Brain Pickings

The Mansion of Many Apartments: John Keats’s Metaphor for Life

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“An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people — it takes away the heat and fever.”

On May 3, 1818, John Keats — beloved poet, porridge-master, proponent of “negative capability” as the root of creativity — wrote to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds, an aspiring-poet-turned-lawyer, who would later introduce Keats to his future publisher. Found in Selected Letters of John Keats (public library), the long missive discusses the poetry of Wordsworth and Milton, ambling into a broader meditation on the meaning of life, which Keats explores through an unusual, poignant metaphor in the second half of the letter:

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: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the nature and heart of Man — of convincing one’s nerves that the World is full of misery and Heartbreak, Pain, sickness and oppression — whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open — but all dark — all leading to dark passages — We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist — We are now in that state — We feel the burden of the Mystery.

Earlier in the letter, Keats considers the role of knowledge in shaping our experience of life’s mystery:

Every department of knowledge we see excellent and calculated towards a great whole. … 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… The difference of high Sensations with and without knowledge appears to me this — in the latter case we are falling continually ten thousand fathoms deep and being blown up again without wings and with all [the] horror of a bare shouldered Creature — in the former case, our shoulders are fledge, and we go thro’ the same air and space without fear. This is running one’s rigs on the score of abstracted benefit — when we come to human Life and the affections it is impossible how a parallel of breast and head can be drawn…

Pair with other notable reflections on the meaning of life by Leo Tolstoy, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, and some of the twentieth century’s most celebrated luminaries.

Thanks, Ryan

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