‘If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ John Keats, Hampstead Feb 27th 1818, Letter to John Taylor.
Keats wrote this ‘axiom’ in a letter to his friend John Taylor when he was 22. Are we to read this as a notion of genius — that great artists simply and effortlessly derive their work from the muses, while the rest of us lumpen, non-geniuses labour? Of course by the age of 22 Keats had already published and written sublime and lasting work. But read through his poetry and you can see the craft evolve at an extraordinary rate — accelerated by his deep study of Shakespeare.
Most texts, especially poetry, are worked at long and hard. Many writers, but I would suggest especially poets because of the nature of the form, will be familiar with the sensation of a poem arriving fully realised. The first poem I had printed (in Other Poetry, back in the early eighties) was written this way. I remember sitting down to write, after a visit to Kenilworth Castle, and an effortless eight-line poem about the Castle simply popping out. It was a weird feeling. Since then a few of my poems have emerged this way and when it happens, you must avoid noticing that it is happening, just go with the flow.
Keats’s Ode To Autumn, was published in 1820. While the first page of the MS here has crossings-out (I selected this image from Google because it seemed quite worked on) even this MS demonstrates that the poem arrived almost fully formed, and it was composed in one day — 19th September 1819. For one of the most famous poems in the English language, that’s not bad going. Here’s the first page of the MS version.
It is a moot point if anyone else can tell that a something written in one fell swoop or not, and if this matters?
T.E. Eliot’s The Waste Land, took years to write, and there is MS with not only Eliot’s workings but Ezra Pound, the il miglior fabbro (the better maker) of the poem’s dedication. Between them, they shrunk the poem by almost half with their edits and revisions. Here is the start of the poem as we know it, but notice the pagination, the first page of the poem in MS had been completely cut, with a light pencil line, by Eliot himself.
Naturally the methods of Keats and Eliot are entirely different. Modernism, as expressed in The Waste Land, is in part a literary collage, a piecing together to make something new. This is time consuming. The Romantic idea of genius, and a spirit suddenly possessing one is persistent. It is a single-minded outpouring, rather than an assemblage. You may have read lots, but your poem must pour out of you in an inspired torrent.
Keats was an extraordinary person. If we were all to wait for poetry to emerge like leaves from a tree, poems would be few and far between. But perhaps there is a case to be argued that a Romantic poem being tinkered with endlessly somehow kills it. Wordsworth’s endless revisions of his own work may be an example of this.
Today, traces of Romantic thinking still exist in the caricatured expectations culture has for the way artists are supposed to behave. The image of the otherworldly poet inspired by a muse is a hard one to shake off.