreadful Petzelians and their expiation by Blood-and do Christians shudder at the same thing in a Newspaper which the[y] attribute to their God in its most aggravated form" (352). The key word here is "shudder," for he gives the impression that Christians are ignorant of the Biblical illustration of the atonement. He invokes what is known as an emotion laden argument, saying how the blood sacrifice of Christ is "horrid." He is obviously sqeamish at the idea of the shedding of blood, but disregards entirely the distinct purpose of that ritual; he fails to make a distinction between feelings and facts. If he was familiar with the atoning work of Christ, and the necessity of its historicity and significance, he would understand the theological importance and implications that this event has for Christians and subsequently for the entire world. He goes on to say in another letter, "I appeal to you by the blood of that Christ you believe in" (Fanny Brawne July 1820 p. 533). The statement "that Christ" has several connotations: Keats is using a dismissive tone intending to say that Christ does not exist, or he is suggesting that Fanny's Christ is not the true or exclusive one, or he is referring to the idea that "Christ" is the Greek for Messiah, and thus not a name, but a title to which many other people may lay claim. As we can see, a major problem arises: Subjectivity allows for several connotations and those connotations, for the Romanticist, are relative. The phrase "you believe" further reinforces Keats' distinction between the Christ-believing Fanny and himself. What is clear is that the blood of Christ imagery seems to have repelled Keats' sensibility; he clearly distances himself from a Christ who suffered intensely in order to save us from our sins. In one of his poems, Ode to a Nightingale, for example, the idea of suffering is derided and indicted in several ways, including invoking the element of escape through the poetic rapture of song. Already we see a clear line of thinking develop: the repudiation of suffering as unneccesary and the ignorance towards an understanding of the Biblical sacrificial system.

Secondly, he did believe in some sort of a Creator, higher beings, and powers that influenced or observed human life. Prevalent during this period was a fatalistic or deterministic construct that wasn't based on a personal God or oneness, but an undefined power, but nonetheless a pervasive power which affected reality. Although he was not a Christian, he did have ideas about the spiritual world, and strong opinions about the roles of artists in that world. He writes, "I hope for the support of a High Power while I clime [sic] this little eminence and especially in my Years of more momentous Labor. I remember your saying that you had notions of a good Genius presiding over you I have of late had the same thought for things which I do half at Random are afterwards confirmed by my judgment in a dozen features of Propriety. Is it to daring to Fancy Shakspeare this Presider" (Letter to B.R. Haydon, 10, 11 May 1817 355). For Keats, the great artists, such as Shakespeare or Milton, did not die, but survived in some form to guide the present. Again, what evidence he has for this remains undefined; what is clear is that subjectivism overrules objectivity based on the notions of preference and feeling. Having discarded the Christian message, he is left with a fatalistic attitude that is tantamount to the blithe saying "che sera sera."

Thirdly, salvation from a painful world was delivered by the personal experience of the Soul, and not by an external saviour. The idea here, for example, is of Keats worshipping Apollo as the divine source of poetry. His poetic lyrics tell of the exploits of Apollo, elevating him into the sphere of creative rapture. In this scheme, Apollo takes on an aspect of the Saviour, the leader of those people (the poets) who would bring humanity to bliss by pointing out the world's lessons for the Soul. Apollo becomes "the golden theme" of inspiration (Hyperion book II line 28). It is here that Keats' poetic predilections take over, he retreats into overt subjectivism to make his point. Romanticist precepts such as the dependence upon sensations rather than realization, or immaterial realities rather than material ones becomes for Keats the defining factor of existence.

"For instance suppose a rose to have sensation, it blooms on a beautiful morning it enjoys itself-but there comes a cold wind, a hot sun-it cannot escape it, it cannot destroy its annoyances-they are as native to the world as itself: no more can man be happy in spite, the worldly elements will prey upon his nature-The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and uperstitious is a Œvale of tears¹ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven-What a little circumscribed straightened notion" (473)

Having dismissed the Christian model of salvation, he then offers his own "faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity-I am convinced that many difficulties which christians labour under would vanish before it" (474). Keats is wrong, it does affront our reason and humanity; subjectivism has always breeded uncertainty, never a solid foundation for living. While as rational people we can believe in utterly anything, but the efficacy of that system rests upon its durability. In other words, that system has to be liveable, otherwise we will cease to be human beings, created in the image of God and capable of making moral and rational judgements. Keats feels that the mundane world is therefore not something to escape from, but something that allows us to identify ourselves with the deity that is purportedly in each of us. From a rational standpoint, this is certainly unlivable, for the grave has always demonstrated the fact that we are mere human beings (Psalm 82:7).

