- How to Make a Soul: The Wisdom of John Keats by Eric G. Wilson
Eric G. Wilson's How to Make a Soul: The Wisdom of John Keats—his wide-ranging, serious, playful, and experimental new book—sits easily beside his previous five books of creative nonfiction, five scholarly books, and one writing guide. The "Soul-making" referred to in the title is a term Keats used in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law on April 21, 1819. At that time, Keats was in his most productive period of writing and on the verge of death. Wilson—like Keats—contends that the soul isn't some airy concept; it is "an aptitude" that we learn over a lifetime by making our painful, chaotic, and incomprehensible life into art (p. 6). "Art" can be work like poetry or painting. Yet, parenting, relationships, and insightful recognitions can also be art if we learn how to thrive in the tension between beauty and suffering.
"The wisdom of John Keats" to which Wilson's subtitle alludes is the selection of Keats's verse, letters, and biographical material he uses to tease out the meaning of soul-making. The book spans twenty-four chapters covering diverse topics: "Negative Capability," "Sore Throat," "Fanny," "Suicide," "Melancholy," and "Autumn," to name a few. To flesh out these topics, Wilson writes with a comfortable command of other Romantic poets, but also of history, geography, Greek mythology, philosophy, psychology, Shakespeare, and a number of authors from Albert Camus to John Dewey.
Making a soul is a noble goal, but I was most interested in how Wilson made his book, formally speaking. In a footnote, he anticipates the kind of reviewer or reader who would try to straightjacket his approach: "I don't pretend that this book is an original biography," he writes (p. 155). If the book isn't biography, [End Page 176] what is it? I would call it mixed genre, a weave of Keats's letters and poetry, literary criticism, philosophical musings, and personal reflection. The form is exciting, interesting, and far too uncommon in academic scholarship.
Several chapters focus on Wilson's personal struggles. He tells of visiting the Elgin Marbles in 2012, where he hoped to experience the same epiphany Keats did when he saw them in 1817. But the aesthetic ecstasy he wanted falls flat, and he feels even worse. Finally, he persuades his ten-year-old daughter to come with him to Hampstead, where Keats once lived, but even there he feels dejected. Then, just as he is about to leave, the moment quickens, and he sees with clarity an image of Keats, "feeling isolated and claustrophobic in his small bedroom" (p. 18). At once, Wilson experiences relief from emotional distress. You can't help but be interested in his personal revelations and admire him for standing by those revelations no matter what people might think: "Sentimental," he writes, "but I didn't care" (p. 18).
Because Wilson identifies so intensely with Keats, he structures his book around the poet's life and ideas. Here he is describing Keats's dejection in 1818 in Teignmouth: "Earlier, he sat reading on the 'lampit rock of green seaweed / Among the breakers'" (p. 51). I quote this to show that much of the book seamlessly merges Wilson's telling with Keats's words in a method reminiscent of Jane Campion's Bright Star. The film and Wilson's book succeed in large part because they are energized by Keats's language, which is so rich and precise. But Wilson goes deeper, asking genuine questions and wondering what Keats may have thought. When, in a sonnet about Robert Burns, Keats writes, "All is cold Beauty; pain is never done," Wilson leaps into speculation. "Pain is all there is, and it doesn't stop," he imagines Keats thinking, "but this is nonetheless the reality I want to explore" (p. 61).
I welcome this kind of speculation, as I...