Soul Making: John Keats’ response to suffering.

Soul Making: John Keats’ response to suffering.

Photo by redcharlie on Unsplash

John Keats desired to speak to and engage with the deepest parts of our being and help us find solace in a painful world.

Perhaps his greatest poems can best be understood by the insight and illumination provided in a passage from a letter Keats wrote to his bother in the spring of 1819. In this letter, Keats reasons why there is suffering in the world and how we can embrace melancholy as a state of soul creation. He calls this state, “The Vale of Soul-making.”

Because of his family’s history of illness, his medical training, and the epidemic of fever that spread throughout London (sound familiar?), Keats was intimately familiar with feverish suffering. He used his writing to make sense of a pain for which there was no reasonable explanation.

Keats premised that all attempts to improve one’s life still end in death. This pointless, futile finality is a fate he considered unbearable without some conviction of redemption.

He rejected the idea of afterlife or religious salvation because it devalues the act of suffering. Keats demanded suffering to be meaningful here and now. To Keats is was unacceptable that suffering would serve no creative purpose and teach little to the human individual.

The process of soul creation was his response.

Soul creation takes place over a lifetime and requires two components: the human heart and the world of feverish and fretful suffering. Soul creation comprised a process that Keats likens to an education. Here is Keats in his letter:

“The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is ‘a vale of tears’ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven-What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you please “The Vale of Soul-making”. Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say ‘Soul making’ Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence- 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. … I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive-and yet I think I perceive it-that you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible-I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read-I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School-and I will call the Child able to -read, the Soul made from that School and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, It is the Minds Bible, it is the Minds experience, it is the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity. As various as the Lives of Men are-so various become their Souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, Identical Souls of the Sparks of his own essence…”

Don’t Worry, Be Not Happy

These are the reasons why we needn’t fret when we are not always happy.

The point is profound and beautiful: the heart takes precedence of place over the head. Soul making tempers intelligence into wisdom and is what we should embrace as our life’s project.

We must certainly devote ourselves to embracing and seeking beauty and joys, but not berate ourselves when we feel sad. Instead of trying to escape uncomfortable feelings and chasing them away by medicating, we should also lean into life’s most profound grief and sadness and ask what gifts they have to offer.

Suffering, as painful as it is, also has a positive side. It forces us to lose our sense of self-importance. We become aware of the suffering of others. Our compassion grows. We take care not to add to the causes of suffering.

We can’t grow if we attempt to avoid suffering at all costs. Keats understood this and created poetry to help us bear our burdens, seek the truth, and develop wisdom.

Back to blog