The Mansion of Many Apartments: John Keats’s Metaphor for Life
“An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people — it takes away the heat and fever.”
By Maria Popova
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.
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…
Published May 3, 2013