Keats also considers, "Why may [Christians] not have made this simple thing even more simple for common apprehension by introducing Mediators and Personages in the same manner as in the heathen mythology abstractions are personified" (474). It is clear that the reason that Keats was so enamoured with Greek mythology is because the "gods" and "spirits" of Classical mythology were "mediators," but not "palpable" ones; they only represented certain qualities of the natural world that Keats wanted to bring "common apprehension" to. According to Keats' conception of salvation the mythological characters and their interactions are symbolic of the experiences that humans must go through in order to develop their soul despite the suffering that this sometimes causes. This presents dangerous dilemmas for several reasons: First of all, Keats wants a God who is limited, much like the mythological characters he ascribes much praise to. Oftentimes the mythological gods were subject to limitations and fooled by human beings, i.e., Telemachus killed Circe, a goddess and sorceress (Homer's Odyssey). Keats falls into the same dilemma as the heretics of the 1st century, as well as any other form of heresy which tries to envision God within the purview of our intellectual and perceptual limitations. That is why the Trinity has been much maligned because it is beyond our sphere of comprehension; what they didn't realize is that its complexity is evidence of its divine origin. Keats also fails to consider the supernatural in seeking to understand Jesus and His cross; he rules out a priori the necessity of supernatural elements in order to make our justification and redemption possible. This is another reason for the charge of ignorance, since an honest study of Paul's writings would have made this point very clear. The final and most tragic point is that the "dead" mythological characters have become literary reverberations, unlike Jesus Christ whose very real presence and victory over the grave has incited his followers to revolutionize the world's thinking by developing advanced systems of jurisprudence, civility, education, and science. Christianity has brought hope and healing to a dying world; mythology is what it has always been, fictitious stories.

In conclusion, Keats clearly had no love for organized religion; his displeasure with suffering leads him to refute Christ's death for our sins. The plain truth of the matter which Keats, dogged by his overt subjectivism, completely missed is that Jesus came to redeem our state of suffering brought about by our rebellion and tendency towards evil and self-centredness. While it is true that Keats possessed a keen spiritual sense that guided his poetry, at the same time however, those ideas tainted his perception of the Christian faith. For Keats, the great poets of the ages were equal to saints, because they brought a reader to the realization that art played an important role as an agent through which a person might glimpse directly into his/her own soul realizing their own "divinity." It is clear that Keats' entire philosophy was marred by romantic idealism; in other words, Keats implicitly foists a romantic interpretation upon metaphysical and theological matters, arguing by bias not by evidence. It is no surprise that Keats did not believe in a "palpable" saviour, while he perhaps admired Jesus he clearly did not worship him. Instead he lauded, respected, and expounded the mythologies of the ancient Greeks who presented gods as symbols of elements at work in the universe. It is interesting that his refusal at considering the available historical and textual evidences that make Christ "palpable" are in fact the ways in which we can demonstrate that He is head and shoulders above mythology and its "gods." His retreat into subjectivism does not only demonstrate an unwillingness to be rational, but an unwillingness to fall at Jesus's feet and acknowledge Him as Lord. Keats, through his lifestyle and ideas, goes on to prove the essence of the Gospel, that Jesus came to bring life to the sheep and judgement to the goats (Matthew 25:32). Jesus made it so clear so that even someone like Keats couldn't miss it: "You refuse to come to me to have life" (John 5:40). Sadly, Keats' life bears the markings of the dangers of elevating the gift, rather than the Giver.

-Carmelo Tropiano


1. Keats biography:

2. Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1998.

All of the quotations from the letters of John Keats can be found in: Keats, John. A Critical Edition of the Major Works.