John Keats and the Vale of Soul-Making

The writer Anna Quindlen has said that “People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a résumé than to craft a spirit.” I’ve always shied away from terms like “soul” and “spirit”, and perhaps that’s part of the point. A resume seems solid and certain, whereas the soul seems fluffy and vague. But we know implicitly that the latter is lasting and meaningful—important to who we are—whereas the former is fleeting. How then to think about the “soul” or “spirit”?

Two years before he died tragically of tuberculosis at age 25, John Keats wrote a letter to his brother and sister-in-law describing his philosophy of “spirit creation”.

John Keats and the Vale of Soul Making
John Keats. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

“Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making”… 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. 

The soul, for Keats, is what makes us us. Maybe it can also be called our “identity” though that doesn’t seem to capture all of it. We all have intelligence, the ability to reason, but a soul is refined, developed; we don’t automatically have “spirit”. The world is what develops our soul—if we let it. “How then are Souls to be made?”, Keats asks, and goes on to explain:

“This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years. These three Materials are the Intelligence, the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity.”

The three “materials” of the intelligence, the heart, and the world all combine together to let us develop as people. Things in the world happen to us—loved ones die, or we fall in love; we succeed at some things, fail at others; we fall ill, or crash our bicycle. Through the heart and the intelligence we then make sense of what happens to us in the world. The process of all this is what gives us souls—we are changed by the world, and change our responses to the world in turn.

Keats uses the metaphor of a school to show how the combination of the three “materials” make us into complete people—but that everything that happens to us, both good and bad, contributes equally to our development:

“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!”

The bad that happens to us can affect us as much if not more than the good; it is in many ways necessary for our development. Keats felt this from personal experience as he would suffer over the next two years before dying in 1821.

I think this also explains why colleges and universities are such great places for developing our “selves”, our identities. They put us at close quarters with other people, creating a mini “world” upon which our intelligence and our hearts can act and combine together. A college is the world sped-up, and the four years that we spend there can be thought of equally as a vale of soul-making.

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